Rowing the Pond
An interview with Toby Thorp
Hi Toby, can you please tell us about this feat you undertook and how it came about?
The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, dubbed ‘The World’s Toughest Rowing Race,’ is a race from La Gomera, Canary Islands to Antigua, across 3,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. The race started on the 12th December 2018 but our journey began on Boxing Day in 2016. We were all at my parent’s home and after a long lunch, George – one of my cousin’s boyfriends and now husband – was talking to my brother Caspar about endurance events they had completed.
Caspar had been given a book titled The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges by Richard Hoad in his stocking and went to grab it to see what other challenges were out there. They opened the book on The Woodvale Challenge, now known as The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, and both drunkenly agreed they would love to do it.
Caspar didn’t think much more about it until two weeks later he got the application form in an email from George. Suddenly, the game was on. From there, another cousin’s husband, Justin, joined the team and then I had to join, mostly out of jealousy! After that it snowballed. There we were, a team of four, with little idea what we were getting ourselves in for and pretty much zero experience with rowing, except for the occasional trip out in a pram-dinghy.
One of our favourite quotes we heard along the way was from Ross Edgley, who just completed a swim around Great Britain, and it goes: ‘be so naïve you start, be so stubborn you finish.’ I think that is a pretty good reflection of our attitude.
Congratulations, it is an incredible accomplishment. We would love to dive in by asking about what your food set up was during the expedition?
Food was obviously key for us out there. We had to take enough food for 60 days out on the sea. We were hoping for a 40-day crossing and you have to take 50% extra food, just in case. This is a mixture of dehydrated food, wet rations and snack packs. I think 20% of our food had to be wet rations. Wet rations are your emergency food, you cannot touch them unless the race’s Safety Officers say you can (accompanied with time penalties etc) or, obviously, if you are in a situation that requires it and you cannot get in contact with the Safety Officers. These wet rations are ready made, ready to eat packs. They are not as high in calories as the dehydrated packs but you don’t need water to eat them. This is why they are only for emergencies, they already contain water, if you are struggling to make it.
Our main food source was the dehydrated packs. Basically, astronaut food. We had two different companies we used. To be honest, much of the dehydrated food was quite tasty, nothing to write home about, but for example, the spaghetti Bolognese was much better than some of the spag bol that friends have made at home! The issue is that when you have spag bol every day, for 35 days, then it doesn't taste like it did at the start.
What was your daily eating routine like?
The day would start with a warm meal. Justin would usually boil the water, using a glorified camping stove / Bunsen burner called a Jetboil. This boiling water would be put into our thermoses so people could make their own food when needed. To make it, you ripped the top off, and removed the oxygen sachet from the food packet, then filled the pouch up. Seal the bag back up and give it a good shake. Leave for 15 mins or so, until fully re-hydrated, and finally eat away.
We ate two of those pouches a day. There are 1,000 calories each and we were intending to eat four a day but realised very early on its very time consuming, given the little rest you get between shifts anyway. The rest of our calories came from our snack packs. Generally, in one of these we would have two or three chocolate bars, a bag of nuts and enough protein powder to make two or three shakes a day and maybe some haribo if you're lucky. Snack Packs were one of the highlights of each day. Protein powder was a life saver on numerous occasions; late at night or during the hottest day shifts when you could feel your lack of energy, smash a shake and you could feel the energy return in a matter of minutes.
I imagine you would all be dreaming of the food you were missing back home as you tucked into these dehydrated packs?
For sure, most of the conversation on board would be about food, especially the further into the challenge we got. Justin and I on our shifts would play 'would you rather’ with food. We played through an entire supermarket, to the extent that I now know Justin's exact pecking order of peppers: green vs red, sweet vs bell etc, etc.
We spoke about food, a lot. Last meals ideas, best dishes you're able to cook, best homemade dishes you've had made for you, best restaurants you have been to (this can then be broken down into individual cuisines, to prolong the conversation), best dish at said best restaurant. You will never appreciate the variety of food and the freshness of it until its stripped away from you. If you want a taste of heaven, drink warm water for a month straight in blaring hot sun whilst doing strenuous exercise, then have an ice-cold drink!
Was there much interaction with the beasts under the surface, or any birds above you?
