The campaign gathers pace…

The Big Practice Row

AUGUST - NOVEMBER 2017

It has been quite a while since our last update, and for that we apologise. We've been busy little oarsmen in the meantime – it turns out that ocean rowing doesn't organise itself! On the upside, it does mean we have quite a lot to report… 

Since our last update, Aegir has had a good few run-outs, and we've had our fair share of the stormy conditions we had foolishly wished for in our last blog. We were starting to get a feel for this ocean rowing lark. While a little trepidatious at first, getting the experience of rowing on rough seas is invaluable preparation for the race itself; the Atlantic can be a cruel mistress at times.

With various overnight rows under our belts (Pete had also completed a UK-Holland row with another crew who found themselves a man down). we put in place plans for "the big one" in August – a 3 day, 3 night row doing everything we could to emulate the conditions we'd be facing in December (no outside contact, ration pack food, making our own water etc.). It would put us well outside our comfort zone but then that was what we needed.

August came, Dicky flew in from the States, Stu and I got the train North and we all descended on Pete in Northumberland for a week, eager (but anxious) to get the boat on the water and crack on. However, before we could get out on the water, we had the small matter of a photoshoot to get through – our sponsors had asked for high resolution team photographs, and we didn’t have any! We enlisted the help of professional photographer, Hank Jansen, who duly obliged and gave up ½ a day he'll never get back! We were very willing subjects, but lacked any real modelling experience or appreciation for what made a good photo. Clambering around on rocks, with Dicky seemingly tensing for an impressive 4 hours straight, we just about got through it. However, with Hank's expert guidance, we were able to get some great team snaps (and some god-awful ones too).

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Photoshoot out of the way, it was time to hit the water. Unfortunately, for us, the pre-row process is never conducted with pit stop-like efficiency. There is the important matter of ensuring we load the boat up with everything we could possibly need for the outing – lifejackets, harnesses, PLBs, waterproofs, first aid kit, tool kit, food – and there is plenty to remember. Pete's "no stone left unturned" approach to this exercise is certainly detailed, but painstakingly slow – every room in the house is visited and examined, every supermarket aisle patrolled and inspected…hours pass! Nonetheless, we usually arrive at Amble marina confident that we've got all the essentials. On this occasion, that feeling was sadly ill-placed. While readying the boat for launch, we soon realised that a very specific part, the rudder cuff, was missing. Without this, we can't secure our rudder and therefore can't steer the boat – it’s a vital bit of kit. A catalogue of errors then ensued.

Unable to find the rudder cuff at Pete's house or onboard Aegir, the only option was to purchase a replacement and have it sent up from Rannoch (the boatbuilders) overnight. We would put off our row by a day; we had plenty of time together, so, while sub-optimal, this was little more than a fly in the ointment. Dicky, with consummate efficiency, called Rannoch, bought the part and arranged for it to be delivered overnight…to completely the wrong address, in fact, to an address that didn't even exist. This minor detail was only realised when the part failed to arrive the next day – another day lost. When the part eventually arrived, we secured the rudder in place and got Aegir out on the water. These things are sent to test you – and it was great testament to the team that we managed not to fall out in the process, laughing it off (whilst making sure the blame remained squarely on Dicky's shoulders!) and putting it all down to experience. All this bodes well for the high-stress, high-fatigue conditions we'll be under during the race.

With the 4 of us being so widely scattered, team-time is precious and we try to tick off as many things as we can when we're all together. One such thing for this visit was an interview with BBC Look North; they had been in touch and wanted to cover our story. We were excited by the prospect of being on TV and it would serve as a fantastic opportunity to spread the word about what we're doing and help promote the fantastic charities we're doing it for.

We've been lucky enough to gain some fantastic support off the back of this interview, and it has definitely opened doors for us on the fundraising front too. What’s more, the BBC Look North team will be travelling out to La Gomera in December to see us off and give us more great coverage.

