How rowing an ocean helped me with lockdown

A trio, but a team nonetheless! Team Margot pictured mid-ocean during the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2019. Photo: Atlantic Campaigns

This time last year, I was preparing to take on the biggest challenge of my life so far, rowing thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean in a small boat.

As competitors in this year’s Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge rowing race get ready to leave this week from the Canary Islands and slog all the way to Antigua some 3,000 miles (5,000 km) away, I am reflecting on the lessons I learned from last year‘s event and assess how it helped me cope with lockdown. 

There’s no question that preparing for Atlantic rowing competition is a unique experience. Competitors typically take 35-50 days or so to reach the other side of the ocean, and it’s an ordeal, albeit one that will include many incredible highs as well as some unbelievable lows. 

Coping with severe weather and ongoing medical issues (like blisters, chafing, sea sickness, severe fatigue, and hallucinations), while managing running boat repairs, means that just keeping going is a constant challenge. 

Working as a team

How the team gels is another huge issue. We were a three man crew, and I was very much the plus one on our boat. My two teammates had known each other for 20+ years, whereas I was the latecomer to the party, having signed up a mere 14 months earlier.

How would our integration work? How we would the three of us cope with the total lack of privacy on our 28 foot (8 meters) long boat, not even being able to go to the loo without an audience? Would we emerge firm friends, or would we go back to our separate lives afterwards and never hear from each other again? These were questions I thought about before we began our journey.

The whole experience of rowing the Atlantic is a very artificial one. Many of the things you enjoy doing on land cannot be brought with you and instead you have to find new activities to focus on.

Things like having a good night’s sleep or enjoying a lie-in once a week are unthinkable. Everything is sacrificed in the interests of maintaining a two hours on, two hours off rowing routine with all your daily tasks – like washing, eating, personal hygiene, sleeping, and trying to switch off – to be conducted during the mere 120 minutes you have off the oars before you get back on and repeat the whole process. 

If something goes wrong during your off shift, be it a messed up autohelm switchover, bad weather, a teammate wanting an extra layer, or some other issue requiring all hands on deck, you will not sleep.

Focus on what matters

This means that very quickly you focus on getting your ablutions (personal hygiene) and sleep down to a fine art. A REM sleep cycle is 90 minutes so it is possible to have an effective break, though sleep deprivation is inevitable and the body will then play tricks. I’ve never taken illegal substances but now I know how those who do must believe their hallucinations to be real. I certainly did as I found myself rowing along Wimbledon High Street during one particularly vivid waking dream. 

Some interruptions to the incessant routine are unbelievably welcome. Calling home, speaking to my wife, emailing my kids, or getting messages from mates, were all regular highlights. 

Banter was mostly good humored, and it helped that one of my teammates is witty and kept the mood light. Music further lightened the load of confinement. I discovered Pink Floyd (how I hadn’t done beforehand, I’ll never know) and, to a much lesser extent, I came to enjoy Country & Western (I never became a true fan, I would just say it grew on me, like a verruca). 

Knowing that we were on course for a 40 or so day row helped as we knew roughly when our journey would end. What did damage our mental state was when well meaning team supporters speculated that we might have extra days to row because of adverse conditions. Just as people stuck in small apartments during COVID would fear rumours that the authorities might add extra time to their confinement, so did we. I know that feeling of dread all too well and find that mentally it is better not to engage with speculation. It can destroy even the most resilient.

Don’t let small things become big things

Tolerance of each other got stretched at times. A teammate failed to switch over the battery charger – not once but twice – which meant we came close to running out of power completely and had to heave to on para-anchor, costing us valuable time. He described it as a team failure, as in ‘we forgot’. He was less forgiving of others, however. When I forgot to wipe our solar panels one day, he was harsh and intemperate in his criticism, an inconsistency that really bridled with me.  I am looking at this from my perspective, of course, but I do know that the best leaders understand that humility is needed on occasion. This personality trait was in short supply on our boat and it was something I thought about a lot during the lockdown.

Still, as reasonable adults we mostly respected each other’s  boundaries and the different personal journey each of us was on. Hamish proved an excellent stroke, a man with a superior technique that enabled us to row very efficiently. We would have been days longer at sea had someone else come in his place. Martin was almost always very positive, an irrepressible optimist even when it was hard to see the upside of a situation. He could be very amusing too, and laughter really is the best medicine.

I got better and better at rowing as we crossed the Atlantic. I had had numerous medical issues before we left, including detached retinas, the severity of which I had kept quiet about. My ophthalmologist warned me repeatedly against any strenuous effort that could raise my blood pressure, like lifting heavy weights. This really compromised my physical training before the race and limited the volume of strength preparation I could do, so I never reached peak physical condition as I’d hoped. This led to some justified criticism of my extra pounds. Once on board I did pull my considerable weight and the austere diet meant most of it had disappeared within two weeks, as photos sent home bore witness. 

Preparation for lockdown? 

How did all this help during COVID? Well, I now see the row as great preparation for the lockdown.

For the first time I found myself living with both my wife and her three adult children for an extended period. We all liked each other well enough but I was still unproven in the living-at-close-quarters stakes. 

I knew we had to get on and I employed various tactics to minimize the downsides of confinement. Just as on the boat, we ate together once a day, we did our mental winding down (be it relaxing on the boat, or exercising on land) mostly alone but if not then in different groups, sometimes in pairs, other times as a trio, occasionally as a family group. We all pulled our weight, sharing tasks like cleaning and cooking and other chores. 

We worked to give each other space. As I had on the boat, we were rarely all in our cabins together. Even during bad weather when rowing wasn’t possible it was sometimes preferable to be out on deck in all weather gear than stuck in the fetid cabin pressing up against each other. During lockdown we made sure we all had a separate room to work in, and we all tacitly agreed not to irritate each other with loud music – headphones became de rigueur. Bathroom time was kept short, no one appreciates being made to wait half an hour while someone else enjoys a long leisurely shower. Exercise was to be fun if done in a group, anyone with marathon pretensions could do this on their own, no one was obliged to do anything they didn’t want to.

On the boat, the importance of routine and the sense that we were in it together were key. Your mental health on such a journey is as important as your rowing skills. During lockdown, evening meals, were always at the same time, always together and always enjoyable, an opportunity to stop and reflect. Yes, there were some tough times, just like on the boat. I wasn’t going to be a natural fit with someone else’s family but, without consciously realizing it, I had stepped onto dry land in Antigua a different man. My relationship with my step kids thrived in lockdown.

Friends for life? 

As for the row, did my teammates and I leave the boat as friends? I think so. Lifelong buddies, perhaps not, but each of us parted with a huge respect for the others. 

And that’s ok. Aged 53, it’s difficult to imagine meeting someone who could become your new best friend, such is the strength of one’s existing relationships. But I know my teammates and I found our personalities, our resolve and our basic characteristics sorely tested at times and yet we had still come up trumps. On that basis I know I will look back on the 39 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes we spent together in close confinement with pride, knowing we each did the best we could – and that alone is worthy of a lifetime’s respect. You cannot ask for more. 

Picture credit: Atlantic Campaigns