Ocean rowing

As you probably know by now I am part of an Ocean rowing crew who will be rowing across the Indian Ocean in June this year. I am the reserve crew member, so if something happens to one of the crew between now and the launch then I will step in to fill the place.

A while ago we arranged a training row to cross the English Channel from Guernsey in the Channel Islands to Southampton in the UK. The English Channel is part of the Atlantic Ocean and it’s also known as the busiest shipping lane in the world. We couldn’t find any record of an ocean rowing boat having made this crossing before, and that’s probably because most people aren’t mentalists.

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It felt like it was a really long way away, but all of a sudden Easter weekend was upon us and it was time to actually do the row. We shipped the boat over to Guernsey on the ferry (which is a 7 hour crossing from Portsmouth) and we held a couple of fundraising events in Guernsey which were really successful.

There are big tidal changes in the Channel so our plan was to leave around 5pm on Saturday for a midday arrival in Southampton on Monday. On Saturday morning it was very clear that we wouldn’t be able to leave on Saturday because the wind was blowing at 20 knots and gusting at 30 knots from the north, which meant we would just be blown backwards, no matter how hard we rowed, and we would have ended up in France.

We talked about calling to off because the forecast was really horrible – cold, windy and rainy. But with this being a brand new boat and with it being shipped to Australia in just a weeks time there was no other chance to test everything. 3 of the crew have previous experience in Ocean rowing, Billy and Barry have crossed the Pacific Ocean in world record time and James holds the world record for rowing around Great Britain. Robin and I have zero rowing experience and Robin especially was understandably keen to have some practice before setting off into the vast Indian Ocean.

Looking at the forecasts we could see that the wind was changing on Sunday afternoon and although still strong, it was at least blowing in the right direction to help push us towards the UK. The only problem with this plan was that Barry – who has a proper grown up job with responsibilities – wouldn’t be able to take the extra time off work and would have to fly back home. Disappointing for him and worrying for me as we went from a crew of 5 down to a crew of 4, so I had to really step up into my responsibility as reserve crew and become main crew. So we made the decision to leave on Sunday instead.

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In the mean time we did some housekeeping and got her in the water for the first time ever, happy to see that she floats – a good start. We attached the rudder, loaded her up with our kit and water and we had a little paddle around the harbour while they had some photos taken and I hid comfortably in the cabin. This is alright I thought. Half a hour, no sea sickness, so far so good.

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We stocked up on food, mostly junk or whatever we could find at the Co-op. Pot noodles, porridge pots, peanut butter and jam sandwiches, chocolate, sweets, biscuits and some fruit. We couldn’t get any freeze dried meals in Guernsey which is why we got to pot noodles, so we could test out using the Jetboil on the ocean.

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We got kitted up, I was able to use all of Barrys wet weather gear, which made me look like I was a seven year old playing dress up, but at least it kept me dry!

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James and I would row as a pair and Robin and Billy would row as the other pair. James and I took the first shift and at 3pm on Sunday we set of rather unceremoniously from the harbour. The launch of a rowing boat is strange because you depart so slowly – YEAY THEY’RE OFF, and they are still leaving, and they are still going…

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Me, Billy, Robin, James, Barry. I don’t know if we arranged ourselves in height order on purpose, but I am definitely stood on my tippy toes, trying not to look so short.
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Who let the child on the boat?
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Missing you already Barry!
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Dream Team

I was really nervous before leaving because I really hadn’t done much training at all. The rowing machine is just the worst. It is so boring I could never spend more than 10 minutes on there, the most I managed was 25 minutes and that was rough. I had serious concerns as to whether I would be able to manage 2 hours on the oars. 2 hours seems like such a long time.

Thankfully rowing on a ocean is totally different to sitting on a rowing machine, and I didn’t feel like I had missed out on anything by not training on one. I had a reasonable level of fitness generally and I have done a fair amount of weight training, and eating of course, carrying some fat reserves would serve me well throughout the challenge.

And this really was a challenge, especially for me because I have never rowed anywhere before, not on an ocean, not on a lake, not on a river. The motion felt really unnatural and I felt so uncoordinated to start with. Unlike a rowing machine you have 2 massive oars to manoeuvre which aren’t joined together and hit the water differently each side.

