As the sun-dropped on Day 1, the enormity of what lay ahead finally descended on us. The departure was a surreal experience, no fire-works, start-guns or theatrics. Just two friends in a rowing boat, quietly rowing into the distance. The feeling Is one that will last with us forever, and an emotion we now crave since being back-on-land. As the sun finally disappeared, the first night-shifts began, which meant rowing alone on deck, in the dark, for the first time.
For the first couple of weeks, the night time represented a real fear, an innate dread of the unknown. Children are scared of the dark because of monsters under their bed, what we feared was a far more realistic threat. It’s worth mentioning at this point, that for the vast majority of our crossing, the moon was not-present, and the nights were filled with an impenetrable darkness. Lights were useless and would only hinder our night-vision, so we were surrounded by black, praying that the breaking waves wouldn’t find us.
On the 12th day, at 5:13AM, a breaker found its mark and turned our humble boat upside down. James was thrown from the seat and into the icy water. He recalls being under water, headphones still in his ears and playing music (Rihanna if you are curious), the seconds seemed like hours, and as he broke the surface he managed to grasp the edge of the boat which by this point had righted itself. For those who sail, you will be aware of the ever-present risk of man-overboard. Many who have not spent time at sea, would envisage simply swimming back towards the boat and climbing aboard, this however is a fairy-tale. If you become separated from your boat and have no life-line attaching you to safety, the odds are stacked against you. Within seconds, you will be swept away, and even an Olympic swimmer would stand no-chance of catching the boat. Aside from the obvious shock of the event, what amazed us about the capsize was the way an innate instinct of survival kicked in almost instantly. There was no panic or distress, and we approached the situation in a methodical and calm manner. If you had asked us beforehand how we would react in that scenario, we would have painted a picture of panic and mayhem. However, when the shit hit the fan, auto-pilot took over and we dealt with it.
Every day that passed, we gained knowledge and adapted to our surroundings, and within a couple of weeks we had become accustomed to the sleep patterns and the physical demands of the gruelling 2 hours on, 2 hours off routine. It is truly incredible how the body and mind can evolve to cope with new challenges and environments. We became fitter, stronger and more savvy as everyday passed. We learnt to read the sea, and understand its differing character and soon learned when the waves would pick up depending on the positioning of the sun and moon, and at what times our bodies would crash if we didn’t eat enough. Most people learn this over a period of years, however we were on a crash-course, with no safety-net provided if we couldn’t learn fast enough.
Before we left, we split our trip into 3 zones. Zone 1&3 were both 900 miles, with the middle section, Zone 2 being 1200 (Zone 1 was used to settle in, get comfortable and learn – Zone 2 was a steady, consistent pace. Stay safe and be cautious – Zone 3 was when we put the boosters on, and upped our speed and intensity as we approached the finish line). This gave us manageable targets, and instead of tackling the vast distance in one-go, we set small goals and ticked them off as we went. One bad habit we picked up was to constantly analyse our average pace, distance travelled and weather, to predict when we would arrive. With so much thinking time on the oars, it’s almost impossible to stop yourself doing the maths. Over-analysis builds false hope and is a recipe for disaster, as fast-changing weather and storms soon crush optimism and ultimately your goals.
Our days at sea became a blur, and time became obsolete. Our digital watches simply remained on UK time, as the only reference we needed was when to call home. In our world we worked only in 2 hour blocks and by the sun and the moon. As we approached Zone 3, we were told that we had a weather window that would guide us into Barbados, strong following winds and nice steady swells. Everything was looking good for a fast finish, but how wrong we were…