In December we went out to La Gomera to watch the start of the 2017 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge and I think for all of us it was the highlight of our journey so far, and not just because of the winter sun and pre-christmas tans! Spending 6 days meeting the race organisers and getting to know this year’s teams, see their boats and pick up as many tips and tricks as we could mentally absorb was invaluable. We got to know the little town of San Sebastian and the best places to eat (and drink!) which will give us a head start when we next visit – for the start of our race! Just hearing about team’s campaigns and their experiences of getting to the start line was eye-opening, I think it made us realise that actually, although we had been concerned that we might be lagging behind other teams in terms of our campaign and sponsorship, that really we weren’t. I think one of our biggest takeaway lessons is the fact that social media is a great mask for reality. Not rocket science, but I guess we were quite naïve to the whole ocean rowing scene, and we quickly discovered that teams who we’d been following on social media, and thinking wow, these guys are doing great and have an amazing campaign and incredible support, actually had really struggled in their journey to the start line.
We unfortunately didn’t get to see the race start. Despite having great weather in the days leading up to the start date, on the day it was too windy and the race organisers deemed it unsafe to start, and so began the wait, in the end they were only delayed by two days, and ironically ended up starting on the day we left. Annoyingly our ferry was at 7am and the race started at 11. But the fact that we were there and had met so many of the teams makes it all the more exciting as we watch this year’s race unfold. This year has seen unprecedented weather conditions and the teams at the front of the pack are expected to finish this week, breaking not just race records but world records and not just by hours, but by days. In terms of speed the winds have been kind to teams, but in terms of experience I think it’s safe to say that they’ve led to sea conditions that have been anything but. There were two retirements in the first few days of the race and since then a series of events have taken place which we have followed with baited breath. I’m not sure that the scale and seriousness of the challenge had really sunk in until we began to hear the stories filtering through from teams- needless to say I will be taking all safety training much more seriously from now on! For me, the standout event of this year’s race was the rescue of Team O2, a pair from Egypt. Their boat capsized but failed to self-right. Their EPIRB (emergency positioning radio locator beacon) was activated and the race organisers were unable to make contact with the team, suggesting that something serious had happened. A May Day call was put out and a commercial vessel diverted to the area, after 12 hours the pair were located, safe and well, or as well as you can be after floating around in your life raft all day. The wait for news, even for us following as relative outsiders, was awful, I can only imagine how the team’s friends and families must have been feeling.
Onto brighter and less scary things, the front pack. The Four Oarsmen are leading the way and due to finish in the early hours of Saturday morning! This will not only be a race record, but a world record too – the current record is 35 days and at this rate they will be home in 29 – unbelievable! They are currently 46nm ahead of Team Antigua in second place, the battle has been on between these two since day one and for a long time Antigua were out in front, but the Antiguans have been having to work shifts of 3 hours on and one off due to power issues on board the boat and it looks like the fatigue is catching up with them – can you even imagine?! Swiss Mocean are coming up in third place, they took a more southerly route which has paid off and are now hot on the heels, or should I say stern, of Antigua, looking at the estimated finish dates there is currently only three hours between the two! I’m not sure there is such thing as a photo finish in the world of ocean rowing, but I feel that this is as close to one as we’re going to get! And then we have the guy in forth place yes you read that right, guy in the singular – Mark Slats is a solo rower and he is keeping pace with the front pack, a serious display of super human effort! Not forgetting the women who are also on track to smash records – Kung Fu Cha Cha a crew of four are currently in seventh position and, weather permitting, are due to finish on the 17th January – breaking the race record by 4 whole days! Following up the Cha Chas are the Rowegians, four women from Norway who will also beat the current record – although with the Cha Chas in front they won’t become the record holders, but this won’t matter too much, just by finishing the race they will get the world record for the first female Norwegian crew to row the Atlantic. All these records being broken are not helping our own attempt at the record next year, but we’ll worry about that in 11 months time, right now we just want to congratulate the 2017 teams and their amazing efforts – this year has really shown how tough the Atlantic is, but the teams have all put in incredible displays of strength and endurance to show us how it is done!