I was lucky in a way that we started in the harbour where it was a lot calmer, and I was able to settle into it about half an hour in. I had a problem where I kept turning my oars, but James was behind me so he would spot me and give me a shout when my oars turned. It was cold and raining when we left and the large collar on the jackets meant I had a really limited field of vision, and I couldn’t see my oars most of the time.

Overall the first two hours were great. I felt like we were able to get into a bit of a rhythm at times and it went so fast. I thought we had been rowing for about half an hour, so when Billy popped his head out the cabin and said we had 20 minutes left I was amazed. That meant I had done an hour and a half of rowing already! I was really pleased with that. I did have a few moments were I zoned out and I forgot what I was supposed to be doing, was I supposed to be putting my oars in the water or was I supposed to be taking them out?!

We finished our first session and got into the cabin while Billy and Robin took the oars. We got settled, took off our life jackets and coats, scoffed down a Mars Bar and lay down to get some rest. I went out like a light and when the tap in the door came with our 15 minute warning I felt like I had only closed my eyes 2 minutes ago. Then I realised this is what it is going to be like. Row, eat, sleep, repeat. But with all the sleeping you just feel like you are rowing the whole time.

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James in the cabin, Billy on the oars.

I had a good rest, but that was where the good times promptly ended and the rough times set in. As soon as I sat up I felt a wave of nausea come over me. Sea sickness, here we go. We had all taken sea sickness tablets before we set off and I took another one just before our second shift but after only about 5 minutes on the oars I was hurling over the side of the boat. We had eaten fish and chips before setting off and I had a lot of stuff in my stomach to bring up. I probably did 3 big purges, got my breath back and got back on to the oars.

I had tried really hard to avoid the jacket but unfortunately I got some vomit on the collar, so I would go on to smell sick throughout the whole journey. When you’re feeling like you could spew at any moment the smell of sick is really unhelpful, but the stick was there now and there was nothing I could do about it. James and Robin also started their sickness on that second shift and we continued to be sick for about 20 hours. Thankfully Billy wasn’t sick at all so he was able to remain in control.

The water was getting rougher and rougher. The wind was picking up, the waves were getting bigger and it was raining all the time. Rowing was much harder and being shorter than the others doesn’t help either. The rowing positions were set up for tall guys which meant for me the foot plate was in the wrong position and I should have been going further back with my seat, meaning I could get a longer stroke, but as it was I was having to pull my oars out of the water a lot more quickly meaning that I had quite a fast rowing speed. I also struggled with my oversized clothing and the ends of the oars would often get stuck in my life jacket or the folds of my clothes. They would catch in the water and stab me in the leg or the belly and they would twist my arms backwards. I would then have to recover my position and start the stroke again – this is known in the rowing world as ‘catching a crab’. I was lucky that James was experienced enough to adapt to my rowing and I think we worked really well together, only clashing oars a handful of times. As the size of the waves increased so did the difficulty of the rowing. I was catching crabs all the time and I would also spend a lot of time missing the water completely.

Coming to the end of our second shift it was 9pm and dark, I wasn’t wearing a watch so I had no concept of how long we had been on the oars, but when I saw the light go on in the cabin and the flashes of red and yellow as Billy and Robin got dressed, I knew there was only about 10 minutes left. Again it felt like it had gone really quickly. The problem now is that you aren’t desperate to get into the cabin, it is wet and uncomfortable and despite vomiting over the side a couple of times while on the oars, you feel less nauseous when you are rowing compared to sitting in the cabin. James and I couldn’t sit at all, lying down was the only option. Inside the cabin is uncomfortable, there is stuff everywhere and all of it is wet, the sleeping bags are wet, the walls are wet and the condensation drips off the ceiling. I didn’t remove my shoes or socks once throughout the whole journey so my feet were wet for 37 hours.

I wanted to do a little video diary as we went along, but there were a few things that made that impossible. Firstly the thought of looking at a screen made me want to throw up, looking at the GPS screen in the cabin wasn’t doing me any favours. Also the movement involved to get anything like a phone charger out of a bag was not possible without wanting to vomit, so once the phone was out of battery that was it, and my hands never dried so operating the touch screen would have been impossible anyway. Between being sick and trying not to be sick there was very little time for anything else.

