Lessons learnt - the hard way!

Hello fans (no? thought I'd give it a try!). I thought it was about time for an update on our activities since the last (and first) instalment of our blog. I was recently sat on a plane cruising over the Atlantic towards Houston to see Dicky, gawking out the window at the enormity of the mass of water that separates the start and finish lines of our challenge – a little daunting, to say the least!

Having each gone our separate ways after the Christmas get-together, March (the next time we were all going to be together) soon came around. Dicky had hopped on the red-eye back across the pond and made a bee-line for Rannoch Adventures in Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex where Pete, Stuart and I had assembled – today was the day we were going to lay hands on our trusty Atlantic steed, Aegir.

We were met by ocean-rowing world record holder and member of the Rannoch team, Angus Collins, who spent the day on the boat with us, giving us some important tips and pointers as we excitedly thrashed around the Maldon estuaries. Being out on the open water was a delight and we found a rhythm (of sorts) fairly swiftly. With Angus at the helm steering, 3 of us rowing and another one soaking up tips on how to use the onboard equipment, we were a well-oiled machine

That swiftly changed on arrival back into Burnham Marina as we narrowly avoided jetties and other vessels before Pete lost an oar over the side – it was suddenly amateur-hour!

After a quick dip in the icy water to retrieve the oar, Pete dried off and we hauled Aegir out and onto a trailer ready for the off. Waved off by the Rannoch team, we set off, immediately taking a wrong turn out of their driveway, destroying their grass verge with the trailer. One 16-point turn later and we were finally on our way, destination Teignmouth, Devon.

After a quick stop en route to meet the team at NRL, one of our fantastic sponsors, for a team photo and and catch-up. our next port of call was Poole,

Our next port of call was Poole, Dorset at the offices of Saltwater Stone, a specialist maritime and nautical PR agency who had very kindly agreed to provide the team with pro bono PR and marketing support. Strategy defined, and more team photos taken then we were on our way again.

I should mention at this stage that Pete was our designated driver for this trip. It was his car, and we assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) that he would have some decent experience towing trailers back on the farm. It quickly became apparent that 40 winks on the way to Devon was not on the agenda (other than Dicky, who irritatingly can sleep anytime, anywhere) – with a 30-ft, £50,000 load in tow every corner, roundabout and junction was an ordeal. We checked our imaginary mirrors, hammered our imaginary brakes, deployed our imaginary airbags! Pete had a somewhat worrying tendency to drive on the centre line of the road and accelerate into roundabouts, what’s more, he was drawn to oncoming headlights like a moth to a flame – it was a white-knuckle ride start to finish. Nevertheless, we arrived at our destination in one piece, knackered but ready for the various training courses that we had ahead of us.

The next 5 days involved a series of crucial training courses at Seasports in Teignmouth (sea survival, navigation, radio skills, first aid) that we took to with an unrivalled level of enthusiasm; unfortunately our technical ability (initially at least) paled in comparison. In particular, Dicky and Stu wrestled furiously with the protocols of radio communications. Stu implementing all the movie-esque radio lingo he could lay his hands on. Similarly, Pete and I may have lacked a little intensity in the pool during the sea survival part of the training course.

Nonetheless, practice makes perfect and the team passed the course exams with flying colours and claimed the certification needed to take their place on the start line – another box ticked.

The other purpose of the trip to Teignmouth was to have a first unassisted run-out on the open seas. So, having planned our route using our new-found chart plotting skills and met the local harbourmaster and convinced him (somehow, despite Dicky's best efforts by offering a "boo" when he opened the door to his office!) that we were not utter morons, we launched Aegir from Teignmouth Harbour and set off along the coast to Exmouth.

Bar a close miss with the harbour wall, we found our feet pretty quickly and were soon flying along at 5 knots. Spirits were high and all was going to plan.

Fast forward a couple of hours and we had overshot the entrance to the river Exe. Having turned the boat around, the morning's tailwind was now a savage headwind and the tides and currents were against us. Rowing three-up, we strained every sinew to crawl along at about 1 knot, much to the entertainment of dog walkers and Sunday strollers on Exmouth beachfront.

