The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge is the world’s toughest rowing race. More people have reached the summit of Everest or travelled into space than have successfully rowed an ocean.
On December 12th 2019, the Fortitude IV team set off from the Canary Islands and 32 days later on January 14th 2020 the team arrived into Antigua having spent over a month at sea, capsized several times along the way, lost crucial kit and sustained serious injuries.
Their 2 year training programme, sheer determination, mental and physical resilience paid off as they won the race and set a Guinness World Record along the way.
Tom and Ollie are now sharing the story of their amazing journey, the challenges they encountered and how they overcame them. They talk about the importance of building mental resilience and working as a team to overcome the toughest of challenges.
If you have already make sure to check out the first part of this series Life on the Water: Preparing to cross the Atlantic, Fortitude IV.
A couple of days before the race, organisers called all the teams in and said it’s going to be touch and go whether the race can start on time because the weather was really bad. There was three to four metre swells reported and 40 mph winds. Eventually it was deemed safe to get going.
We got going on the start date and in the first three or four days it was a complete baptism of fire. None of us really slept, we were all horribly seasick for a good couple of days.
You’re pretty much constantly wet because when you’re out there rowing waves are crashing over the boat. For twelve hours of the day your rowing in pitch darkness, you can’t see your hand in front of your face. You can’t see your teammate moving around the boat and the waves crashing over the side of the boat.” -Tom Foley
“The physical side of this challenge is something you can visibly see. And I think from day one your body is deteriorating because the sea is a really tough environment to survive in. You’re wet all the time, it’s quite corrosive with the salt and there’s rubbing. There’s also the fact that you’re just sat down on the same rowing position, it’s degrading on your body. The normal routine was two hours on, two hours off. The two hours you had off we viewed as as important as the two hours we were rowing.
There was also the challenge of getting your nutrition and making sure you’re taking on enough calories because your in a calorie deficit for over a month. To put that in context I went on the boat at 98/97 kilos and I came off at about 77. So in 30 days I lost 20 kilos and that was the same for the others as well. You physically can’t take in enough food and combine that with the fact that you’re seasick, it’s tough.
In that two hours off your trying to get as much food as you can. Bear in mind you’ve got to be up 15 minutes before your shift to avoid being late and get you clothes back on etc. So it doesn’t leave a long window for sleep.
I think the most we ever slept at any given time would be 45 minutes but it’s a really deep sleep. You lie down, and straight away your out.” -Ollie Palmer
“It took us two years to get from deciding to do the race and the start line. I think if we immediately focused on being at the start line and being ready for rowing the Atlantic it would have been too much.
We tried to break it down into small steps during the training process. And that was the same during the race itself. The race is about 3000 miles and we broke it down into 500 mile chunks. Each 500 miles we try to tick them off, then we would work hard again to the next 500 miles. We rowed through Christmas, new years and we had two birthdays on board so they were good milestones. I think mentally that probably helped us.
There’s the overall race and whoever gets from A to B quickest is the winner, which was us in 32 days during our race. Within the race there are world records to be broken.
We missed out on the world record for the fastest crossing ever by a couple of days because we had some strong headwinds during the middle of the race where we were getting blown backwards.
We managed to get the world record for the furthest distance travelled in an ocean rowing boat in 24 hours which is 107.35 nautical miles. So that was quite a fun 24 hours. We had some really big waves behind us, we were surfing 4/5 meter waves and the wind was pushing us along.” -Tom
“We knew that capsizing could happen if the weather got bad enough and we knew we were going into a tropical storm the last three or four days of the race. We experienced 10/12 meter waves, as high a three storey house with 50/60 mph winds. You couldn’t really hear anything on the boat apart from this wind whipping through it. When we got into those conditions we knew that it was serious. We needed to batten down the hatches and try get through it but the first time we did capsize it was pretty terrifying.
The boat was at the top of a wave, the wave broke, then the boat was pretty much vertical and shot down the wave. The nose of the boat dug into the ocean below us and the boat completely flipped over on itself.
I’d been thrown out into the middle of the ocean. Ollie and Hugh were trapped under the boat and couldn’t get out. For the next half an hour we were just desperately trying to get the boat up right. Trying to assess what kit we had, what was damaged or what could have been lost.
For the next couple of days no one really slept. We were all up through the nights. We capsized a few more times throughout the middle of the night. It was all hands to the pump to get through.
The question of how we got through it I think firstly we didn’t have a choice. We didn’t have an option, we had to get through it. There is no help, no one is there to rescue us. We’re on our own in the middle of this tropical storm.
We just had the mindset that we can’t do anything about it and secondly the storm will pass. If we can get through this, we know in a couple of days the weather’s going to subside, we’re going to push through the other side of the storm. And we know if we do that we’re nearly at the finish line.”- Tom
“We seen land just coming into dusk about 7pm and we could see land from12:00 o’clock, we could see Antigua. Those final six hours were really special. You know you’re going to win, you know your family and loved ones are at the end. You know that after two years everything has just boiled down to this one moment.
It was such a special time because you’ve gone over a month at sea with these people. I wrote a few words and we shared story’s. We had this really intimate time together, reflecting on what we just achieved as a team. That’s probably my favourite bit, that most calm before the storm(metaphorical storm). And when we actually did cross that finish line it was an amazing feeling.
Knowing that we had achieved what we’d set out to do. The plan we had in place and to execute it how we did was way beyond our wildest imaginations. And then to have all our family and friends there it was amazing.
I do reflect back. People often think about crossing the finish line but that little bit before was probably as special.”- Ollie
“The feeling of crossing a finish line after two/ two and a half years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice. Rowing into to Antigua with family and friends all standing there cheering you in. The super yachts there, the hundreds of people welcoming you in. It was overwhelming.
It’s one of the few moments that will certainly stick with me for the rest of my life.”- Tom
“If you told us three years ago “you are gonna be part of a team of four that goes on to train to compete in and then to win the worlds toughest rowing race” I don’t think any of us would have believed you .
None of us had ever rowed before. Then fast forward the clock three years later and we’re sit here having won the world toughest rowing race. And set a Guinness World Record in the process.
I think the reason we’ve been successful and managed to do this is because we had the mindset that if we really put our minds to this, dedicate ourselves to it and sacrificed things to achieve this. And if we build a strong team of people around us to help we can actually go, learn and achieve a lot more than we ever thought is possible.
A lot of people won’t think of anything worse than rowing an ocean, I don’t blame you.
A lot of people have their own Atlantic Ocean. Whether that’s writing a book, starting a business, running a marathon, doing an iron man, whatever it might be. Everyone has a very different idea of what is their Atlantic Ocean.
I would say the main thing that’s holding you back from achieving that is your own self belief and attitude. If you believe in something, really want it, willing to work on it and sacrifice to achieve it you can achieve often a lot more than you ever thought is possible. So the main thing that’s holding you back is probably yourself. -Tom