14 February, 2016
A fortnight after arriving in the island paradise of Antigua, for Team Atlantic Challenge things are winding down. My beard has been shaved off, Olly, his other half Abi and both sets of our parents have headed back to the UK. Annie and I remain here, not having to be back to work until March 1st, making the most of this beautiful place - and the once in a lifetime opportunity to take the time to experience it.
The boat left last week, working with the Atlantic Drifters, Tom and Dave, to load both boats into a shipping container for the return journey - one that will be slightly less tiring and almost certainly less rewarding.
The time that we have had here has allowed us to reflect on the incredible adventure that we have shared, embarrassingly treated as local heroes wherever we have gone. It’s been such fun sharing our stories with so many - and reliving our arrival as other teams, now friends, have finished, watching the emotion and elation from a different perspective.
Sunday 31st January 2016 will be a day that I will never forget. Having agreed that we’d like nothing more than to step off and enjoy a beer together with our families, the challenge had been set to get in ahead of our 0100 expected finish, for 2300 and last orders. We’d contemplated briefly delaying our arrival until the following day, considering the daytime reception, but realised pretty quickly that we were both way too competitive for this and that the only option was to dig deep and fight on, as we had done for the pervious six weeks.
After a final night on the oars, choosing a 1.5 hour on, 1.5 hour off shift pattern - no longer needing the recovery time (we’d fix ourselves when we arrived) but struggling to pull hard for the normal two hours in the sprint to the finish, the sun broke over the horizon, treating us to our last stunning sun rise.
We switched back into the regular 2 hour on, 2 hour off for the day, but spent a lot more time in our rest period on deck, reminiscing together - laughing, joking and reliving the last six weeks - discussing also heavily the finish, how that might feel, with thoughts of our awaiting loved ones front and centre.
The day flew by as we rocketed towards our goal in English Harbour, the sun setting and once again not disappointing, with reds and yellows strewn across the sky. It was dusk when I was on the oars and Olly stood up suddenly, excitedly. “Mate”, he said, “I think I… I think I an sea lights!” “LAND HO!” Olly shouted at the top of his voice as I jumped up and span around to see what he had seen, squinting as best as I could. Sure enough on the horizon was a handful of what could only be street lights, growing in number with every oar stroke as we moved closer and more popped over the horizon. As it became darker, the view became more and more surreal after 6 weeks of not seeing a light - and in fact dreading just that - the possibility of a ship in the distance coming to run us down.
Turning on our sat phone, and VHF for the first time since contacting the ship Santa Paula on Christmas Eve, we switched to hi power to contact the Antigua and Barbuda Search and Rescue - or ABSAR to avoid the mouthful. We had talked about this for a while - dreaming about making our first contact with land and the Neil Armstrong-eque words we might use. We shared the honour. I radioed ABSAR, explaining that we were an ocean rowing boat, part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge and that we would be finishing soon, a wry smile creeping across my face as I gave them our ETA into English Harbour. Olly called the Duty Officer on the sat phone, explaining again our intentions and our ETA, the DO giving further instructions and explaining once again the finish procedure.
Celebrations were once again marred by power issues, the VHF, having sapped all remaining power in our batteries - alarms going off now all over the place - our AIS dropping out and warnings flashing on the chart plotter. Worried that we were going to lose our chart plotter (our satnav) - vital for the final run in , we conducted a radio check with our handheld VHF and turned off the fixed VHF, running for the next few hours once again with everything switched off, the paper chart and a pencil on deck to plot the final course in the pitch black night, turning the chart plotter on occasionally to confirm our location.
We hugged the southern shore of the island, the sound of waves booming against the rocks a few hundred meters off our starboard side. Then the handheld burst into life and a voice from ABSAR advised that they would be with us in 5-10 minutes, a call which could not have come sooner.
The ABSAR rib raced towards us, on board Carsten (the race organiser) and the documentary makers, clutching their camera equipment tightly as they were chucked around in the big swell. Thereon began the pandemonium - the beginnings of celebrations that I’ll never forget. We crossed the ‘old’ finish line, a line extending 1 nautical mile in a southerly direction from Shirley Heights and we popped our first flares, whooping and punching the sky, as we did so embracing one another simultaneously as the flares burned brightly, arms extended. For me, this was very special, an opportunity for my mate and I to enjoy and celebrate our achievement away from prying eyes. We sat back into our rowing positions and followed ABSAR around the headland into English Harbour and to the ‘new’ finish line, a much more spectator friendly line across the mouth of bay.
Turning the corner, the view was overwhelming. Having not seen another human for over six weeks, we were surrounded by an flotilla of small boats, flags waving, air horns blaring - one with familiar voices, our families crammed into a small tender whooping with delight, my Dad popping and passing around hand flares, lighting up their faces and smiles.
