Matt Bell never imagined a night of pub banter would lead to the challenge of a lifetime. But two years later, he finds himself in Spain’s Canary Islands, making final preparations to row across the Atlantic as part of three-man team East Rows West, in a race to raise funds for children’s charity Childfund Rugby.
‘Most people seem to think we’re absolutely nuts,’ Matt says cheerfully, a week before departure. ‘The nerves definitely hit every now and then and there’s plenty we’re worried about. But after preparing for so long we’re feeling good and excited to get going.’
The annual Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge is an epic endurance race known as the ‘world’s toughest row’. Participants face a gruelling 3,000-mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean, starting in La Gomera in the Canaries and ending at Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua and Barbuda. With no sails or motors to aid them, the race can take between one and two months, with teams battling the elements alongside extreme mental and physical exhaustion.
Taking on the challenge this year are three Hong Kong residents: Matt Bell, Martin Muller and Robert Lennox. The three men, who met playing rugby for Valley RFC, are no strangers to physical challenges. Matt has been a deckhand on superyachts, Martin played pro rugby in South Africa for 10 years, and Robert has a tour of Afghanistan with the British army under his belt – but none of that compares to what they will face in the coming weeks.
Each man will be rowing for approximately 14 hours per day in a rotating shift pattern, snatching just three or four hours of sleep a night. In addition to the mind-boggling physical demands of keeping this up nonstop for over a month, East Rows West will also have to contend with everything from health issues to the unpredictable forces of mother nature.
‘Big storms are obviously a fear,’ says Matt. ‘The swells can get as high as 35 to 40 feet, which is a little daunting when you’re sitting in a 26-by-6-foot bathtub! But the weather should predominantly be blue skies and sun. The main concern is avoiding injury or illness, which could be a race-ender.’
A common problem rowers face is skin sores, due to the constant chafing of heavy oars and salty seas; while constantly sitting in wet clothes makes them prone to skin infections. Any injury or infection, combined with the extreme exhaustion, could potentially force a team to abandon the race.
When each team member isn’t rowing, they’ll be busy with a list of chores that includes everything from boiling water to fixing things on the boat, communicating with weather and safety teams, navigating their course, staying clean, changing into dry clothes, doing laundry – and most importantly, eating.
‘We’re burning a huge amount of calories – probably in the region of 8,000 calories a day – so you pretty much have to eat whenever you’re off the oars,’ says Matt. ‘We’ve got about 1.1 million calories on board in freeze-dried meals, essentially astronaut food, and snack packs of chocolate, biscuits, biltong and meal replacement shakes.’
Living conditions comprise of just two tiny cabins in the front and aft of the boat, used for sleeping and housing navigation and communication equipment. The front cabin just manages to fit Rob’s six-foot-six frame, while the person sleeping in the aft cabin will have their legs tucked underneath the rowers above. Meanwhile, the bathroom situation consists of a bucket. ‘Let’s just say we’ll be getting very close to each other over the next month,’ Matt laughs.
The team has spent almost two years preparing for this race. With none of them having ever rowed before, the first port of call was to enrol in lessons at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. They also enlisted the help of Joint Dynamics co-founder David Jacquier, who’s worked to prepare runners for the Marathon Des Sables ultramarathon, to condition their bodies for endurance by incorporating elements like mobility and stretching.
But even more important than the physical training was the mental preparation. ‘Rob has brought a lot of valuable team-building and team dynamic sessions from his military background,’ says Matt. ‘A therapist provided us with frameworks around communication and how we work together as a team, and we’ve utilised situational training to look at our strengths and weaknesses, how they interact with each other, and how we should be playing on those throughout the race.’
Preparing for the race has also meant plenty of planning hurdles, from getting certifications to shipping their boat across the world. Logistical issues almost ended the dream – twice.
‘Not only is Covid stifling global air travel, but there’s also a massive shipping crisis going on. We experienced that when we shipped our boat from the UK to Hong Kong for training. What was supposed to be a three-to-four week delivery ended up taking two and a half months as it got stuck behind the Ever Given ship in the Suez Canal,’ says Matt.
‘Then with massive container shortages and ports being blocked, we were in another bind come August, looking for a way to get our boat to the starting line. Everybody was quoting us five times the price it had cost us to ship the boat to Hong Kong, and no one could give us a guaranteed arrival time. After preparing for almost two years, not being able to get to the start line would have been absolutely crushing.
‘Thankfully we got introduced to the lovely people from Cathay Pacific Cargo, and that ended up being huge for us. Over a few conversations we realised we had something to offer each other, and they were able to airfreight the boat.’
Cathay Pacific Cargo was able to step in as title sponsor, transporting the boat on one of its Boeing 747 freighter planes to the start line in the Canaries.
‘We were happy to help,’ says Tom Owen, Director Cargo for Cathay Pacific Cargo. ‘Transporting a large boat like this is a tricky operation, but it was in superb hands – and it was all for an excellent cause.’
‘It was amazing to have that stress and pressure lifted off our shoulders,’ says Matt. ‘I don’t think we could even comprehend what it would feel like to not be able to participate in this race.’
With Cathay Pacific Cargo delivering the boat, and Cathay Pacific delivering the rowers, East Rows West is ready to hit the water. Yet with all the challenges leading up to this point – and the even bigger challenges that lie ahead – it’s a fair question to ask why anyone would put themselves through such an ordeal.
‘All three of us have slightly different reasons for doing it, but at the end of the day it’s about testing our limits, pushing the boundaries, understanding what we’re capable of, and working towards something a little bit greater than ourselves,’ says Matt.
East Rows West are using their adventure to raise funds and awareness for Childfund Rugby – a charity the team were first alerted to years prior through mutual friends, the similarly daredevil-minded Adam Rolston and Ron Rutland, who hit a golf ball across Mongolia.
Childfund Rugby operates throughout Southeast Asian countries such as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, teaching life skills to children from impoverished communities. This includes promoting gender equality, education and nutrition information, delivered through a framework of tag rugby.
‘The message that the charity drives and the tangible benefits they’ve seen was important to us,’ says Matt. ‘It’s particularly getting girls involved in sports in poorer communities, where the gender roles are potentially more segregated and the opportunities for women are limited. It’s really cool to see the stories that have come out, and the self-confidence and the prospects that they give these children.’
Hero image: (l-r) Martin Muller, Matt Bell and Robert Lennox of East Rows West