Roger McCarthy: Wet, Exhausted and Flying Fish... a 3000 mile journey

Roger McCarthy: Wet, Exhausted and Flying Fish... a 3000 mile journey

Interview: Cameron Hanson

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Hi Roger, could you tell us who you are and what you do

I am 43 & work as a physical therapist. Although I've always enjoyed sport & being active, I'd never attempted any ultra-endurance events before undertaking the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

 

What exactly is the Talisker Whisky Atlantic challenge and what does it involve?

The TWAC is a rowing race across 3000 miles of open ocean, heading west from La Gomera in the Canaries to Antigua in the Caribbean. Boats are unsupported, meaning they have to depart carrying everything needed for the voyage.

 

I was part of Wight Lightning, a four man crew with the widest age range in the race. Our youngest member was Will at 23, while our skipper, Mark, celebrated his 60th birthday a couple of days after we landed. In between was myself & Dan, 30.

We set off on the 14th December last year, aiming to get across in under 50 days.  We arrived just under 38 days later on 21st January. The weather conditions were exceptional with very high seas & strong winds, but mostly taking us in the right direction. It was the fastest race ever & the leading crews ahead of us set all manner of world records.

For me, by far the hardest aspect was the prescribed routine of 'two on, two off', i.e two hours of rowing, then two hours to clean, eat, & sleep before you get up & do it all again, day & night for over five weeks.

 

What drove your motivation/inspiration for taking part?

 

In 1997 I was having a bad time in hospital & chances where I would not get out. While there, I saw a news report on the very first trans-Atlantic rowing race that fired my imagination. For some reason the idea of being exhausted, soaking wet & repeatedly hit in the face by flying fish for weeks on end appealed to me. I made a deal with myself that, should I recover my health, not only would I be kind to animals, help old people cross the street & call my mother more often, but I would also one day try to row across the Atlantic. The idea burrowed into my brain & it became my personal Everest.

 

Could you describe to us what the training and preparation was like in the build up to the race?

Preparation took more than a year of planning, fund raising qualifications, physical training & logistics. My original plan was to row solo & I visited the start of the 2016 race to learn as much as I could from the teams there. Although I came away even more determined to be part of the race the following year, it soon became obvious I would be unlikely to raise the c.£ 80k required in time.

Shortly after, a space became available on Mark's team of four & I leapt at the chance. Having waited two decades I didn't want to let the opportunity slip for another year. Even split four ways, the cost isn't exactly pocket change & raising the funds took a mammoth effort. Reaching the start line was undoubtedly no small feat itself, one we couldn't have achieved without a lot of generous support from corporate & individual sponsors.

I'd never even set foot in a rowing boat before, so I joined a club on the Thames & learned how to row a skiff. They are traditional wooden river boats, much wider & heavier than the racing hulls people know from the Olympics. This was as similar as I could get to an ocean rowing boat on a regular basis while living in landlocked Berkshire.

Once Wight Lightning, our ocean rowing boat, arrived, we began training on the Solent every few weeks, gradually building from hours at time to days. I remember suffering excruciating abdominal cramps on our first trip & wondering how on earth I would be able to row at sea for two hours once, let alone six times a day for weeks on end.

River rowers will often spend hours on an ergo, either smoothly gliding back & forth for miles, or powering through lung-busting intervals. Ocean rowing is a different animal; you aren't afforded the luxury of long, fluent, symmetrical strokes very often. Instead, you are working to stay upright while the boat rocks, rolls & squirms unpredictably beneath you. Most of the time each hand is doing something completely different to the other as you wrestle the water for control of the oars.

The boat tips alarmingly in response to a roller hitting sideways on; on one side the wave grabs the spoon & yanks it down, trying to snatch the handle violently from your hand; as the boat leans over, your other oar misses the water completely & flies through thin air. You are now fighting heavy resistance on one side, unexpectedly meeting none on the other, all while sitting on a sliding seat & trying to stay in time with your rowing partner so your oars don't clash jarringly. In a second, the wave pattern will change & the roles are reversed. It's not easy in daylight when you can see the waves coming, let alone at night. Repeat for two hours. All in all, you get the picture: it is rock-solid stability & strength-endurance, not high-intensity cardio, that's required.

I have spent my career working with athletes across the sporting spectrum & learned a long time ago there is a distinction between practicing sport-specific patterns & building the physical qualities needed to perform them. While time on the water helped forge the skills I'd need, I knew I would have to increase my work capacity through regular training on dry land. Fortunately, being a StrongFirst instructor, I was able to ask for advice from world-renowned strength & conditioning coach Pavel Tsatsouline. He put me on a path of building my slow-twitch fibres with two compound lifts twice a week. Simple, but far from easy. It worked a treat & I was feeling stronger & more resilient every time we headed out in the boat.

Just as everything was going well, I hit a banana skin. While gaining the sailing qualifications crew members must have for the race, I had an accident. After an intensely painful stay in hospital, including a memorably terrifying morphine overdose, it transpired I had ripped part of my quadriceps off the bone. Thankfully, a friend put me in touch with a doctor at GB Rowing who confirmed it need not mean the end of my participation in the race. With careful rehab, I was back to full training within eight weeks & able to regain most of the ground I had lost.

