Riding The Waves As One - A Rowing Crew Face The Atlantic Ocean For A Good Cause

What happens when five Scots from a rowing club walk into a bar? They decide to row across the Atlantic Ocean together, of course. Duncan Hughes, Clive Rooney, Ian Baird, Ross McKinney, and Fraser Potter make up the Five In A Row crew that are competing in the 2021 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge (TWAC). Beginning Dec 12th 2021, the crew will be rowing 3000 miles from La Gomera to Antigua against other brave teams, with the likelihood of spending over 40 days at sea. The five friends first met through the North Berwick Rowing Club where they train and compete to this day. 

Described as “The World’s Toughest Rowing Race”, the Five In A Row crew will take turns to row during the TWAC in 2-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, pushing the boundaries of endurance and stamina while raising money for Reverse Rett. This charity has been a great support to Ross and his daughter Eliza who suffers from Rett Syndrome, a neurological condition that causes lifelong disabilities and medical complexities to its victims. Utilizing the TWAC to spread awareness, funds raised for research will hopefully lead to a cure for this cruelly debilitating disease. 

In July of this year, Five In A Row reached out to discuss a possible collaboration, and we were humbled by the opportunity. BOLDR decided to provide a brand new, special edition Five In A Row Venture watch to accompany each crew member on their voyage. We will be selling the BOLDR Venture Five In A Row on our website, so fans will also be able to contribute to the cause - 15% of proceeds from this limited run will go towards Five In A Row's initiative. 

We chatted with crew members Clive and Duncan to talk about their preparation and mindset going into this challenge:   

Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds and how you got to know each other.
Duncan: We’re all based in Scotland. Four of us live in the same area just along from Edinburgh called North Berwick, and Fraser is further north in Perthshire. We know each other through our local rowing club, Coastal Rowing. We have fairly varied occupations - I work in a dock, Fraser runs a small hotel, Ian is a graphic designer, Ross is a drainage engineer, and Clive is a project manager.

How long have you been in the Coastal Rowing Club?
Duncan: I’ve been there about 8-9 years now.

Clive: Me about 6 years. I moved to North Berwick and one morning I saw a couple of guys rowing, and was immediately interested. I phoned up the club and asked if I could have a go at it and that was it - I fell in love with rowing. At the same time, Duncan and Ian were one man short for their crew, so I slotted in nicely. We’ve participated in two World Championships together, and Ian’s done three in total. We’re happy with five of us now as a crew because the work is spread out evenly. Having different work backgrounds also turned out as an advantage, because we have multiple avenues to generate interest and pursue funding / sponsorships for our campaign.

Is rowing part of your daily workout routine, or more for competitive training?
Duncan: The beauty of rowing in the club is that you can be as competitive as you like. Sometimes it’s a workout, but you can also go fishing or just enjoy a relaxing row session. It all depends on how hard you want to work, really. We do enjoy regular workouts in the gym though, for general fitness.

How long did it take for the five of you to synchronize as a crew?
Clive: It’s an evolving process actually… Ian, Duncan, and myself have rowed together a lot over the past 5-6 years. Ross joined the club around 4 years ago so not as much, but his rowing technique is well developed from past regattas. Fraser is the anomaly because he never rowed much at all (laughs) being from landlocked Perthshire. He wanted to do the challenge all the same, and we’ve been hard at work training to operate as a coherent team.

Have you attempted any extreme challenges prior to your upcoming event?
Clive: Certainly not something of this magnitude. Individually we’ve participated in marathons and sports in the past, but I don’t think they compare to 40+ days at sea on a rowboat. I’ve done a few ultra marathons myself around the 50 km and 65 km range. Fraser has traveled around the world representing Scotland playing polo, Ian is a very accomplished horse rider. In fact, he’s done a lot of work in films as a horseback extra - he played one of the Dothraki warriors in Game of Thrones!

So we’ve got a good mix of sports between the five of us, and that’s quite an advantage in terms of different muscle groups powering together.

