Answer: 1,920 hours, 4 men and 1 boat …
On the 14th of September 4 British men completed the extraordinary challenge to row unassisted in a 29-foot long ocean rowboat the 3,600 nautical miles from the coast of Australia to Mauritius.
The challenge was all in aid of raising awareness and funds for Parkinson’s disease, something that impacts hundreds of thousands of people every year and crew member Robin Buttery. Robin, was sadly diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s in 2015 and will be monitored by Oxford Brookes University during the challenge to better understand the realities of the disease. This is fundamental in ultimately finding a cure and improving the support network for those diagnosed with the disease at a young age.
The row required an enormous amount of not only physical but also mental strength from the team who faced everything from uncomfortable sores, sleep deprivation, adverse weather and even whales. The row is an exceptional accomplishment and the ultimate example of human determination, passion and teamwork.
A month on we spoke with crew member, adventurer and friend of Celaton, Barry Hayes to find out what the experience was really like.
What was daily life like on the boat?
Daily life on the boat fluctuated greatly, one day could be beautiful, the next we were getting battered around the ocean and coming off the oars like we’d been in a car accident. The sea state could be mirror flat, or gigantic 60-foot swells, most often it was somewhere in-between, and usually quite an angry sea state. We would row for 2 hours and then have 2 hours off. During our 2 hours ‘off’ we would cook and then eat, then do any blogs or filming or video editing that we needed to do and then upload it, and at some point try and get some sleep. It became very difficult to do everything in our 2 hours off, often forgoing sleep in order to get things put together. When we lost our communications about halfway across…in some ways it was devastating, but in some ways, it was a relief, as we now couldn’t upload any images or videos so there was less work to do. The food we ate was mostly freeze-dried rations, about 6,000Kcals per day each, but we still all manage to lose a couple of stone each by the other side.
Had your previous experiences prepared you for the row?
I was slightly concerned that after having rowed in the world’s first rowing Pacific rowing race in 2014 from California to Hawaii, that this adventure wouldn’t offer very much more. I was wrong. This was the hardest thing I have ever attempted and it was a very difficult crossing. That said, the Pacific crossing was life-changing for me. I was delivering the mail in a bank, I had no money at all, I’d never rowed a boat before, I’d never been to sea before, our team was genuinely referred to as the ‘Jamaican Bobsled Team of the race’, because it was ‘rag-bag’ and we didn’t get hold of a boat until just a few days before the race, and it was in very poor condition. We just worked very hard to make it happen, and we were successful, but it made me realise that pretty much anything is possible…it doesn’t matter if you are the CEO of some multinational corporation, or if you are a househusband or housewife, or indeed like me, you deliver the mail. These adventures are there for the taking and the Pacific adventure had taught me that, which meant that I absolutely knew that the Indian crossing was possible.
"These adventures are there for the taking and the Pacific Adventure had taught me that, which meant that I absolutely knew that the Indian crossing was possible."
What were the biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
The hardest part of any ocean row is getting to the start line. The adventure itself is the cool part, most people don’t see the 3 years of late nights and 3 am starts, in the gym, on the computer, organising events, and just constant work that it took to get us to that start line. Celaton were critical to the success of this project, coming on board at the perfect time to allow us to move forward. It is no exaggeration to say that if that hadn’t have happened, I don’t know that we would have made it to the start line, I am extremely proud of our relationship with Celaton.
During the race, the biggest issue for us was the weather. The night before we left our weather expert based in the UK called us and said: “I know you don’t want to hear this, but please don’t leave tomorrow”. We didn’t have any option, we had been in Australia for 4 weeks longer than we had wanted to because our boat got damaged in transit, and now our weather expert wanted us to wait another 3 weeks. We knew we would likely lose our jobs if we stayed any longer, as well as possibly things like our houses and put our families through even more heartache. We had to leave. If anyone was watching our track they would have seen that for the first 3-4 weeks we were rowing West, only to get blown back East again. Sometimes we would row all day and lose 20 miles, it was mentally the toughest thing to deal with. Mentally the way we dealt with these times was individual to each of us. I think I was fine as long as we were rowing when we stopped rowing to go on to Sea Anchor (like a large underwater parachute that stops you drifting backwards so much), then I found that very difficult…just watching us slowly drifting back to Australia whilst not being able to row due to the sea state…that was the worst. We ended up on sea anchor 8 times, which has to be some kind of horrible record, and one of those times we were on anchor for 3 days, and for the entire three days, you’d just lie there, boiling hot, with three other sweaty men, in a tiny cabin design for two that you can’t really sit up in very easily, with sweat dripping from the ceiling in to your eyes like some kind of slow water torture…genuinely a hell on earth. I struggled the most with that, I’d try to just shut it out by keeping my eyes shut and staying still, I wouldn’t eat, I’d rarely drink, just willing it to be over. As long as we were rowing I was generally happy enough, there were a couple of occasions when the sea was particularly violent where I thought I’d broken bones from the oars snapping down on to my legs or up into my face, and there was one point where we capsized which sent me out of the boat that gave me a bit of an adrenaline rush towards the end, but mostly it was just about carrying on rowing regardless of the conditions we faced.
