Army’s mixed team of four set to row the Atlantic Ocean

Eat, sleep, row, repeat every two hours non-stop for 40 days that’s what the British Army’s Force Atlantic 21 team will be asking of themselves as they endeavour to break the world record for a mixed team of four rowing 3000 miles across the Atlantic.

Force Atlantic 21 is a mixed team of four Instructors from the Royal Army Physical Training Corps: Captain Scott Pollock, Warrant Officer Class 1 Victoria Blackburn, Staff Sergeant Phillip Welch and Sergeant Laura Barrigan will form the British Army’s official Mixed Team entry for the 2021 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

"We spent the first four months researching – no one’s rowed an ocean until they have rowed an ocean, it’s not like completing a 5k run then thinking now I know what it’s like to run a marathon, not quite the same thing!" Captain Scott Pollock

They call it ‘The world’s toughest row’ and for a very good reason not least of all its sheer scale, 3000 miles across the mighty Atlantic Ocean from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to English Harbour on Antigua & Barbuda.

That is by no means the only staggering statistic: rowing in shifts of 2 hours on and two hours off 24/7 for more than a month and notching up in excess of one and a half million oar strokes hauling an 8.5 metre boat through waves of up to 20 feet high. This is the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, the world’s premier trans-ocean rowing race. 

Captain Scott Pollock, the project lead behind the venture explained, “The idea was hatched back in March 2020 last year. We spent the first four months researching, no one’s rowed an ocean until they have rowed an ocean, it’s not like completing a 5k run then thinking now I know what it’s like to run a marathon, not quite the same thing!

So, speaking to previous rowers was essential to draw on their experience, absorb the statistics and recognise the problems. The biggest element we quickly took onboard was team dynamics; honesty and communication with each other plays an essential part.”

Sailors the world over will tell you of the importance to have a passage plan ahead of any trip. So, for such an extreme voyage as this the team spent hours and hours deliberating as to what could go wrong and formulating action plans, then action plans on action plans in case the first fails; after all, mid-Atlantic they could be a couple of days from rescue. Previous teams have spoken of encounters with whales, being tossed about in gale force winds, individuals experiencing hallucinations and in one case a team arriving at the finish line with a marlin’s beak pierced through the hull of the boat!

“The challenge has a huge impact on your body, " Sergeant Laura Barrigan

Speaking of the physical strains the team will be put through Sergeant Laura Barrigan explained, “The challenge has a huge impact on your body, many people talk about the blisters on the feet and they go up and around the back of the body. We will start to lose muscle mass as we are sitting down and not moving as we normally would. It’s the hands that are the big one; even today one of the competitors from the 2019 event still has trouble straightening his hands out. From that we’ve learnt the importance of having to straighten out your fingers after every heave on the oar.

We have to work for every single metre that we pull, so we want waves behind us that push us along, but conditions can and will change all the time: you will be being battered from a wave in one direction and then suddenly from another it’s constantly variable.

I find the conditions quite exciting. During a training session up in Skye there was nothing better than being out in the middle of the night, pitch black and you’re really tired, suddenly you catch a wave and surf it. It makes the whole thing worthwhile and the adrenalin kicks back up again. When it’s flat calm it is boring and the boat sluggish, you have to play games for hours to entertain yourselves, but it’s when the waves start rolling it gets more fun and that’s exciting.”

It is the mixed sex aspect of the team that has really caught the imagination and the fact that the team rotation ensures that there will always be one woman and one man on the blades at any one time. All quite literally pulling together as a cohesive team.

“Not knowing how I’m going to feel on day 20+." WO1 Victoria Blackburn

Warrant Officer Class 1 Victoria Blackburn, when asked what was going to be her biggest challenge, replied, “Not knowing how I’m going to feel on day 20+. We’ve done a four-day on the water expedition so far, that was good, but we’ll be going way beyond that.”  

The team are nearing the end of their on the water training and preparation. In a couple of days’ time they will pack their boat along with 55 days-worth of dehydrated food and provisions into a container for shipping out to La Gomera in the Canary Islands. 

They will be reunited in December for a couple of weeks familiarisation ahead of setting out across the Atlantic for the adventure of a lifetime. Their aim to do it in under 42 days, the current record set for a mixed team of four.

The challenge is a staggering feat of endurance that will examine the four rowers’ physical capability and test their mental resilience in the extreme. The isolation, salt sores, blisters, sleep deprivation and the sheer physical demands placed on their bodies will ask questions of them they will never have encountered, and probably never will again.