Read about an amazing experience a Gigrower had rowing across the Atlantic Ocean

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Sian Davies  from Torridge Pilot Gig Club had an amazing opportunity to row the Atlantic ocean with Rannoch Adventure and jumped at the chance. Sian has written this piece on her experiences before and during the row! Well done Sian we thinks its an amazing achievement!

The madness started early in 2017. I’d been active all my life and paid the price with a badly herniated disc, I’d lost the use of my right leg and was bedbound for months in pain.

I knew I needed something positive to aim for and motivate myself. So I stared reading books by mainly female ocean rowers . Sarah Outen and Roz Savage , two particular heroines.

After successful surgery I retrained my leg to walk and returned to the fabulous world of gig (and slidey, sorry guys !) rowing. But the ocean row dream built.

On my first day of permitted driving post surgery, I headed over to Essex to an ocean rowing open day at Rannoch Adventure. There I met Olympic medallist Guin Batten and Lesley Foden , around GB rower at her home . Both were very encouraging and supportive. The dream was building .

I spent my time researching the ‘how to’ ; ocean rowing takes a huge amount of planning and funding. I met the marvellous Leven Brown in Scotland and spoke at length with Rannoch boat builders , Atlantic Campaigns who run the Talisker Whisky Atlantic race, and many others . I sought potential crew members from the gig and other rowing communities . Nothing was gelling, but the dream persisted.

Alongside this, I’ve been a carer for an elderly parent in poor health for many years . Dare I take the time out to row ? 

In Spring 2020 , my hopes were answered ; a call out for crew selection for a new 12 person boat , Roxy (Rx80 ) and her inaugural Atlantic ocean crossing with Rannoch Adventure. I applied, was interviewed, and was successful.

Game on !

There followed a period of training with Rannoch -lots of trips to Essex . The expedition was due to leave early March but Covid restrictions meant a rollercoaster of on off,  on off,  on off and then , with special authorisation due to our research element, it was on and a mad dash to find a way of getting to Tenerife , and quickly . Flights weren’t permitted, so van, car , minibus , overnight ferry. , spanish flight and we arrived. Knackered but excited !

A week of final prep and repacking the boat followed and on March 22nd, three weeks after schedule, we were off .

There followed the most physically, mentally and emotionally challenging time of my life .

Roxy very quickly became home. The crew, very quickly family ; 6 in each cabin the size of a double bed with all your gear and foul weather gear. It was intimate . 

We chose a 3 hour shift rotation pattern , which meant a 3 hour row day and night, and 3 hours off which meant eating , doing boat and personal tasks, and about an hour’s sleep . A relentless pattern , but the body adjusts.

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Row, eat, chores, and a little sleep .

A few of us were seasick, my bout lasted two weeks. Good for weight loss ! So it was row, collapse, row .

Within the first few days we saw dolphins who played alongside and a pod of pilot whales , one of whom paused, head out of water to eyeball us . Very special . And a few small turtles paddle their way past.

And then nothing . Nothing but blue sea . For 5 weeks. nothing,well, pretty much . We saw maybe three ships on the distant horizon and a yacht who approached us cautiously as the skipper couldn’t identify us and thought we were pirates or dead !

A lone seabird might check us out of an evening and fly off dissatisfied that this strange creature had nothing to offer .

The weeks blended into a surreal 3 hour rotation reality , with just ourselves for entertainment , oh , and the flying fish , one of which found the tiniest of gaps inside my collar and landed in my bra at night seeking refuge from an unknown predator . Sadly , it died before I could rescue it . Henceforth , my delighted and delightful crew mates named me ‘Fishytits’. Some flying fish found their way into the cabin and in our sleeping bags and clothing -they smell and that’s how you knew to track them , and many small ones floundered on the deck at night without us knowing , only to be found in light of day .

We experience rough seas, but not the wind and current that are normal to assist the passage East to West . It was simply a hard earned slog all the way pulling a 3 ton weight with our expected 30 day crossing taking 42 due to the lack of wind and current .

What this did highlight though , is that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is ,its believed, weakening year on year due to increased Arctic ice melt , which is thought to be behind the changing weather we and other crews have experienced in recent years. This is a real worry as it means we can expect more severe storms and floods . (https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/environment/2021/feb/25/atlantic-ocean-circulation-at-weakest-in-a-millennium-say-scientists

After nearly 6 weeks , I woke to the sound of chirping and saw a small flock of seabirds circling by us . A beautiful iridescent Dorado or Mahi Mahi was swimming with the occasional gentle flick of its tail off our bow, flushing out the flying fish which the birds were chasing . This was a sign we were nearing land. 

All of us were excited anticipating smelling and then seeing Antigua in the distance. What we saw first , surprised us ; light pollution at night ! Another sign of man’s impact on our planet . 

After 42 days we were met with a flotilla of vessels to escort us past the finish buoy and into harbour .

What a moment that was !

The first steps on land were tentative, and yes, you do walk like you’re drunk ! 

Everyone’s experience of an ocean crossing will be different . Being such a large crew; 12 of us on a 39 foot boat , our challenges may  have been similar or intensified to those of the more usual 1-4 member crew.  Space was minimal managing yourself was critical What’s paramount in any crew, is that you all get on. The dynamics were fascinating, as if we all tacitly knew how much we had to support -and tolerate each other ! For a good while. The politeness in addressing each other was remarkable ‘would you mind passing the, when you have a second, no hurry ‘ , was the style until fatigue and familiarity gave way to more direct language nearer the end. Fascinating stuff if you enjoy observing human behaviour. 

 What was interesting too is the personal motivation behind each member signing up . Some wanted to change their lives in some way, some wanted time out from circumstances. For my own part , I simply wanted to achieve something to be proud to look back on as I age .

Rowing an ocean is so much more than a physical challenge . From my own perspective, I knew I was resilient but being ill for so long to at the start took me to dark places mentally and emotionally as I kept up the brutal routine, determined not to let myself or crew down . Row collapse, row collapse, row collapse . I found reserves I didn’t know I had and called on coping strategies such as yogic breathing and visualisation to cope; a kind of dissociation from the reality . As if the things I’d learned over the years all came together to help . 

Tough it was, but I’m so pleased I’ve done it . I’m still processing the experience and have been asked how if at all , it’s changed me. I’m still working that out , but I do feel stronger mentally and certainly even more appreciative of where I live and those in my life.

Ocean rowing isn’t for everyone, but as challenges go , it’s a biggy, the duration alone means you just have to get on and  deal with whatever comes up day after day; there’s no get me out of here card ! 

Having said that , it’s becoming more accessible financially and practically and shorter challenges are possible, so if your interest is piqued , I or any other ocean rower  would be happy to speak with you. 

On a personal note , from records, three women of age 60 and over , including me, have rowed the Atlantic. Five have rowed an ocean worldwide. Gig rowing is unique among sports in that it has a 50/50 gender split in take up with a good representation of us over 60, including women . It would be great to see more take on an ocean !

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