The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge is the premier event in ocean rowing and the world’s toughest row. It is a physical feat that sees participants rowing, unaided, more than 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean; west from San Sebastian in La Gomera, Spain to Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour, Antigua. Beginning in early December, with up to 30 teams participating from around the world, it is an endurance race like no other.
Rowers can be at sea for over two months during which they will be pushed to their physical, mental and emotional limits experiencing sleep deprivation, isolation, extreme weather and waves up to 20 ft high. In December 2022, Jersey was amongst the many nationalities represented at the startline in La Gomera with the boat Dragonfish. A team rooted more in physical grit than rowing prowess, Peter Wright and Steve Hayes were about to take on the unique and gruelling experience of crossing an ocean in a rowing boat. Following their return to dry land – we caught up with our local team to discuss the highs and lows of living in a boat for 54 consecutive days and the motive behind their madness…
Firstly, what made you want to take on such a remarkable but ultimately insane challenge?
Pete: There’s a statistic that more people have been into space than rowed the Atlantic, so the magnitude of the challenge was an instant appeal. I also believe that life is all about stepping outside of your comfort zone and overcoming fears. Since I was not nautical and had never rowed before it certainly meant I would be about to do both.
Steve: Rowing the Atlantic has been at the top of my bucket list of endurance challenges for a good few years and it was the next progressive step following ten years of Ultra Endurance events. Always seeking to see what the mind and body are capable of.
Why did you choose to do it together?
Pete: We both wanted to share the experience and the memories, rather than consider entering the race as a solo. It was also such a massive undertaking in terms of the whole project scope, so it was good to be able to share the workload.
Do either of you have experience at sea?
Pete: I’ve some experience with open water sea swimming. In terms of boating, I had absolutely no experience. I also had no experience in terms of rowing so needed to learn how to row.
Steve: Not really. I owned a small fishing boat for a couple of years a long time ago but like Pete I hadn’t rowed so the challenge of learning a new sport from scratch was very appealing.
So surely your success would depend highly on your fitness?
Pete: Success of the challenge had less to do with physical fitness and more to do with mental resilience. Much time was spent listening to your ‘inner voice’ and working through the challenge and overcoming problems as they came up. I spent a fair amount of time in the gym following a specific schedule designed by our coach, Andy Glover. So, the relevant muscle groups were well prepared and this helped a great deal with the challenge.
Talk to us about the sort of training you had to do. What did a typical day of training look like?
Pete: In 2021 we needed to invest a significant amount of time in learning to row so we spent a season taking part in most of the races with the Jersey Rowing Club. It was invaluable, and we learnt a great deal. From 2022, I would try to either do a good gym workout (generally 3-4 times per week) and on other days I would either go for a run or spend some time on the rowing machine. I always allowed myself at least one day off per week to allow for rest and recovery.
Steve: 2021 was also spent building the foundations of our campaign. We learnt coastal rowing in a fours boat, a pair and a single and competed in most of that year’s races including Sark to Jersey and Around Jersey. In 2022 the focus switched to five or six sessions in the gym each week, all strength and mobility based. We had a Pilates session every week in People’s Park which was really helpful. There’s not a lot of space on a rowing boat to move around so flexibility and agility was important.
Did you have to change your diet at all?
Pete: Yes. I switched to a more protein based diet and was trying to get 180g on board per day. We both received nutritional advice and had regular in-body scans with Kit and Paul at True Food. We were in very safe hands with them and felt very well prepared when we left Jersey
How did you balance such a strict regime of training – and also the logistics of funding – with families, jobs etc?
Pete: We both have full time jobs, supportive wives, children and dogs so maintaining a balance was a challenge. I initially found there were not enough hours in the day, so I decided to create more by setting the alarm clock earlier to fit everything in. 5am rises were not uncommon, particularly on a work day. In terms of funding, we had to dip into our personal savings early on to facilitate the purchase of our ocean rowing boat. However, from this point we managed to secure sponsorship from many fantastic local businesses.
Steve: It was certainly a busy couple of years and looking back I’m not sure how I fitted it all in but isn’t that always the way. I’m not sure how I used to party every night through my 20’s and hold down a job but it happened!!
So how did you prepare for the physicalities of being at sea- food, clothing, first aid etc- how did you know what to take?
Pete: A year before the race we attended a week-long intensive course in Teignmouth (Devon) which covered first aid, navigation, use of VHF radio and everything we needed to know about ocean rowing. This really helped our preparation, and also gave us plenty of food for thought on our return to Jersey. There was also plenty of information supplied by the race organisers, Atlantic Campaigns, and we had a very comprehensive mandatory kit list to work from.
