Weymouth Training Weekend

Heads Together and Row are back from another training weekend and feeling more confident than ever about our preparations for the race.

This weekend we were rowing off Weymouth and weather conditions deteriorated, not for the first time this year, with higher winds and sea state than forecast.

Overnight we battled hard, while learning a thing or two about the debilitating nature of seasickness! We kept a good watch on our position and progress and by the early hours of the morning, we calculated that the conditions had made it impossible to row back into Weymouth Harbour. So we switched to our second contingency plan to row with the wind along the coast to the East and in to Poole.

Unfortunately, the wind kept blowing us towards the coast and after a few more hours of tracking our path and recalculating our route, on Sunday morning we called the coastguard for advice. We admitted defeat to the elements and graciously accepted a tow back to Weymouth rather than risk continuing in worsening conditions. 

A huge thanks to Her Majesty’s Coastguard (HMCG), Solent (part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency), and to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), Weymouth, who were completely brilliant. While every effort goes in to avoiding it, calling the coastguard for assistance is always part of our contingency plan. We, alongside other ocean rowing crews and everyone who ventures out in UK waters, are incredibly lucky to be able to call on the vital emergency service provided by HM Coastguard and the RNLI – the charity that saves lives at sea.

It was good to see many aspects of our two years of training paying off. We had a good passage plan and contingency options: our decision-making processes were strong and we had all the right kit for our journey. All in all a really positive experience which was not without learning but also highlighted our developing teamwork, resilience and adaptability. It was really good to see how much our confidence in rough seas had developed. We will be stronger and more confident competitors for it.


Did you know that the RNLI philosophy remains the same as it was in 1824: ‘to provide our lifesaving service using volunteers wherever possible, with voluntary donation supplying the funds needed to do so’? In 2017 alone 558 lives were saved, over 24,000 people were aided by RNLI lifeguards and there were 8,436 lifeboat launches. You can support them here.


Got to love a British summer

You may have gathered by now that when it comes to our sea training we normally have shocking luck with the weather.

We had high hopes, however, for our June outing. Taking place just a few days before Midsummer’s Day, on the Solent, we were looking forward to some calm seas and blue skies.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Leaving Hamble Yacht Club, the plan was to work with the tides and row across the top of the Isle of Wight.

The wind however, had other ideas. Immediately we turned in to The Solent we were hit with a Force 6. Ocean rowing boats have many great qualities, but being able to make any progress in to the wind isn’t one of them.

On the Atlantic, the solution is simple: you put out the para anchor, drift a few miles, get some rest and restart when the conditions are more favourable. In The Solent, drifting isn’t really an option, so we battled the wind for a few hours before deciding not to fight nature any more and go with the elements towards Portsmouth. Mooring up overnight, we hoped for better weather the next day.

Sadly, we were to be disappointed once more. The wind was again a Force 6 and we spent eleven hours rowing in pretty much the same spot. There’s a brief video of the weather here – https://www.facebook.com/HeadsTogetherandRow/videos/2061923480713445/

In many ways this doesn’t matter: it’s all training hours after all, but it is a little frustrating.

Fast forward three weeks, and the country is by now in the grip of a heatwave and drought. Once again we’re with the boat, but this time we’re on dry land at Henley Regatta, courtesy of our headline sponsor Henley Business School.

We had a fantastic few days and made some good contacts, but I pretty much guarantee that had we so much as raised an oar in anger, the heavens would have opened, cloudless sky or not.

In fact, if anyone wants to know when the drought will end, just ask us when our next training session is.

Row like you’ve never rowed before (or ever will again)

Before we’re allowed to leave La Gomera, race organisers Atlantic Campaigns quite rightly insist that we do all sorts of courses so that we’re as safe as we can possibly be out on the ocean. These include Sea Survival, First Aid, VHF Radio and Navigation.

Navigation is interesting as it’s one of those skills which we’ll use a good deal more when we’re training than during the actual race. Rowing off the coast of the UK, it’s clearly vital to know the location of hazards, the depth of water at high tide and how far we are from rocks. At certain points, being ½ mile out in our calculations could make the difference between clear water and an uncomfortable landing.