Once you are lying down you think you are going to be ok, but this time I had to stick my head out of the cabin a couple of times to throw up. It was hard to reach the edge of the boat when only half your body was hanging out of the cabin so that resulted some sick floating around the deck which was really unpleasant. I knew I had to keep eating and drinking but there did come a point when I had nothing left in my stomach and I was heaving and my stomach was contracting and it was so painful as it felt like my stomach was trying to be squeezed up through my oesophagus.

The 11pm – 1am shift was a real low point for me. The wind had really picked up now and although it was helping move us along, getting up to a top speed go 9.5 knots –  an average speed of a rowing boat is around 2.5 knots – it was blowing straight in our faces bringing the rain with it. It was cloudy and pitch black so that, coupled with my oversized collar and hood, meant that just shutting my eyes made no difference to what I could see. The stronger the wind the bigger the waves and we were encountering 4-5 metre swells. It sounds scary but it wasn’t actually that bad. The boat is very buoyant and most of the time it bobs about on the top of the waves. You do occasionally get a breaker though and as the wave crashed over the boat I was lifted out of my seat and my feet were ripped out of their holds and I landed on the side of the boat. This boat is really open compared to other boats, and the level of the seat is pretty much the same level as the deck so it will be really easy to be swept off the side. We clip onto the safety line before leaving the cabin and remain attached the whole time so if you do get swept overboard you can be easily recovered. The wave was a bit of a shock because I obviously couldn’t see it coming. It was so rough at one point James and I were synchronised spewing over the side.

As I was rowing I was thinking to myself I can’t do this, I am just going to knock on the cabin tell Billy that I can’t do it and get inside, curl up and pretend I am somewhere else. I have made a mistake. I don’t want to be an ocean rower. I want to get off the boat and I never want to get on a boat ever again. Not an ocean rowing boat, a ferry or anything else to do with water. Then you realise you can’t get off the boat and if you stop rowing then someone else will have to do it and in actual fact you can do it, the real problem is you don’t want to be doing it. But you’re here now and however rough it gets you have to just carry on.

Plus, there is a man on here with Parkinson’s Disease, and if he isn’t giving up then neither am I. Robin was amazing. I honestly don’t know how he did it. As he was rowing with Billy I didn’t get too much time to talk to him, we were like ships passing in the night as we changed over for shifts, but we would have a brief chat as I would get in the cabin and he headed out. Oddly, the effects of rowing are very similar to the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Shaking – at points I was shaking uncontrollably as my body tried to warm up from the cold, it was such a sweet relief when the shaking stopped and you felt all your muscles relax. Slowed movement – as the cold crept in I felt my muscles seizing up and I knew when I was going to the end of my shift because it felt like a monumental effort just to make my legs bend. Muscle stiffness – after a couple of hours in the cabin I would feel like my whole body was a lead weight and I had moulded into the cushion. It was really tough to get your body moving again every two hours. Problems with balance – with a continuously moving boat this one is self explanatory. Disrupted sleep – you only get an hour and a half max each time and you never get a deep sleep, although I was surprised how quickly my body adapted to this, I never felt tired through lack of sleep, but I did feel tired physically of course.

Robin may have been in a better position than all of us to deal with these situations because he experiences them every day, and from our brief chats I found out that he was coping really well and the only real problem he was getting was with cramps. When James was in the depths of sea sickness and his arms went numb Robin stepped up to take over, he was the one who always filled up our water bottles and even when he was poking his head out of the cabin to vomit he was apologising to me as he spewed, he always made me laugh when he slithered into the cabin head first, even if I wasn’t able to crack a smile at the time. This meant we had to forgive him for being sick in the cabin that one time!

On an ocean rowing boat if feels like everything is out to kill you. Everything is hard and pokey. The oars in particular are dangerous and unpredictable. As well as poking me in my sides, thighs and shins all the time, I also managed to get smacked in the face by one as I tried to crawl to the front of the boat to use the ‘toilet’. I think I was lucky to avoid a broken nose.

Another low point was when I was trying to get back in the cabin and the wind caught the cabin door and it slammed onto my forehead, leaving a nice red dot and a large swelling. It was a bit of a shock and it caused a couple of tears but thankfully I was heading into the cabin to lie down and I could promptly pass out.

