Fighting for our lives….

I have always counted success by doing exactly what I set out to do…

By that standard, my recent Atlantic expedition was a failure – we didn’t complete the journey and lost almost everything we had.  And yet oddly this feels like one of my greatest successes yet.  I am writing this.  I am alive right now.  I can never take that for granted again.

Calm before the storm

On January 31, over 2000 miles into rowing across the Atlantic, all felt well. The crew were working well as a team.  We focused obsessively on the finish line in Barbados, now less than a week away. It was starting to feel like a reality. The World Record was still just possible. This World Record was everything we focused on as we rowed two hours on, two hours off for 24 hours a day, since leaving Morocco 27 days ago.

Mark crew image

Atlantic Odyssey crew setting off – Mark Beaumont, right, with Gold Fever’s Ian Rowe next to him.

At 10:55am I was rowing hard in the final five minutes of my shift.  Ian, as always was in front of me, Yaacov behind and we were going fast, just over 500 miles from our destination in Barbados. The swell and winds were coming from the east and it was an average, fairly predictable sea. My thoughts were on what I was going to eat during my two-hour break and looking forward to a short sleep.  Sleep was a luxury for the crew. We’d not slept more than 90 minutes at a time in the 27 days since we departed from Morocco.

Mark B rescue image

Rowing hard through the night – Gold Fever director Ian Rowe

I didn’t see it coming.  I didn’t hear it coming.  The boat pitched up without warning, the stern  cabin in front of me lifting quickly as a large wave sped under us. Our boat, the Sara G pitched wildly to my left.  I instinctively let go of the port side oar and held onto the metal safety rail like it was a monkey bar.  There was an awful moment in equilibrium as we perched perfectly on our side. In all the huge seas we had seen, she had never been this far over and yet I still thought she would self-right.  I can’t remember anyone calling anything, I can’t remember much at all except I was then upside down, in the water and fighting to get my shoes free from  the rowing straps.  They were stuck.  I eventually managed to pull my feet free, leaving both shoes behind and kicked for the surface. We immediately capsized and were left holding onto the upturned hull as the Sara G slowly sank deeper into the water.

Over the next 14 hours we were fighting for our lives.  For six exhausted minds and bodies, this was an incredible test of resolve and our training.  I can’t imagine a more intense stress test.  You can read the full account of what happened to the crew in my Independent blog.

Insights Discovery

I barely knew my team before the expedition. I’d come straight from another expedition in the Arctic, there had been little time to train together. On paper, their CV’s were hugely impressive and I knew that we should have a physically strong team.  However, it’s almost impossible to really know the characters until you’re under the real stress of an expedition.
Out of all my expeditions this was undoubtedly the toughest. It’s impossible to describe what rowing hard for 12 hours a day and sleeping for no more than 90 minutes is like for mind and body.

Opposites attract

Mark B blog

Atlantic Odyssey Insights Team Wheel

The Insights team took each crew member through their Insights Discovery Personal Profile before we even set foot on the boat, the Sara G.  I sit at wheel position 54 which means I lead with dominant Cool Blue energy.  Some of the words to best describe someone with Cool Blue energy would be: precise, deliberate, formal, and questioning. Some of the things that stood out for me in my Insights Discovery Personal Profile included:

  • prefers a “Hands-on” approach to problem solving
  • sets high personal standards of performance
  • has an original mind with fine insight and vision.

There was a real mix of colour energies between the crew and a nice balance between introversion and extraversion and those with a thinking and feeling preference but inevitably we had some strong characters in the mix.  There is no personal space on an ocean rowing boat and so it’s about as intense a team character test as you could devise.  Under this level of fatigue and stress there was always going to be flash points and irritations.

However, it was incredible to see how we lifted each other, helping when one person was struggling, knowing that this role would be reversed at another time.  When there were issues, there wasn’t time, energy or space to hold a grudge.  Harsh words were said and forgotten without need for an apology, as everyone knew that everyone else was on the edge of their senses and ability.  And over-riding everything was a complete shared focus.  We always visualised the World Record boat alongside us and fought day and night to beat it.

Time for reflection

I’ve since had a few weeks at home and time to reflect on how each team member’s characters, as described by Insights, played out in reality.  No one is seen exactly as they see themselves.  No one is exactly as they seem on paper.  The level of trust that you need to put in each other on an expedition brings these facts into very sharp focus.

Atlantic Odyssey 2012

  • Crew members included: 
    •    Matt Craughwell – Skipper
    •    Mark Beaumont – Crew
    •    Ian Rowe – Crew
    •    Aodhán Kelly – Crew
    •    Simon Brown – Crew
    •    Yaacov Mutnikas – Crew
  • Calories consumed  Each man consuming between 5,000 – 6,000 kcal everyday while expending somewhere close to 12,000kcal in a 24hr period. 
  • Beating the world record
    Dubbed Ocean rowing’s 4 minute mile – It has long been the goal of a rowing crew to break the 30 day Mid Atlantic barrier and raise the bar for other teams to follow

From hardly knowing my teammates at all a few months ago, we have now shared an experience so intense and stressful that I now know them far better than many of my close friends.  Throughout the expedition it was incredibly useful for us to have some prior knowledge to each other’s character strengths and weaknesses.
During the 27 days of rowing, I was able to take constant strength from the attitudes and morale of Matt, Simon, Yaacov, Ian and Aodhan.  They each had character traits that I admired hugely.  Adding these positive traits together meant that the overall strength in our team actually came from our differences, more than our similarities.

My defining moment

Over the last year I have committed to two major ocean rowing expeditions because my big dream for many years has been to do a full circumnavigation of the world by man-power.  I needed to learn the right skills to cross the oceans.  However, somewhere along the way, even before the accident I realised that this big dream was no longer something I wanted.  After years of working towards it, I expected to be disappointed and live in regret if I never did it.  In fact, I feel incredible relief that I can let that go and look forward to so much else.
And so we didn’t make it across the Atlantic, and I no longer wish to go there again. But for all that, it was a success, a great success in teamwork and survival.  Considering the possible consequences, nothing else matters.  I can certainly look forward with a far clearer view of priorities.  In fact no other achievement has ever given me such lessons for the future.  I now realise that there can be even more value in knock backs than from doing exactly what you set out to do.

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