Once we’re out of La Gomera, however, and until we get close to Antigua, being 10 miles off course will make very little difference to anyone.

Which is why our rowing training tends to be much more technical and navigational than the actual race will ever be – you don’t get many cliff faces looming out of the gloom at you 1000 miles of the west coast of Africa.

Talking of training … we had our second weekend of 2018 out on the boat at Easter and the weather was unnecessarily spiteful: bitterly cold, biting winds and driving rain accompanied us pretty much from start to finish. As a result, we spent a good deal of time learning how to move about and handle the boat in trying conditions rather than laying down a massive mileage.

It’s all part of the process of course but we hope that we won’t be needing quite so much warm kit for the race itself as we did off Mersea Island in April. Although we are proud to have maintained our record of bringing rain to every training session we’ve ever done.

A Different Class

It’s the time of year when not many important things happen. Or rather, lots of important things happen, but none of them are terribly newsworthy.

We’ve spent the last few weeks painting the boat, replacing kit as necessary and making her ready for our first weekend outing of 2018 over Easter, by which point we very much hope we won’t have to break the ice with our oars.

All that, however, pales in to insignificance when compared with the fact that the 2017/18 race was completed in record time, with the last boat arriving in 70 days. It’s an astonishing feat, and one that had a lot to do with some tremendous rowing and strong winds, but also the fact that there are two different classes of boat, one of which is considerably faster than the other in the right hands.

In their basic design, the classes, Pure and Concept, look very similar. A fours version of both will be about 26′ x 7′ and have the same basic shape and layout, with much of the storage under the decks and a cabin at either end for down time when not on rowing duty.

The main difference, however, and the one which makes a Concept boat so much faster, is that the larger of the two cabins is at the bow end of the boat. This gives them a huge advantage when it comes to windage and therefore in theory makes them a good deal quicker.

I say in theory, because rowing a Concept isn’t all sunshine and skylarks.

Concepts have a lower freeboard. This means that in following seas (i.e. most of the time) you’ll get wetter as there is less protection from either the freeboard or the stern cabin. They are also generally less stable.

Getting in and out of the bow cabin – never fun at the best of times – is even less joyful on a Concept. With the smaller stern cabin, you’re immediately exposed to more of what the Atlantic has to offer and there’s less chance to admire your surroundings.

And our boat? It’s a Pure. This should give us a slower but more stable crossing. Time will tell!

Welcome on board Henley Business School!

We’ve had some good news this month – we have a headline sponsor!

Henley Business School have signed up to work with us on a research project focusing on developing individual and team resilience over time. The project will consider both physical and psychological health as well as nutrition. Henley researchers will be following our training, tracking performance and resilience markers and documenting performance during the race itself.

Alongside the money, which is critical as we get towards the sharp end of the project, the partnership with Henley fits beautifully with our desire to raise money for mental health charities and awareness of mental health issues. We couldn’t pass up th
e opportunity to be part of a research project to better understand the effects of rowing an ocean on our psychological and physical health.

From Henley’s perspective, this research offers the opportunity to investigate resilience in a different setting. Resilience is a key characteristic of high-preforming leaders and teams in the workplace and by working with us throughout our preparations and during the race, they hope to gain a better understanding of a resilience model where cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, metabolic, cognitive and emotional health are clearly linked in their contribution to sustained high performance.

While there’s still plenty of fundraising to be done, the partnership with Henley takes us one step closer to the start line.

Elsewhere, meanwhile, records have been tumbling during the current race. Thanks to a combination of strong winds and some phenomenal rowing, the Four Oarsmen obliterated the World Record for a fours crew, becoming the first people to row the Atlantic in under 30 days, while an extraordinary effort from solo rower Mark Slats saw him cross the finish line in under 31 days.

While both these boats are of different design to ours, being much more efficient in the wind (of which more in the next blog) to row that hard for that long is frankly awe inspiring.

