Jaw-dropping video captures Harrogate army team's extreme Atlantic rowing challenge
Anyone would think that staring into the face of 20-metre waves and having to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean would take its fair toll on morale, but not for a team of determined soldiers from Harrogate’s Army Foundation College, who say they were just “too busy trying to stay alive” to properly digest such extreme realities.
Billed as the world’s toughest row, the team took on the Atlantic and won, finishing ninth out of more than 30 teams from across the globe, and completing the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge in 37 days, 13 hours and 53 minutes - breaking remarkable world records in the process.
But how did Harrogate’s very own Force Atlantic team achieve this remarkable feat? And what was the road like to making history as the first ever to participate from the British Army?
Less than three weeks on from crossing the finishing line in Antigua, the college’s Commanding Officer, Lt Col Richard Hall, Capt Chris Hames, Capt Alex Walsh, and 18-year-old Private Kian Helm, are still catching up on sleep and building their strength up after 37 exhausting days of enduring the monotony of rowing on a seven-metre long boat in alternating shifts throughout the day and night.
Kian, who became the youngest person to have ever rowed the Atlantic as part of a team, said: “You just can’t put into words the feeling that you get from the whole experience - when you look back on it, and go through all the videos and the photos, what we did was absolutely mindblowing.
“To think of all the impossible conditions we had to deal with, and the things we’ve had to overcome, I just don’t know how we did it.”
Force Atlantic spent Christmas and New Year at sea, and while they all had Christmas hats and some goodie bags packed from Chris’s mum to add a sprinkle of festive cheer to the confines of the boat, it was still very much business as usual, and the countdown to see in the New Year was a very low key affair too.
Alex said: “The Christmas stuff lasted about 15 minutes, you’re floating around in the ocean and it’s 30 degrees, you can see this bright blue sky, then you think that’s it, back to it.” Despite the monotony of the rowing, however, the team did find moments of difference that brought them joy, just for the simple fact of breaking the routine. These differences fell under two polarised categories - moments that to anyone else would feel quite ordinary and insignificant, and the dangerous but exhilarating twists and turns that inevitably come with being at sea.
Alex said: “Kian and I got capsized - we were on deck rowing along, and the winds changed. There were massive waves - 20 metre waves - just bashing us over and dragging us along for about 300 metres. We were quite shaken up after that. There really were some monster waves, it was like being in a washing machine.”
Chris said: “I think on reflection that was the best thing for me, the adrenaline buzz you get when you have a huge wave collapse over you, or you capsize - to take that most extreme point when you’re shaking at the end of it, on reflection it was a highlight for me.”
When the long days stretched ahead of them, small differences and variances went a long way in boosting team morale. Richard said: “I found that seeing something different became ridiculously exciting - we saw a football float by, and for ages until it went out of sight, it was the topic of conversation for everyone.
“There is something about the boat, its constant movement, and the inability to walk or get away, everything that frustrates you is just then amplified by a factor of ten, and there’s nothing else to think about. Food and sleep and rubbish and how you feel are the only things in your life, nothing else. Something you would normally think is quite petty or minor takes over your thoughts. Everything is magnified.”
Presented with such extreme and unrelenting conditions, what is it that continued to keep the determined team fuelled and motivated throughout the gruelling 37 days?
Richard said: “I struggled with the routine a lot more than I thought I would, the two hours on, two hours off - I really found that difficult to keep getting up, and it was only because Kian was outside rowing and had been doing it for two hours, and I’ve got to take over from him, that’s the only reason I kept getting up. If I’d have been on my own, I would have thought, I’m having a lie-in.
“You’re too busy trying to stay alive to think about things too much - if you don’t row and keep that boat moving forward, it will tumble, and it’s at the mercy of the sea, so you have to keep driving it on. Pride in the army, and family and friends were massive motivators, and all the amazing support we had back home. There is that feeling every time you are pulling on the oars of not wanting to let people down.”
Kian said: “We’d already done training previously, but we never really had an insight into what 37 days would be like at sea in the conditions we were in - having a wet cabin, and all the sleep deprivation. It was difficult to overcome and mentally draining, but we all smashed it, and we all did our best.”
Would Force Atlantic do something like this again? and put themselves through such an ultimate test of physical and mental endurance? All parties seem to have got a real taste for it now.
Alex said: “Immediately upon landing, I thought, what’s next? As soon as I touched earth, my legs were like jelly, but then I thought, what am I going to do now? I do get that itch.”
Inspiring the next generation: Team carves legacy
As the first team to have ever represented the British Army in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, Force Atlantic is passionate about inspiring young people to follow their dreams and dare to think big.
The team plans to visit a number of schools across the Harrogate district this year to share their experiences and do Q&A sessions with photos and videos captured during the challenge as a thought-provoking backdrop. Thoughts are also already turning to how the army can build on the success of Force Atlantic’s history-making mission.
Team member Lt Col Richard Hall, the Commanding Officer of the Army Foundation College, said: “I really want to establish ocean rowing as a more accessible activity within the army - we’ve had to really pave the way and champion the army to do it for the first time with some resistance, as it’s dangerous and had not really been done before. It would be fantastic to see a Force Atlantic two, three, or four further down the line, and a women’s team.”
Capt Alex Walsh said: “We want to share the message of how important it is to seize every opportunity.”
The team has also carved a legacy for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, generating tens of thousands of pounds through the challenge. Visit: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/force-atlantic to support.