Johnnie soon discovered that very few people had rowed from Europe to America – and they would be the first trio to do it. “It felt like a big enough challenge for us all to dig our teeth into – especially considering I suffer from terrible seasickness and Stef and I had never rowed before!” Johnnie explains.
And just like that, they decided to row from Portugal to South America to raise as much as they could for Dementia UK. This ambitious challenge would see the team rowing for a minimum of 12 hours a day, in shifts of two hours on, two hours off, seven days a week. They would have a maximum two hours’ sleep at a time for the duration of the voyage – and with no outside help, they would be completely self-sufficient.
Preparation and training
“The first thing that springs to people’s minds when they think about a challenge like this is the physical preparation, but in a way, that was one of the easier parts of our prep,” Johnnie explains. “I used a rowing machine and started weight and mobility training to reduce the chance of injury, and we had plenty of rowing practice before the expedition itself.”
The team realised, however, that preparing mentally was going to be just as hard.
“Spending several months in cramped conditions with two other people was going to be tough. We needed to prepare ourselves for the mental toll this could take,” says Johnnie.
To learn how they could best approach this mammoth challenge as a team, the rowers enlisted the help of a psychologist and behaviourist, Michael Romeling.
“Each of us underwent detailed psychological profiling,” Johnnie says. “We needed to be able to have truly open conversations about who we were. We agreed in advance to be open and honest, not take things personally and not pass judgment on one another. This commitment helped us get to know each other on a deeper level and recognise what made us tick so we could spot and avoid any potential meltdowns at sea.
At sea – the highs and lows
The team was amazed by how quickly they adapted to being at sea – but some things made them long for home.
“Only eating dehydrated food – that is something you don’t get used to!” says Johnnie. “We spoke a lot about food. Stef and I fantasised about steak and beer, while Dirk was dreaming of fish and white wine for his first meal on dry land.”
Other challenges included the constant seasickness and sleep deprivation – not to mention ‘nappy rash’ from sitting in saltwater-soaked boxers whilst rowing for 12 hours a day! “We all now have a new love for Sudocrem,” Johnnie laughs.
There were scary moments during the journey. “At one point, two or three weeks in, the waves were the biggest we’d seen, towering over us,” says Johnnie. “We were in some kind of microclimate that is permanently stormy due to the way the wind funnels through the islands. Waves were crashing overboard and the winds were tipping the boat at nearly 90 degrees. I remember feeling in danger, but when the adrenaline is coursing through your body you don’t have time to be scared as you’re so distracted. “