Steve: 120 mandatory hours on the boat gave us good insights, clothing didn’t factor much into it as we didn’t really wear any but we both had First Aid training so managed to get by and come back in one piece….mostly. Atlantic Campaigns provide a very strict mandatory kit list which they’ve put together over the last decade of organising the race. We had a monthly zoom call and two pre-race inspections; one before we shipped the boat from Jersey and one before we put her in the water in La Gomera. Both inspections tested our equipment and knowledge intensely
Did you take any memento’s or luxury items on board?
Pete: One of my luxuries was an ipad, but this was damaged beyond repair due to excessive condensation and I never got to use it! I had a few edible and drinkable gifts from my wife for Christmas Day, but many got swept overboard during the weather we encountered over Christmas. We did take a couple of bottles of rum, and saved this as a treat for every Sunday, before the evening shift.
Steve: Yes, my wife gave me some things to take on board for Christmas/New Year celebrations. I’d said that it needed to be no more than 1kg as we needed to keep the weight of the boat down so I took some nice edibles, a couple of small bottles of wine and lots of photos of the family which I put on the ceiling of our main cabin. My kids bought me a harmonica for when times were bad. But it probably made them worse! I had a kindle loaded up with downloaded movies which I really enjoyed.
Talk to us about the funding process- you’ve spoken about how it was like setting up a business, can you expand on that…
Pete: We needed to create a brand and take it to market, with the goal of securing funding of around £120,000. Firstly, we needed a team name so ‘Dragonfish’ was created. This is on account of Steve being Welsh and my star sign being Pisces. We then produced a sponsor pack, and began to approach businesses to see if they could support us. We had to brace ourselves for numerous rejections and non-replies, but fortunately many local businesses stepped forward and pledged their support.
Steve: This was all part of the challenge and as many previous rowers state, getting to the start line is the hard part. Usually for our endurance challenges we just have to train, find a race, enter it and book flights and accommodation. This became an all-consuming fast track in business management, prioritising, sharing the workload, delegating tasks all whilst trying to learn to row and injury proof ourselves.
Why did you choose Durrell Wildlife Trust and Macmillan Cancer Support Jersey as your charities?
Pete: In respect of Macmillan, Steve and I have both had close family members impacted by a cancer diagnosis in recent years. It is a charity close to our hearts and we wanted to support them. In respect of Durrell, Steve and I fundraised for them back in 2015 when we took on a 7-day ultra marathon in the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. We both wanted to pledge our support to a particular project they were funding which was to restore the Atlantic forest in Brazil.
Fast forward to Day 1, what were the emotions?
Pete: My wife, two children and younger brother had all arrived in La Gomera a few days before so they could wave us off. I was pretty nervous in respect to the magnitude of the challenge and not knowing what was ahead of us. I felt very emotional at the prospect of not seeing my family for some time. However, after so much anticipation I just wanted to get started with the challenge.
Steve: Trepidation, nerves and excitement. It was daunting pushing off from land, not really knowing what to expect or how long we’d be away for. But also very exciting.
How did that first week at sea go?
Pete: It was very tough, and a massive learning curve. At first we were rowing into a headwind and during the first week we encountered extremely rough seas and high winds which resulted in us deploying a drogue on the second night. On top of this our backsides quickly became very sore and chaffed. This meant we had to row one hour on/one hour off for the first 10 days and this resulted in us being extremely exhausted and sleep deprived.
Steve: Adjusting to life at sea took time. Our unusual regime meant we never had more than an hour off for the first ten days. In that hour we had to try and heal our wounds, desalinate water, prepare meals, eat, communicate with the outside world, clean the solar panels and sleep. It was a really tough regime and after ten days we started having two hours off at a time during the night.
During the trip, what was the hardest or lowest point?
Pete: The lowest was being unable to row during adverse weather for 4-days from mid afternoon on Christmas Day. This impacted our progress, and we had to live in a sweltering small cabin for this time which was horrific. If we did venture out on deck we would quickly get soaked to the skin by huge waves. The hardest point was overcoming all of the issues we had with equipment failure and finding the willpower and resilience just to carry on and make forward progress, and to make the best of what we had.
And the most memorable?
Pete: I had really been looking forward to rowing under the stars and one night I saw a shooting star very clearly burning up as it fell from the sky. On another day, mid Atlantic, we saw a cruise ship. After seeing that we were on a collision course we established contact and had a good chat with them. They had seen us and were very interested in what we were doing, as were their passengers. We explained that we were part of an international race so they arranged a sail-by enabling their curious passengers to get a closer look at us. It was amazing to have our only encounter with other humans in 54 days at sea in such a remote place.
