Late last year, Hector Strickland joined four friends and set out from San Sebastian de la Gomera, in the Canary Islands, to sail the Atlantic as part of a major annual rowing challenge.
Together, Hector and his team are the Nauti Buoys, and, after 36 days and 19 hours at sea, and some 3000m of open ocean behind them, they landed at the finish line in Antigua, placing third of 28 solo and teamed entrants in the entire competition. What’s more, they even managed to become the fastest five-man team to row the Atlantic Ocean.
Naturally, their voyage was filled with sunburn, aching muscles, howling bellies, salt-flecked faces, gigantic waves, loneliness, self-doubt, self-determination, camaraderie, heartache, relief, and triumph. Oh and they've raised over £40,000 for Cancer Research.
To tell us how to prepare for such a feat, we roped in Hector to talk us through how you can get yourself shipshape...
You don't need to be a rower from the outset
Neither myself nor any of my team were rowers before we signed up for the Talisker Atlantic Challenge. However, across the team we had a full range of experience, from powerlifting through to swimming, down to avid gym goers.
Although endurance sports help
In advance of our two-year campaign building up to the start line, I was very into endurance sport, particularly cycling. I've raced at Vatternrundan, a 300km cycling event in Sweden around one of Europe's largest lakes for the past six consecutive years, and have completed a number of half marathons. My cycling routine comprised of a mix between HIIT and strength training sessions, and longer 120 mile rides at the weekend.
Building muscle will counter the effect of weight loss
Our plan was to combat the inevitable weight loss by building muscle, ensuring that each of the team had the reserves necessary to be able to finish the race with fuel in the tank, minimising the risk of burning out mid-crossing.
I adapted my training plan by stepping up the strength training and decreasing the cardio. Ocean rowing is a completely different beast to traditional rowing, so our time spent on rowing machines was actually quite limited. That said, we would all use WaterRowers for short, sharp intervals and to track the progression of our 2km sprint time – a defining badge of honour amongst rowers, 2km is the distance considered to push the threshold of a sprint to the absolute limit.
In the initial year of the campaign, I focused on building across all areas, with different daily workouts targeting different muscle groups, hitting the gym up to five times per week. With one year to go my focus shifted more to really develop the areas key to an ocean row: core strength, legs and back.
Tailor yourself a strength workout
One of the doctors on our team connected us with Andy McDonald, a strength and conditioning coach who has worked with GB rowers. Andy worked with us individually to ascertain where our strengths were along with the areas we needed to develop further. Below is an example of one of the circuits he created, this one focusing on trunk strength:
- Deadbug complete movement (both sides) x 20
- Glute plank x 60 seconds
- Reverse crunch x 15
- Side plank + row x 15 each side
- Single leg bridges x 10 each leg
- Renegade rows x 10
- L sit x 10 2 second holds
- Front plank x 60 seconds
This circuit was repeated as many times as possible, but the focus was on form. We were encouraged to stop the moment we felt our form going.
Talk about mental preparation with your rowing team
Early on in our campaign, we were approached by sports psychologist Camolie Fagerberg, who kindly offered her services for free. She helped us to understand how the mind changes under the pressure of fatigue and physical exhaustion, as well as helping predict what we would individually respond badly to during the crossing.
We also went into detail about conflict resolution amongst the team. We were all good friends but five men in a 9m rowing boat for 36 days and 19 hours amid the trials of the ocean is enough to test even the strongest of bonds.
Get the hours in behind the oars – even if nothing compares to the open ocean
The race organisers require each team to have completed a mandatory 100 hours rowing. Our practice rows were executed between the Blackwater river in Essex, and river Hamble in Hampshire.
The concept of practising for an Atlantic row off the coast of England is an interesting one, as what we experienced in training couldn't have been more different from the real thing. Marine traffic, freezing conditions, and tides all make for an incredibly stressful excursion.
The one thing we never fully experienced in training (besides the heat we felt throughout the crossing) were high seas, although this was something we quickly adapted to. Strong winds, rough seas and high swell caused the boat to move violently, for which nothing could have prepared us for in training.
The challenge for me drew a line between physicality and mentality, although overall the physicality of rowing and managing my body across the duration of the race was outweighed by the unrelenting pressure to keep a calm and sound mind, cool temper and manage my expectations.