I recently did an ocean rowing taster course. But first things first. About a year ago, I heard of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge for the first time. I was immediately drawn in.
THE OCEAN ROWING TASTER COURSE AND THE TALISKER CHALLENGE
Every year in December, some crazies take off from La Gomera in the Canary Islands, then row their tiny little rowing boats all the way across the Atlantic to Antigua in the Caribbean, a distance of almost 5,000km. The event is called The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Rowing Challenge. It was founded in 1997 by Sir Chay Blyth.
THE “EASY” WAY AND THE HARD WAY
If you would just sit on your bottom in your rowing boat, sleep, eat, and occasionally tweet, you’d make the trip in about four and a half months. Even if you haven’t completed an ocean rowing taster course. This is due to the prevailing winds and currents on the so-called Southern Trade Winds Route. If you are in your early thirties, former special forces, push yourself to the limit in a team of like-minded and experienced athletes, you might make it in as little as 28 days.
The race is very well supported, with accompanying safety boats (which might take up to five days to reach you), plenty of training courses, challenges, tests & checks you have to pass before you get permission to start, assistance with finding sponsors to cover part of the £40k+ costs, safety checks on the boats & electronic equipment, and so on.
SEAS ARE SAFER THAN MOUNTAINS
There is no doubt that The Challenge is an epic adventure which carries the risk of death and serious injury. A number of people have died over the years. Yet, it seems a lot safer than, say, climbing eight-thousanders, hiking to the North Pole, or kayaking the Nile.
HOW MY DEAR WIFE KEEPS GETTING
ME INTO TROUBLE
I never really considered actually taking part in The Challenge. I was just fascinated by it, that’s all. Then my lovely wife one day brought the subject up when we were meeting up with an old friend of ours, Markmeister, who I had stand up paddleboarded the Thames source to London, and the Cuckmere source to sea with.
A FRIEND’S FRIEND
Mark had brought a friend with him. Ellie mentioned The Challenge to her. And Mark’s friend was totally bought in from the second she heard about it. We spent the rest of the evening discussing what we would need to do, to take part in the race. While I am a chubby, middle-aged man with no ambition, Mark’s friend is spending her time off doing triathlons. She regularly does 1,000 push-ups per session and holds a black belt in some obscure martial art.
The perfect match. I would focus on being the captain, raconteur, and cook, and just let her do her thing. Win win.
A few months have passed since that meet-up. Mark and I are planning our next adventures (stand up paddleboarding the Severn source to sea and the whole length of the Moselle).
Mark’s friend and I have started reading up on ocean rowing, watched all available YouTube videos, started to discuss our training plan, looked into the mechanics of purchasing the things we need, including the boat. I recently completed my first 8-week rowing course on the Thames in Putney and started a more advanced 8-week rowing course. Moreover, I purchased a Concept 2 rowing machine, using it for at least an hour every day.
LOTS OF VARIABLES
There is, of course, a very good chance that we’ll never end up registering for The Challenge. A million things could hold us back. Maybe our jobs won’t allow us to take time off. Perhaps the costs will turn out to be too big an obstacle to overcome. We might simply come to the conclusion, that we are not brave enough. However, at this stage, we are both still very much hoping that we’ll end up crossing the Atlantic in 2024/25, or possibly a year later, in 2025/26.
THE OCEAN ROWING TASTER COURSE
When I found out that Rannoch Adventure, the world’s premier manufacturer of ocean rowing boats, offers an ocean rowing taster course, I booked myself a slot immediately. (My friend wasn’t able to join due to work commitments.)
ARRIVING EARLY AT THE YACHT HARBOUR FOR THE
OCEAN ROWING TASTER COURSE
A few weeks ago, I made my way to Burnham Yacht Harbour in Essex, just before the agreed time of 9:30am. My two team mates were already there.
MEETING MY FELLOW ROWERS
Alex, a family father in his thirties, regularly does Half Ironmans for leisure. Dan, who is my age, has worked as policeman, firefighter, and in mountain rescue. He regularly does multi-day ultra-runs and has completed the Marathon des Sables, a 250km, 5-day run across the Saharan desert in blistering heat. Dan is hellbent on doing the Talisker Challenge next year, while Alex says he might wait until his son is old enough to join him.
OUR INSTRUCTOR FOR THE OCEAN ROWING TASTER COURSE ARRIVES
Lizzie, our instructor, arrived a couple of minutes later. She has rowed across the Atlantic and around the British Isles. Interestingly, she says rowing around the British Isles was much harder than crossing the Atlantic.
CLIPPING OURSELVES IN
We walked the short distance to our boat. The safety instructions lasted no more than fifteen minutes. Then we put on our harnesses, stepped onto the boat, and clipped ourselves into the safety strap that runs along the floor, next to the seats.
OUR BOAT FOR THE OCEAN ROWING TASTER COURSE
The boat we were on had three rowing seats. Almost new, its book price is around £75,000. It is intended for use by 3 to 5 rowers. On ocean crossings you typically constantly switch two teams in 2 or 3-hour shifts. So it’s 2 hours of rowing, then 2 hours of eating, doing repairs, changing clothes, communicating, going to the toilet in a bucket, and sleeping, then 2 hours of rowing, 2 hours of sleeping, and so on…
The extra seat (if you are 3 to 4 rowers) is just in case there are sea and weather conditions that make it advisable to put in the extra effort and have 3, not 1 or 2 people rowing. Such conditions could be favourable currents and winds or adverse weather you want to get away from.
