In December 2018, I participated in what is known as the toughest race on the planet. The Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge is 3,000-mile rowing race starting from La Gomera, Canary Islands and finishing in Antigua, Caribbean. It happens every year with contestants and their boats pit against anything the Atlantic can throw at them.

I was part of a five-man team, The Nautibuoys, and spent two years training, making sacrifices to our social lives and getting the funds for courses and buying a second hand boat, Mrs. Nelson. This venture took over our lives with free time spent on preparation, training and, also, our social lives with constantly having to spread the word to gain more media attention and sponsors.

We crossed the pond in just over 36 days and 19 hours of non-stop round the clock rowing every day, in shifts of 2¼ hours rowing and 1½ half hours rest. We rowed 16 hours a day and managed around 4 hrs of sleep in brutal night shifts. The food we brought along provided us with 10,000 calories per person per day for 55 days. People often ask what is was but, instead, I will say there isn’t a day that I miss those meals.

The conditions are harsh and sometimes the opposite of what you would think you want. Most days there was little wind and waves which made the midday shifts seem like an eternity in the 30 degree heat. Other days we would be raised and dropped in 10 metre waves coming from distant North Atlantic storms (but very gently sloped) which one moment made us feel as if we were in a valley and the next on top of what seemed like a hill and able to see for miles.

The times where the waves did push us west were delightful in that we could surf them if we timed our power strokes right. My favourite moment was one middle of the night shift where the moon was just high enough to glimmer over many long crested waves as if it were painted by Edvard Munch and each wave thrust the boat home in leaps and bounds.

Every day posed a new challenge, with either a faulty watermaker or steering breaking down in 5 meter confused seas or barnacles growing on our hull and slowing us down to a crawl. With every shift our sores and aches got worse and during every rest period, we did what little first aid we could to nurse them home. Anything that can break does break but learning to fix it is part of the experience.

We got to swim in the ocean only a couple times because we had to clean the boat but also because rarely would one get the chance to look down into the depths and know the floor is more than 6km down and who knows what lies there!

The biggest challenge was overcoming the mental task of accepting you are on tiny boat in a big ocean and it was going to take a while before you see land, family, & friends again. We dealt with our issues with humour and a steely attitude that the boat must keep going. We had our differences amongst the team but we always resolved them immediately because we were in a four-man boat with five guys so we had no other choice. Our motto was, “If you want to go fast you row alone. If you want to row far you go together.”

Each day we were greeted with amazing sunrises and beautiful sunsets; we saw the most spectacular night skies and countless shooting stars. Many times, we were treated to rainbows but we also saw them at night under moonlight, much the same but only in shades of grey!

The finish is indescribable in any other way that simply one of the greatest things I will ever experience. I may have cried during the race out of despair or pain but at the finish it was tears of happiness and sheer joy of seeing my loved ones and, of course, delving into some proper food! It was emotional and, in the end, made the whole race worth it. The first thing I did when I jumped on land was give my family a hug: they had to live the experience too, which was tough. I can only imagine their sadness waving us goodbye at the start line as we slowly disappeared over the horizon at La Gomera.

Our team aim was to break records. We set a new World Record for a five man crossing of 36 days 19 hours 9 minutes and 5 seconds! My personal aim was to drag Mrs Nelson (an old second boat with 4 crossings under her belt) over the finish line come what may because I knew the weather is the maker and breaker of records.

This journey takes over your life and will put you out of your comfort zone. There are still places on this planet that are untamed, the storms are real and you have to rely on yourself, your boat, and your team to survive. It is a challenge to the truest extent.

Paul Heerema (Grenville 10)