Almost straight off the bat, about three or four hours in, we had a pod of Atlantic whales swim past. They are like huge dolphins. That sort of set the tone for the rest of the trip. Every few days we would be visited by a pod of dolphins; some pods were small – about ten or twenty – but some were huge, with at least 150 in the pod. One pod in particular appeared whilst Caspar and I were rowing, we had momentarily switched seats, so that Casp could use Boris, our on-board loo, a glorified bucket with a loo seat. During his business, the dolphins suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I doubt anyone has had a better ‘on-the-throne’ experience than that!
Then there were the whales. Most of the whales kept their distance, only appearing about one hundred metres from the boat. All we would see is a slither of their heads appearing, a short explosion of water from their blow-holes, followed by their torso and finally a glimpse of a tail before they returned to the depths below. Still, having never seen a whale before these sightings were always incredible. However, about four days before the adventure came to an end, we got a real treat.
In the barrel of some fairly sizeable waves coming from our stern, there appeared a huge shadow in the water. Having not seen a shark by this point, there was a certain amount of excitement that this may be the day. Sadly, there was no shark but in its place was a huge Minke whale. It came right up to the stern of the boat before gliding to the starboard side, rolling on its side, exposing one of its huge eyes while it stared directly at us.
It then rolled back to the left, banked like a fighter jet and glided under the boat to the port side and checked us out from there. From the surface you could see the enormity of the beast from above, with a dark top-side and a light silvery belly. It then dived back under and peeled off into the distances.
Not long after another appeared, then another, in total I think there were three or four of them. They would disappear off to the front of the boat and then peel back round and ride the waves from the stern back past the boat, each time taking a good look at this odd thing invading their natural habitat. Probably the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed.
That sounds simply incredible. Did you have a chance to do any fishing?
Well, the most welcome of visitors were the Dorado. One day, Justin spotted their gold and emerald blue flashes below the surface and it didn’t take long before the fishing rod was out and the line was in the water. We had been told that catching dorado was as easy as catching mackerel and whoever said that was not wrong.
Within a minute, we had one on the line, and within another ten minutes we had a Tupperware full of raw Dorado fillets, lightly tossed in soy sauce and ready for eating. A huge relief from the dehydrated food rations.
Any unusual encounters?
In the middle of the day, in the middle of the big pond and out of nowhere a butterfly appeared. A butterfly! Now, when you have been rowing non-stop for two hours, every four hours, for roughly fifteen days and a butterfly appears you start to question your sanity. Where did it come from? Was it a stowaway on the boat that just hatched? Is there a boat nearby that it came from? Is there an island that no one knows about in the mid-Atlantic, full of butterflies?
There were also the flying fish. They are everywhere. Occasionally finding themselves in the boat, where they were returned to the waters pretty swiftly. They don’t smell great, but to honest, neither did we. On the odd night, some flying fish would pay us a visit and dive straight into your side or god-forbid, your head. Not fun. Especially in the dead of night when you can’t see them coming.
You spent Christmas and New Year on the boat. Was it easy to keep a sense of time as the days passed?
We all had cheap Casio watches that stayed on GMT. We had to call our weather router each day at 6pm to get an update on weather and plot out next waypoint. However, as the time always stayed on GMT, and we were travelling across time zones, it did get a bit weird. To start with the sun would rise at 8am, let’s say, by the end it would be like 11am.
The days would merge together, it was difficult to distinguish whether something happened one or three days before, as the view around you stays the same and the routine never changes. The only way to keep track of the days were the tally charts we had in the cabin.
It must have been a rollercoaster of emotions as the elements played with your boat and your bodies were pushed to their limits. Were there moments where you had to dig deep?
The boat, for the most part was perfect. Never really felt unsafe. There were a couple of hairy moments with the auto-helm – self-steering geer. We broke one but we took three as a precaution so it wasn’t a huge issue.
Personally, my worst moments were at the beginning of the race, from day two to about day five or six, myself, Caspar and possibly Justin had the worst heartburn I have ever experienced. Every two minutes, a slow burn would appear at the bottom of your throat. This would quickly increase to where it felt like someone using a blowtorch against the bottom of your throat.
