twomeninaboatTwo men in a (very small) boat

Meet the bodacious Brits who battled seven metre waves, a marlin attack and a capsizing to win a transatlantic rowing race

We’ve all met them. Those seemingly judicious types who appear quite normal and sane, until they suddenly announce – perhaps mid-dinner party or over a quiet beer – an intention to do something utterly barmy. Totally harebrained. Like rowing-the-Atlantic-kind-of-crazy. Now, sailing across it is one thing. By all accounts, no mean feat either. But rowing. All three thousand abdominal-crunching, wave-crashing, shark-dodging miles of it. In a boat the size of a modest garden shed. That’s another entirely.

Little surprise then that when Mike Burton and Tom Salt announced their plan to do precisely that, their friends and family thought they were stark raving mad. Throw in the fact that neither of them had ever rowed before and it’s an easy conclusion to reach. Turns out they’re not alone. Every two years, a handful of adventuresome folk take to the open seas from the Canary Islands to Antigua for the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, dubbed – little surprise here – the world’s toughest rowing race.

The devil-may-care duo, both from England, first met aboard another boat while training for the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race in 2009. It was during that 11-month voyage that the first fateful seeds of their unthinkable undertaking were sown. Tom, 30, admits, however, that when the subject was revisited a year and a half later he could “think of nothing worse”. But misgivings gave out to the “thrill of the unknown”, coupled with a desire to test his endurance skills to the max.

Undeterred by the fact that more people have been into space or climbed Mount Everest with success, Tom and Mike, 54, began the hunt for a suitable boat. Anyone who thinks the market for such a vessel must be rather limited would be correct. After finally acquiring the 6m by 1.5m structure, aptly-named Locura (Spanish for ‘madness’), which would be their amphibious home for the epic journey, the next milestone was the intensive physical training required. “We trained for around 90 minutes a day, particularly the stomach muscles to cope with all the rocking and rolling and bouncing around,” Mike, from Bridlington in Yorkshire, said. “We also spent a lot of time on the boat, which wasn’t easy as I am from the north-east and Tom lives in London, but getting the boat a year before the race helped. Neither of us had any rowing experience but we didn’t really need it. Our background of time spent on the ocean was far more valuable; if you’re used to being on the sea it’s a big plus as you’re used to big waves and getting very wet.”

twomeninaboat2Locura’s ‘category zero’ status means she’s fully equipped to tackle the ocean’s toughest conditions – handy when feeling as insignificant as a whitebait in a world full of whale sharks, entirely at the mercy of Mother Nature and her notoriously fickle moods. After stocking up with 90 days’ worth of freeze-dried food – safe in the knowledge that in the event of major disaster the rescue vessel could be, oooh, several days away – the pair, along with the 15 other competing boats, set off on December 2 last year. “For the first 48 hours it’s not too bad,” Mike recalls, “Then you go through a difficult phase because you’re not used to the routine. Once you get used to that, it’s reasonably ok.”

With someone perpetually on the oars, Mike and Tom, who works for TV channel BT Sport, rowed in two-hour shifts. “I personally found it quite challenging. You row for two hours, then have two hours off for something to eat, grab a quick sleep, write a blog, fill in the log book, and then you’re back at it again,” Mike, who has his own engineering company, continued. “The weather was fine for the first couple of days, then we hit very bad seas with six or seven metre waves. You feel as small as a toothpick. There is a support boat that tries to position itself in the middle of the fleet but within days the fleet was hundreds of miles apart. If you decide you want to give up, it’s four or five days away. We capsized once. I was fast asleep and Tom was on the oars when I felt a huge bang crash wallop. I woke up dazed and it took a few minutes to realise I was sat on the cabin roof. Tom was in the water; we shouted to each other to make sure we were both okay. The boat self-righted and we spent the next three hours sorting out the carnage." Electrics had been shorted, the cabin flooded, and extra batteries needed for vital water desalination and sat nav equipment had been destroyed.

But that wouldn’t be the only calamity. Mid-interview, almost as an after-thought, Mike throws in: “Oh did I tell you we were attacked by a marlin?” Ahem, no. “It was a big, big marlin. It attacked the rudder with its dagger-shaped nose but luckily didn’t damage it. It also put a hole in the boat which we didn’t know about for 48 hours. We went down below with snorkelling gear to do some maintenance and saw this huge hole. It meant we carried more water than we wanted but thankfully nothing worse than that.”

After just over 41 days at sea – the men a combined 18kg lighter in weight due to the punishing physical toil – Locura became the first boat by more than a week to make it to the English Harbour finishing line. “We didn’t expect to win and we didn’t set out to win. Our focus was to be as prepared as possible and get ourselves as fit as possible. The primary concern was to get across, and if we could get a position that would be fantastic. Our boat was a very high tech, new design. That was a major reason why we had such a big lead ahead of all the rest. It was a very orchestrated entrance, with lots of journalists and photographers. Our family and friends had flown out so they were there too. I felt like a celebrity – which was the last thing I wanted,” Mike laughed.

After six weeks of freeze-dried food, specially constituted to provide the four to five thousand calories needed every day, the first thing Mike tucked into was a “really nice, juicy apple”. Despite the gruelling schedule, and the series of marine-themed mishaps, Mike said he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. Another bonus was the US$124,000 raised for the pair’s chosen charity, the Generous Hearts Foundation for orphaned children in Romania. “I absolutely loved the experience, I really did find it fantastic,” he added. “It’s a very simple existence; it really comes down to the very basics of eating, drinking and rowing the ocean. It’s a great time to reflect.”

by Gemma Handy