It’s all about time on the boat!

By Guy Rigby – 28/06/21

There’s nothing much simpler than rowing, or so you might think, so when we started our campaign we were surprised by the number of people who told us that the most valuable thing we could do was to “spend time on the boat”. That, we thought, would be the easy part, with the more challenging aspects being all the admin required to get to the start line, the fundraising, our physical and mental fitness etc.

There’s no denying that all of these aspects (and more!) are both time consuming and challenging, but our recent five-day training session out of Salcombe, in South Devon, illustrated the wisdom of their words.

Having been to Salcombe every year of my life, firstly with my parents on campsites, in caravans, on houseboats and finally in small cottages, I have a huge affinity with the place. On a sunny and tranquil morning, there is nothing more uplifting than to look out over its beautiful harbour and beaches. It’s sometimes difficult to believe that, on 27th October 1916, fifteen men launched the Salcombe lifeboat (then a rowing boat) into a severe gale – with only two survivors. Their boat, the William & Emma, was flipped over onto the sand of the notorious Salcombe Bar by a massive wave.

So it was that David & I set off on the morning of Wednesday, 9th June on our first big adventure. We had meticulously planned our five days and nights on the boat, with a view to rowing to Falmouth in Cornwall and back, a round trip of 100+ miles.

A week before our trip, the weather looked as if it was going to be perfect, but as time passed the wind and wave forecasts started to increase and the forecast predicted mizzle, a peculiar combination of mist and drizzle.

Having launched the boat and chatted to a variety of locals and interested holiday makers, we left Salcombe in the middle of the morning. Our plan was to row overnight towards Cornwall but the light south-westerly winds increased and the forecast mizzle started to arrive. A long, wet & bumpy night of going nowhere fast therefore beckoned, so we decided to adopt plan B (you always need a plan B!), which was to pull in to Noss Mayo in the River Yealm, about twenty miles from Salcombe and just east of Plymouth. We executed this perfectly and woke up the following morning to fog and rain. It was pretty galling to know that London was basking in a 28C heatwave, with local temperatures down at 12C!

After a quick breakfast, we decided to row out into the mist, around the wonderfully named “Outer Slimers” and the “Great Mewstone”, crossing Plymouth Sound on our way to Falmouth. With what seemed like a weak tide behind us, together with a strong south westerly headwind and choppy sea, we were forced to row together to make any progress.

After a few hours we realised that Falmouth was a bridge too far. We had not yet executed a night row (see later!) and felt that the conditions were far from ideal to make this our first attempt. We therefore diverted towards Fowey, which was nearer and, at the time, felt like a more achievable target.

After about seven hours of rowing together (in the Atlantic we will be doing two hours on and two hours off), Fowey was still eight miles away. By now the tide had turned against us and the wind and waves were still on our nose. Even by rowing together we were only achieving a speed over the ground of about half a knot, signalling a full night at sea.

Following discussion, we decided to return to Noss Mayo, now some 12 miles behind us. The moment we turned around we felt the power of the wind and the tide, with our speed increasing from half a knot to over four knots. We were flying along! That’s rowing in the English Channel for you!

After over eleven hours, most of which was spent rowing together with no meaningful break and almost no food, we regained the shelter of Noss Mayo. It had been an interesting day, with Plan A becoming Plan C, which we had never anticipated.

With the South Westerlies continuing and the hope of better weather over the weekend, we decided to change our plans. We left Noss Mayo the following day, choosing our afternoon departure time to coincide with a favourable tide. We had the best and most enjoyable outing to date, rowing together and covering the twenty or so miles back to Salcombe in just over 6 hours, arriving in time for a pizza!

Our new plan was to take advantage of better weather to execute our first night row. With local advice about the challenges of lobster pots and other unseen obstructions at night, we decided to row straight out into the channel, spending the night at sea and returning the following morning.

We rowed out of Salcombe at about 6.30pm on the Saturday evening for our first big all-night adventure. The sun was shining but there was still a good swell and chop from the South West, which we had on our beam. This made for interesting rowing, with one oar often missing the water entirely due to the rolling of the boat.

At some point in the evening, we moved to a plan of two hours on and two hours off. David took the first shift and I retired to the stern cabin, setting the AIS (Automatic Identification System) into its alarm mode to notify us of any approaching ships.

Just as I was going to sleep, the alarm went off for the first time. We then spent an anxious half hour tracking the offending ship to ensure we would pass safely, which we did. Ten minutes later and with sleep again beckoning, it happened again. So much for my two hours off!

At midnight, it was pitch black. There was no moon and very little to be seen apart from our own navigation light. It was my turn on the oars and David went for his sleep.

It was then that we made our schoolboy error. David went into the forward cabin, which had no AIS alarm, and I rowed with the stern cabin door shut.

At about 1.45am, the wind increased and it started to get much choppier. I made the decision, as we had been out for over seven hours, that it was time to turn around with a view to getting back into Salcombe at about 9am.

Using the autohelm (a self-steering system controlled electronically by a remote controller) to help me turn the boat, I started the process of altering our heading. I obviously pressed it too many times or too quickly because the next thing I knew is that it had stopped working. It was at this moment that I looked over my shoulder to see what looked like a large cargo ship heading straight for us!

I shouted out for David’s help and, to his credit, he was up on deck in a flash.  I then disconnected the autohelm, operating the hand steering lines with one hand and rowing with the other. David, in the meantime was also rowing furiously as we swung the boat to port out of the way of the approaching vessel.

We missed it by about two hundred metres. As it turned out Aly, David’s wife, was watching all this on her mobile through a marine traffic app. She recorded the name of the ship as the Wilhelmine, a Ro-Ro cargo ship with a length of 152 metres. This was our first and, hopefully, our last close call with a passing ship!

The rest of the night’s row passed without incident, but we were very relieved to row back into Salcombe after about 15 hours, again with both of us rowing for most of the time. We had completed our first all-night row and learned a huge amount in the process!

With one more day on the boat, we decided to adopt the KISS (keep it simple, stupid!) principle and have another go at a night row. With fair weather, but still that south-westerly wind and chop, we went out to execute a simple square a few miles from the entrance from Salcombe, keeping outside the lobster pots but inside the shipping lanes. We were meticulous with our planning and preparation, rowing back into Salcombe at about 2.30am in pitch black and using our instruments only. This was a complete success and a great way to finish our five days of training.

As part of the race rules, we have to complete a minimum of 120 hours of rowing and a minimum of 24 hours in darkness. We have now done 78 of our total hours, with 12 of them being in darkness.

We are looking forward to another five days on the boat in July but, before that, we will be attending a six-day course in Teignmouth. This will teach us about marine radio, first aid, sea survival, navigation and seamanship skills.

So please watch this space. We’re under no illusions that we need all the help we can get!