“It started as a conversation in a pub”: four men in a boat target the crossing of the Atlantic | Rowing
THELike most crazy ideas, this one started in a pub. In high school, competitive rowers Sam Horsley and Rob Wells had come across video footage of the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, an annual rowing race across the Atlantic, from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean. Years later, over a few drinks, Horsley had a proposal for Wells and his classmates Louis Hugh-Jones and James Samuels: the group should enter the grueling race.
At first they thought he was joking. “And then a few weeks later he talked about it again,” Wells recalls. “At the pub, again. He said, “No, I’m serious, let’s look at this, let’s engage.” After a few more weeks, we thought, “Let’s do it”. What started out as a pub chat quickly got more serious.
So serious that on Thursday the Sydney quartet, now all in their mid-twenties, flew to London en route to the Canary Islands. In two weeks, they will begin paddling the Atlantic, an epic 5,000 km journey. The group will take turns paddling in pairs, for two hours at a time, 24 hours a day. They hope to reach English Harbor in Antigua in just over a month, as they aim to break the Australian record of 34 days, 10 hours and 46 minutes.
One factor that helped Horsley persuade the group was their ability to use the crossing to make a difference. “We thought it would be a life-changing thing to do,” Wells says. “And we could really be making money for a great cause at the same time.” As a result, the crew raises funds for the mental health charity Gotcha4Life. They have already raised $ 150,000 towards a goal of half a million dollars, including thanks to the support of the company (the team is officially called Shaw and Partners Atlantic Crew, according to a major sponsor).
Since these pub discussions in early 2019, the friends have been working feverishly on their departure. The logistics of nonstop, unassisted rowing across the Atlantic are not for the faint of heart. “We spoke to a number of former attendees, and they all told us it was 95% directors,” Wells laughs. “Getting to the starting line is 95% of the battle. The actual line corresponds to the final 5%. “
First of all, they bought a rowing boat specializing in open water, from an English crew who participated in a previous edition of the race. It cost $ 80,000 – and they’ve already agreed to sell it to a bunch of future competitors. The boat is equipped with solar panels and desalination machines that allow them to drink sea water. Then they had to buy everything they would need for more than a month at sea, and make sure that ‘he would fit into the nine-meter vessel.
“We took a million and a half calories of food on the boat,” Wells explains. At sea, the crew will eat three main meals of rehydrated rations each day and will snack generously. “I think that in total we have 440 chocolate bars, 22 kg of nuts, 20 kg of dried fruits,” he continues. “It took us weekends and weekends to rid Aldi and Coles of the candy bars.” Despite all of these calories, competitors typically lose up to one-fifth of their body weight during the race – which, for Wells, would be 20 kilograms.
Another key part of the preparation was downloading music and podcasts to keep the crew occupied during the long days and nights at sea. Wells is actively crowdsourcing playlist recommendations from friends and family members. (they can charge their devices from the solar panels, but must pre-download everything before leaving). “I think we’ll try to vary it as much as possible,” Wells says of the team’s musical preferences. “Variety is going to be the spice of life when you are staring at nothing but blue water and blue skies all day long.”
The Atlantic can be a wild place. In a bad storm, the swell can reach heights of more than 10 m high. For most of the crossing, the crew will be away from land – and support. “I’m definitely going to be nervous,” Wells says. “But I have confidence in the process.” Race organizers require that all competitors undergo extensive safety training; crew members will be hitched to the boat at all times and will carry a range of emergency equipment with them. “We are taking all precautions,” he adds.
If the conditions deteriorate considerably, the crew stop rowing and take refuge in the small cabins at each end of the boat. They can also deploy a para-anchor, actually an underwater parachute, which provides stability even in a strong storm. In the worst case, race organizers can coordinate with passing tankers to arrange a pickup in the middle of the Atlantic.
Fellow Australian Cam Mostyn knows all too well the dangers of rowing across the Atlantic, having competed in 2019. After weeks of good weather, they encountered a tropical cyclone a few days from Antigua. “We had waves of 30, 40 feet, winds of 80 to 90 km,” he recalls. “We spent most of the day fighting to avoid capsizing. And then at 4am, just before the change of team, a huge wave came. He literally picked us up, smashed over us, and threw us straight into the drink.
Fortunately, Mostyn and his teammates managed to get back on the boat and battled the storm to finish in an Australian record. They have liaised with the 2021 team to ensure they are well informed of the challenges ahead. “We like being able to have a supportive and mentoring capacity with the guys,” he says.
Provided the Shaw and Partners crew can deal with capsizes or other mid-trip incidents, they are expected to arrive in Antigua in mid-January. They will face 35 other crews – a mix of singles, doubles, triples and quads. “We hope to win,” says Wells. But if winning is the goal, the group agreed that getting to Antigua with friendships intact was the top priority.
“It’s not just a physical task, but trying to get along with three guys – who, in all honesty, are my best friends – for forty days or so could be pretty taxing,” Wells explains. “So we said that companionship should take priority over position on the ground. The crew consulted a sports psychologist to help them with their mental preparation.
The families and partners of the crew will be waiting in Antigua at the finish line. Or at least that’s the plan. Coordinating international travel with uncertain arrival time was a challenge. Because their progress is so dependent on weather conditions, they could complete in a month – or take two. Wells’ partner has booked flights on the assumption that the crew will arrive on the 35th day of competition. “If we break the record, she’ll arrive a few days later to find me sitting by the pool sipping a piña colada,” he says.
After a celebratory drink or three, the Sydney-based quartet will begin the long road to recovery. Mostyn’s team found that most of them were healed within days, but full recovery took time. “They told us the remaining 5% had taken a few more months,” Wells says. “For months they literally had to pry open their fingers – because you spent half your time holding an oar non-stop.” Horsley and Hugh-Jones will return to work as corporate consultants, Samuels, a builder, will return to the construction site, and Wells – who has just completed medical school – will begin his medical career.
Ultimately, the crew hope to return home with the experience of a lifetime – and a new Australian record. Mostyn, the current incumbent, has said his former side will not bear any hard feelings if Wells’ side are successful. “We were happy to have had the record while we did it,” he said. “But records are made to be broken.”