What kept you motivated?
I’m very family orientated, my fiancé Emma and 13 years old Jack were my major focus, every stroke was a stroke closer to getting back to them. That said if I just focused on that then time seemed to slow down so during the day we would talk, about anything and everything, about our lives, about the good things we’d done, the bad things we’d done, we’d find interesting clouds, we’d play word games, anything to pass the time. At night we’d listen to our iPods…a lot of the time I listened to true crime podcasts that I’d downloaded prior to leaving, they were good, but I did worry that I came out of this row with far too much knowledge of a serial killer mind!
What was the most extraordinary thing you saw?
About a month into the row we had a really up-close view of some huge whales, just this big beautiful eye staring right back at us as one of them lay alongside the boat as the other one circled us and went underneath us, it was genuinely one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I guess the most extraordinary thing we saw was a shoal of flying squid that came flying through the air towards us being chased by a hungry dorado. There was great debate over whether these things even existed until about 5 years ago, but we saw them first hand, lots of them flying through the air, amazing creatures. Perhaps the most incredible thing that happened was with Robin. The whole row was about him, it was about proving that a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease does not mean the end of an active life. Robin proved that, but we also used this event as a research experiment with Oxford Brookes University to see what effect extreme endurance exercise had on Robin’s illness. We hoped it would slow the progression of his illness, however, something quite exciting and unexpected happened to him. Prior to the row, Robin had a very pronounced limp, which was part of his Parkinson’s Symptoms, however, when we got off in Mauritius, that limp had completely disappeared! Certainly to us, this had the effect of not just slowing the progression, but actually reversing the symptoms. This news has sent waves through the Parkinson’s community and we’ve had Robin on rowing machines with people scanning his neuron activity with a strange looking hat to find out why this has happened. Today Robin has actually been sent to Brussels to talk to European Parliament about the crossing and about how it’s affected his disease so we’re very excited that our little row in the sea may lead to exciting progression towards a cure.
"just this big beautiful eye staring right back at us as one of the m lay alongside the boat ... it was genuinely one of the most beautiful experiences of my life."
What was the first thing you did when you got back home?
I met my family at the airport and headed back home where I got to see my dog, Mack. My partner is fairly sure that I missed the dog more than her! Once I’d got into the house I just sat on my nice comfy sofa, that is dry and doesn’t move, and I loved it. Just sitting there doing normal things like having a brew with my family was what I had craved for the 70 days at sea, and experiencing it was just as good as I’d hoped for. The following day I had my best friends over, I ordered an 18-inch pizza and devoured it in record time! The next day I came back to work, and that, I have to admit, was a challenge. That first day back may have been the most tired I’ve ever been!
If you could give the ‘pre-Indian-Ocean-Row’ Barry one piece of advice, what would it be?
Take more care with ordering food! We had a great food sponsor, but because it was very last minute we just said: “just send 1500 meals, a selection of stuff”. Some food was nice, some was a real struggle to get down, and if we’d taken more care we could have made the trip a lot more pleasant!
And finally, what challenges would you like to tackle in the future?
I’ve promised myself that 2019 will be a year for my family, I won’t go away anywhere and I’ve promised we’ll have a holiday in Anglesey. I am running a 100-mile Ultra Marathon on the 18th May, just to try and keep me focused on something to train for, but nothing that involves hours of computer work or long periods away. Beyond 2019…I’m not sure, there are a lot of barriers to further adventure, crippling debt from being away so long being a major problem to me, trying to hold down a full-time job being another, but I’ll find a way to combat these barriers. I’d like to row the Atlantic at some point, I’ve wanted to swim the channel since I was a child, I’d like to learn to cross country ski and then try and get to the North Pole solo, perhaps even the South Pole (probably not solo that one), I’d also like to cycle around the world at some point, although I haven’t ridden a bike since I was a child so that’ll take some prep! I think mostly though I will just be looking out for opportunities and then grabbing those opportunities with both hands when I can.