20th October 2020
By Guy Rigby
As the old Chinese proverb says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For David & I, the journey we were contemplating would be three thousand miles and 1.5 million oar strokes, give or take!
Having both done a bit of research, including reading the particularly intimidating “The Crossing”, by James Cracknell and Ben Fogle, we had to decide whether we were up for the challenge. We agreed that our first step and commitment should be to travel to La Gomera in time for the start of the 2019 race to speak to anybody and everybody to find out more.
The race was due to start on 12th December 2019, so I set off with my wife, Nicky, on 7th December. David and his wife, Aly, followed a couple of days later.
La Gomera, the starting point for the race, is a small island in the Canaries. Its capital is San Sebastian de La Gomera, and you reach it by ferry from Tenerife.
After an extremely early start, we arrived in a very windy La Gomera at about 4pm, to be greeted by giant poster boards advertising the presence of the "Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge". First impressions were of a well-organised, attractive harbour and a smallish town set against the backdrop of some impressive cliffs.
We walked off the ship, past the rowers’ bar and caught a taxi to the Parador. The Parador in La Gomera is a beautifully located hotel on the top of the cliffs above the port, which we had booked ourselves as a treat for our first couple of nights. After checking into a somewhat disappointing and rather musty room with only a glimpse of the sea, we set about walking around San Sebastian, ending up with dinner on the pavement at La Pejan, eating some of the best fish (Dorado) we’d ever tasted!
After a couple of days David & Aly arrived and we rented adjoining, one-bedroom apartments near the middle of the town and close to the harbour. These worked out really well, with David & I doing some early morning jogging, the first exercise we had ever taken together. I quickly realised that I needed to up my game, as I puffed my way up the hills and tried desperately to pretend that I could keep up!
It didn’t take us long to find our way around and the next few days were spent chatting to the organisers and others associated with the challenge, attending two future rowers’ briefings, admiring and looking around some of the boats and talking to members of a number of the 2019 crews. The harbour looked spectacular, a shimmering hive of activity, with over thirty brightly coloured ocean rowing boats in their full sponsor liveries moored on pontoons inside the sea wall. Organisers, safety officers, equipment suppliers, coaches, family members and the media were in abundance, with the rowers swarming over their boats making final preparations for the long and arduous crossing ahead.
Standing on the sea wall and surveying all the action below, it was interesting to hear snippets from the media interviews. One of these stayed with me. When the interviewer asked a particular crew member whether he was at all fearful of the challenge ahead, his response was that “it would be foolish not to be”!
As the days went by, we learnt more and more about the race and the commitment we would need to make:
“Decide on your goals”; “Get your Ocean Rowing Course done early”; “Train for the task”; “Do not think you have time”; “Read all the rules”; “Visualise the worst case scenarios”’; “Realise your decision making ability will become illogical”; “Know your boat”; “Each rower loses on average 12kg crossing the Atlantic”; Each rower needs to aim to consume 10 litres of water a day”.
We quickly realised that the list of tasks and responsibilities is almost endless, with parallels to starting a new business. Vision, strategy and tactics all come into play, as a host of challenges present themselves. Race entry; Rules and qualifications; Boat acquisition and storage; Maintenance and preparation; Training; Nutrition and hydration; Health & safety; Navigation; Sea survival; Sponsorship and funding; Charitable fundraising; Branding, publicity & social media. These are just some of the areas requiring consideration.
For a few days before the race, we noticed that some of the crew’s family members had started to leave, thereby missing the start of the race. We soon discovered that this early departure is recommended by the race organisers, whose view is that it’s far better for all concerned for the crews to be rowing towards their loved ones, as opposed to away from them! This difficult decision is one that we will also have to face in due course.
The morning of 12th December dawned to blue skies and a fresh north-easterly breeze; perfect conditions to propel the fleet on their south-westerly voyage. We joined the crowds down at the port at around 10am as the crews readied themselves for the start. For the four to five person crews, this might be as little as thirty or forty days, whereas smaller crews could anticipate up to twice that, or even longer.
By about 10.30am, the start was under way, with boats being released at five minute intervals, sent off firstly by the horn blasting at the entrance to the harbour, followed shortly after by the "whoosh" and "bang" of a rocket. 35 teams and 103 rowers later, they were gone! It was amazing to see how quickly they disappeared over the horizon.
In the afternoon we went for a walk on the high cliffs above San Sebastian. Looking out at the vast expanse of ocean, we fully expected to see some of the boats. However, after just three hours, there was nothing to indicate the presence of the TWAC fleet.
So now it was decision time. Had we been put off or inspired by what we had learned? What would it be like to cross the start line on what would be likely to be a 60-day crossing with up to 40-foot waves in a largely open boat? Did we have the ambition and stamina needed to get to the start line? Would our families be OK while we were gone? Did we have the courage and resilience to commit?
It was with these thoughts in our minds that we made our way home to the UK, thinking constantly of those 103 brave rowers who were spending their first days (and nights) at sea.