Steve: Yeah the cruise ship was a particular highlight. Seeing and filming a pod of Whales in the early stages of the race was fabulous and led us to think wildlife sightings would be commonplace but unfortunately they weren’t. Swimming in 4000 metre deep water was a great experience and one we tried to do as often as possible.
What did a day aboard your boat look like – was there a daily routine?
Steve: From week three, we settled into a standard routine. During the day we rowed one hour on/one hour off rowing shift pattern due to the excessive heat. During the evening we changed this to two hours on/two hours off to take advantage of cooler conditions. It was far easier to sleep in the cabin during the evenings. Outside of our 12 hours rowing per day, we needed to regularly clean the boat, scrub the solar panels, desalinate water, clean the hull, prepare food and navigate. Chores were plentiful.
The last few hours of the race must have been incredibly emotional, what were you thinking about knowing the finish line was in sight?
Pete: Most of the final 24 hours were really enjoyable as we made great progress with the strong winds blowing us towards Antigua. However, our approach into Nelsons Dockyard was tough and we had to make a turning as we battled strong crosswinds. Steve had the tough job of rowing and I was steering the boat. As we made our approach to the official finish I was just trying to process everything that we had gone through to get here. I had a great deal of pride in what we had just achieved together.
Steve: It probably required the most focus of the entire row. We hadn’t seen land for 54 days and didn’t really need to worry about obstructions. Now we were back in a coastal environment with many potential hazards; rocks, strong winds, steeper waves, shorter wave periods and trying to navigate into the rather tricky English Harbour. We had to communicate with the race organisers as we approached so needed to use the VHF radio and the Sat phone along with preparing our passports and paper work whilst simultaneously rowing, preparing our flares for the glory photos and the bucket of water to extinguish them in. Lots of new stuff to do whilst rowing into a very windy Antigua.
How was your first few hours on land?
Pete: It was amazing to be honest. It was great to see loved ones and familiar faces from the race. Stepping off the boat was hard, and it felt like the land was moving, a feeling that would last for a couple of days.
Steve: Emotional, exciting and very wobbly! We were provided with a burger, chips and a small beer at the finish – it was very needed. Cold beer was something I had missed!
What else did you miss whilst you were at sea?
Pete: I missed my wife and kids and three dogs a great deal, particularly my mad spaniel! I really looked forward to receiving messages from them via WhatsApp on a daily basis. In terms of material or luxury possessions I genuinely didn’t miss anything at all. It was quite therapeutic going without and living as we did for 54 days. That said, a close encounter with the Heineken boat wouldn’t have been such a bad thing.
You must have had coping mechanisms, or ways to support each other when it got tough?
Pete: We know each other pretty well, but that said we had never spent a significant amount of time before consistently in each other’s company. From the beginning we agreed to be honest with each other, even if it meant being critical. We also had each other’s backs, and if we felt the other was struggling then we’d talk about it. One coping mechanism we both had was to remind each other that others had succeeded in the challenge before, with heavier boats and less technology. So, we did have a mantra of ‘If they can achieve this then why can’t we’.
Steve: Our ethos going into the event was to be grateful for the opportunity and try to appreciate every aspect of the row. If we could focus on being kind and trying to get the best out of each other, we’d be onto a good thing. That’s not always easy when you’re waking up at 0300 after 15 minutes of sleep and need to start rowing again. We did well and had very few cross words which was very good, especially considering our bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room and gym were all within 3 metres of each other!
How much fundraising have you raised to date?
Steve: To date, we have around £8.5K on our Sportsgiving page. We are hoping to receive further donations and will be speaking at a few local events throughout the year. Once we have sold the boat we can add 100% of the proceeds to the fundraising total. We are hopeful of eventually raising between £35,000 and £40,000
What advice would you give someone wanting to take part in the same race?
Pete: Research the event, read a few books about the race and maybe head out to La Gomera to see one of the race starts. If someone was keen though I’d just say to go for it! I’d encourage them to get in touch with Steve or I. It is an amazing and life changing experience.
Would you do it again?
Pete: I think it is unlikely. I really loved the experience and it was everything I wanted and a whole lot more. My gut feel is to leave it as a great memory and adventure of a lifetime.
Steve: I’d do it all again tomorrow if I could! Work might have something to say about it though.
Any other expeditions on the horizon?
Pete: I’ll be taking on the Arc of Attrition early next year, which is a 100-mile ultra marathon in Cornwall. Beyond that, who knows?
Steve: I’ve got a couple of endurance events this year but I’m keen to focus more on the “adventure” and “expedition” sides rather than the endurance sport part. Climbing, North & South Pole, that sort of thing. I feel drawn back to cold climates…..and the water.