Meanwhile, 19 year old Oliver Crane became the youngest to row the ocean solo, another brilliant achievement. I’m not sure what I was doing at 19, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking of rowing an ocean. Just extraordinary!

Back and forth we go

A rowing machine in full flow doesn’t make an attractive noise.

This may be why my partner Jane limited me to 30 minutes on it on Christmas Day.

In theory of course I should have been out on the Atlantic and not going back and forth in the living room watching repeats of The Bill. Circumstances, however, dictated that rather than being several hundred miles off the coast of Africa, and giving Jane the peaceful Christmas she was rather looking forward to, I ground out another few kilometres, literally closer to space than the sea, while DCI Meadows nabbed another wrong ‘un.

It’s been a funny old week. Dot watching on the website tracker as the small flotilla of rowing boats crawls across the Atlantic has been hard, while seeing crews post pictures of themselves in Santa hats makes me wish more than ever that I was out on the ocean.

But there’s work to be done. Toby reckons there’s 11 days of labour to be carried out on the boat before she’s finally ready for the journey and we need to get our training hours in and perfect our routines for eight weeks at sea.

Plus there’s still the small matter of paying for it all.

So on I go: back and forth and back and forth. Dreaming of December 2018, hatching ideas to make money, planning ways to get us and the boat to the start line, and hoping that next year Jane will get the festive season she deserves.

Envious eyes to the south

At time of writing, it’s just 12 days until the start of this year’s race, and we’ve been casting envious eyes at the activities of the 2017 competitors as they and their boats arrive in La Gomera for the final preparations.

Ali, Jez and Toby, lucky things, are all going out for the start, on a ‘fact finding mission’ but some of us have to work, so, whatever.

As winter arrives, it does require a certain leap of faith to believe that in 377 days time we’ll be on the start line ourselves. We had a big planning meeting in London last weekend and, as I left home in the half light at 7am, it was – 2 and snowing. During the drive down, Gomera in December 2018 felt a very long way away indeed.

But then this is what it’s all about: you put in the hard yards now and you’re rewarded as the date gets closer. As it turns out we had a very productive time and it was, as always, great to be with the team working towards such a mammoth goal. I came away with a spring in my step.

They’d better bring me back something nice from The Canaries …

It’s all in the action

With the boat safely tucked away in London for the winter we’re starting to look at other pieces of kit and how best to deploy them.

One of the most important items is a throw line. It’s not much to look at, 15-25 metres of weighted 8mm rope in a bag. In an ideal world it would sit quietly in the boat for the whole crossing and never be needed.

Should one of us have the misfortune to go overboard, however, the throw line might just save our lives. A good and accurate throw will enable the person overboard to grab on and be dragged back to the safety of the boat.

It’s something we’ve been practising a good deal on dry land and will do a lot more of once we take the boat back out on the water in the spring. We need to get the rope high enough to miss the waves, low enough to not be caught too much by the wind and upwind enough to drift in to the overboard rower.

There’s clearly a lot of fun to be had while trying to ‘rescue’ a rower lying on some tarmac about 20 metres from you, but there is a serious point to all this. As Skipper Toby says. “You might only have one chance to get it right.”

Brian, you have a lot to answer for

One of the features of our rowing training (and indeed almost all of our outside events) has been that the weather has been consistently poor.

Last Saturday, however, it surpassed itself by bringing Storm Brian to our base in Christchurch. While big waves and winds might well be a feature of the crossing, on the Atlantic you’ll generally have plenty of room for manoeuvre. In Christchurch Harbour and Southampton Water there are a number of expensive boats and sharp rocks in the immediate vicinity, and given that an ocean rowing boat is not the most nimble of craft, we thought it best to stay on dry land.

So instead we went to a cafe and continued our extensive planning for 2018. At the time of writing our adventure is only 414 days away, and while we’re in a good place, there is still a huge amount to be done in terms of kit, boat prep and rowing training.

The boat is now in London, where we can spend the winter making it pretty much race ready, before taking it back out on to the water in the spring.