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Rowing the Atlantic Ocean

"What was that?!" I cried out, as the boat suddenly stopped shuddering and something white and fleshy emerged with an almighty splash from the underside of the hull. It was the middle of the night and I was partway through one of my usual two-hour rowing shifts on the Atlantic Ocean as my teammate and I pondered the options: too big for a dolphin, too small for a whale, it could only be... "a shark!". Excitement over, we settled back into our rhythm and I lost myself again in the surrounding blackness, broken by the thousands of twinkling stars above us and the phosphorescence dancing off the tips of our blades as they hit the water. I always enjoyed the night shifts best - with only the horizon around us it felt like you were floating in space and I loved spotting the different constellations and planets. Ironically more people have been to space (or climbed Everest) than rowed an Ocean and the privilege of being out in such a unique and remote environment was always on my mind.

But how did an accountant from London end up bumping into a shark? Just a few months earlier I'd been analysing business plans on excel spreadsheets in an office and here I was rowing 3000 miles across an ocean in a 28ft long rowing boat with three other women as part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. We had come together as four friends to undertake the challenge, inspired by other friends we knew who had rowed an ocean; Becky and I had met a year earlier on an expedition climbing the highest mountain in Iraq, Sarah I knew through sailing friends in Poole, and Charlie and Sarah had met a few years before working in Oman. We all had different skills to bring to the table, from seamanship to rowing technique, raising corporate sponsorship, and choosing filters on social media!

Previous teams had told us that getting to the start line in La Gomera was the hardest part - they weren't kidding. It had been the culmination of a two and a half year campaign of endless emails and phone calls trying to get sponsors, visiting kit suppliers, convincing insurers we wouldn't sink the boat (!), doing our sea survival, first aid and RYA courses, calculating calories and making food packages, organising a fundraising black tie ball, and arranging charter of the boat itself. These tasks were all difficult and time consuming in-between our regular jobs. Not to mention the months of cardio and muscle training and weight gaining to get ourselves in peak physical condition, helped by our dedicated strength and conditioning coach Andy Bruce. So many times people told us we wouldn't make it and doubted our abilities, but we kept on persevering.

Our home on the Ocean was "Ellida" - a 29ft long, 4ft wide R45 ocean rowing boat made by Rannoch. She has two small cabins on either end, three rowing positions, and held all our equipment that we would potentially need for 60 days at sea - from solar panels, autohelms, chart plotter, toolkit, to personal kit and food. She weighed about a tonne in total! We also had a watermaker on board (affectionately named "Walter Mitty") which we were reliant on for fresh water as it desalinated the sea water, however it broke down time and time again with the choppy seas, and we quickly learned how to reset it and fix it ourselves in order to save reverting to the laborious and time consuming method of hand pumping.

On the boat we rowed in pairs for 2 hours on, 2 hours off, fighting the elements around us. In those hours off I managed to wetwipe myself to get rid of the sweat and salt, apply lotions to my sores, eat some high calorie food, and try and get some sleep on the floor of the cabin in a sleeping bag liner before my teammate called "15 minutes" (which always felt far too early) and it was time to get up and back on the oars. I spent the first four days throwing up from seasickness, my back and shoulders continuously ached despite a hefty dose of ibuprofen, the weather could be relentless with almost 30ft waves and 25 knot winds, and conditions were cramped and basic including just a bucket on deck for our loo. You couldn't help but feeling vulnerable out there - one stormy night I recall watching lightning flashing across the black sky, bracing myself against the lashing rain and praying a bolt wouldn't strike our boat. Flying fish were also a hazard as they landed on deck, sometimes hitting us unexpectedly in the head at night! The monotony and isolation were by far the hardest thing to deal with; with only the horizon to watch, three people to talk to, and the same routine day in day out, I would scratch another tally on our cabin wall and wonder if we would ever reach land.

The hardest point came for me on Day 7. We had got through two hours of heavy rain squalls that evening but for the past few days I'd been having ongoing chest pains when I breathed, coughing up phlegm, and was starting to feel scarily unwell. On the next shift I awoke shaking and told my teammates through sobs of tears how bad was feeling. I got on the oars nevertheless then after struggling through another hour of squalls the skipper eventually shouted at me to get back inside the cabin to rest. I lay there for 24 hours with pneumonia, as diagnosed by our doctor, passing in and out of consciousness, shaking with fever and chills, too weak to get up (even having to pee in a nalgene bottle - a feat in itself!) and crying bitterly from the chest pain and guilt of not being able to support my teammates. I managed to help out around the boat with the food and making water the following day, although we later went on para-anchor. The day after I was back on my shifts on the oars again although vomiting for most of the next week from a mixture of antibiotics and physical exertion. To not feel like I could give 100% to my team was by far the hardest thing mentally to cope with after all the preparation I had done in the lead up, let alone how physically ill I felt and how much I desperately missed the support and comfort of home.