So, with modelling and media responsibilities out the way, we could finally concentrate on the rowing. We loaded up the boat with all our equipment for the coming days and readied ourselves for the off. Pete had bought a new GoPro to get some decent footage of us out at sea, complete with suction cap so we could stick it to the boat. So, before leaving the marina he set this up. Unfortunately, the suction cap wasn’t quite as sticky as we had hoped. Within 2 seconds of sticking it to the boat, it fell off into the water and sunk – ideal! Oh well, at least it wouldn't put us off the task at hand!

As we rowed out of Amble Marina heading north, we once again had wall-to-wall sunshine and calm sea conditions. However, having checked the forecast earlier that day, we knew that strong winds and rain were on the way. However, in the meantime, we made the most of the August warmth, opting for the "tops off" approach – again, this is likely to be our modus operandi during the crossing.

As we passed by Dunstanburgh Castle, we heard a whirring overhead only to look up and see a drone flying overhead. Pete had spoken to Jack Wrangham, a local drone photographer, in the build-up to our row and he had kindly offered to get some aerial footage of us on the water. Ducking and weaving overhead, the drone got some fantastic shots of us in action. Seeing the boat in the ocean from way above, really does give perspective to the scale of what we are undertaking; we will be nothing more than an insignificant speck in the Altantic.

As we rowed further North we had the usual interactions will seals and puffins (no dolphins this time sadly), and then a visit from Amble coastguards in their beast of a lifeboat. They drew up alongside us, asked us the inevitable questions about what on earth we were doing, told us they had had to rescue some ocean rowers the year before in rough seas, and then warned us that rough seas were expected that evening – lovely to have a vote of confidence like that!

As our first evening set in, so did the weather (as expected). As we passed through the Farne Isles and approached Holy Island, the wind arrived, whipping up a frenzy of waves for us to negotiate. At 20 knots (equivalent to 20mph) the headwind was tough to row against and distance covered dwindled. Nonetheless, the aim for this row was not to cover the maximum distance, but more to settle into life onboard. This was all part and parcel of what we'd face in the Atlantic so it was good experience. We maintained our 2 hour on; 2 hour off routine and ploughed on into the night.

With choppy conditions, comes sea sickness and we soon realised that we weren't immune to it. Pete is definitely the queasiest of the 4 of us, and had a spell of heavy sea-sickness whilst on the oars, being sick overboard between oar strokes then rowing on as if nothing had happened – what a champ. It wasn't long before Dicky (who was camping out in the aft cabin, with all the controls) followed suit. With the strong winds and high waves, we had asked him to keep a close eye on our chartplotter to ensure we were maintaining a good course, which meant staring at a screen inside the cabin – a bout of vomiting (somewhat inevitably) ensued. Somehow, Stu and I had managed to stave off the sickness, perhaps as a result of the fact that we couldn’t stop laughing at the other two's misfortunes #teamplayers. Sea sickness is rite of passage during the Atlantic row, so I doubt we'll be quite so lucky come December!

With very little mileage covered overnight despite maximal effort on the oars fighting the conditions, we found ourselves near Berwick as dawn broke. Having been out for about 18 hours at this stage, tiredness was setting in and the choppy seas has prevented us from getting much sleep (if any) – Even Dicky (usually capable of slipping into a coma within seconds of coming off the oars) had struggled to doze off! Catching one another's eye between shifts and sharing thoughts during the on-shift, there was no doubt that a stark realisation had set it that the Atlantic crossing was going to be tough, really tough.

Our second day brought more wind and heavy rain, so it was more of the same – crawling along, soaked to the core with waves crashing into the boat and drenching us further. The glorious calm of our first outing in mirror-flat conditions was a distant memory. That feeling of insignificance crept back in; we were completely at the mercy of the sea. We soldiered on, keeping up the routine and trying desperately to get some kip between shifts. On previous rows, we had done 24 or so hours so, at a push, you can get by without sleep. As we headed on into our second night, it became very apparent that maximising sleep was crucial and, without it, performance, mood and resilience dropped drastically. We had, in the most part, overcome the sea sickness by this stage, so could genuinely concentrate on trying to get some rest when off the oars. The weather meanwhile had not improved, in fact, the 20 knot winds were now up at 25 knots and blowing completely off-shore. Rather than thinking about progress, we were concentrating on stopping ourselves from being blown over to Norway. Whilst it would have been lovely to change course, whip over to Norway, take in the Fjords and tuck into a huge Smorgasbord on arrival, none of us had our passports with us and we all had to work to get back to in a few days!

