A rowing trip across the Atlantic Ocean: Two young Brits do the nearly impossible in a tiny boat

Like many great ideas, this one had a lot of help from a trip to the pub.

James Whittle and Tom Caulfield had hardly any experience in rowing, but that didn’t stop them from recently completing an insane, 54-day row boat trip across the Atlantic Ocean in a ship they called Tempest Two.

I was lucky enough to catch up to the two British lads recently at Sugar Bay Resort in Barbados, where they were recovering from their ordeal – and trying to make sense out of a return to something like a normal life.

“I think I was inspired by my Mum” the 26-year-old Caulfield told me. “She was in an organized race across the Atlantic, a Clipper race. They came in after a year at sea and I was there to see it. Seeing the elation and emotion was just so awesome. I got to thinking about it and I was thinking, ‘I haven’t really done anything cool in my life.’
So I literally googled ‘What’s the hardest thing on earth to do’ and came up with rowing the Atlantic.’

“I was at the pub one night and texted James. Admittedly I’d had a couple of beers.”

“I was at a garden party,” James, 25, told me. “Yeah, I think I’d had a drink. I got the text from Tom and I wrote back, ‘Let’s do it.’”

tempestshotShockingly, neither men (both working in marketing in the London area) had much experience with rowing.

“I’d never rowed at all, I don’t think,” said Tom.

“I think I went once or twice,” James said with a wry grin.

They worked themselves into shape and worked on plans for months.

“Originally we had a large company that was going to help with back-up and safety and all that,” James said. “But it was expensive, so we killed the idea.”

“We wanted to do it our own way,” Tom said. He then paused. “We didn’t know how hard it can be.”

Their aim was to make the crossing in 50 days, beginning in the Canary Islands and working their way to Barbados. They had a seven-meter boat with a single bed in a covered area, with plenty of freeze dried food and a desalination device for drinking water.

They left right after Christmas as it’s supposed to be after the hurricane season. Unfortunately, they met up with what they said was the first such storm in the Atlantic in a half-century at that time of year.

“There’s a very steep learning curve,” said James. “We got into these massive swells straight off. The first couple days we weren’t eating enough and we feel asleep at the oars at night because we were tired.”

They had a GPS system and communication devices so they could track weather and report their position to friends and family, but there was no support boat chugging alongside to provide a safe harbour or potentially needed supplies.

“We capsized completely once about 12 days in, and another time kind of half-capsized,” said James. “I was rowing one day and we hit a big wave. I had a lifeline but I was thrown out of the boat. The boat righted itself and I managed to get back on board.”

“I was inside sleeping,” said Tom. “Suddenly I was on the ceiling and everything was on top of me. For a while I thought I was under water.”

The storms were so bad at one point that they were stuck in their tiny cabin for about three days in a row. Lightning storms came and went. They lost a pair of oars at one point and had another pair crack before they were able to fix them.

“It can be pretty soul destroying,” said Tom. “It’s so weird when you feel zero control of your life.”

The pair ended up navigating 2,600 nautical miles (about 3,000 actual miles) of open ocean.

“A lot of nights it was just the light of the moon and us,” Tom said. “We had comets cross our path, lighting up the sky. There would be moments of pure elation, but we also realized nobody really knew where we were.”

They spotted dolphins along the way, as well as a pod of pilot whales that appeared to be following them. They also saw marlin and at least one giant shark leap into the air, apparently looking for aquatic food and not a human lunch.

The end of the trip was harrowing, with swirling storms sending their boat skidding in the wrong direction and currents pushing them away from Barbados. They could see where the waves were crashing on shore, but they had a devil of a time making it to the island.

Finally, after 54 days at sea, they arrived in Port St. Charles, where friends and family were on hand to greet them.

The pair are hugely thankful for their supporters along the way, including Spotify, Go Pro and Vita Coco coconut water. They’re also proud to have raised money for Brain Tumor Research and the Make A Wish Foundation.

Sitting at a table near the beach at the Sugar Bay Resort a few days after landing and snacking on a fresh-made sandwich, both young men appeared tanned and rested, with beards worthy of an NHL playoff team. They were back on dry land with food and drink aplenty and comfortable beds in seemingly cavernous rooms. Yet they appeared uncertain.

tempestguys“It’s going to be very tough to top,” Tom told me. “I’ve sat here a couple times on the beach looking around and thinking, ‘What’s the point of this?’ It’s funny, because everything we did on that trip, everything, was for one purpose; to get across. We ate and slept and rowed all for one thing. To get across. And we did. But now what?”


Got a comment or complaint? Email me at jim@jimbyerstravel.com
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