The wife's tale: 'If I went away like he is, I'd be called a bad mother'

Beverley Turner hoped her husband James Cracknell would be at home a bit more after his Olympic heroics - so she is furious that he decided to row the Atlantic, as she tells Sholto Byrnes
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The Independent Online

When Beverley Turner found out that her husband, the Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell, was planning to row across the Atlantic with only the television presenter and former Tatler picture editor Ben Fogle for company, the crockery did not fly. She does admit, however, that a hairdryer "hit the deck".

In fact, so annoyed was Turner, a sports presenter and author of a book on Formula One, that she left the party held 10 days ago to celebrate the pair's departure and went out for dinner with a friend. The prospect of her husband, the father of their two-year-old son, Croyde, traversing 3,000 miles of ocean in a boat barely bigger than a double scull, with no support vessel on hand should any mishap occur, left her "disappointed, furious and sad".

But when Cracknell and Fogle and the 25 other teams set off from the Spanish port of La Gomera on Wednesday, Turner was there.

"I'm still not delighted," she told The Independent on her return from Spain, "but I've been getting my head round it. I can start to see why it's the right thing for him to do."

Contact with her 33-year-old husband will be scarce. There is a satellite phone on board, but Turner isn't sure how well it will work. "There won't be much time for chats anyway," she says.

At least she was able to see for herself how seriously safety is taken by the organisers of the Atlantic Rowing Race. And if all else fails, Cracknell and Fogle are both equipped with Breitling watches designed to send a special emergency signal.

"I'm resigned to what he's doing now," says Turner. "I didn't want him to leave without us having resolved it. But I'm sure next week when it's dark and cold I'll be cursing him." Her worst fear is that her husband might fall overboard while relieving himself at night.

"I was told that lots of people are lost at sea while having a wee over the side," she says. "I don't think I could stand the embarrassment if he went the same way Robert Maxwell did."

Turner may be reluctantly supportive, but her husband's latest venture has severely tested her patience, and even her marriage. "Look, I married a rower, but I didn't marry Sir Ranulph Fiennes," she said. "Seventy per cent of sporting marriages end in divorce because sporting people are by nature selfish."

The Atlantic Rowing Race came during a period when Cracknell had taken time off from rowing, which has been his life since he first took to an eight at Kingston Grammar School, to ponder his future. The couple's schedules had kept them apart to such an extent that before their wedding day they hadn't seen each other for 10 weeks.

After the Athens Olympics, at which Cracknell and the British men's coxless four won the gold medal, Turner expected the balance of their family life to change. She, too, has a demanding professional life: she co-presents a Radio Five Live show on Saturdays with Eamonn Holmes, and has just finished filming a series on food and drink for Sky.

"There was an assumption that James would take on more of a domestic role," says Turner. "If you're married to a sportsman that can be difficult. But if you're married to someone who's trying to decide if they're an ex-sportsman, that can be even more difficult. I understand that he needs something to channel all that energy into."

It was when Turner was looking through a brochure for the Atlantic Race with Cracknell's mother that she realised just how dangerous a task her husband was setting himself. "It sharply put into focus the different roles of mothers and fathers," she says. "The freedom men have - we kid ourselves that we're equal.

"He's going to be gone for six to eight weeks, and not one person has questioned his reputation as a dad. If I'd said that I was going off like that people would have said that I wasn't a good mother. We have to make it clear that the role of men does not end at conception."

What would Cracknell's reaction have been if she had decided to make a similar trip? "He asked me if I wanted to do something like that. I told him that I wouldn't even get to the consideration stage, because there's too much to do at home with a two-year-old."

Turner combines frustration at her husband's actions with consideration for what drives him as a sportsman. "I think James realised that this was about the last time he could do something like this," she says. "Croyde is young enough not to be affected by it, although he does understand what's happening."

Their son, named after a surfers' beach on the north Devon coast, started singing the song "Row Your Boat" to his father. "And instead of saying 'Mummy and Daddy' he would say 'Daddy and Ben'."

Turner hopes that her husband will not return to rowing full time. "I'm not mad on the idea of him carrying on for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. We'd just go back to a fragmented life, because the training for rowing is seven days a week."

Neither is she keen for him to undertake any more adventures. On their first ever family holiday on the Isle of Wight this summer, she caught her husband perusing an article about a walking expedition across Antarctica. "I looked at him and said, 'Don't even think about it.' Frankly, I intend to make him pay for this trip for at least the next 25 years of our marriage."

But she accepts that he may have more unwelcome surprises for her. "I'd be amazed if this was the last trip," she says. "I was reading about Ranulph Fiennes's wife finding his frostbitten toe in the bath. I'm sure that's going to be me. Some days I do wish I was married to an accountant."

The couple first met in the Jordanian desert, where they were chained together for two hours in a Bedouin tent for a television programme. "We've spent the past five years trying to break free of each other," she jokes. "When we met we were both very busy. I knew I married someone who's unusual, and we're both very independent people."

Turner will not attempt to stop Cracknell returning to full-time rowing or embarking on any other hazardous journeys.

"I will never ask him not to," she says. "When we first met I told him that he had to keep me on my toes - and he really took it to heart."