As we approached our third night, we had set our sights on Edinburgh as our finishing line for the following day. The entry to the Firth of Forth was 25 miles further north, so seemed achievable. We knew that the tidal flow of the Forth could be brutal, but if we timed it right it would pull us right into Edinburgh without a huge amount of effort on our part. Unfortunately, the weather and tide had other ideas.

Overnight, the 25 knot winds rose to 30 knots, and it wasn't long before the coastguards were on the radio advising us to return to shore. We had, by this stage, got as far North as Dunbar, but we had been blown 8 miles off-shore in the space of 3 hours – our Norway dream was (albeit now against our will) coming true! After some semi-serious, semi-delirious discussions about heading to Scandinavia, we decided the Port Authority and Border Control would have little sympathy for our situation and, on discovery of our lack of passports, would simply order us to turn around and head home. Accordingly, with Edinburgh no longer a possibility, we turned Aegir to shore and, rowing 3-up, travelled south west at just under a knot of speed for 9 hours to reach the safe haven of Eyemouth Harbour, completely knackered. We'd done it though, a decent spell at sea in horrific conditions, and on reaching shore (albeit not Edinburgh or Norway!) the sense of achievement was huge. It had been a massively profitable experience and a very welcome indicator of the sorts of perils and struggles we're going to face come December.

After a hard-earned hot meal and cup of tea in Eyemouth we whipped Aegir out of the water and onto her waiting trailer which had been kindly towed to us by an old pal, Aidan. Once loaded, Aidan delivered the boat and 4 tired, wet and aching oarsmen back to Northumberland for some rest and a much-needed debrief of what we'd learnt over the past 3 days. Whilst it was horribly tough at times, this row had put us in great stead for the real thing. We all came away having learnt a huge amount and with a heavy dose of reality about what lies ahead!

Taylor Wessing add their weight

After dumping our sick bags and getting rid of our wobbly sea legs, our focus quickly turned to our next event – another 24-hour row. This time we’d come up with a loose plan of getting Aegir into Central London where we would row next to her for 24 hours in the square mile outside Taylor Wessing's offices (a lead sponsor and George's employer). Easy, right? Yes, it sounded pretty straight-forward but in typical Oarsmen fashion we’d overlooked a couple of small logistical challenges, particularly involving carting a 28ft boat through central London and getting landlord's permission to park said boat on their land … details, details. Thankfully the Taylor Wessing ‘dream-team’ came to the rescue and pulled us out of the muck. In a matter of days they pulled off the mammoth task of compiling method statements and risk, coercing LandSec into letting us row in New Street Square, directly outside their offices, and designing banners and promotional paraphernalia to get the locals revved up for the event. The stage was set. All we needed to do was get our trusty driver, ‘Oarsman Robinson’, to escort Aegir into London so we could get the job done.

Fresh from passing his trailer-test (second-time around) against the odds, Pete adopted stealth tactics, setting off in the dead of night to shepherd the boat into Central London and avoid the perils of rush-hour traffic. Over the course of the morning, ‘Oarsman Watts’ arrived in an Uber van with 4 rowing machines (important for a land-based row!). Shortly afterwards, with a couple of hours to spare before we were due to pull our first stroke, ‘Oarsman Taylor’ touched down from Texas and made his way into town. Last but not least, fresh from the desk and become pretty accustomed to doing over the last 18 months. From the start at 7pm right into the night we had the notional "fifth oarsman" – a great congregation of friends and colleagues – there to cheer us on. We were bowled over by everyone's support with some staying well into the night providing us with plenty of entertainment to take the edge of the rowing, once again thank you all!

