Ali and I spent a few days in La Gomera for the start of the 2016 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge this week. Our mission – to learn what we could from the start of the 2016 race in preparation for our turn on 12 December 2017. This blog captures a few of the things we learnt.
First a word on the island that will be our home for two weeks of pre-race scrutineering and final preparation. Most crews don’t venture further than the small harbour town of San Sebastian. They are here for one reason only with a singular focus on preparations for their race. We however, had a bit more leisure time to explore. La Gomera is a volcanic island, typically Spanish despite being 1,000 miles from the mainland. It is brown and green, 14 miles wide, one mile high, and in the words of Douglas Adam’s is ‘mostly harmless’. Its charm lies in the fact that the one hour ferry from Tenerife is enough to put off the vast majority of tourists. Furthermore, no bugger, barring a few skirmishes, has bothered to mess with it since 1489 when the inhabitants faced defeat at the hands of the Spaniards.
It is the perfect place to unwind – ideal for the 12 crews in their final days of mental grounding for the daunting challenge ahead – 3,000 miles of ocean until they next reach sanctuary in English Harbour, a safe haven frequented by the British since the 17th century. When the crews left the sun-drenched serenity of La Gomera this morning they were on their own at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean, some for 90 days or more if mother nature is unforgiving.
The crews departed in five minute intervals, turning their backs on the comfort, security and space afforded by their temporary island home. Watching this highly emotive spectacle got me thinking. As much as I love my crew mates, thinking about two months at sea with Ali, Jez and Justin in a space not quite big enough for us all to lay down at the same time (and that’s before you subtract the space for three buckets that we will share to meet all our bucket related needs), I find myself apprehensive about how I’ll cope. It was also the first time a glimmer of justification for attempting a solo ocean row had ever crossed my mind – thankfully it passed swiftly out the other side – something for a future life time perhaps.
The start of the race was everything it should be. Subdued excitement. The crews were visibly itching to get going as they waited on their boats inside the harbour wall, poised to take that first stroke… Hordes of well-wishers were brimming with excitement manifested in the form of cheering, flag waving and mortar-esque fireworks.
Family and close friends appeared more reserved. I’m told some families come out to La Gomera for the final few days then leave before the actual day of departure, not wanting to witness the visual spectacle of their loved ones rowing out to sea knowing there is a chance they may never return.
Meanwhile the Atlantic Campaigns’ team were working away in the background making sure the crews were in the best possible state of readiness. I’m certain that safety is their top priority and the final handshake with each crew member before they left the marina struck me as particularly meaningful – ‘this is it, the stage is set, you are ready – safe passage.’
Then, one by one, they rowed out of the harbour and disappeared over the horizon. I’m very much looking forward to the feeling of leaving all the commotion and emotion behind and settling into the row – everything else will be out of sight, out of mind, and the only thing left will be row, eat, sleep, repeat.
So, what did I learn? I have a lot to do before I’ll be ready. Departure day is a milestone to look forward to, but it will be difficult to let go – of the side of the marina pontoon, and of loved ones. I owe it to myself and to them to give me the best possible chance of making it to the other side. The boat and equipment will be 100% shipshape – that’s a given. I need to spend a fair amount of time in 2017 learning to be comfortable with myself and with Ali, Jez and Justin in confined spaces. I also need to prepare myself physically. Of course, I’ll be doing a massive amount of rowing training. But while swimming training in the waters of the Canary Islands, I concluded that I also want to be able to swim away from sharks faster than any of my crew mates!