Talking of going to the toilet, what a chore that was! It is easy for a guy, you just dig deep into the layers from you 2 way zip on your salopettes, put your todger into a bottle and pee. As a girl you have to get completely undressed. I was able to put the bucket in the footwell of the forecabin, so I had to crawl down there, squeeze myself into the cabin, remove my life jacket, remove my coat, get my salopettes down around my ankles and pull down my trousers and knickers. Then finally I could wee in the bucket. Then of course I had to get dressed again, get the bucket out of the cabin and throw the wee over the side. This is quite a task when you aren’t feeling sick, when you are nauseous it really something. Firstly sitting upright in the cabin is difficult in itself, but together with the sickly smell of steamy, very concentrated urine wafting up towards you and watching James throw up outside it becomes a whole lot harder. The lowest point of the trip came when I had managed to have a wee and I was taking the bucket out of the cabin when I had to throw up into the bucket with the wee in. The mixture of urine, a partially digested Twix and bile was something special. Then you crawl back down the boat and start rowing again.

I managed to get into a routine where I would wee every 4 hours. Puke, wee, row, try and drink water, puke, sleep, repeat. I found weeing at he start of a shift was best because otherwise you would squash you bladder every time you moved backwards and forwards on the seat.

James was the perfect rowing partner. Like me, he wanted to be very quiet and still when he wasn’t feeling well so we worked very well together. On the shift changeover Billy would come out of the cabin first and I would get inside and as Robin was getting out I would manage to take off my lifejacket and coat, which is a dangerous experience in itself. When the boat pitches and rolls you get thrown around the cabin and I bashed my head on the sides a number of times. James would come in the cabin and lie down in one swift motion. He would have his feet in the footwell, bum down, head down, arms crossed over his chest, eyes closed and he wouldn’t move at all for two hours. He didn’t even take off his gloves so when the time came to row again he could just repeat that swift motion in reverse, launch himself out of the cabin and crawl towards the front of the boat so he could lie down again as quickly as possible.

I would lie next to him in the same position, with my arms crossed over my chest for warmth for two hours, the only difference being that I was short enough to have my legs up out of the footwell. The only time we moved was if we needed to be sick or that one time a massive wave crashed over the boat and we both sat bolt upright to check that Billy and Robin were still on board. As soon as we had eyes on them we lay back down and closed our eyes again. We checked in on each other every now and then but ultimately survived in a mutually compatible silence.

After that terrible 11pm-1am shift came the 3am-5am shift. I have been in talks with Billy about a major ocean crossing in 2020, and when he opened the cabin door at 3am and said ‘So, how are you feeling about 2020??’ I could do nothing, but if I had the strength I could have quite happily pushed him overboard!

The sea was still rough, but the rain had stopped and the moon was poking through the clouds and glinting on the water, it was such a beautiful light. To be honest, anything was going to be better than that last shift. I was actually starting to enjoy it a bit. Despite the pain down the back of my left leg, my throbbing head lump, the blister on my hand, the continued vomiting and the general muscle soreness, I thought – this is ok. I felt like I had survived the worst part and I was coming out the other side.

After that shift the daylight shifts from 7am to 5pm all seemed to roll into one in my memory, I can’t seem to separate them out, but I do remember feeling like one of them was never going to end, that two hours was a long two hours. We continued to row, vomit and lie very still and before you realise it 10 hours has passed and it is starting to get dark again. Things did start to get easier, small routines were appearing, simple things like crawling down the boat, knowing that you had to hold down the oar so you didn’t get knocked out or knowing not get the safety line caught under the seat wheels made things less of a chore.

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Food was never an option. I’m not sure what the others ate, I know that James ate one Mars bar and a banana for the duration, all of which came back up, and I ate a Mars bar and 9 single finger Twix bars, only 3 of which stayed down. I knew I was going to be sick so I figured that I may as well eat something that might taste alright when it came back up. For the last 10 hours of the row I wasn’t sick at all but continued to feel nauseous for the whole time.

When we reached the point where the arrow is in the picture below we had to stay here for about three hours just rowing to maintain our position to wait for the tide to change. I remember seeing one really massive ship heading straight towards us which was a bit worrying but we managed to avoid it and I was actually a bit surprised that we had managed to cross the busiest shipping channel in the world with only seeing one ship!