Plenty more midnight drunken antics ensued, not by the oarsmen but by locals passing by – it turns out that, for drunken revelers, late night rowing makes quite an entertaining spectator sport! Likewise, for weary rowers, drunken revelers made for a little light-hearted relief (although it took some serious restraint to hold off joining them for a beer or two!).

As dawn broke we were greeted by lots of early-risers from TW. Leading the charge, coffees in hand and skipping merrily to work at 5:30am was TW's Al Watson. Al has been a huge support to the team in our build up to the big row and we would be lost without his man hugs and the infectious energy he brings to absolutely everything. Great support from the Taylor Wessing clan continued throughout the day from cute little babies (picture below) to associates and partners putting their reputations on the line by joining us on the 3rd rower for some solid stints – what a bunch of troopers.

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One of our biggest changes since our last 24 hour row over Christimas had been our new training schedule and diet which had all been put together by our trainer Tommy Matthews from Athlete 4D. Without diving into too much detail, he was able to convince us that putting ourselves on a fat and protein based diet prior to and during the row would provide ourselves with a more consistent and reliable source of energy for the crossing. This all made perfect sense but when George Biggar realised it meant no bread, no pizza, no beer (to name but a few ingredients central to his diet upto that point!) we knew we needed to get him to shake on the arrangement pretty quickly before the bleak realisation set in for him. With help from Tommy, we managed to get George onboard and then followed a clear-out of kitchen cupboards and a trip to the supermarket to stock up on "compliant" ingredients. When George realised Jelly Babies, cookies and biscuits were off the menu for the next 6 months it soon dawned on him that the row was going to be a walk in the park by comparison; he was not best pleased.

When we kicked off the row we were all a little nervous to see how we'd cope with 24 hours of rowing carb-free. The proof was going to be in the pudding (not that we were allowed any puddings these days!); if you had been a naughty Oarsman and cheated on the diet plan it was certainly going to show. Showing an almost disappointing lack of excitement, none of us had gone vigilante with our diet plans and came through the 24 hours of rowing without ‘konking-out'. This was a great relief given the vast numbers of  friends, family and interested passers-by who had all made a great effort to pop in to see how we were getting on – failure was not an option. As the final hour approached, the crowds swelled and Al Watson, arms in the air clapping, led the countdown  -finally we could 'drop oars' and give our poor bums a break from the punishing ergo seats.

We left New Street Square very tired but the event had been a massive success - we had gained 2 more corporate sponsors from the event, we had new-born faith in our diet plan and training schedule but, above all, we'd been blown away by the support that Taylor Wessing had shown in our endeavours and for the tremendous support we received from our friends – things really had begun to gather pace and it was an incredibly empowering feeling. Now it was up to us to repay that faith and support and continue the momentum that had started to build… onwards and upwards!

 

Aegir gets a makeover

 Since the beginning of time, sailors have sworn that there are unlucky ships and the unluckiest ships of all are those who have defied the gods and changed their names. As a team of relatively inexperienced seamen we need every ounce of luck on our side so we have decided to keep our boat registered as “Invictus” as named by its original owners (Row to Recovery).

 That said, we frequently refer to our boat by its nickname, Aegir, the Norse God of the stormy seas. Mythology tells us that Aegir supposedly brews the best beer in all the nine worlds and is known for hosting elaborate and debauched parties. Given our low carbohydrate / high fat diet over the last few months, the thought alone of any sort of bear-fuelled knees-up on safe arrival into Antigua will doubtless be spurring us on throughout the crossing!

As part of our fundraising initiative we’ve been encouraging prospective sponsors to purchase branding space on our boat - without this sponsorship we simply could not afford to take part in the race. After 12 months of hard work (not without the odd setback!) we’re delighted to say that we have managed to secure 6 platinum sponsors, 6 gold sponsors and 13 silver sponsors, amassing a total sponsorship haul of c.£200,000. With the sponsors onboard and branding space on the boat now exhausted, Aegir was ready for her makeover! After a great deal of deliberation, we booked the boat into Joyce Design in Chelmsford and decided on a silver foil wrap, the main inspiration coming from Alex Thomson's Hugo Boss boat for the Vendee Globe race.