“This is it. This is the finish.”, Carsten shouted from the ABSAR rib. At this we stood up excitedly, ready to pop some more flares, but looking over the bow cabin, the headwind in the harbour was pushing us backwards away from the finish line. I sat back down and rowed another few strokes. “This is the finish. Well done boys!” Carsten again from the rib. I stood up again to join Olly, but noticed over the bow that we were still some feet away from crossing the finish line. Embarrassed, we laughed it off, sitting back into the rowing position to row a few final strokes of the race. Then the air horn went, signalling our finish. Finally, we had done it. I stood up once again to join Olly. The shrieks and whoops from the surrounding tenders reached a crescendo as we popped two more flares and once again grabbed each other in another embrace, camera flashes popping about us. Over the din of everything that was going on, I said into Olly’s ear, “We did it mate. Thank you.”
Recounting this to write it down, I’m welling up. If the flotilla reception was amazing, we had never expected what happened next. It’s a short 300m row into the Nelson’s Dockyard from the mouth of the harbour. The boats had left us and for a brief moment, Olly and I were once again left alone, laughing and congratulating one another. A huge cheer erupted from behind us. “There must be a football match on”, Olly shouted back to me. But as we grew closer it became obvious that there was no football in sight but a huge crowd had gathered to welcome us ashore, our families right by the water’s edge.
As we came alongside the dockside, Carsten was there to greet us, now slightly panicked and definitely in business mode as he coordinated the PR efforts. We were thrown a flag, made to pose briefly with that, before stepping off and directed towards the waiting film crew to give our initial reactions of being ashore - then for what we had dreamt about day and night for the past six weeks and on jelly legs we wobbled over to find our loved ones in the crowd, hugs and kisses all round. Once again overwhelmed by the situation, all I could manage whilst hugging Annie for the first time in over 6 weeks was “Thank you, I love you”.
.It’s not common knowledge, but in March 2014 I was diagnosed with ‘cone dystrophy’, a rare sight condition meaning that I have a lower than normal number of cones in my eyes - and worse that these were diminishing in numbers - affecting the sight in my central vision. Picture a television with pixels missing in the middle of the screen - and those damaged pixels growing in number and spreading outwards.
At last I had a diagnosis, an explanation for my dreadfully poor eyesight that has worsened over the past 10 years. But now that it was I had a label, the frustration of not understanding why my sight could not be corrected by specs or lenses, gave way to a fear of the future and an impending doom. How bad is it going to get and over what period of time?
The consultant said cooly, “Dan, you have cone dystrophy. Your sight will continue to deteriorate, but you will likely maintain navigable sight”, apparently meaning that I will always be able to walk around by myself. I’m under the best possible care, with regular checks to monitor the rate of degradation and regular sight checks to confirm my ability to drive - dreading the day that I lose that luxury and my independence. Sadly it’s not a matter of if I am told, but when.
Family, friends and my work have been fantastic as I adjusted to the news, staying as positive as possible. Despite getting a label for it, my daily struggles to read at distance or focus on text or my computer screen continued as they had done. I called Olly early on and spoke to him about it and we agreed that the Atlantic row should continue. At times it was tough - often relying jealously on Olly’s hawk-like eyesight to read the instruments, instructions for the failing equipment or confirm that the light that I had seen on the horizon wasn’t in fact a ship approaching us, often in his down time when all he will have wanted to do was to sleep.
My added complications are nothing compared to issues faced by those whom we are raising money for - those plighted by cancer or the affects of war and every awkward moment I would remind myself of that. On the boat I had the support from Olly, one of my best mates and together we rowed an ocean. Everyone needs support. People may not think they need or ask for it. The reason may be physical, or mental, but with the support of a great team anything is possible.
To those that have supported us, thank you. With your help, not only have we won our class in one of the toughest endurance races on the planet, but we have raised a huge amount of money for Prostate Cancer UK and ABF, The Soldiers’ Charity, two incredible charities. To our sponsors and supporters SAV London, Gocycle, RIFT Group, Musto Clothing, Harken UK, SsangYong Motors UK, all those that joined our 100 Club and quite literally crossed with us, thank you. Without you this challenge and the ability to raise the money we have would not have been possible. To friends and family who put us with us warbling about rowing an ocean for over two years, attending and helping at our fundraising events, thank you, you know who you are. To my wife Annie for putting up with me, spending every spare hour we had together working towards this selfish goal, even missing our first wedding anniversary whilst at sea, I will be eternally grateful to you. And finally to my mate Olly, one of the toughest, most honourable and selfless men you’ll ever meet, a true inspiration to me and a real encapsulation of the British Army in which he thrives. I’m proud to call you a friend and prouder still to have achieved this great feat alongside you. Thank you.
Whilst we have both tried our best to put into words our experience of this incredible challenge, it's difficult to do so and do it justice. The team at Atomized have produced this fantastic brief overview of our race. Please watch, enjoy and share. The part at 03m 30s gives me goosebumps every time I watch it.
Photo credits, Ben Duffy