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After that things started to go a bit wrong, and my knowledge of these events is a little sketchy but I will try and explain it the best I can. We went too far west for one reason or another – miscommunication about the bearing we were following, getting our rudder tangled up in a buoy and spending a lot of time trying to get it untangled. We got dangerously close to the land near Studland and that detour meant we were now under a huge time pressure to beat the changing tide to get into the solent. When we reached the point where the arrow is in the picture below we became attached to another buoy.

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This is the point when Billy, our skipper and the person very much in control, realised that we weren’t going to beat the tide and we would have to wait it out. We were already attached to the buoy so we tied ourselves onto it, tied down the oars, battened down the hatches and prepared to wait out the next 8 hours to wait for the tides to turn in our favour.

Billy was such a great person to have in control. I felt completely safe with him and when it was over he asked me if I felt scared, and after some thought I could honestly say that I wasn’t scared and I fully believe that was because of him. I had full trust in him and the decisions he made, and he was always calm and reassuring.

While James and Billy secured the boat I set about clearing some space in the fore cabin so James and I could get in. The nausea and general weakness and dehydration made this a monumental task. Moving bags and boxes and water bottles was such an effort. The space I made was just enough for us both to be able to lie down, but it was seriously uncomfortable. We were surrounded by stuff and we didn’t have a spare centimetre of space around us. It was a small relief to get off the oars for a bit but I had such a horrible pain in my shoulder that it made the chance of sleeping pretty much impossible. I had no idea how I was going to be able to just lie there for 8 hours.

We were tied up there for about 3 hours and during that time the weather got worse and worse. I’m not sure if it was because the boat was tied up and it wasn’t so free to just bob about over the the waves, but this was probably the scariest time of the whole journey. If felt like we were in a fight against the ocean and we were losing. The waves were crashing over the boat and we were rolling about all over the place, we were being slammed into each other and into the sides of the boat. The front of the boat would lift and slam back down onto the water making incredibly loud bangs in the cabin. I was worried about the boat capsizing and getting a serous injury from all the heavy and hard stuff in the cabin with us. There was no chance of sleep in those conditions but closing our eyes was all we could do.

Around 2:30am on Tuesday morning Billy decided to call the coast guard. The weather was so horrible and not knowing exactly what we were tied to he was worried that the buoy may come loose, and if that happened we would be washed up on the rocks within 20 minutes and in a very dangerous situation indeed.

The RNLI came out to rescue us and towed us into Christchurch. They were absolutely fantastic and by 4am we were in their base wrapped in blankets with a hot cup of tea and a Ginger Nut. After checking us over and making sure we were all ok we were able to take a shower and get a few hours sleep in their team room. We cannot thank them enough for the incredible work they do and we will be making a donation as a crew to the RNLI charity

Technically it isn’t classed as a successful crossing because we got help, but I think we can definitely still say that we have crossed the English Channel. I don’t say this often but I am really proud of myself for this achievement and I am so proud of the rest of my crew. I am disappointed that we didn’t make it to Southampton, but after 37 hours at sea we still had a really long way to go and ultimately the right decision was made in the circumstances.

I have written this less than 24 hours after I finished rowing because I wanted to capture it before my memories become skewed and I start to glamourise the experience. Already I am starting to find my recollections of the row changing. That time I was rowing and Robin was puking just a few centimetres away from me and I was left with vomit rolling around the boat next to me was horrific at the time but now I look back on it with a smile and a laugh.

I have a sore head, sore feet, so many bruises, every single one of my nail beds hurts, I have a couple of blisters on my hands, I have all over muscle soreness, I feel like I have been punched in the nose, the room is rolling and when I sit on the toilet I have to hold one to something because I feel like I am going to fall off. I didn’t think I was that tired but I am exhausted and more dehydrated than I have ever been and yet I am already finding myself starting to think about the next time I row, which certainly wasn’t what I was thinking 48 hours ago…


Row The Indian Ocean 2018

You can follow the progress of the Indian Ocean Row crew on rowtheindianocean.com and track their progress when they head out into the Indian Ocean in June 2018.

The crew are rowing to support vital research into Parkinson’s disease and to raise awareness of Young Onset Parkinson’s disease. If you would like to make a donation to support them you can do so via these links: BT MYDONATE or PayPal

 

 

 

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