On 12 December, Matt Bell, Martin Muller and Robert Lennox climbed into a two-metre boat in La Gomera, the Canary Islands, and set off on an epic non-stop row across the Atlantic.
The East Rows West team, sponsored by Cathay Pacific Cargo, were competing in the extreme Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge – an annual race regarded as one of the toughest endurance events in the world.
Thirty-seven days and 3,000 miles later they crossed the finished line in Antigua – claw-handed, 30 kilograms lighter, yet beaming with pride having completed the challenge of a lifetime and coming first in the trio race class.
‘It was a pretty special moment,’ says Robert. ‘We came in at 2.30am so it was pitch-black as we approached Antigua. The coastguard came out to meet us, and we saw the media boat and all our family and friends waiting on the docks. It was a phenomenal feeling, and just a huge wave of relief to be finished.’
The team spent two years training and preparing for the race, which ranged from sailing lessons and physical conditioning to consultations with a specialist ocean coach and speaking to former competitors. But the challenge was harder than they could have imagined.
‘I think the overwhelming thing was just the relentlessness,’ says Robert. ‘We knew it would be about 35 to 40 days, but I don’t think we really understood just how long that actually is to be doing the same thing. It was literally: get up, row, eat, do some odd jobs, try and sleep, repeat. That was it, for 37 days – looking at nothing but the ocean, seeing no one but each other. It’s a very long time.’
The three-team crew worked in a constant rotating shift-pattern, with each man rowing for a total of 14 hours each day and catching just 3-4 hours of sleep. If that doesn’t sound hard enough, the team also faced tough race conditions of calm seas and flat winds, which put an extra burden on the rowers to pull themselves across the ocean.
‘Ideally, what you want in this race is to have quite a bit of wind and swell following you that can help push you towards the finishing line,’ says Martin. ‘The conditions we had were almost unprecedented in how flat they were, which made the race even tougher.’
The physical toll on their bodies was extreme. Despite consuming between 5,000-7,000 calories each per day, Martin lost 7kg, Matt lost 11kg and Rob lost 12kg.
‘It’s not like regular exercise,’ explains Martin. ‘Normally if you do a tough workout you’d then eat a bunch of food, have a good night’s sleep and you’d be stronger the next day. This was not that. This was: spend two hours on the oars, try and catch a few hours’ sleep, and then get back on the oars, while still being fatigued and having not recovered. It’s just a slow burn of your body that continues to degrade you as you go. You’re just getting thinner, sorer and weaker.’
However, physical strength was only part of the challenge. The team’s mental fortitude was also seriously tested in dealing with boredom, unexpected challenges, and finding the motivation to keep going.
‘We pretty much ran out of things to talk about with two weeks to go,’ laughs Matt. ‘We were going back to childhood to try and dredge up stories to overcome the boredom, and playing games like “Would you rather” to try and add some levity to an otherwise repetitive schedule.’
The team also had to contend with a few unforeseen issues along the way, including learning how to balance the boat with an odd number of crew; and a battery outage one night that left them without navigational equipment until the sun came up and recharged the solar panels.
Tech mishaps also left the team with just three Spotify playlists to get them through the last three weeks. ‘That was probably the biggest challenge of the whole trip,’ jokes Rob. ‘There are certain songs that I never want to hear again!’
Thankfully, motivation was available in many other forms.
‘Watching the other two get up every time and put in a good shift on the oars was one of the biggest motivators,’ says Matt. ‘You just think: “I can’t let my teammates down because they’re not letting me down.” Plus the knowledge that the quickest way to get to the other side was to get on the oars and row – you really don’t have another option.’
For all the hardships, mishaps and challenges along the way, the team are unanimous in stating it is one of the best things they’ve ever done.
‘The huge feeling of accomplishment when you finish is just amazing. It’s such a massive challenge, and there’s so few people that have actually rowed across an ocean. It’s just a phenomenal feeling to have done it and we’ll treasure the experience forever,’ says Rob.
Credit: Atlantic Campaigns Penny Bird
Other highlights included taking a rare pause on New Year’s Eve to watch the sun set with a celebratory whisky cocktail, swimming in the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean the day before they arrived, meeting wild dolphins along the way, and the feeling of being completely surrounded by nothingness. Not to mention achieving their fundraising target for chosen charity Childfund Rugby.
‘We’ve currently raised around US$103,000 (HK$803,000) which is amazing,’ says Matt. ‘It’s been very humbling to have such support from friends and family as well as strangers. We were getting updates from our land team along the way, and that in itself lent us motivation to keep going.’
Childfund Rugby is a charity that operates throughout South East Asia, helping to spread education and life skills to underprivileged children through the medium of rugby – a sport that the team has a strong affinity with.
Moving forward, the team hope to be able to continue working with the charity by getting involved with their programmes and assisting in coaching. ‘We’ve talked about doing an annual event of some sort – not necessarily a cross-ocean row! – maybe just a beach barbecue to raise some money. But definitely staying involved with the charity and seeing if we can leverage the team dynamic going forward,’ says Matt.
While East Rows West can deservedly enjoy basking in the glory of their achievements, they are also keen to thank the many people that helped them to cross the finish line.
‘There’s no way the three of us could have done this without a huge amount of support from our sponsors like Cathy Pacific Cargo, and loved ones, friends, and employers,’ says Rob. ‘We owe a huge thank-you to everyone who sponsored us, donated to our cause and supported us with wonderful messages before, during and after the race.’
See more from the journey on the East Rows West website or visit their Instagram and Facebook. You can still donate: visit the Just Giving page to support their fundraising endeavour for ChildFund Rugby.