Reaching the summit of Mount Everest has long been symbolic of man's ability to conquer nature and, perhaps more pertinently, himself. But as more have stood on top of the world, the less mystique the conquest holds.
So what else? What is there to test man's courage and determination? What challenge can now push someone to the brink and beyond? Perhaps rowing across the Atlantic can, and a crew of rowers are preparing to do just that.
In a few days time a team of six rowers will set off from Trafaya in Morocco to Barbados for a challenge they are dubbing the Atlantic Odyssey. Not only will they simply row the 3000 miles, they will be attempting to complete the crossing in under 30 days, 'the four minute mile of ocean rowing'.
The logistics of the crossing are staggering. The crew will row in a two hours on, two hours off shift pattern, for the entire duration of the crossing. Longer sleeping breaks or extended rest periods will not be an option. For a month, none of the crews' members will sleep for longer than an hour and 15 minutes at a time. The energy expended per 24 hours is estimated at 10,000-11,000 calories per member, yet it will only be possible to consume between 5,000 – 6,000 calories per day. It's estimated that each member will arrive at their destination three stone lighter. To achieve their target time of 30 days an average speed of 3.9 knots will be required which works out at 100 nautical miles every 24 hours - that's the equivalent of rowing from Dover to Calais five times a day.
Among the crew is Mark Beaumont, who is no novice when it comes to endurance challenges. The 29-year-old has cycled around the world, rowed through the ice of the Arctic and climbed the highest peaks in both north and south America. Mark's exploits have the ability to capture the imagination and he's been featured on the BBC numerous times. Talking to The Independent, Mark told how taking part in this latest challenge compares to his previous endeavours: “The Atlantic world record I reckon is going to be the toughest physical challenge I've ever taken on. It's much shorter than say cycling round the world but the level of intensity…It's a brutal mental and physical routine which I've never done anything like. I've never been on an expedition where you don't get to go 'Right, I've done my day, I’m going to get my head down in the tent and recover up to a point’. It's completely relentless for however long it takes to get from Morocco across to Barbados.”
Discussing the shift pattern the team will adopt for the crossing, it is clear Mark is under no illusions as to the stresses the team will be put under: “The first week it messes with your head. You struggle with the sleep deprivation, people hallucinate and all sorts of stuff. But then once you get past that your body does get used to it and physically you can do it. The difference with us is we're going out and out for the world record. We're going hell bent, each of us rowing 12 hours a day for a month. I know what it’s like when you're on expedition, when you’re putting that much in and the idea of not getting sleep on top of that is pretty scary, it's pretty intimidating, but I think that's what excites everyone as well - they know it's going to be unbelievable.”
That team is skippered by Matt Craughwell, who has rowed the Atlantic before both in 2010 and again earlier this year, during which he set the existing record of 33 days. It was Matt who brought together the rest of the crew, selected from intense trials to ensure they had the best possible chance of beating the 30 day target during this latest crossing. “[Matt] has got a lot of experience and he was in charge of selecting the right team,” explained Mark. “A lot of people put themselves forward but it’s not for everyone this - we had to be pretty careful who we selected.”
The crew, whose ages range from the 20s to the 50s, is a mix of those with experience in expeditions and others whose expertise lies is rowing. Getting a good balance will be vital to the challenge says Mark: “It’s a case of the guys with expedition experience trying to be as efficient as possible because the river rowers will be technically better, but those guys need to worry what's it going to be like week two.. three.. four.. where they’re cracking up mentally where they've not been to that place before.”
With the team due to assemble in Morocco over the next couple of weeks as the departure date draws near, Mark is confident that a strong crew has been brought together and the dynamics are working well. However, that could count for little when put under the stresses and strains that lie ahead: “I know for a fact that everyone’s character changes when you get on expedition, when you get that sleep deprived. Mentally people have incredible highs and lows. I'm far more used to doing solo expeditions and you can’t fall out with yourself too badly. But when you’re in a team of six living on top of each other, you’ve got absolutely no personal space living on a tiny rowing boat. And there's no way off. So, once you’re committed, once we row out of Morocco, that's us and we have to get on. The team dynamics I know are going to be one of the toughest bits. I know they’re a strong team but in terms of my concerns and fears it’s all to do with how we get on as a team.”
Whatever fears there may be about what could happen on board, there are very real concerns about the conditions overboard: “Out in the mid-Atlantic you're quite often in these huge swells where it's 10 seconds between peak and trough. So if you imagine at one moment you’re on top of the ocean looking down from the top of a wave and then it takes you a fall of 10-12 seconds to get to the trough and then you're looking up at the whole ocean,” explained Mark. “The boat is your life line. You’ve got to stay with it. If the seas get big - which they will do - we will be clipped on (to the boat) at all times. You've got to keep the boat going in the right direction because if you go broadside to this swell it can roll you quite easily.”
Precautions are being taken to ensure the safety of the crew, including a tracking device that will emit their position, but getting into trouble remains a serious possibility. Seven days into a previous Atlantic crossing attempt by skipper Mark his vessel fell into difficulty when his rudder broke off: “They eventually had to abandon and they got picked up by a cargo boat,” explains Mark. “They got rescued but the rowing boat was never found.”
Despite the concerns Mark might have he is in confident mood that ‘Sara G’ will carry them across the Atlantic and possibly into the record books. The blades of the boat have been modified, the best oars selected and supplies kept to a minimum to keep the weight down: “I'm as confident as I could be that we can break the world record. Can we break the 30 day barrier? I think of any boats that have ever gone across we stand the best chance.” But Mark concedes that any attempt of this kind, where man pits himself against nature and what it can throw at him, a degree of luck will be needed. January has been selected as the optimum time to make the attempt, owing to the strong trade winds blowing from east to west that will, in theory, provide a ‘magic carpet’ effect across the ocean. “If you don’t have that (the right conditions) it doesn’t matter how strong your team is there will be no way you can pull 100 nautical miles a day and get that sub 30 day record. We've got the long range forecasters looking at it and it looks like a good year. It looks like if we pick our route correctly we can go pretty fast but you need all the elements to come together at the right time,” he explained.
While Everest is a challenge familiar to many, ocean rowing is much more niche, with only around 500 people having ever put their hands to the oars on one of the planets great masses of water for this kind of challenge. Yet despite the narrower understanding amid the general public, for Mark, crossing the Atlantic has great meaning: “The Atlantic has been a dream for the last three years now. If we can break the world record of 33 days that would be significant but the big dream is to do the first sub one month crossing.” And then? “There are three great oceans out there - I’d love to look at the Indian and the Pacific but that's for the future.”
Mark Beaumont is blogging exclusively for The Independent in the run-up to and during the Atlantic Odyssey. His first entry appears today on The Independent's blog pages, which you can view by clicking here.