We had Gaviscon on board. This helped, it didn’t solve the issue, but helped. At one point it was so bad that when my shift ended I was in the front cabin counting Gaviscon to see how many we each had per day until the end if we were to do a forty-day crossing. The maths wasn’t pretty. Full disclosure, it was at this point I debated stashing a personal supply. I didn’t, but I debated it.
Anyway, Casp realised it had to be the food, so over the next day he played around with the dehydrated packets and finally found the solution. The packets have ‘fill lines’ on them, lines to fill the bag up to with boiling water in order to adequately rehydrate the food. Casp realised it was beneficial to over fill the packers by a fair amount. Heartburn subsided. I cannot tell you how much of a relief this was, I would have never pulled out of the race, but had we not sorted this, I would have hated every minute of it.
Heartburn is the last thing you are thinking about when preparing for something like this, your mind must have been taken up with the waves and the weather rather than some acid reflux.
The worst days were not actually the huge storm days as we luckily didn’t get a lot of that. Also, large seas meant quick conditions. No, the worst were the no-wind days, and I mean no wind, nothing. Just an air temperature of about thirty-four degrees Celsius and an endless mirror surrounding the boat. I am not great in hot weather but these days were horrendous. Beautiful, but horrendous. A two-hour rowing shift in this heat was terrible. To make it worse, after your shift, you had to climb into a tiny cabin, which has to be shut at all times for safety reasons, where you would sweat through two hours of rest and then be back on deck for some more rowing.
And the moments of bliss?
Every day had moments of bliss. We received one email each day. This was compiled by my mum, good to keep her busy each day with two sons on the boat, and would be comprised of all emails from anyone who sent us one. Some were funny, some interesting, some motivating and some emotional. The daily reading of emails, at midday, was by far the highlight of each day. An hour break where you laughed or cried and didn’t think about rowing: bliss!
Some of the sunsets and sunrises were incredible and the weather, when in our favour, gave real moments of joy. Especially, when you saw the weather roll in. Clouds would build on the horizon, then when you felt the wind on your face you knew it meant a tail wind.
One of my favourite memories was an hour and a half stint with Justin where we rowed harder than any other time. We were flying! The wind was incredibly strong but the waves hadn’t built up yet. In that moment, rowing was unbelievably good fun.
How about that first sight of land?
Obviously, the first sight of land was awesome. When we arrived in the English Harbour in Antigua all the super yachts let off their horns, which vibrated your soul they were so loud. Then when you got past the yachts and saw your family and friends. That is an unbelievable feeling and I still can’t describe the emotion of it all.
How did your bodies respond to the relentless rowing?
We all commented during the row how incredible the human body is. It adapts so quickly. Row for a few days, your hands turn to leather. After another few days, your muscles get used to the fitness, obviously we were fit before but we could not train precisely for the event. After a few more days, you are effectively fully match fit.
Your brain can just pull you through pretty much any tough situation if you don’t let it give in to the little voice telling you to stop. Then after the row, when all is said and done, it quite quickly returns to normal.
What was the first thing you ate or drank after finishing the race?
We had a burger when we got in, honestly not the best burger I have ever had, but it tasted miles better than the food we had on board. Soon after we had finished the winning team, The Dutch Atlantic Four, brought us an ice-cold beer each. That was delicious.
It is one hell of an achievement and all for charity. You four raised an amazing amount of money - £835,000 - for Starlight. Can you tell us about them?
Starlight is a wish-granting and distraction therapy charity for seriously and terminally ill children. The work they do for these children is nothing short of amazing. My dad and Justin had done the marathon for them back in 2012, both saying that the charity acts as a great motivator, whatever the weather or how difficult you are finding it, you only have to think of who you are helping and your mind focuses.
Well for us, this was going to be key. There is the expression: when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Well for me at least, this became, ‘when the going gets tough, think about the children you are helping.’ It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself, whatever your situation, after this.
Thank you, Toby.
Toby Thorp and the rest of the team of Oar Inspiring completed the 3,000-mile challenge in only 35 days finishing second in the 2018 race and entering the Guinness World Records as the fastest family team of four to row the Atlantic.
They raised an incredible £835,000 for Starlight. For more information on Starlight, please visit https://www.starlight.org.uk/.
Header photo by Ben Duffy, the rest by Oar Inspiring