Two men. One boat. Three thousand miles. Fifty days.
There's no way to understand the ambition, no way to appreciate the challenge, this is adventure realised.
"The first thing people say when they hear about the challenge usually involves storms, capsizing or being eaten alive. But for us, the main concern at that point in time was that we had never actually rowed a boat."
June 24th 2014, the moment the idea came to the fore. James Whittle and Tom Caulfield weren't together.
"I was at St. Katherine's dock watching the Clipper boat race arrive after a year at sea. I'd never done anything as cool or challenging as that. Later on I googled biggest adventures in the world and the first result: ocean rowing. This was after a few beers so I thought I'd brazenly text James saying 'We're rowing across the Atlantic'." Says Tom Caulfield.
The idea progressed quickly for James. "As soon as you tell friends and family it becomes a reality. People expect it to pass, but every time someone mentioned it I felt more committed. We worked hard early on, gathering investment and qualifications but it was only with a month to go that it became fully feasible."
No one would have heard. It would have been the end and we were powerless. We freaked out.
The Tempest Two as they're known, were interested in a modern row boat to cross the Atlantic, something that would give them a boost of confidence. Considering neither of them had ever rowed before, confidence was in short supply.
"Boats are expensive. We wanted one that looked like a spaceship, that picked up speed from currents and the wind and we tracked one down. But we were told it wouldn't be ready for our journey and the boat builder then told us about 'Roberta'. That name, I was envisioning an old rustbucket." Says Tom.
James cuts in "And that's what she was to be honest. But that suited us, she's simple and bombproof. Her cabin was comfortable at first, and the first time we lay down we agreed it would be manageable. But when you find yourselves in there for three days straight, sheltering from an enormous hurricane, you're both sweating, unable to move, sweat condensing on the roof and dripping back down on to you, that's tough."
It sounds terrifying but you don't have time to think. Once you've capsized you know the chain of actions that allow you to survive.
The pair were lucky enough to encounter the first hurricane over the Atlantic in fifty years.
James continues "The waves were enormous. We only tried Roberta out a few times before we left on the real trip, so we thought wake from another boat was scary. Nothing can prepare you for facing a 60ft wall of water, rippling in the moonlight, it lifts you up and pulls down on the other side so hard that it's over before you can react properly. They felt thousands of feet tall, full of pure energy.
"As long as they aren't breaking you feel safe. Then you hear a crash and the unmistakable noise of the breaks moving closer. It's 5am, I'd slept for 3 hours in the last 24 and then a wave breaks on the boat. Thrown off the deck, with all our stuff, Tom's still in the cabin, upside down now obviously, but all of a sudden I'm in the sea. Roberta eventually righted herself but the deck's underwater. Convinced she would sink I start pumping water out of the boat."
Tom says "It sounds terrifying but you don't have time to think. Once you've capsized you know the chain of actions that allow you to survive. The scariest bit is anticipating the next wave. The moments we capsized weren't even the closest we came to dying."
'Roberta' is equipped with all the necessary tech to cross the Atlantic, including Automatic Identification System & GPS. But all of these run on batteries which occasionally need to be turned off to re-charge.
"One day we could see a storm approaching in the distance in the direction we were travelling. The AIS & GPS were turned off because we knew we'd need them if this storm turned towards us. We were just staring at this storm, completely unaware of anything behind us. And then James saw it."
"A cargo ship almost destroyed us. They're ghost ships, automated on shipping routes with two or three crew usually below deck just in case. It was so close you could almost touch it."
Tom continues "No one would have heard. It would have been the end and we were powerless. We freaked out. It was a real moment of clarity. We immediately turned the AIS and other equipment on, alerts began ringing out warning us 'collision imminent' and then we noticed we were off course. The wind from the gathering storm pulled us off our route and we hadn't realised. If we stayed on the GPS route it would have been game over."
James and Tom say the most common questions asked are always about eating, and the toilet.
"Eating is simple. The whole trip was simple in a way. You don't have a choice with life crossing the Atlantic. Massive blisters all over your hands and bum are painful but you don't have a choice - you have to row. As soon as the swell and wind are too much you're both under deck in the cabin, there's no chancing it. And the same with food, we had five different freeze dried variations and enough for 80 days, four meals a day. So yes you choose if you want chicken tikka masala or salmon with potato and dill, but you're tearing through energy so quickly you learn to eat regularly." Says James
"The first lesson is when you fall asleep on a rowing shift, it's like bonking on a bike, except you're so tired that's it, lights out. So the choice of eating is made for you. Eat or sleep. And as for the toilet, use your imagination." Tom sums up.
After 54 days at sea, two storms, a hurricane, 200 freeze dried meals each, 1300 hours rowing and one very close brush with a cargo ship, Tom and James arrived in Barbados.
"Looking back at it, the best moments were often at night, looking up at a clear sky with stars and comets lighting up the sky." Says Tom.
James adds "Before we left people told us we'd hate each other by the end of the trip. But we just got on with it. Neither of us had any rowing knowledge so we started as equals and we of course had bad days but we always found the funny side in bad situations, there's no other way.
"And now we're finished, it's given both of us great perspective. Although I am not a fan of people who go on big adventures and then come back and preach about how to live, as its not for everyone. People have their own goals in life, and that doesn't have to manifest itself in some dangerous endeavour. We had a goal for 18 months and we challenged ourselves to do it, committed to it and made it work around our lifestyles.
"Whatever we do next, it's going to be hard to top the Atlantic crossing, but we have a few ideas."
Read more about The Tempest Two and their plans for the next big adventure.
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