Andrew Veal is a distracted soul. Whether ordering his breakfast or watching for traffic wardens approaching his car parked outside the café where we meet, he seems a little distant. But then so would anyone whose wife was all alone in a rowing boat in the mid-Atlantic. What's more, he left her there.
In early October, Andrew and Debra Veal were one of over 30 teams who pushed off from Tenerife to embark on the Ward Evans Atlantic Challenge – a rowing race from the Canary Islands to Barbados. It is, according to Chay Blyth, who conceived the race, "a supreme mental and physical challenge... that will push the human spirit to the limit".
Andrew reached that limit all too soon – he dropped out on 21 October. Behind him he left his wife to face 3,000 miles of ocean alone in Troika, a 23ft rowing boat. And, even though the winners (two New Zealanders) arrived in Barbados five weeks ago, Debra is determined to complete her quest and become only the 10th woman to row the Atlantic.
Cut to the eve of their departure over two months ago. The couple were relishing their forthcoming adventure. "We wanted to do one really big adventure together before we settled down," said Debra. "It just seems like the ultimate challenge." But, just two weeks into a journey expected to last three months, Andrew had left the boat and Debra had decided to keep going. "She couldn't have been more wonderful," he says. "She is still utterly supportive of my decision."
In October, The Independent on Sunday had asked about their fears before setting off. "Mine are about not getting there, for any reason – not drowning or dying or anything like that," said Andrew. Debra admitted: "I imagine that it will be quite daunting," but also made it clear she wasn't along just for the ride: "If we are anywhere in the top 10 I will be rowing my socks off to get to number one. Because Andrew's rowing with a woman, most people assume we are only in it for the experience. They couldn't be more wrong."
They began well. Three days in, the pair reported, via their personal website, that life was swell despite slipping back from a first-day race position of fourth. Ten days later the couple said that they had got used to their rowing patterns and were amazed by the marine wildlife. Five days after that came the announcement: "It is with great sadness that the Veals decided today Andrew should retire and join the safety yacht – it was no longer a challenge but an impossibility, with 6ft 6in Andrew unable to adjust to life on board..."
Andrew, tanned but looking a little shell-shocked just a few days after his return to these shores, chuckles at the reminder: "The team said the report I sent through couldn't be released. They didn't want to alarm anyone." It was Andrew's mind, not his size, that was troubling him. He had in fact been relying on the anti-anxiety drugs provided in the first-aid kit. He talks with disarming honesty about the sheer fright and panic he felt out on the Atlantic.
In contrast to his wife, who took to high-seas rowing immediately, Andrew's fears emerged as soon as Troika moved out of the calm waters of the Canaries into the Atlantic. What started as a heightened state of anxiety became unshakeable paranoia after a few days. Andrew recalls: "As it got rougher and rougher I was absolutely terrified – lying in the cabin hearing a rope knocking against the side should be a soothing sound, but to me that was something breaking every time."
After two days he told Debra he wasn't sure he could carry on. "It was a big thing to get that one out, because I'd been wrestling with it for a while. I got more and more irrational," he says. "A small bit of you sits on the outside and watches, thinking, 'You're really beginning to lose it here.' It got quite bad on some days. Debra started to see it and suggested it was probably not very good for either of us."
The words of Blyth returned to him again and again. "He said you have to look down at your little brown toes and ask yourself, are you as happy as you can possibly be? I knew it wasn't for me. The minute I got off I knew there was no way I could go back."
Still, Debra's reluctance to quit caught him by surprise. "She said, 'I think you should know I'm going to carry on.' I said, 'What?!' We had never discussed this – but had I thought about it, I wouldn't have been the least surprised. She said, 'Look, I probably won't like it because I don't like being on my own, but I'd just like to give it a go. Probably see you in a couple of days' time.' Then she got started and she loved it..."
Debra has been rowing alone for 65 days now. With 1,000 miles to go, the earliest she is likely to arrive in Barbados is mid-to-late January. As with the seven other teams still rowing, her progress moves in fits and starts – the changing swells of the Atlantic push her backwards and forwards. But Debra has made some headway recently; she crossed 40 degrees longitude last weekend and is moving faster than at any time on her journey.
The highs and lows have been intense, as her daily website updates testify. And thousands from all over the world have sent her e-mails and text messages to speed her onher incredible journey.
Andrew initially remained on board the support yacht in daily contact with his wife, but has had to return to work at Troika, the company who sponsored the boat. He is now concerned with the considerable debt this £50,000 venture has landed him and Debra in. He is seeking more sponsorship – Debra's satellite phone bill was £4,000 after just six weeks. A book of their experience is almost certain, and they posted a request for would-be titles on the website.
"We had one early on that I think will be hard to beat," smiles Andrew: "Wife on the Ocean Wave."Reuse content