Two months on from their arrival in Barbados after rowing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic for Cure Leukaemia and JDRF, Harry Martin-Dreyer and Alex Bland reflect on their truly extraordinary voyage. You can still donate to their cause which has now raised over £156,000! Click HERE to show your support.
It has been two months since our safe arrival into Barbados. Our hands and bums have for the most part recovered and having now had some time to readjust to normal life back in England we would like to take this opportunity to reflect on what has been an incredible year and to say a big final thank you to everyone that has been involved in our campaign.
Rowing 4 Research originated from a desire to do something extraordinary, to get a different perspective on our own lives and if possible, to make a positive difference to other people’s lives. When we made the commitment to ourselves in December 2012 that we would attempt to row across the Atlantic a year later, neither of us really knew whether we were up to it or how we would go about it; we simply committed to making it happen. In truth there were many times during the year that followed when we both wondered whether we would get to the start line, let alone the finish line. There were so many things to consider, from training physically, mentally and practically, to sourcing the necessary equipment, to raising funds for our charities and most importantly, to finding sufficient corporate sponsorship to fund the project. It was a steep learning curve and a difficult period, one that notably saw Harry’s mother tragically lose her long battle to Leukaemia. There were times that we thought we had perhaps not given ourselves enough time, that we had taken on too much and that, following a memorable rescue by the RNLI during one of our later training sessions, perhaps our decision to go unsupported had been ill-considered. Thankfully, with some willpower and the help of a huge number people it remarkably all came together and at 22.05 on the evening of the 12th of December 2013 we set out unceremoniously into the darkness and into the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.
So what was it like? To summarise such an undertaking in a few paragraphs does not do it justice. There were however some aspects of the trip that stand out in our memories that might help to provide an insight into what it is and what it means to row across an ocean.
Having driven ourselves, Alexandra (the boat) and all our supplies the two and half thousand miles from the UK, Alex commented upon our arrival in Gran Canaria that we would soon be embarking on an even longer journey - this time in a small rowing boat, across the world’s second largest ocean and at a speed of no more than 2-3 knots. It was a daunting thought that in that moment prompted a quiet realisation of the scale of the challenge that awaited us.
Having been ready to set off on December 1st the additional 12 days of waiting in Puerto de Mogan for bad weather to clear was frustrating but vindicated by our compatriots in the Talisker Atlantic Rowing Race that left 10 days earlier from a nearby island only to spend most of that time on their sea anchors being battered by southerly gales and drifting backwards in the high seas. Eventually the low pressure system did begin to move and being desperately tired of waiting we made the unorthodox decision to leave as soon as the winds changed. It was 10.05pm and the moment that we had been working towards for so long had finally arrived; we were on our way. Alex lost the toss and begun the first of countless 2 hour sessions on the oars. With the wind gradually picking up behind us there would be no turning back and as the lights of Gran Canaria became increasingly distant we felt a strange mixture of emotions. Alex recalled “on the one hand I was excited, excited about the unknown and the prospect of adventure. There was also a great sense of pride in having made it to the start line after a year of planning, training and fundraising. On the other hand I was nervous. Despite all the careful planning, for the first time I could not help but feel that there was an element of insanity about what we were doing and I had to remind myself that multiple successful crossings had gone before us, conducted in some cases by crews with less safety equipment and contingency than we had”.
The first night was uneventful. Being our first taste of the 2 hour on 2 hour off routine both of us hardly slept but we made reasonable progress and when the sun rose we found ourselves almost completely out of sight of land except for the snow capped peak of Tenerife’s Mount Teide volcano. It was a promising start but as we soon found out, the open ocean can be a volatile and scary place to be. By mid morning the North Easterly trade winds that had been quietly urging us on throughout the night had begun to build dramatically. The sea state rose accordingly so much so that within 12 hours of setting off we found ourselves in what were to be the worst conditions of the entire crossing.
Given the difficulties associated with on-the-water training and our lack of experience on the ocean we had been told to expect a shock. We had mentally prepared for what we could only guess at as the worst but this was a baptism of fire that neither of us had expected to be so intense. Feeling increasingly seasick and with no option but to carry on deeper into the mid-Atlantic, we both spent much of the first week fueled on adrenaline alone. On our second night we were washed off our seats on consecutive occasions, in each instance fearing the boat would inevitably capsize. On one such occasion when the boat was engulfed by the crest of a huge wave, we registered our top speed of 17.5 knots as we surfed seemingly in it rather than on it, white water swirling all around. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. As if the sea conditions didn’t pose enough of a threat, also on our second night we were forced to let off a flare in order to prevent a near collision with a rogue sailing yacht and on our third night we were hit from behind by a wave with such force that it sheered a bolt connecting our rudder with the autohelm necessitating us to hand steer until we had sufficient day light to make repairs.
Looking back it was a scary time that had both of us deeply questioning our sanity. It is impossible to know how one is going to react when thrown into such a situation but we were thankful to have each other and as Harry says, “we dealt with it calmly and quietly in the knowledge that we only had ourselves to blame for being there and that to quit, whilst tempting, simply was never an option.” Fortunately things did get better and as we settled in to life at sea, we soon came to view the wind as our ally rather than our enemy. The reality was that whilst it had been a dangerously rough start, we had survived the worst and had made excellent progress. Indeed for much of the remainder of the crossing we enjoyed ‘fast’ rowing conditions, characterised by consistently strong trade winds that ultimately played a large part in enabling us to achieve a very respectable 50 day crossing. It was often uncomfortable, there was rarely a dry moment but we were always glad to be getting closer to our final destination.