The easiest part of the whole endeavor was gaining the body weight necessary to help fuel the sustained effort. Between a week of sea-sickness at the start & the daily grind on the oars it is not unusual for rowers to lose a fifth of their body weight. In the months leading up to the race I took the highly unscientific approach of no longer being careful about what I ate. I kept a base of healthy nutrition, then indulged in whatever extras I fancied on top. The pizzas & ice cream worked a charm & I set off with an extra 8kg plus a pot belly. Of course, as our crossing was much quicker than anticipated, I arrived with more of the belly remaining than I'd hoped!

 

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Obviously being on a boat for such extensive periods of time will have an impact on anyone, is there anything you discovered about yourself whether that be a physical or mental realisation?

In my job as a therapist I am reminded daily how amazingly adaptable the human body is. Seeing & feeling my own body change in a relatively short time to the rigours of the crossing was an extreme reminder of that. It also underlined how important it is to address a physical problem rather than waiting for it to become an issue.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”- Benjamin Franklin

Certainly being away from my usual routine & environment reminded me there's no such thing as normal - it's just what you're used to. There were many trappings of modern life that I didn't miss a jot - checking your email or catching the news is suddenly unimportant when you need to deal with the basics of food, warmth & rest. Of course, it also makes you incredibly grateful for who & what really is valuable in your life as they are the things & people you miss the most. Stepping onto the quayside in Antigua, into the arms of friends & family is a feeling I want to remember forever more.

 

Did you ever reach a point where you felt you couldn't go on or did anything go wrong throughout the challenge and how did you overcome that?

Not unexpectedly, I suffered awful seasickness in the first few days. Training in choppy coastal waters just can't prepare you for being out on the big ocean rollers. There was a particular 72 hours of horrible nausea, vomiting & hallucinations where I'd have given anything to be elsewhere. A veteran of the race said he'd spent the first week so ill he was not scared he might die, but scared that he wouldn't. That sounds very glib & I laughed when he told me, then in those first few days I understood exactly what he meant!

Thankfully, I also recalled his advice to remember the whole trip wouldn't feel as bad as the first few days, that time passes, the body adapts & nothing lasts forever. I clung to the idea that change is a constant, so enjoy the good times while they last & ride out the bad until they end. It's a simplistic approach, but it helped. As awful as I felt, I wasn't dying, I hadn't suffered some terrible injury, I was safe on the boat & just had to wait it out.

 

How important were the people around you during the race?

They’re everything. The team was bigger than just the four of us rowing & we wouldn’t have made it without a lot of help from friends & family. But in the middle of the night, when the waves have been throwing you around for days, you’re soaked, cold & feeling pretty glum it’s your crew mates who can either make your life worse or better depending on their thoughts & actions.

Lots of people who have been on team expeditions gave us the same advice: look after each other. We tried to take it on board as our crew mantra. There was a desire to not let the others down, to try & gee them up when you could see them having a hard time. When you’re feeling miserable it’s easy to lash out at those around you or wallow in a downward spiral of self-pity. Neither of those are useful, so trying to put others first helps prevent that.

There were big sacrifices – one of the guys really helped me out by sharing his food - & small gestures that went a long way too. One night, the stern cabin I shared was flooded by a wave as we swapped shifts in some wild conditions. The one small comfort on board is getting as comfortable & dry as you can on your time off, so it was a kick in the guts to have everything we owned soaked through.

Once something gets wet on board, it is near impossible to dry it out. It was a real low.

Just as I was wringing out possessions & cursing the prospect of trying to sleep while wet & cold, the hatch opened & a hand appeared holding a Thermos  My rowing partner in the other cabin had made me some hot tomato soup. That doesn’t sound a big deal, until you realise how much effort it takes to do that in a tiny cabin while the boat is being battered & thrown around in heavy seas. Not only was it the best darn soup I’ve ever tasted, it was a selfless gesture that really snapped me out of my gloom.

 

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What advice would you give to people who are completely new to long distance rowing but are serious about giving it a go?

Be rich, or recruit someone on your team who is! Failing that, start small. There are several companies now offering trips of only a few days so you can see if the rowing bug bites you. If so, & you really want to undertake the challenge of crossing an ocean, be prepared to spend a lot of time & effort making it happen. Be careful who you listen to. Atlantic Campaigns, who organise the TWAC, are very helpful with unbiased advice from years of experience.

 

What are your ambitions for the future?

Crossing the Atlantic was a huge box ticked for me & I am not rushing to do anything similar. My wife & I relocated shortly before I set off, so my goals for the foreseeable revolve around making a comfortable home & building my business back up in a new area. In the future, if there is another adventure that grabs my attention in the same way as rowing an ocean, at least I should be a little wiser about what's involved.

 

Finally, do you have any funny anecdotes you could tell us about from your time in the race? 

There's not much to keep you amused out at sea, but I think we did a good job of finding plenty to laugh at on board amidst all the grind. One of the best was Will trying to wake Mark to change shifts in the middle of the night. He found Mark with eyes open, lying in their cabin, refusing to move because he was convinced the plane he was in would crash if he did. Will spent several minutes talking him down from his waking dream-cum-hallucination. Long term sleep deprivation has an effect on everyone!

Being followed by a very large tiger shark, trailing a few metres off our stern was particularly memorable. The word awesome is overused, but being so close to something so large & powerful was a reminder of its real meaning.

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