They survived an attack from a Great White shark and a close encounter with a gigantic tanker ship during an epic 3,000-mile voyage.
But doctor James Robins and the rest of an eight-man crew have joined a small and elite band of people to have successfully rowed the Atlantic. The fearless team completed their remarkable journey – using nothing other than human power – in just 43 days.
They arrived in Barbados at the end of the gruelling non-stop trip 1,044 hours and 55 minutes after setting off from Puerto Mogan in Gran Canaria. Exhausted James, a captain in the British Army Reserve (Royal Army Medical Corps), said: “It was really strange to see land after nearly 44 days at sea. When out in the ocean you begins to realise how large the Atlantic actually is.”
“In our crossing we only saw four other vessels – and one tanker was headed straight for our course, necessitating evasive action. On the 25th day of their epic voyage the crew’s boat, carbon kevlar monohull Avalon, was attacked by a ferocious Great White shark.”
“I was having a break eating some food in the bow cabin,” said James. “All of a sudden there was a huge bang and the whole boat shook. I rushed out on deck and was told a shark had attacked the boat, biting into the rudder. The rudder was made of solid steel and the shark was seen swimming off immediately after – perhaps to see a dentist. This reminded us how dangerous the expedition could be, not least if someone fell overboard.”
The 26-year-old, who has raised thousands of pounds to help buy life-saving equipment and facilities for Sheffield-based charity Neurocare, rowed in two-hour shift patterns constantly throughout the trip meaning neither he nor any of the team got a break of more than two hours during the crossing 2,986-mile (4,700km) crossing.
James, who lives in Fitzwilliam Street, Sheffield, said: “Despite having breaks of two hours, by the time we sorted out various tasks we rarely achieved more than 90 minutes uninterrupted sleep throughout the expedition. “This sleep deprivation was really tough and indeed some crew members, myself included, experienced hallucinations while rowing at night. This was a really bizarre experience. The sleeping arrangements were also very cramped, with the bunks not wide enough to lie on your back.”
The group set off from Gran Canaria on January 20 – just two days after James, who works at Rotherham District General Hospital, dislocated his shoulder and was forced to reset it himself. He said: “The first 24 were the toughest. Rowing out into the Atlantic Ocean in the pitch blackness with choppy conditions and waves – which you can’t see – coming from all angles made sure we all got a thorough soaking and initiation into what we were about to undertake.
Some crew members found this start very tough indeed. However before long we developed and settled into a routine. In fact this routine is what gives you the most comfort. The day-to-day routine really is the simple life.”
“All you have to think about is rowing for two hours and then resting for two hours. In your rest period there are only a few options of how to spend your time: sleep, prepare some food, or use the toilet.” During the crossing, which saw the rowers burn 5,000 calories a day, they ate a special diet which they were able to prepare with the minimal facilities available. We had specially-made, high-calorie ration packs which contained freeze-dried meals such as macaroni cheese – a good one – and beef stroganoff – a bad one. We boiled water on a gas cooker, which can be a rather interesting process in a moving boat, and reconstituted the meals before eating. The ration packs also contained chocolate, energy bars, extra noodles, nuts, and, most importantly, tea bags for a good brew.”
Despite eating reasonably well the team were prone to aches and pains along their journey. James, originally from Norwich and a former pupil at Norwich School, said: “The routine is unrelenting and in the whole crossing I never missed a rowing shift. Rowing 12 hours a day is tough on the body, inducing a slow starvation and weakening oneself and thus putting more strain on joints,” said James. “One crew member in particular developed a nasty tendonitis in his hands making every rowing stroke excruciating. I developed horrible pain in my buttocks due to extensive pressure sores and boils from the sea salt. Every time a wave soaked us on deck these sores would cause horrible pain. When rowing, the boat is very low to the water with the deck sitting maybe 50cm about the water. This makes you very exposed to the waves meaning that we would be wet during nearly every shift.
“Even worse was the threat of waves coming from the side which threatened to wash crew overboard. This was particularly concerning during night-time. While completing the expedition I developed a huge respect for the ocean and realised how quickly any situation could become extremely dangerous. We experienced seven-to-eight-metre waves, a huge mass of water, which made us feel incredibly small when in the trough between two of these waves. Fortunately we didn’t capsize or lose anyone overboard.”
The team completed the crossing in 43 days, 12 hours and 55 minutes.
“Originally we aimed for a sub 32-day crossing which would have been a world record,” said James, whose participation was supported by South Yorkshire Orthopaedic Services. “However we were beset with bad luck from the start. Firstly the auto-helm, a device which uses GPS to control the boat direction automatically, broke in the first 24 hours. This meant only three people could row at one time as one person had to manually steer the boat. We were also very unlucky with the weather. Ideally the trade winds and currents add to the boat’s speed, assisting the crossing, but we had a two-week period where there was no wind and we were fighting head currents. This took its toll on the crew physically and psychologically – not least in the blistering heat of the tropics.”
University of Sheffield medicine graduate James and his companions were greeted by loved ones when they made a triumphant arrival in Barbados on the morning of March 5. “It was great to see friends and family in Barbados and they made sure a steak dinner was ready for the crew even though it was about eight o’clock in the morning,” he said. “The taste and also texture of real food was fantastic – as was the taste of one or two cold bottles of beer.
“It’s a bizarre feeling to know the job is complete and we don’t have to row anymore. Indeed the culmination of not resting for more than two hours and having less than 90 minutes sleep leaves you in a daze, making the trip feel like a dream. We subsequently had a rather large party after all the crew had caught up on some much-needed rest. It was a real privilege to complete this expedition and to raise money for Neurocare, a Sheffield-based charity which helps to fund the neurosurgical department at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital.”
To find out more about the trip or to sponsor James visit www.justgiving.com/atlanticfantastic and to learn more about his sponsors visit www.syosltd.com/
JAMES’ REMARKABLE TRIP IN NUMBERS:
- 43 DAYS, 12 HOURS AND 55 MINUTES – a total crossing time of 1,044 HOURS AND 55 MINUTES OR 61,920 MINUTES of rowing.
- 2,986 MILES travelled.
- 5,000 CALORIES burned per day.
- Never more than 90 MINUTES OF UNINTERRUPTED SLEEP.
- FOUR OTHER VESSELS seen during the entire trip.
For more information, pictures or quotes contact James Robins on 07825 775 906.