The plan was to meander our way along the estuary of the river Exe and meet Stuart's family for a hard-earned fish and chips and pint of Devon ale. After an hour fighting the conditions, we were against the clock needing to reach our destination before low tide set in and the treacherous sand banks in those waters came into play. This is where we came a little unstuck! As a team, we try to share responsibility where we can, but the blame for running aground as a result of not following the designated route falls squarely on my shoulders – my vigilante approach of disregarding the buoyage and making a bee-line for our destination did not pay off. After a couple of moments of panic and embarrassment, I was out of my slicks and over the side of the boat to push us away from trouble!

A cursory visit from the local RNLI followed soon after:

Lesson learnt you would think, but a Dicky snap-decision 20 minutes later to ignore the buoyage left us in the same situation again.

I think they say that the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result…. We eventually pulled into Exmouth Marina, where our fish and chips were enjoyed with a big slice of humble pie.

It had been a great first outing – although not entirely to plan, important lessons had been learnt and crucially both boat and team morale remained intact!

After departing Teignmouth, Dicky flew back stateside, and we all headed back to our respective day jobs. It soon became clear though, that our Teignmouth adventures really had given us all the ocean rowing bug – there was genuine excitement about the whole endeavour and we could talk/think about little else.

After a fortnight of normality, keen to make the most of having the boat at our disposal, Stuart and I boarded the train north to visit Pete and Aegir. Pete had planned a 40 mile row off the Northumberland coast taking in the Farne Islands. Knowing that the North Sea (and this stretch in particular) had a unforgiving reputation, we saw this as a step-up in our preparations and an opportunity to get some experience of choppier waters. Setting off from Amble Marina,

we soon realised that the choppy conditions we were expecting was not going to materialise. The North Sea was mirror-flat and, whilst this wouldn't deliver the hostile waters we were looking for, it made for a stunning experience. If this is ocean rowing – sign us up!

Another objective for the weekend was to familiarise ourselves with life on-board Aegir. We had ordered some dehydrated food sachets and a jet-boil to brush up on our boat-based culinary skills and try out the sort of grub we will be eating during the race. Beef Stroganoff, Spag Bol and chocolate pudding were on the menu. Head chef for the day was Monsieur Robinson, so while Stuart and I rowed for our lunch, Pete fired up the jetboil and began "cooking"

The first attempt at beef Stroganoff was not reassuring. Despite his pleadings that he had added the right measure of water, Pete had concocted a sort of watery beef soup that put simply, did not make the cut. After recalibrating and adding the "wrong" amount of water to the other packs, the food was a lot more appetizing. That said, we are looking forward to taste-testing the other options on the market to ensure we've got the right balance of nutrients and taste for the race – food really is one of the few things we will have to look forward to each day, so we need to make sure we get it right. The next batch is being shipped over from New Zealand and we'll no doubt update you on that in the next blog (although there may also be a new chef in the mix!).

Also making the most of the mesmeric conditions were puffins, seals and dolphins that stewarded us along the coastline, occasionally popping up to check on our progress, presumably making sure we weren't there to stay

Tempting though it was to drop the oars and settle in, the pressure to make the most of limited time together took hold so we ploughed on regardless, passing castles, coves and beaches on our way. As the evening set in, we pulled back into Amble Marina with just over 40 miles under our belts and feeling rather blessed for the day we had had. It had been a very successful and productive outing and we had all got to know Aegir a little better.

The next outing in the North Sea is in mid-May with ocean rowing guru and world record holder Leven Brown in tow to impart some advice. Rather perversely, we're hoping that the weather gods aren’t quite so kind next time around. As said above, time together is precious and time out in the boat is priceless, so we really do need to get some experience of the sort of conditions we will be facing come December. That said, the advice of the local coastguards was "be careful what you wish for". Something tells me they know a little more than we do about what the North Sea can offer in terms of challenges!

It only leaves me to say a huge thank you to all our sponsors, supporters and followers. We are incredibly grateful to you all for your ongoing support. Without it we'd have had to throw in the towel already, so you really are keeping us in the race. That said, we're by no means at the start line yet. If we are to compete in the race, and meet our goal of raising £100,000 for our charities, we really do need people to dig deep and give generously. Genuinely, every little helps, so if you do enjoy following our journey, admire what we're doing/what we're doing it for, or simply have a few quid left over on pay day we'll gladly take it off your hands!

As a certified VHF radio operator I can now confidently say on behalf of The Four Oarsmen –

"Over and out"

The Four Oarsmen