Ben Fogle: Action man
A regular skier and keen horseman, he is also a qualified diver, skipper, dinghy sailor and trainee pilot
Saturday 14 January 2006
Today will be Day 46 for Ben Fogle and his partner, the double Olympic gold medallist, James Cracknell, and they are only two-thirds of the way there. The pair are rowing the Atlantic, following Christopher Columbus's route from the Canary Islands to Antigua in the West Indies - a distance of 2,552 nautical miles, which is even further in landlubber miles (2,931 as the speedometer flies).
"Incurably cheerful" is how someone once described Fogle, who presents wildlife and travel programmes on the telly. You can bet that the wild waves have been a cure of sorts. The duo have experienced the worst weather in the race's history. Which means that - based on average daily mileage so far - it could be Day 65 before they see landfall.
You have to hand it to Fogle: he's game for almost anything. The last time he rowed was at school where he concedes he was "rubbish". Still, he signed up - even before he knew an Olympic rower who has partnered Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent was to be his shipmate - to brave 50ft waves, hurricanes and even sharks in a race he knew would take at least 40 days (the current record) but which has sometimes gone on for four months.
Already the pair are well on the way to losing the two and a half to three stone predicted - Fogle has had to take off his watch because his wrist has got so thin. They are engaged in gruelling two hours on/two hours off rowing stints, 24 hours a day, because to avoid drifting off course a rower must be at the oars all the time.
The weight loss is despite a diet of more than 8,000 calories a day. In addition they have to cope with sleep deprivation, for they rarely snatch more than 90 minutes in a row. Then there are the blisters, 40-odd at the last count. And the sunstroke - they row naked, or almost so, to avoid the chafing of salt-drenched garments, and they aren't allowed a canvas awning, in case they cheat and use it as a sail. On top of all that there is the isolation and boredom.
Ben Fogle, of course, has had some preparation for that. He first came to public notice in 2000 as one of a group of 36 men, women and children who were marooned for a year on the uninhabited Scottish island of Taransay in the BBC's reality television show Castaway. It was hardly the most romantic of settings, with its 100mph winds and the driving rain of one of the worst winters in recent memory. But Fogle - with his infectious grin, nicely rounded vowels and shock of blond hair set off by a year-round tan - became the programme's heart-throb and was swiftly accounted one of Britain's most eligible bachelors and received scores of romantic propositions by mail from the mainland.
On his return, the 26-year-old did not go back to his old job as the picture editor of the society glossy Tatler. Instead, with his clean-cut, daytime good looks and shining smile, he embarked on a career as a television presenter. So omnipresent has he become, with Countryfile, One Man and His Dog, Death By Pets and Cash in the Attic - not to mention guest appearances on So Graham Norton, Celebrity Ready Steady Cook, The Paul O'Grady Show, The Weakest Link and the National Lottery - that he is inescapable even in his nautical absence. He is pre-recorded on The Kumars at No 42 tonight, and Animal Park every day next week.
Being before a camera seemed natural to Ben Fogle from the outset. His mother, Julia Foster, is an actress, and his father is the TV vet Bruce Fogle. Ben was one of three children - his sisters are Emily, a graphic designer, and Tamara, an accessories and fashion designer (TamaraLoves Leather.com). He grew up in London but spent long summers in Canada at his grandfather's hand-built wooden cottage on the shores of Lake Chemong in Ontario.
It gave him a taste for adventure in the outdoors abroad. After Bryanston School in Dorset, Fogle went to Ecuador for a gap year and worked in an orphanage teaching English. But he then extended his time off for a second year and worked alongside the American Peace Corps on a turtle conservation project on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras and Nicaragua. His travels there included a 3,000-mile boat trip down the Amazon and the ascent of the highest active volcano in the world, Cotopaxi in Ecuador.
Returning to England, he did a degree in Latin American studies at the University of Portsmouth, but satisfied his wanderlust by enrolling as a reservist in the Royal Navy, delivering aid to war-torn Bosnia and Croatia and, as a midshipman, escorting the royal yacht Britannia into Portsmouth Harbour for the last time. After a year studying at the University of Costa Rica, he joined Tatler magazine, from where he applied to Castaway.
But though the succession of jobs he has secured were glitzy - he was signed up as a travel writer by Hello! magazine and was offered a succession of travel and animal shows on BBC1 - there has always been a touch of Action Man about Ben Fogle. A regular skier and keen horseman, he is also a qualified diver, coastal skipper, dinghy sailor and trainee pilot. Given the chance to go to the Caribbean after windswept Taransay he chose instead Sweden's Ice Hotel, 120 miles north of the Arctic circle, to go dog-sledding. In Fiji, he went underwater shark feeding.
