Most of us will be spending Christmas Day with family but four Yorkshire-based friends will be miles from home and their outlook will be a little more bleak... Interview by Neil Hudson
While the rest of us entertain the perennial question of whether this year will offer up a white Christmas, one group of friends about to embark on a monumental challenge already know theirs will be wet.
That’s because friends William Theakston, Robin Drysdale, Dave Wallis, Sam Bolt-Lawrence and Guillaume Vanderwinden, who joined the team only a few weeks ago, will be spending Christmas rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. They are taking part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, an annual race to row from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua.
Today, 28 boats depart on ‘the world’s toughest row’, a gruelling 3,000 nautical miles between them and the finish line, Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua. The fastest will make the crossing in five weeks but for slower boats, it could mean spending over 90 days at sea.
Former Army captain William Theakston, 33, whose father Simon runs the famous Yorkshire brewery of the same name, is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge.
“We’ve spent a long time preparing for this, it’s been tough. It’s basically going to be blood, sweat and tears. We will be rowing two hours on, two hours off. In between, we will eat and sleep. That will be our routine for the duration of the challenge. All kinds of combinations have been tried over the years but the’ two-on, two-off’ system seems to work best.”
The idea to take part in the challenge came after one of the group, Robin, was diagnosed with bowel cancer. As an active 33-year-old, it came as a shock.
“I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in August 2016,” he recalls. “It was a fluke; I had a pretty graphic episode on the loo and despite NHS Direct’s suggestion that I should be fine, I decided to go to the 24 hour non-emergency doctor. She suggested it was likely to be haemorrhoids. Within four weeks, I had been diagnosed with Stage 2 or 3 bowel cancer.
“I was a 33-year-old who had just landed his dream job in the Army and whose plans for a family with his girlfriend of two years were yet to be realised. It was terrifying to think these dreams could be snuffed out by something I had no control over.”
Robin gathered his friends together to break the news he had cancer but also to propose they take part in the challenge, setting a goal to raise £250,000 for charity.
Originally billed as ‘four men, one boat, 3,000 miles’, the team, who dubbed themselves ‘Men of Oar’, have spent months training for the challenge, taking part in 24-hour rows to test their shift system.
“That was one of the things we had to do,” says William, who completed two tours of Afghanistan in 2010 and 2012-13 when he was in the Army. “To begin with, people didn’t take us seriously, I think even my father was sceptical but eventually they realised we were serious.”
Atlantic Campaigns, the organisation which run the race, only accept the highest standards and carry out strict checks on vessels and crew, and ensure everyone on board has a sound working knowledge of all the equipment, from the GPS system to the on-board desalination unit.
Indeed, it was these rigorous checks which led to the four becoming five, as William explains: “Guillaume was part of team of three from Belgium but one turned out to have a heart murmur and the other guy didn’t want to race as a pair, so he approached us. We agreed that since we had been supported by people we don’t even know, it would be incredibly bad karma to refuse this man… On the plus side, we have an extra man to row but on the downside, the boat is heavier.”
It’s also slower, thanks to its design - there are two kinds of boats used in cross-Atlantic rowing: ‘concept’ and ‘pure’, the former are built to ‘catch the wind’ and so are faster, while the latter sacrifice speed for stability. The Men of Oar will be using a ‘pure’ vessel.
“It was a decision we made early on,” reveals William, whose wife Hannah, is due to give birth to their first child in May. “We wanted to do it the old fashioned way.”
That’s not the only ‘back to basics’ aspect of the journey, either. Having already spent hours in rowing seats, they opted to dispense with pre-moulded plastic in favour of a plank of wood with six inches of roll matting stuck on top. It’s an evolution of a ‘hack’ William made during training after he went and bought a £4 pillow from Primark to prevent a numb bum.
All joking aside, for the 28 boats and their crews, there will be just two safety vessels, themselves sail-powered yachts. If boats get into trouble, the crew could be stranded for days. And the dangers of being out on the waters, at the mercy of the weather are not to be underestimated. They will daily contend with 20ft waves, with the prospect of spending seven weeks on eight square metres of floating fibreglass, with only the promise of blisters aggravated by salt and the chance of spotting a mythical sea creature to ease the tedium.
William, who completed his history degree in Leeds and now works for London-based Fullers Brewery, says: “I live in London with my wife and it’s incredibly fast and frenetic, so it will be a complete change. We have heard stories of whale and dolphin sightings but we’ve also heard tell of marlins puncturing hulls with their noses.”
The crew’s progress will be tracked constantly and those interested will even be able to go online to check on their position, both in the Atlantic and the race. So, as the rest of the Western world gears up for the annual festive frivolity, spare a thought for those who will be far from home. So will they pause to celebrate Christmas?
“We will have some sort of celebration,” says William. “All of our meals are dried-add-water camping style packets and we couldn’t get any turkey but we did get reindeer, so we will probably have some of that and I dare say there will be a bottle of something on board as well.
“We will be two weeks in at that point, so just over a quarter of the way, after which it will be new year, and then we will be almost half way, so it will be downhill from there.”
William is also raising money for Combat Stress, after losing a close family and regimental friend last year as a result of his battle with mental health.
He says: “He acts as my motivation, as we used to discuss mental health and how we could promote and raise funds for charities that sought to support those that suffer from mental health related issues. I want to finish this race as I told him I would.”
But perhaps the biggest thing on his mind is his wife, Hannah, of whom he adds: “She is due to give birth next year and I’m keenly aware we’ll be apart at Christmas, it’s one of the hardest parts of this venture and it will weigh heavy on my mind throughout. Getting used to a lack of sleep will be good practise for when the baby comes.”
Sponsors include Theakstons, Fuller Smith and Turner Ltd., Ramsbury Brewery, MAATS Tech Limited, Basingstoke Skip Hire and Southern Waste Management, Thorzt performance drinks, ECHP Heating, Portway Building & Renovations, LR Motors & Packett’s insurance
The cross Atlantic rowing challenge dates back to 1997 - fewer people have rowed the Atlantic than have climbed Everest or been to space
The crew’s desalination unit will be powered by solar panel - they will each use 12 litres of water per day
William’s mother-in-law Carol Dawson raised thousands of pounds for their cause by organising events,
Track their progress using the Yellow Brick Races app