How did the idea for taking part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge first come about?
Clive: We initially thought about buying a boat to do some local challenges around the UK, but our vision grew bigger as we delved deeper into the sport itself. I’d been interested in TWAC for years after watching the BBC documentary by James Cracknell and Ben Fogle called ‘Through Hell and High Water’. As we mobilised the campaign, we realised a great opportunity to shed light on our chosen charity to support victims like Ross’s daughter.

Getting to know Eliza as a person, what have you learnt from how she handles her condition?
Clive: Ross actually texted-in an answer to this question: “Having a disability certainly creates challenges for Eliza and the entire family, and we work on being understanding and considerate of her extra needs. It has built resilience in Eliza’s siblings, as well as respect, unselfishness, and active participation by everyone in the family to care for Eliza”.

Ross also points out that everyone in the family is now fairly level-headed and not bothered by the little things as much, because they have weathered much tougher situations. That skill is definitely going to help with this challenge - Ross will probably keep us on track when the rest start moaning about something or another.

Do either of you have any heroes that are extreme athletes?
Duncan: I don’t have anyone in particular. I’ve read books and seen videos of great athletes and are inspired by all of them. I can say this though - from meeting and speaking to athletes at the rowing club who have accomplished huge feats, they are extremely humble and willing to offer sound advice. It’s been amazing to be part of the community for this reason.

Clive: I’d say Courtney Dauwalter is one of my heroes. She’s an Ultra Athlete who has set a completely new standard in her sport, breaking record after record with a relaxed, humble attitude. I love watching her interviews as she’s completely down to Earth. Her stamina is unbelievable - I think we’re seeing female athletes setting the bar higher than males in endurance sports. She recently completed the UTMB in Switzerland and The Backyards Ultra, and the insanely tough Berklee Marathons.

Are there any prerequisites for joining the TWAC?
Clive: The organizers actually make it pretty difficult to qualify for the starting line, because they want to prevent unprepared participants from giving up too quickly. They make sure that we clock-in 120 hours of training, complete 5-6 different courses, show competence and understanding on how to operate the boat, and so on.

How do you prepare for the lack of comfort on the boat?
Duncan: That is the massive challenge that we have to endure. I’ve spent the past two years trying to prepare mentally for the discomfort and anxiety that will inevitably occur. It’s something we’re hyper-aware of, and we fully understand exactly what we’ve signed up for. We’ve got to be resilient….and try to keep the moaning to a minimum.

Clive: Yeap, the 2 hours on / 2 hours off is going to be quite a shock to the body, and we’re training accordingly to deal with that strain. It encompasses a lot of physical exercise and mental conditioning too - we delve deep by visualising ourselves sitting in the actual boat bobbing on the Atlantic, or getting off a shift completely soaking wet, etc.. We’re lucky to be working with one of the UK's leading sports psychologists, Katie Warriner; she’s helped us a great deal to focus our mind, body, and souls on the mission.

How does the onboard water-maker work?
Clive: It’s actually the most important piece of equipment on our boat - a handy machine called a ‘desalinator’ which takes seawater and filters it, passes it through a high-pressure membrane to extract salt, and we end up with clean drinking water.

While rowing, are you able to listen to music? If yes, any must-have tunes?
Duncan: Yup, we’ll have a couple of speakers for music and audiobooks for everyone to hear, and also individual devices. We’ve got Spotify for 30 days while we’re at sea, so we’ll download stuff in advance. I’m quite old-fashioned with my CDs (laughs), so I'll need to find a way to get those played onboard. We listen to a variety of genres, mostly chilled out music.

I think if we listen to hype music for 40 days or more, we’d probably get there faster actually (laughs). But just something in the background will help us for sure.

Clive: Yeah variety is definitely key, I like a good mix of genres myself. We’ve also got a reciter of poems onboard - Ian has memorized a super long Robert Burns poem called Tam O’Shanter and does a line-by-line recitation.