A SHAKY BUSINESS
The first surprise was how shaky the boat was on the water. You really have to make an effort to balance your body, be careful where to put your feet. Liz advised us with a dry smile “don’t worry, the boat is self-righting…”
STAYING ON LINE DURING THE OCEAN ROWING TASTER COURSE
The second surprise was how, despite all the shakiness, the boat stays straight in line on the water. Fully loaded, the boat weighs more than 1.5 tons with 4 rowers on board. A typical Thames rowing boat weighs about 40kg plus rowers’ weight. The ocean rowing boat is 1.75m wide, while a Thames racing shell is about 45cm wide.
SURPRISINGLY SIMILAR TO ROWING ON THE THAMES…
The ocean rower has two cabins, one on each end, and extensive storage space beneath the deck, a completely different world from the river-based variety. Yet, rowing the two different types of boat felt very similar.
…UNLESS YOU ARE ON THE OPEN OCEAN
No doubt the situation would be different, if going fully loaded through 5m swells with strong winds in the mid-Atlantic. But lightly loaded on the peaceful waters of the Crouch estuary, rowing was very easy.
THROWN IN AT THE DEEP END
Lizzie let us get right on with it. Dan and Alex started with the rowing, while I was observing and steering. Dan has his own boat and regularly goes rowing. Alex had never done any rowing (except on his rowing machine), but quickly picked up on it. After 20 minutes, Alex and I switched.
RACING DURING THE OCEAN ROWING TASTER COURSE
Dan immediately increased the frequency. At times the two of us were powering the boat at 9km/h over longer time spans, faster for short periods. Typically you’d expect to average about 5km/h. I had been fighting with Thames Tummy until the day before the rowing trip, following a swim a week earlier in the Thames in Richmond. For some reason, my system had not agreed with the sewage regularly dumped into London’s blueish brown artery.
GOING AT NORMAL SPEED
Soon I started sweating profusely, but I wouldn’t give Dan the satisfaction of asking for a slower pace. When Alex finally took over from Dan, I was feeling rather relieved. It was at that stage, that we spotted a seal in the water nearby. Over the course of the day we switched many times. Everyone got to sit in stroke position (the middle seat, closer to the stern), determining the pace, as well as in the seat closer to the bow, following the set pace.
SHARKS ARE NO WORRIES – MARLINS ARE
Throughout the taster course, Liz provided useful pointers, explained more about navigation, the technical equipment, and rowing technique. We were also able to ask lots of questions about her ocean crossing. The thing that surprised me most, was that while sharks had posed no problem, marlins are apparently a very real risk.
On a sunny day, the rowing boat creates a shadow beneath it, which attracts all kinds of smaller fish. The marlin feels a close attraction to those fish. In line with its typical hunting technique it shoots from the depths of the ocean straight up towards its prey, hoping to grab a bite along the way. As small boats are not a common occurrence in the middle of the ocean, the marlin initially does not recognise the shadow as being projected by a boat.
STUCK IN A BOAT
As if this were not unfortunate enough, the marlin also happens to be one of the fastest fish in the world, reaching speeds of over 100km/h. It weighs more than 600kg. When it realises its mistake, it is too late. Its spear-like bill crashes through the hull of the boat and penetrates the interior space by up to half a metre and more.
A SURPRISINGLY COMMON OCCURRENCE
We heard that this happened 3 times during the second-last Challenge. Luckily no one got injured. However, if the marlins would have crashed into the sleeping cabins, fatalities would have been likely.
HULLS AND HOLES
Sadly, the marlins die shortly after impact, when they break their bills off, in an attempt to escape. You are supposed to put glue around the bill from the inside of the boat and wait until it has hardened. Then you saw off the part of the bill that sticks into the boat and the bit that remains attached to the outside of the hull. In a second step you put an additional seal on top of the hole.
When we had reached our lunch location, about 12km into the estuary, close to the sea, we lay anchor. Liz took out some expedition food packages and a little camping stove. The food, pasta and rice dishes with beef and chicken, were surprisingly tasty. We were pleased to see that the good folk of Rannoch had even found the time to include some desserts.
LEARNING ABOUT THE EQUIPMENT DURING THE
OCEAN ROWING TASTER COURSE
On the way back, the focus was on navigation and using the ‘autopilot’ that keeps the boat on track (you still have to do the actual rowing). There is no doubt that we had barely scratched the surface on this taster course, considering how much else there is to learn. That said, we all felt that we had gained a good basic understanding of how to use the equipment and what life would be like on an ocean rowing boat during an ocean crossing.
Our instructor kept things fun and light-hearted, while at the same time pushing us gently to make an effort and concentrate on what we were doing. Despite the impressive number of adventures she has completed, usually as leader, she is incredibly humble, down-to-earth, and low-key. Hearing her talk about Rannoch Adventure, you quickly gather that the small outfit with less than a dozen staff is like family to her and her colleagues.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THE OCEAN ROWING TASTER COURSE?
The experience is available to anyone with basic swimming skills and does not require prior rowing experience. It costs £210 per person, which felt like a very fair price to me, for what you get: blisters and bliss. Burnham-on-Crouch is just over an hour and one interchange away from London by train. It takes slightly longer by car to get there. The walk from the train station to the marina takes 25 minutes. I’d recommend this taster course to anyone who feels adventurous and likes water sports. 5 out of 5 in my book.
Looking for more outdoor fun? Check out our posts about hiking in Bhutan and in Portugal, doing a camel ride and desert camp in the Sahara, a boat ride near the North Pole (Spitsbergen), and some packrafting in Wales.