To that extent we were fortunate because despite the obvious physical hardships, the real challenge of rowing an ocean is characterised by the difficult and utterly unremitting nature of life on board an ocean rowing boat. Come rain or shine (we had our fair share of both) the routine was sacrosanct which meant that with each of us spending 12 hours a day at the oars, the remaining 12 hours were spent either sleeping in a space that resembled an oversized coffin or carrying out other necessary tasks in a completely exposed outside space that amounted to little more than 1 meter squared. It was very cramped and all the while the boat would be pitching and rolling, sometimes violently, making any movement or task a constant struggle. In some respects sleeping would offer the only true respite but taken in 2 hour intervals and with the cabin increasingly resembling a sauna during the heat of the day, opportunities to escape the onslaught of the elements were limited. As a result we were constantly tired, the continuous physical exertion and the effects of the sun and sea took their toll on our bodies but by far the biggest battle that we faced was always in our minds.
There were undoubtedly some bleak periods but as one would hope these were interspersed with some amazing sights and moments that we both feel privileged to have experienced. As one of the world’s great wildernesses the Atlantic Ocean is an environment that can be both terrifying but utterly magical in equal measure. It demands respect but in return it offers some truly breathtaking spectacles, which in our tiny rowing boat, could scarcely have been experienced more vividly. Alex relives one scene, “I recall rowing down the side of a mountainous wave, a great piece of music playing in my ears, dolphins leaping all around, against the back drop of an exquisite sunset. Rarely have I felt more alive”.
In addition to dolphins we were met along the way by whales, countless birds and even a shark, all seemingly curious as to our reason for trespassing through their world. The nights could be long and miserable but they too could be mesmerising, often characterised by a staggering display of the solar system, shimmering phosphorescence or the flashes of a distant electrical storm. These were moments when the daily hardships and relentless routine could be forgotten and at the time they certainly made it all seem worthwhile.
Arguably the most memorable moment of all however was when we sighted land for the first time. We were both on deck enjoying what would be the final sunset of the trip when, as the sun dipped below the horizon the light refracted against the curvature of the earth to reveal the faint but unmistakable silhouette of Barbados. It was a sight that we had longed for since our first day at sea and with it came the euphoric realisation that we were merely hours away from seeing our long-suffering girlfriends, our families and friends and most importantly from finishing what had been a painful but epic journey. This time the lights were getting closer not further away; it was a great final night and the day that followed was more momentous than we had ever imagined during the preceding 50 days. It was 9.59am local time on the 1st of February and as we rounded the harbour wall to Port St Charles we received an unbelievable welcome.
The sounding of fog horns from resident super yachts, steel drums, the cheers from a large crowd made up of family, friends and many people neither of us had ever met and not to mention Harry’s imminent proposal to Lucy all compounded to create a very memorable and emotional arrival dominated by overriding senses of excitement, achievement and relief. Excited to be reunited, proud to have achieved what so few have even attempted to achieve and relieved; relieved because the ordeal was over but also because many of the things that could have gone wrong for the most part didn’t and we had survived to tell the tale.
We had survived to tell the tale but had it been worth it? In some respects it is easier to look back in retrospect in order to fully appreciate why we do these things. Why row across an ocean when you can much more easily and more safely sail or even fly across. A large part of the reason stems from the fact that it is possible, but only just. It is the fact that it is only just possible that makes it the unique type of challenge that it is; one that not only encourages but requires a new perspective on life; one that takes an individual far beyond their comfort zone and one that ultimately necessitates a much greater understanding of one’s self and purpose. For this reason alone it was worth it but of course there was another very important and worthwhile reason.
From the very beginning we set out with the intention of raising awareness and money for two personally motivated but widely known causes. Cure Leukaemia and JDRF are both phenomenal medical research charities and during the course of the year we were able to see first hand the amazing work that they are doing in their respective fields of Leukaemia and Type 1 Diabetes. We set ourselves an ambitious fundraising target but neither of us imagined for a second that we would come to the end of it all having raised over £150,000. It is a fantastic result that now represents some very thick icing on the cake for the entire project and we are pleased to be able to say with confidence that it will be money very well spent. Harry commented, “for me the success of our charitable fundraising is yet another example of how much of a team effort this was. One of the pillars of our success is this number and so everyone that contributed has been a part of what we did.”
Looking back our success can be attributed to a number of factors; luck, determination, certainly careful planning and preparation. These were all important but significantly it was the incredible enthusiasm and generosity shown by our sponsors (particularly Hotel Rafayel) and supporters that really made it happen and that ultimately made it possible. To all those that have donated, sponsored, encouraged, advised and helped in so many ways, thank you. Thank you for believing in us, for seeing the value in what we were trying to achieve and for playing an important part in something that we hope you will agree has been very special.
Alex & Harry
PS. Pink Banana Studios are in the process of editing a documentary about the expedition. There will be some viewings in due course and we'll let you know once we are organised.
You can still donate to their cause which has now raised over £156,000! Click HERE to show your support.
How funds raised for Cure Leukaemia help save lives