However there were also so many amazing moments such as witnessing some breath-taking sunrises which lit up the whole sky in pinks and yellows, seeing whales and dolphins close up playing alongside our boat, sharing a unique Christmas Day (complete with novelty hats and carols), hearing other boats on the radio (my favourite being the New Zealander who told us "good on ya girls!"), the exhilaration of rowing naked in a storm, painting our faces with rave paints on New Year's Eve, listening to the hopes and dreams of three remarkable women, and singing along to Adele mid-Ocean together at the top of my voice. I even got used to eating the freeze dried food (potato, salmon and dill was a firm favourite) and we started bartering for the coveted snacks such as dried mango, mars bars, and starburst. Listening to some music, an audio book, or reading my kindle, I would let my mind wander and escape the boat for a brief but magical few minutes, and I relished receiving emails with news and gossip from my family and friends at home on our Iridium Go.

Finally, on 7th February 2017 we rowed into English Harbour, Antigua after 55 days, 13 hours and 19 minutes on the Ocean. With our flares held aloft and superyacht horns sounding all around us in the dark harbour, it was a surreal but unforgettable moment. I'd lost 11% of my body weight, I couldn't wait for fresh food and to see loved ones again, and it was the hardest thing I had ever done both physically and mentally.

We found out a few weeks later that we had raised over £13,000 for Mind, the mental health charity we had chosen to support during our row. Our suffering on the boat fades in comparison to the mental struggles that some people go through every day of their lives and knowing we had contributed to continuing the vital work they do made all the tough days at sea even more worthwhile. Thanks again to everyone who donated in our name, attended events, and helped us raise money both for Mind and our other chosen charity, Women for Women International.

Coming out the other side, I felt overwhelmed and struggled at first to make sense of the enormity of what I had experienced both during the campaign and at sea. Although there were few arguments on the boat, it had been due to an unwillingness of some teammates to confront issues at the time, which meant the fallout and confusion of weeks of resentment and pent-up emotion eventually happened back on land. This was combined with what I felt was a tendency to take the easy route of pointing blame rather than try to discuss and resolve issues. The resultant shock and pain of feeling pushed away in Antigua, without understanding why, by the women I just wanted to celebrate with was immense. For weeks after, all the negativity swirled round and round in my head and rather than recognise our achievement I worried about what we, or I, should have done differently. I also found coming back and facing the "real world" again more difficult than I imagined - full of uncertainty and anxiety after I'd quit my job and moved back home with my parents in order to have the time and money to do the row. I stopped sleeping properly, found myself bursting into tears unexpectedly, and started to doubt myself. I'd felt I'd put every ounce of my effort into the campaign and the row for well over two years - but had all the hard work and sacrifice been worth it? The "post adventure blues" is not uncommon (see adventurer Anna McNuff's excellent blog on the topic here). Ironically it was the mental health charity Mind that we had backed during the campaign, as well as my boyfriend, friends and family (including other ocean rowers) who provided me with the support and perspective I needed so that in time I started to pick myself up again and appreciate our accomplishment.

I've learned a lot from this experience. Firstly, it's made me appreciate the simple things in life more - from the love from my friends and family to the beauty of the world around me. Oscar Wilde once said "To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all". Being out in that ocean, far away from civilisation and pushing myself physically and mentally to my limits amidst the rawness of nature, made me feel truly alive.

I've learned that the blues can target anyone, especially after such a big life event, but it's important to have the courage to ask for help and believe that you can get through the tough times with the right network around you. Pain is sometimes an inevitable part of a journey but accepting, reflecting, and learning from it is key to moving forward. No matter how hard things feel sometimes, life still goes on and the human spirit is so much stronger than you think. It is in overcoming and embracing such challenges that ultimately changes us, grows us, and makes us more focused in the long term. Most importantly, it's taught me that with hard work and determination anything is possible, no matter who you are. We all have the ability within us to achieve our goals, whatever they may be. At the end of the day I'm so proud of the amazing feat we undertook as a team over not just the 55 days at sea but also the long campaign in getting to the start line despite numerous setbacks and uncertainties along the way. That moment we crossed that finish line and hugged each other, tears rolling down my face with shear happiness and relief, is a moment I'll certainly never forget. I once read "until you cross the bridge of your insecurities you can't begin to explore your possibilities". So I urge everyone out there reading this to follow your passions, dream big, always believe in yourself, and never ever ever give up.

To watch a short promo video for our row please click here. A longer (30min) documentary-style video is also available here.

More information on the row and the team's journey can be found on the Atlantic Endeavour website

Photocredit: Ben Duffy for finish line photos, Sportography.tv for aerial shot

Exploring the corners of the world - from sea to summits

A keen traveller, explorer and mountaineer, I've undertaken expeditions to some of the world's toughest and remote environments including rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. Follow me on my next Endeavour!

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© 2016 by Kate Hallam

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