Trio share brutal reality of rowing non-stop across the Atlantic

Each team member rowed for around 780 hours across the two months (Picture: Johnnie Ball/Forgot Me Knot Row)

Back in April, Johnnie, Steph and Dirk reached land for the first time in two months – after rowing an eye-watering 4,300 miles across the Atlantic Ocean for charity.

The trio had made it to French Guiana from Portugal, after rowing practically non-stop for 65 days.

But their touch down on solid land didn’t go quite as expected.

‘Steph jumped off the boat onto the pontoon, to touch land for the first time, and just fell over,’ 34-year-old Johnnie tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I thought he was messing about and so I got off the boat and I fell straight down onto my knees, too.’

‘As soon as you hit land, you just can’t walk. It’s like someone’s put concrete boots on you. You lose all of the little stability muscles that allow you to balance when you walk, because you’ve been on water for so long.

‘So we had to crawl to tie the boat – and then we would just laugh hysterically because we couldn’t believe that we actually couldn’t walk and that we’d arrived.

In many ways, it’s hardly a surprise – considering the determined trio each rowed for 12 hours every day during their two-month stint. A total of around 780 hours of rowing per person.

the team on the boat

Boat life (Picture: Johnnie Ball/Forgot Me Knot Row)

sunset at sea

They got some pretty amazing sunsets (Picture: Johnnie Ball/Forgot Me Knot Row)

Daily life on their eight-metre vessel started with a morning check-in at 11am, before taking it in shifts to row – with at least one person on at any one time and the others either eating, relaxing or sleeping.

Johnnie explains: ‘If it was daylight hours, we probably just sit about on deck, so there’s no way to really go. You don’t want to sit in cabinets, in the latter half of the journey it was too hot. In the former half you’d just get bored of sitting in the cabin.

‘So we’d tend to sit on deck, have a bit of a chat, and then changeover shift then go have a little rest, get up, eat and row.

‘All you can really do is either sit on deck, row, or lie in the cabin. So just those things on rotation.’

dirk rowing

Each member rowed for around 10-12 hours a day (Picture: Johnnie Ball/Forgot Me Knot Row)

steph rowing

The trip came with various challenges (Picture: Johnnie Ball/Forgot Me Knot Row)

But the journey didn’t get off to a great start – as an unusual weather system meant wind starting pushing their boat in the wrong direction.

‘Once we’d been on the ocean for a few days, we hit this counter current basically, it just stopped us being able to make progress. So we were rowing into the wind into the current and you just can’t do that,’ explains Johnnie.

‘So with the only thing to do was to throw out the sea anchor and sit out for a day and then try again. You get these tiny windows where the wind might turn and you can make a little bit of progress.

‘We had this horrible sort of 10 days, maybe two weeks, of just battling to try and make progress. We’re doing 20 miles a day, sometimes zero miles a day. And when you’re trying to row 3,500 miles and you’re just doing 20 miles a day, it’s tough.’

If that wasn’t enough, their solar-powered batteries stopped working because of the weather, which meant their electric water maker (which converts sea water into drinking water) didn’t work – so they had to do this by hand. A brutal process which took around 25 minutes to pump just one liter of water.

Thankfully, this was fixed later on in the trip.

johnnie in the boat

Johnnie on the boat (Picture: Johnnie Ball/Forgot Me Knot Row)

the boat at sea

Rowing at night was tricky (Picture: Johnnie Ball/Forgot Me Knot Row)

Rowing at night, in total darkness, was also another major challenge.

‘The scariest bit was probably at night rowing on your own when there’s no moon and it’s really, really dark,’ adds Johnnie .

‘A significant portion of the month, you’ve got no moon at all. And if there’s no moon really is just black, there’s nothing – especially if the clouds are out.

‘So you could be on a cloudy night and no moon, and you just can’t see anything at all. And if the waves are big, sometimes multiple storeys high, you can hear them crashing and you feel the boat going up. So you’ll be rushing off the side of a wave.

‘Obviously, if a wave comes over on you side-on, the boat will just roll. So if the boat ever turned onto the wrong side in the dark, it was you know all hands on deck to turn it the right direction.’

The entire journey, the team also battled with physical ailments – including seasickness, saddle sore, foot injuries, pressure blisters and more.

Johnnie adds that the mental toll of the trip was tough at times, too – with each team member taking a morale dip at different points during the voyage.

He continues: ‘On the morale side, there were ups and downs, but generally, we’re really good at supporting each other and working as a team and staying.

‘We became very, very attuned to how each other were feeling.’

Johnnie adds that at the daily morning check-in everyone had to state their ‘battery levels’ for all aspects of boat life (energy, hunger, tiredness, morale etc) – and this was a great way of seeing who was struggling a little and who could help out more.

steph on the boat

Steph at the helm (Picture: Johnnie Ball/Forgot Me Knot Row)

the boat in the ocean

They did it in their eight-metre boat (Picture: Johnnie Ball/Forgot Me Knot Row)

But, of course, the unique experience came with many highlights, too.

Johnnie recalls that hitting the halfway point in miles – especially after a frustrating start – was a high point for him.

He says: ‘We didn’t realize we were going to hit it, and then suddenly, we got a text on the satellite phone saying we’d just hit the halfway mark. We had no idea. At the time, we were all a bit down – being exhausted, worn out and a bit low in morale.

‘We got this text and we just had an impromptu celebration. We just grabbed a bottle of rum and started drinking it, and I was like, “let’s set off a flare.” So we just grabbed one of the emergency parachute flares and just shot up a parachute flare in the middle of the ocean, which was a bit naughty.

‘We were just so bored of doing the same thing. It’s so grinding. It’s such a rhythm of just the same thing.

‘You go into this sort of weird mode where it doesn’t feel like real-life and it’s just so strange – so to have some interruption, where you can just be silly and mess about, was pretty fun.’

the whole team on the boat

Reaching halfway was a highlight for the team (Picture: Johnnie Ball/Forgot Me Knot Row)

the boat on the sea

They battled tough winds at the start (Picture: Johnnie Ball/Forgot Me Knot Row)

But their efforts all eventually paid off when the trio made it to French Guiana – despite arriving in the middle of the night, unexpectedly, with nobody there to greet them.

However, they did celebrate properly when they returned back to the UK – with a party at the Red Lion pub in Newport.

They’ve also raised almost £80,000 for Dementia UK – a charity close to Johnnie’s heart.

And, in addition to this, they managed to carry out significant ocean research during their trip – by recording marine mammal sounds for experts.

But, for now, it’s back to work and office life for the team of rowers – as they put their 65 days on the sea behind them.

You can still donate to their fundraising page here.

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