We have become slightly jaded when it comes to ‘bucket lists’ and quite used to tales of the Three Peaks and a marathon or two. That’s not to say those challenges are easy by any means but they are not uncommon for people to do. Then occasionally you hear of something that seems profoundly difficult and even a little crazy. The Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, an unassisted row across the Atlantic, certainly falls into that category, as more people have climbed Everest than have successfully rowed across the Atlantic.
But there is nothing crazy about Theo Jones of Alresford. He is softly spoken, unpretentious and modest yet there is something about his gaze that reveals a steely determination.
“I was eighteen and at school when a friend came up with the idea that we should row across the Atlantic- we were deadly serious- my parents put their foot down saying, “great idea but you’re too young”. It was an idea that never left me though and when friend and colleague Shane Chadwick mentioned it again some two years ago I leapt at the chance. What really kicked me off though was a comment made by a guest on a boat I was working on in the Middle East. He was talking about climbing Kilimanjaro, which I had done; his response was, “well if you can do it I certainly can! That really got under my skin, so I was determined!”
Theo and Shane have sailing connections working as they do on super yachts around the world, they embarked on the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge under the name ‘Team Hessco’ named after their main sponsor Hessco, an engineering company specialising in building marine flood barriers.
In between super yacht contracts Theo lives back in the family home in Alresford as he has done for the past fifteen years, frequenting the Globe his favourite pub, while Shane returns to his native Perth, Australia.
“We obviously had to take time out to train for the row, eighteen months of weights and hours on the rowing machine, of which I’m not a massive fan! But we also trained in North Wales; took the boat to the Monaco boat show; rowed at Henley where we found our chief sponsor Hessco and to Barcelona marina where we did more training and promotional work for the Atlantic challenge. Our aim was to raise £100,000 for our chosen charities, the Not Forgotten Association which helps supply leisure and recreational activities for ex-service men and women with disabilities; and The Think Fragile X Foundation to raise research funding and awareness for Fragile X Syndrome, (FXS) which is the most common cause of inherited intellectual disability and Autism. Currently we have raised £35,000.”
So last September in the fourteen-year-old twenty-four foot ‘Lady Charmian’ the two friends set of from La Gomera in the Canary Isles to row the Atlantic, in a fleet of twelve other boats, to arrive in Antiqua some arduous 3000 miles and sixty days later.
“ The aim was to be in Antiqua for my twenty eighth birthday.
The teams set off at staggered times and soon lost sight of one another. We had AIS but that only operates on a line of sight of ten miles so you’re very quickly on your own.”
I wondered about the all-important essentials, water, food, sleep and the affects on the body.
“We used Sudocrem and Vaseline but to be honest you just row naked to minimize rubbing and sores. We learnt a trick to use the toweling handle protectors from tennis rackets on the oars which worked really well, our hands were well calloused from the training though. One of the most painful things was washing with surgical spirit, it keeps the skin as sterile and tough but it’s really painful! We had both bulked up considerably in preparation for the row; we had both lost around two stone each by the end. Our nutrition was very carefully researched with a specific amount of calories, eight hundred, consumed every two hours and obviously hydration was key. The food was in vacuumed foil pouches and we had sufficient water for seventy days. Our clothing when we needed it had no zips so that water couldn’t seep in.
We would row for two hours on two hours off, the boat had a tiny compartment with one small bed, it would drip with condensation and there were items stored in nets around the inside. We each had our own sheet so that there was no cross contamination from sores, but the sheets were damp most of the time! Sleeping was difficult and in bad whether the waves would pound against the door.”
Was there a moment that was especially terrifying?
“Oh yeah! Shane, being a typical Ozzie, decided to go over board but he caught his foot and there was the realization that I could be alone if he met with an accident. But there was one moment in particular; there was a storm with waves of roughly six to seven meters high, I was rowing and found myself on the top of a wave looking straight down the front of it and into the valley, as we descended I remember letting go of the oars and crouching down with my hands over my head. I thought that was it, the roar of the waves was just incredible. The boat is designed to right itself but even so I focused on the quote from Winston Churchill we had painted on the cabin door-“If you’re going through hell, keep going”.
But the journey had its lighter moments.
“Being on the ocean during the day is one thing- the amazing varying colours of the ocean, the way the dolphin love to surf along the top of a wave- but at night it’s truly awesome. With no light pollution if the moon is full it’s almost like daylight and the stars are simply amazing you can plot the course of the constellations and of course navigate by them. Apart from the dolphin a whale with its’ calf were the only other wildlife we saw, but then there was Flash, a Petrel, who literally crash landed on the boat clearly not too well. We popped him into a bucket and gave him water. He was with us for a few days but sadly didn’t make it, the folks back home were more interested in poor Flash than they were in us for a time!”
On the forty fifth day of the row the sea had calmed.
“ We knew we were close to the finish in Antiqua, we could see the light arch in the night sky and by day there was more shipping, mostly large tankers. But there was a strong head wind and rain, despite us rowing together we just couldn’t make any headway it was agony! We passed the finish line on day forty-six with just an extraordinary sense of achievement and most importantly our friendship in tact. We had some excellent advice from the skipper of a military team who said, “the row is the row but you want to still be friends at the end of it”, and he was right.”
With life on the tiny boat pared down to basic necessities has it altered Theo’s thoughts on what he couldn’t do without?
“For sure! So much of what we have is superfluous, the Talisker Challenge absolutely emphasizes that, but I have learnt I can’t live without dry clean sheets and really good food-Pizza!
So what next for Theo Jones, another Atlantic crossing?
Theo laughs, “ Well never say never! The boat is actually up for sale and all the kit is in store. But I have been invited to canoe the whole length of the Amazon River which I’m seriously considering!”
Well, you could expect nothing less of Theo Jones-one of life’s true adventurers-with, at the age of twenty-eight, many more stories to tell.
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Written by Gill Grant