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Opting for the shiny wrap meant having to dig a bit deeper into our coffers than we had originally hoped, so The Four Oarsmen funded the uplift out of their own money. We've been very sensitive to anything that could impact on the amount we give to our charities throughout the build-up to the race. It was only right that Aegir should represent a striking billboard to give our sponsors the exposure they deserve (and, being simple souls, we are all drawn in by shiny things!), so we simply had to have the silver foil, even if it meant paying for it ourselves.  When we say Aegir looking resplendent in her new ball gown, we knew it was the right decision - Look good, feel good, row good!

The Four Oarsmen Fundraiser at Pergola, Paddington

Aegir’s first outing as a “shiny space shuttle” was at our fundraising event at Pergola Paddington on the 26th September. Dicky's dad Bill trekked down from Northumberland to lend a hand, driving the boat through the night from Essex to Central London in time for the big event. On arrival at the venue, Bill and Dicky (partly through necessity, but predominantly through childish excitement) slept the night in the parked-up boat to keep drunken revelers at bay (all good practice for Dicky too of course) - we’ve had reports that Bill was quite the guard-dog and the security staff at Pergola have since been in touch about a job opportunity - Thank you Farmer Bill!

The big day arrived and it was 'all hands were on deck' (no pun intended) to ensure that any last minute wrinkles were ironed out. We had an incredible taskforce of willing and wonderful volunteers from Taylor Wessing to cart items over to the venue and generally lighten the load. It was a huge help and, once again, the event simply wouldn't have been possible without you – thanks so much! With the venue all set-up and ready to go all we were missing was the 300-or-so guests we were banking on - "build it and they will come", we thought – but you always have a niggling fear that people won't bother, that they've had a better offer that night, that it was "hairwashing night" maybe?! Anyway, we needn’t have worried, the doors opened at 6.30pm and droves of friendly faces descended, paying their respects to Aegir (lit up and looking glorious) and snapping up glass after glass of prosecco (courtesy of Pergola – see below) before heading downstairs to tuck into some grub while being serenaded by the dulcet tones of Tommy Hare and Duncan Menzies – the perfect accompaniment to get people in the mood for parting with their hard-earned cash at our auction later in the evening. The target of 300 soon became a nonsense, and with a packed-out venue of 450 people we got proceedings kicked off.

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After a few words of thanks from us, the premiere of our team video: 

big thank you to Pebble Studios for all your help with the video production – I don't imagine for one moment that we were the easiest of customers!) and a brief introduction to our fantastic charities by Victoria Urquhart from Mind and Dr Bacon from Spinal Research respectively, it was time for Philip Serrell to take centre stage for the charity auction.

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Philip's daughter, Clem, contacted us out the blue a couple of months earlier volunteering her dad to run our auction (we're not sure if she consulted with him first!). The only condition was a humble request not to introduce him as the antiques expert from “Bargain Hunt”. He travelled down from Worcestershire especially for the evening and did a sterling job keeping everyone captivated during the 38-lot auction, eking out an extra bid at every opportunity to make the event as worthwhile as it could be from the fundraising perspective. We raised an incredible £124,300 on the night with all the money divided equally between the two charities. This surpassed all expectations we had and for this we cannot thank friends, family and volunteers enough for making it what it was – we were truly humbled by the whole thing!

Another special thanks goes to Natasha Kende (Ben Kende’s sister) who worked tirelessly alongside Louise Wheeler (from Spinal Research) and other volunteers to run the door and sell raffle tickets on the evening. Tash (photo below) will also be taking the reins for our social media and PR while we’re at sea, so we can keep you all up to date with our progress. As a self-proclaimed admin queen and personification of efficiency (not necessarily the team's strongest suits to date), it’s great to have her on board!

