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Monday Inspiration: Ocean Rower on Tribesports


Posted by Ben G under Rowing on 15 July 2012 at 11:00 PM

Ben G is one of our Tribesports users with some truly unique accomplishments; ocean rowing over the Atlantic and more recently taking on the English Channel: 

Rowing (or to be more precise sculling – where each rower has 2 oars) in a quad across the English Channel from Dover in the UK to Sangatte in France. It is 36km as the crow flies – with tides we ended up rowing 39km:

It is the busiest shipping lane in the world so it is probably the equivalent of trying to cross the M25 on your bike. One of the hardest parts of the challenge was getting all the permissions from the relevant authorities and negotiating with the pilot boat. Not as many people as you would think have actually had the opportunity to do it.

How did you start Ocean rowing? Did you start out on lake or river rowing first?

I grew up rowing on the Thames in London or the ‘Tideway’ as it is often known. It’s a big old river and can be quite intimidating for people only used to rowing on very flat rivers but it is a far cry from the coast and the real sea. 

It is however also where I first saw an ocean rowing boat in 1997 - just before the first Atlantic Rowing Race, and it was where the seed of the idea of an Atlantic crossing was planted – I was just amazed you could cross the Atlantic in something so small.

Fast forward to 2010 and I was coming to the end of a work contract and the opportunity came up to join a crew going for an Atlantic Crossing speed record in early 2011 with the Talisker Whisky team. The timing was good so I signed up and was accepted for the crew.

How does ocean rowing differ from traditional rowing?

Big Ocean rowing is 90% mental. It is not just about pulling big ergs (although that helps a bit) a lot of it comes down how well you can deal with the relentless conditions - it is about team-work, looking after yourself and your team – ultimately success comes down to the planning before and problem solving on the fly while you are out on the sea - and fair bit of luck.

I’ve done a couple of smaller rows since - crossing the Irish Sea with an amazing collection of endurance athletes on the Trip to Remember (some of whom are Tribesports regulars) and rowing the length of the Tidal Thames from Ramsgate to Richmond. These events and the English Channel are much closer to river rowing, but still very different to a 2000m race that you’ll see at the Olympics – it would be a bit like comparing the 1500m with a marathon.

The coastal boat we rowed across the Channel was actually very similar to the boats that I rowed in as a junior but a bit bigger and with automatic bailing - but essentially the same. We’ve since been told we could have borrowed a much lighter boat so that would have made it a bit easier!

For the Atlantic crossing, what is life on board and ocean rower like? What was your daily routine?

The first 48 hours are the most intense experience. You’ve gone out of sight of land; most of the crew are sea sick, you are trying to eat, sleep and get into a routine and at the same time get it into your head that you are actually going to be doing this for the next X days. 

It is pretty brutal - especially when you are going for a record – but that is also part of the reward. You get to live in the moment and only concentrate on what you can control which in our times is pretty rare.

A few days in and the team starts to find its sea legs and the rhythm of boat life begins to settle into a routine - which makes it all so much easier. Row-eat-drink-sleep-Row-eat-drink-sleep-Repeat. I was lucky that I can sleep anywhere and don’t get sea sick so that made focusing on the rowing and looking after myself much easier.

We rowed 2 hours, 2 hours off with a longer session overnight. About a week in you realise how privileged you are to be out there on the sea doing what you are doing. At first you laugh it off when people tell you that more people have been in space than have rowed across an ocean but then you just feel incredible when you realise the enormity of the sky at night and the power of the sea. On one evening we came up with the game of flying fish poker which essentially revolved around winning points by guessing who would be hit next by a flying fish (a common hazard). I don’t think I have ever laughed quite as hard as that night - it was just the most surreal experience.

Your team’s time for crossing the Channel was very impressive, how do you train as a team for the conditions you were rowing in?

From what I can find out there isn’t a complete record of the fastest crossing times although the current record in our class of boat (2hrs 42m) set in 2005 was a lot quicker than our time (3hrs 22m). That crew was made up of some seasoned coastal rowers from Dover Rowing Club - our boat really had very little coastal experience in comparison – so we’ve got a bit of work to do to be challenging their time!

My crewmates all scull a lot in Maidenhead – I was definitely the weak link on that front – I spend a lot more time on my bike these days. We trained together as a crew putting in some long sessions up in Maidenhead in a similar boat and had a few sessions at Dover rowing club rowing inside the harbour wall but the first hour or so was a bit of a shock for the others when they realised just how bumpy it was going to be – even on a “flat” day! 

What’s your go-to reward food and drink at the end of an epic rowing journey?

When I arrived in Barbados I had steak and chips. And beer. We hadn’t drunk anything cool or carbonated or eaten anything but dehydrated food for over 42 days. My taste buds were literally tingling.

How do you keep motivated over the longer passages? Do you have a sporting mantra?

The Atlantic row just totally shifted my perception and understanding of what my body was physically capable of. 

Mantra-wise, well you can really hurt after a 6 minute ergo but after an hour you’ll feel fine – you know you can dig harder and find something extra in that 6 minutes. The same applies for any event less than a few days long now – you are going to end up the day sleeping in a bed. Lots of people around the world don’t have that luxury. 

That and the humbling realisation of just how privileged we are to be able to do any of the sports that we all do in the places we do them keep me going whether it is on my commute, training ride or on a new challenge.

So I guess it is “Do your best every time you have the chance – you are lucky to have it”