In the Sahara, with just six weeks' training, he was filmed completing the notorious Sand Marathon - 150 miles across the desert in 50C heat, making it the toughest foot race in the world in which competitors run with all their own supplies and must navigate using compass bearings. Then, last year, after just two weeks of coaching by Jim McDonnell and Frank Bruno, he was the winner in a celebrity boxing match for BBC Sport Relief, despite taunts that he was "too posh to punch".
In his various escapades, he has been much motivated by charity. As an ambassador for the World Wide Fund for Nature, he helped with a rhino translocation project to relocate the endangered one-horned Indian rhino to safer environs. And he travelled to East Timor with the UN to help to publicise their refugee repatriation programme which reunited families after years of forced separation. His currents efforts on the Atlantic are in aid of Children in Need.
By the end of it all, he will have earned the money his sponsors have pledged. The 43 days on the water in the tiny 23ft boat named Spirit of EDF Energy have been hard going.
The equipment has not held up too well. The pin keeping one oar in place snapped after just three days and the pair lost time doing repairs. The salt spray is wearing the seats down. The system they had to bounce back big ships' radar signals failed and they had a close encounter of a very unpleasant kind - with a gigantic Russian tanker passing within 100 yards of them. Next, the batteries on their water desalinator stopped charging, causing them to break into a reserve water tank which will add a penalty to their official finishing time on arrival in Antigua.
Then there has been the weather. The pair have hit the tail of the first hurricane in the area for 54 years - with strong winds blowing them in exactly the wrong direction. They had to put down the sea anchor and, for two and a half days, were stuck in their cabin, which Cracknell said was like being shut in a car boot.
They have lost so many days that they have started to ration their food. They took enough supplies for 50 days, which means cuts in rations now and probably real hunger for the last few days, when they hope that the exhilaration of nearing the finish will give them sufficient strength.
The lack of proper sleep is taking its toll. Fogle has reported seeing weird things in the shapes of the clouds and stars and hearing weird sounds. "Last night, I thought I heard a huge fish but maybe it was a hallucination," he said in one call home. "One night, I could have sworn I heard a police car."
Fogle says his mood is swinging, quickly - not just day by day but hour by hour. At one point, with the wind and sea behind it, the little boat is travelling at a steady four knots, surfing down the big waves, and the two men become elated. But then a tropical storm can becalm them, and their morale plummets. And when they realise that, despite all their best efforts, they are going backwards because of bad weather.
Even the smallest things become sources of major dejection. "You can imagine my frustration," Fogle said in one podcast, "when I burnt my lips on the precious half cup of hot chocolate that we allow ourselves each day, and spilled it all over the boat."
They have not, at least, unlike another boat in the race, been attacked by a shark. The crew had to hide in the cabin while it repeatedly charged their boat. Fogle and Cracknell so far have had only a pilot whale and dolphins swimming with them, though the latter soon got bored because the boat was moving so slowly. But one of the two men has to go into the water once a week to maintain the boat and scrape off the barnacles which create drag and lessen their speed. As they get closer to the Caribbean, there will be more sharks around, which is an alarming thought.
Still, this week the pair broke the 100 miles-a-day barrier for the first time. So did their nearest rivals, Team C2. But Fogle and Cracknell, as of yesterday, had a 100-mile lead - with only a four-man crew ahead of them. They could yet be the first two-man crew across the finishing line. But there is still a lot of water ahead.
To follow Ben Fogle's and James Cracknell's daily progress, or to sponsor them, go to www.2meninaboat.com
A Life in Brief
BORN 1973, the son of the television vet Bruce Fogle and the actress Julia Foster.
EDUCATION Bryanston in Dorset, University of Portsmouth, University of Costa Rica.
CAREER Worked in an orphanage in Quito, Ecuador, then on a turtle conservation project in Honduras and Nicaragua; midshipman in Royal Naval reserve, deployed to Norway, Spain, Gibraltar and France; picture editor, Tatler; marooned for a year on an island for BBC1's Castaway, 2000; TV presenter (Countryfile, Big Screen Britain, One Man and His Dog, Inside Out, Death By Pets, What Are We Like, The Heaven and Earth Show and Holiday). Currently undertaking, with James Cracknell, the Atlantic Rowing Race first staged by Chay Blyth in 1995, one of the toughest physical and mental challenges in the world.
HE SAYS "A desk job in London's rat race lost its appeal after Taransay."
THEY SAY "Ben is doing incredibly well, considering he is not a rower - he keeps sticking at it." - James Cracknell, Olympic gold medallist rower
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