Finally, and fundamentally, we owe a huge thank you to Pergola Paddington. Charlie Gardiner and the team at Pergola donated the venue and their staff for the event and, what's more, maintained a constant flow of Prosecco, wine and beer for the whole evening completely free-of-charge, which was unbelievably generous. It is acts like this that have continually bowled us over since we started this campaign, and we are truly grateful.

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ITV's This Morning

For somewhat differing reasons, the names of Holly Willoughby and (to a slightly lesser degree) Phil Schofield were deeply etched into the team's bucket lists, so when the opportunity to appear on ITV's This Morning reared its head, there was a lot of excitement. The initial excitement soon descended into squabbles about who got to stand next to Holly – it is these high-pressure decisions that really test the resolve of a team! After much debate and some impassioned pleas, we finally decided that the only solution was to do what we were told by the producers.

By now we were, of course, seasoned pro's in the world of TV, but resisted the temptation to provide ITV with an extensive rider for our dressing room on the day we of filming. That said, there were certain logistical requirements that had to be met, including getting the boat on to the South Bank at Waterloo, getting Oarsman Robinson down from Northumberland and flying Oarsman Taylor over from Texas. Overcoming such hurdles was another thing we were becoming quite adept at too, so we weren't going to let these things stop the show from going on.

Live TV is somewhat akin to how we deal with admin. It has to be last minute, sporadic and not without pressure however, ultimately it makes everything more exciting, interesting and thus far it has always been alright on the night.

Having signed autographs for David Gandy and posed for photos with Jet from the Gladiators (the trials and tribulations of celebrity status), we had a quick conflab about what we wanted to cover in the interview. We assumed there would be a quick rehearsal so we could jostle for position and delegate who was going to answer which questions. The reality was rather different – all still weak at the knees after getting a kiss from Holly Willoughby we found ourselves 'live' on TV –no prep, nothing! With a couple of cameras aimed on us, we weren't quite sure where to look, so opted to gaze around gormlessly for a few seconds before Pete sparked up and answered the first question; we muddled our way through thereafter. The interview was over as quickly as it started and before we knew it Holly and Phil were dashing off to crack on with the rest of the show, but not before we each stole another smacker from Holly – mission accomplished – ticked off the bucket list!

All in all, the This Morning gig was a great experience. There was a noticeable spike in donations as a result, it has done a lot for our profile-raising and we are now best friends with Holly and Phil.  While it is going to be difficult to keep in touch with people during the row, we're looking forward to updating the This Morning team on our progress during the row, so here's hoping for a bit more TV time in due course.

As is customary, there are a few thank you's to make - Phil and Holly made us feel incredibly welcome and Phil, in particular, took a lot of time out of his day to understand the challenge we are undertaking and explore the boat

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The ITV production team of Nicole, Lucy and Malika worked tirelessly to overcome some logistical obstacles with the boat (these issues always involve the boat!); without your help I'm not sure we'd have got the boat on to the South Bank and, if we had, the interview would doubtless have been an unmitigated disaster so thank you for getting it all sorted and for putting us at ease. Finally, a big thank you to Zoe Williams for her role in setting up the interview and getting it all off the ground – would've been a non-starter without you, so we're very grateful.

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We are now a mere 2 weeks away from the race start, and leave for La Gomera tomorrow. Needless to say, the admin involved to get the final outstanding bits and bobs wrapped up has been all-consuming and, in part, is the reason that this blog update is so late in coming out. Without wishing to bore you with any more of our rigmaroles, I'd like to sign off with one final plea:

We have now reached £250,000 for our charities. This is incredible, and 100% down to those kind people who have supported us so far. We firmly believe we can hit £300,000 and beyond, but we need all the help we can get. We ask you to please send to any friends/colleagues who may be interested a link to our website or flick on the blog – we're desperate to spread the word about The Four Oarsmen, what we’re doing and why so that we can make as big a difference as possible for our charities.

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We'll be in touch in the next fortnight from La Gomera with a final update (and farewell) before we set off, but thanks for reading (assuming you've got this far), and please keep following our journey.

Over and Out

The Four Oarsmen.