Duncan: That poem takes 25 minutes to get through, so we’ll be well occupied (laughs).

Did the lockdown help your mental prep, or was it more a hindrance to your training?
Clive: Hindrance, for sure - we signed up in January 2020 and that was just before the world went into lockdown. At that point, the advice we got was to gather funding for the campaign, and not to worry because sponsors came by fairly easily. Well, the lockdown flipped the script on that. However, it’s opened up avenues we would never have considered before - many online meetings were fruitful, and we discovered independent brands such as BOLDR that are willing to support the campaign.

Is there a contingency plan in case anyone catches COVID during the lead up period?
Clive: Yes, we have to be in La Gomera two weeks before we start the race, and that will be sufficient quarantine time should any of us catch it. The race organizers extended the lead-up period for this reason (normally it’s only 5 days or so). I also think participants will be extra cautious, because none of us would want to see our hard work go to waste.

Duncan: Definitely. I’m already toning things down, because I’d be absolutely heartbroken if I have to miss this race. Four in a Row doesn’t quite have the same ring (laughs).

How do you prepare for brain exhaustion, possible hallucinations, and keeping each other in check?
Duncan: Good point actually - it is something we will align on. For instance, when I’m tired I tend to go sleepwalking. If we see anyone acting out of character, we’d have to be confident enough to take control and get each other back on track. It’ll be a fascinating experience for sure.

Clive: Duncan will actually be that person to anchor us - he’s the skipper, who we’ll turn to in moments of crisis.

What kind of food will you be carrying?
Duncan: Lots of dehydrated food that will require rehydrating during meal times.

Clive: We actually have to carry about 1.4 million calories to sustain us over the 40+ day period,

What defines happiness for you?
Clive: I think happiness is being content that we’ve put in our best efforts towards our pursuits. For instance, this trip will have many unexpected challenges thrown at us, but I’d be happy and content knowing that we gave our absolute best to overcome them.

Duncan: For me, happiness is making sure those around me are happy. I’ve got 3 kids and a wife, an extended family that’s quite local, and friends. If they are happy, so am I. We’ve got a harmonious crew going into this challenge as well. I might get hangry (laughs), but I generally think we’re prepared to meet the challenges and get across safely.

What traits in people do you despise?
Duncan: Laziness, I think. I generally try to look for the positive in most situations, but I do get turned off by laziness.

Clive: For me it's inefficiency. I’m sometimes hard on myself as well as others about that, but I do understand that everyone’s brain does not work the same way. What I see as inefficiency may just be the way that another person works best. We’ve actually done some work with a management consultancy to measure our tolerance for each other’s ways of operating.

Duncan: That was priceless training in terms of understanding the team, really a great help.

Clive: It involved the Belbin questionnaire, which at first we felt “How’s this going to tell me anything?”, but the assessment was bang-on-the-money in terms of identifying how we operate. We're now able to respect each other’s ways and find a dynamic that works.

Last question, any books to recommend for our readers?
Duncan: I’m currently reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, and it’s absolutely fantastic. I normally read books over and over again, and I can’t put this one down.

Clive: The Backyard Adventurer by Beau Miles. He’s also got a Youtube channel, and he’s a hero of mine. He has kayaked across the Tasman Sea and run across the mountain ridges of Australia, but what I find most striking is his ability to create adventures just outside his doorstep. He did a 24-hour marathon around a looped pathway right outside his front door, mixing in jobs that he had been putting off. He would run a mile an hour, complete a job off a checklist, have a quick bite, and then repeat. He actually teaches a course in adventure at Monash University!

Five In A Row will sail from La Gomera on December 12th 2021. The crew aims to raise $110,000 towards finding a cure and supporting families affected by Rett Syndrome (around $30,000 raised thus far). Follow the crew on social media and track their progress during TWAC via live updates at Talisker Whisky’s official website. If you’d like to contribute towards their cause or get more details, click the link to their webpage below.

Five In A Row: https://www.fiveinarow.co.uk/