12 row an ocean
The question on everyone’s mind and lips, that first meeting in September 2021 in the Yacht Club in Burnham was “Why”.
Of course there were the usual pleasantries – where are you from, what family have you got, what do you do for a living. But the real question we wanted to ask beyond the polite conversation was why are you doing this.? Each of us had already explained to Charlie and Nicola as part of our interview and acceptance to this adventure.
This time was different. Sharing the why with your crewmates felt different, even more important.
Over the 40 or so days on the Atlantic we will have to remind each other of our why’s as we battle across an unforgiving ocean. We have all explained this to our families and friends and in most instances they don’t get it. However this group does. We get it, even if we don’t understand it.
Our first meeting was at the launch event for the training week, with some of the Talisker crews (or TWACS). Charlie and Ian spoke, proudly and excitedly congratulating us for getting to this stage. The atmosphere felt a bit like being at some kind of speed dating event. Everyone seemed to be talking really quickly and there was an excited nervousness at the start, which gave way (over a couple of beers) to good conversation and sharing of stories of other feats or adventures had.
The Roxy crew drank and ate together, tentative conversations at first, giving way to belly laughs on subjects, I am sure the editor will remove. Toasts to the adventure and importantly the week of rigorous training ahead were shared. We are a varied bunch, which is the way to have it. Each, bringing a different perspective, skill, experience to the whole thing. However, we all have a common goal, to row across the Atlantic and over a beer in Antigua answer the question “That’s Why”.
Formin, Stormin, Normin
A psychologist called Tuckman, back in the 60’s, developed a theory on how the dynamics of a group of individuals move through different stages to become a team. Thus was born the Forming, Storming, Norming theory of team development. The Roxy crew are definitely into the forming phase, a phase where we are each assessing the other, forming bonds, getting a sense of strengths and weaknesses. This may seem rather cold and calculating but it is one of our evolutionary traits that provided us with an edge i.e. the ability to form groups to overcome a particular problem.
The first briefing by the Rannoch team (to us and TWAC people also), was a detailed walkthrough of the major things needed to get relative novices from one side of the Atlantic, safely and hopefully with smiles for most of it. For all of at the briefing it was great to hear and truly sense the experience of the Rannoch crew. Scenario, question, what if, what about were thrown at the team, who either had been through it before or gave a view on how it could be solved.
This was also our first formal introduction to our skipper and no.2
Lizzie, our skipper for the trip, personifies a steely calmness. No drama, straightforward and as an RNLI volunteer for many years, obsessed with safety.
Our no.2 is Chris, a man who I would swear has sea water in his veins and the knowledge of many years floating on it in various vessels.
The gentle introduction row (upstream on the River Crouch), felt somewhat like the description from an English or American novel set by a river during the high heat of the summer, it was all shimmery heat and gentle lapping of water off hull as we all got the chance to feel the pull of water on oar, through as yet uncalloused hands.
Our second and longer row, was out to the cardinal, beyond the mouth of the river Crouch, just as the river becomes sea. It was also our first introduction to the shift system, something that will become our tick and tock as we cross the Atlantic.
However we still had our 48 hour row to do and that was almost upon us. Some food, drink and stories to share before we would take on that challenge. Every day is a school day and the next, felt like our first real test.
Steelman forward, Jellyman backward
It can be interesting to watch an idea germinate, wax, then wane and suddenly get voiced as a way of making simple a new and complex idea. Charlie Pitcher, who started and runs Rannoch, was explaining to us how to successfully row this 3 tonne boat, across the Atlantic with maximum effect.
“Think of it as a giant pendulum”. Makes sense.
“Imagine the momentum in the 3 tonnes of boat being propelled forward”. We imagined.
As Charlie then explained and showed us how to row to get this affect, the idea had come to life.
“Steelman forward”, he shouted as he punched forward.
“Jellyman backward”, making a scuttling motion with his hands and fingers.
It made sense and for many it will stick as an image we will take across the Atlantic. However we did have the prospect of our 48hr row first, in our proper 3 hour shift pattern, out into the North Sea.
There was certainly some nervousness as we stood on the pontoon loading Roxy for the trip. People dealing with it in different ways, laughing through it, quiet, talkative, contemplative, telling jokes. All the different mechanisms to help you prepare, laid bare. Rituals can be a powerful way to help deal with impending stressful situations. Yuri Gagarin famously stopped the bus taking him to his rocket to take a piss, undoing all the meticulously buttoned flight suit, on the wheel of a bus. This has become a ritual for most space pilots since then (regardless of country). I think now, a couple of months out, what rituals we will all or individually perform to help us deal with that defining moment of setting foot on Roxy that last time before getting off again in Antigua.
The trip itself was relatively uneventful, but was a brilliant learning experience for the whole crew. The objectives of getting a good understanding for the mechanics, rhythms, physical and mental requirements for our trip were I think met by all. The realities of how difficult the challenge will be dawned and I am sure slopped and slewed inside us all. Importantly the bonds we had begun to forge, strengthened again. Shared experiences, such as rowing past the famous Radio Caroline boat (made even more famous by the move “The Boat that Rocks”). Our boat was sharing stories we’d heard or imagined of orgies, drugs and rock and roll on the water. Whether it was chat about “THE BUCKET” or listening to the lilting tones of Andy as he sang some songs from home, or remembering top 10 movies from the eighties, we each found ways to get through the hours. But more then that, we found things to enjoy and take from the journey, things to remember for when we are digging deep mid Atlantic.
The morning after we got back, we had our final debrief. Things we need to consider over the next couple of months, suggestions for the boat, other forms to be filled all came up. As we all bade each other safe journey home, that mix of excitement, nerves and realisation that the next time we will set eyes on each other will be in the Canaries when we get to put into practise all we have learned over the last week.