Easter saw the team all congregate in one location for our pivotal training week, which made for a great change to see each other in person as opposed to the weekly video calls! Jon and Ed flew in from Sydney, while Ewan and James made the slightly less lengthy journey from London to Essex. The boat was being stored at ocean rowing boat builders Rannoch, in Burnham on Crouch, a few minutes’ drive from the river Crouch.
With the jet lag still strong, the team set about with the first mission of the week: cleaning the boat. It has been stored outside for nearly a year, and so needed a good Spring clean. It was also a good opportunity for Ed and Jon to get acquainted with the boat, as they had not yet seen what they would be living in for over a month in December. Safe to say the first remarks were around it being smaller than it appears in the pictures! The clean up operation lasted most of the afternoon, and with the last of the sun we managed to launch the boat (fairly smoothly, even if we do say so ourselves!) into the water, expertly guided by Angus from Rannoch. A successful first day of cleaning clearly warranted a trip to the local curry house, ahead of our first day out on the water.
Day two saw us head out down the river Crouch with Angus on board providing instructions – it was invaluable to have advice from an expert who not only helps build and design the boats, but who has also completed 2 ocean rowing crossings. Angus spent time explaining how to firstly row the boat (quite critical, as most of us had never rowed before), steer using the manual lines and auto-tillers, anchors, man overboard drills, as well as the basic functionality of the navigation and radio equipment on board. We spent the day taking it in turns to row down the scenic river, before rowing back up to our berth at the marina before nightfall.
The next few days really ramped up the hours on the boat and the blisters. We spent the next few days firstly rowing up and down the River Crouch, and clocked up our hours rowing at night. The night time rows were freezing cold and a stark change to the unseasonable heat of the day, requiring thermals, gloves, hats and generally as many layers as possible! The first time we stayed overnight on the boat was fairly uncomfortable – the cabins are still without any padding, which meant we were trying to sleep on the hard inner shell. This, coupled with the fact that the outside temperature was arctic, some of the crew were jet lagged, some were snorers and some decided to close the cabin doors without opening the air vents, slowly suffocating themselves before they thought to open the valve…meant not much sleep was had! At least we know that when we do the row in December it should be slightly more comfortable and warm!
We eventually built up the courage to head out into the great North Sea. Setting off before dawn, we rowed out with the tide in shifts of two hours on, two hours off, reaching as far as an offshore wind farm. We got a feel for how the boat reacted with different wind and wave directions and currents, different rowing speeds and we got used to each other’s rowing styles. The shift patterns are tiring, but it can also be tiring doing simple things like using the stove to heat up water, to soak our freeze dried food so that we can devour the 1,000 calorie meals, and then pack or tidy everything away again. 2 hours can feel like a long time when you’re on the oars, but then suddenly not very long at all when you’re trying to rest/cook/clean/navigate.
After a few days of relentless rowing, it was a welcome relief to spend a few hours on shore doing some media promotion, organised by our partners WeWill. They had organised for a film crew to come down to document us and interview each of the team about the challenge. Safe to say that we weren’t naturals in front of the camera, but it was a great experience and we think the team got some great content of us to use.
The film crew also followed us out for the first few hours of our biggest test of the week: our first North Sea passage. This required some passage planning, some favourable weather conditions, plenty of freeze dried food and of course another start at an unholy time. Making sure to log our passage with the coastguard, we made it out of the river mouth before the sun was up and made steady progress out Eastwards into the North Sea, before eventually heading North up the coast. We tried different combinations of rowing partners, tried a few more man overboard drills and then generally settled into life out at sea. We even got to try out wet weather gear out, with a slight amount of drizzle, but overall we were extremely lucky with the weather all week.
After rowing throughout most of the day we approached one of Europe’s busiest ports in Felixstowe. Thankfully for us, there wasn’t a lot of activity from the cargo ships and we rowed through unscathed. The wind had picked up significantly and we came flying into Felixstowe marina, executing a thoroughly well thought out/completely fluked 180 degree hand break turn into a mooring. We even somehow managed to get the rowing boat up the slipway and onto the trailer with only a few close shaves – ultimately the boat was out of the water without putting a hole in or someone losing a finger, so a strong performance by all!
Our final few hours as a team were spent going through the long list of work to be done, items to be bought and continuing to discuss ways to get sponsors. It was our last time all together as a team – the next time we all meet will be at the start line! A huge amount of training, preparation and fundraising still left to go, which will all be coordinated in our separate hemispheres.
Overall, it was a successful week and a great taste of things to come. At some stage though, we are going to have to conquer the on-board bucket toilet!