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  1. Impact Philanthropy
October 8, 2013

The university students rowing across the Atlantic for charity

By Spear's

Luke Birch and Jamie Sparks, two 21-year-old university students (Luke at Edinburgh, Jamie at Bristol), from Lincolnshire and London respectively wanted a real adventure, and what bigger adventure could there be than rowing the 3,000 nautical miles of the Atlantic Ocean with only each other to turn to for help?

Together they could be about to face 50-foot waves, three-day storms, and mental and bodily breakdown. However, none of this has put them off, and the pair are set to leave from La Gomera in the Canary Islands on the 2nd of December, aiming to raise £100,000 for Breast Cancer Care and become the youngest pair (by 200 days) to row the Atlantic.

I spoke to the pair about their preparation, their trip, and what could have possessed them to take on the open ocean.

Jasper: Why are you doing this? What made you want to row the Atlantic?

J: We like big ideas, big projects, pushing ourselves, and this is pretty much the biggest thing we could think of that was actually doable.

L: Jamie and I both like to slightly egg each other on with these things, so when he suggested it to me I kind of went along with it. We’re challenging each other – it’s an ‘Are you game enough?’ kind of thing. We’ve always had a jokey rivalry, but now it has become something slightly more serious.

Jasper: What made you decide that it was Breast Cancer Care who you wanted to support?

L: Well, my grandmother died from breast cancer and my mother had it last year, so it’s an important cause for me. We would like to raise £100,000. To date we have raised £35,000 so we are over a third of the way to our target.

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Jasper: What kind of preparation and training have you been doing?

J: We’ve had to gain in the region of 12-20 kilos (each). We’re doing this through eating six times a day, and going to the gym four times a week. We are fit cardiovascular wise but then again, this is not the kind of fitness we need. We need to be bulky and strong, and so will hopefully be able to pull on a set of oars for 12 hours a day for up to 8 weeks.

Pictured above: James Cracknell and Ben Fogle rowing across the Atlantic

L: In between that we have been going for long rows on our boat – about six or seven hours. We’ve then got two weeks of ‘scrutineering’, checking everything works, doing a lot of practices in the sea, doing 24-, then 48-hour rows, and then once everyone’s ready to rock, the foghorn goes and the official race starts on December 2nd. There’s a very heavy (and quite tedious) safety thing, but we’re actually quite far ahead of the game, because we’ve got a brand new carbon fibre boat, so it’s built quite well.

J: None of this would have been possible without the help of our families. Our mums – Claire Birch and Caroline Barkham, have really headlined the campaign. Also, Ian Couch and Lee Fudge at AdventureHub are helping us with our preparation in every area – they’re really mentoring us – Ian has done three ocean crossings and Lee has done one. Another great help has been Adam Fedorciow at ‘Rehab Genie’, he has taken care of our strength and conditioning. And then of course there are our sponsors who we are incredibly grateful to.

Jasper: Has trying for the world record changed your preparation at all?

J: Not particularly. If we get across we’ll be the youngest team to row the Atlantic, in fact the youngest team to row any ocean. In terms of preparation, we believe we are as fit as possible for this challenge and we are constantly working on ways to make the boat lighter, without compromising her safety, and staying race compliant.

L: The record for a pairs crossing is 40 days. We’re hoping to do it in about 50 days.

Jasper: What’s going to happen to your body over the journey? It’s a long time at sea.

J: We’ll lose in the region of half a kilogram of bodyweight each per day. The fact that we’ll be crawling for two months will mean that our calf muscles will diminish. A lot of people find it very difficult to walk on dry land for the first few days afterwards. We’ll get salt sores on our bums, all sorts of blisters, and chafing (which is one of the reasons we will row in the nude for a fair bit of the time). People also hallucinate – they see garden fences and hear dogs barking.

L: Some people have had to have operations on their carpal tunnels, due to the constant strain of gripping the oars for 12 hours a day.

Jasper: What are you going to be doing from day to day?

J: We’ll be rowing two hours on, two hours off, all day and all night. We’ll spend 12 hours on the oars each, both at separate times. Depending on age and fitness you can probably stay awake for 36 hours before your battery gets fatigued, and then you will sleep for two hours and get a little bit of life back, but you will never be fully rested. We’ll have a complete feeling of jetlag and utter exhaustion.

L: On our off periods we’ll be updating our log book, checking that all the systems are working on the boat. Even though the boat is new, parts will rust and corrode, so there’s constant checking to be done and maybe replacing small parts. We are going to be mechanics by the end of it. Stuff will break, so it’s to do with being creative and coming up with solutions. Then we have to be making food for the other person so that when they come off they can eat.

Jasper: You won’t be completely alone out there, will you?

L: No, we do have a satellite phone which we can hook up to the internet. We’ll be doing tweets and occasionally a slightly longer blog. Every day we’ll be speaking to the race scrutineers, getting updates on the weather. Every four hours our position will be updated on the website, so you will be able to see where we are in comparison to the other boats. We (and you) will be able to keep track of how we’re doing.

Jasper: This is a huge undertaking, and presumably pretty dangerous. Are you afraid?

L: We’re not afraid. When you ask someone who has done the race, ‘Was there any point where you thought you were going to die?’ they say, ‘Yes, multiple times.’ It’s a mental game I suppose. Once you actually get out there and have gone a little bit of the way you can’t turn back because the predominant prevailing winds go across the Atlantic, creating a swell that you can’t really row against.

J: We’ve been told that once you get over the initial shock of experiencing large swells or waves you soon become accustomed to it – it becomes the norm and you settle down. We have multiple drills to remember. Provided we remember these – we expect to be fine. In terms of rescue, we’ll be out of range of helicopter within two days – so we’ll be out of range for up to 46 days. If we need rescue it’ll be shipping vessels or oil tankers, or even cruise ships in the area, but a pick-up might be anything from four hours to two days away.

Jasper: And tell me about the mental aspect. How are you going to stay sane?

J: They say the quicker you lose it, the better. If I start going Captain Jack Sparrow after 48 hours I’ll be able to cope with it a lot better.

L: I’ve already got to that stage, so I’m not too worried.

Jasper: How do you think your friendship will cope?

J: Luke and I feel we’re in a better position than most boats because we’ve known each other for so long and we’ve just got a way of working together. I’m sure we’ll get annoyed over certain decisions, but we’ll get over it quickly. There is no doubt we will feel the absolute worst that we will ever feel in our lives, but all this will make the elation at the finish even more acute. We will feel every single type of emotion on this row.

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