The first stroke

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“The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.” Sir Richard Burton

The first stroke

At 11:30 on Wednesday 12 December, Atlantic Discovery dipped their oars into the water for the first of 1.5 million oar strokes it will take to row the Atlantic ocean between the Canaries and the Caribbean.

The first stroke was the culmination of months and months of relentless campaigning, training, preparation, investment and forbearance. For Ben, it was the overwhelming moment his dream, born four years ago, became a reality.

It was also the moment the team’s world shrunk to the size of a 28ft vessel, containing everything they need to survive, and their ties with the world were set aside. From now on, they have only each other.

 Atlantic Discovery leave the safety of the marina and head for 3,000 miles of open ocean.

Atlantic Discovery leave the safety of the marina and head for 3,000 miles of open ocean.

Waiting for word

For those of us left onshore, there is now a wait for about a week while the team become accustomed to their circumstances. We are unlikely to hear from them. The early stages of this extreme journey are challenging. They need to adjust to rowing at least 12 hours a day in shifts, sleeping in bursts of an hour or two, cleaning themselves with a cup of water and wet wipes, fitting in regular boat maintenance and eating rehydrated food and high calorie snacks. They are also acclimatising to constant movement.

It’s a galaxy apart from the past two weeks spent on the festive island of La Gomera.

 It was so lovely to see the letters and gifts the team were given in the days before they departed.

It was so lovely to see the letters and gifts the team were given in the days before they departed.

 The whole rowing fleet being photographed by Ben Duffy.

The whole rowing fleet being photographed by Ben Duffy.

The schedule for the team has been all consuming. Social events, farewell parties, photo shoots, rigorous safety briefings and checks, and, of course, spending last moments with family and friends. This whirlwind has occupied every waking moment. I can’t help but think that in a way, the soothing immersion in nature, with just the sounds of the sea, must be welcome to them all.

I’ve been part of the team for eight months; chatting to them every day, sitting in on weekly meetings, photographing their training drills, sharing teambuilding weekends, and watching them grow into giants, connect and meld as a unit.

So, as I sat perched at the waters edge, on my own, and watched the ocean rowing boat get smaller, and the sea become more vast, I realised that inevitably, my boys had taken a big part of me with them.

Then I caught sight of all the family and friends gathered on the pontoon, read through the hundreds of messages and emails, outpourings of support and goodwill, saw all the donations being made to our MS charities, and I realised that Ben, Cam, Isaac and Jack have captured all our hearts. The next days and weeks and months will be spent watching their progress on the race tracker.

 Some of the family who gathered to wave off the team - photo credit George Hopkins

Some of the family who gathered to wave off the team - photo credit George Hopkins

Generosity of spirit

The thing about such enormous human endeavour, is that it spreads with a ripple effect and infects everyone with inspiration.

 Eric, my generous-hearted personal chauffeur who motored me around to catch the light. Photo credit - Cameron Parker

Eric, my generous-hearted personal chauffeur who motored me around to catch the light. Photo credit - Cameron Parker

 Cam’s team have set up a tracker so they can monitor his progress every four hours.

Cam’s team have set up a tracker so they can monitor his progress every four hours.

  • Eric Kervarrec was moored peacefully in the San Sebastián marina when I asked him to take me to sea so I could photograph the team on the water, and he agreed without a moments hesitation.

  • Cameron’s Swiss Re team have set up a live tracker in their office and are taking bets as to how many fish he will catch on the crossing, how much weight he will lose and where Atlantic Discovery will finish in the race.

  • Ben’s dad Colin emailed 3,600 colleagues in Hiscox to ask them to donate to our MS charities. The boost in donations was wonderful.

  • Our platinum sponsor NAGICO Insurances Group recorded a Christmas video message from 10 offices in the Caribbean (Antigua, Aruba, BVI, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts, St Lucia, St Martin and St Martin French office, Trinidad & Tobago) to show that they are always there and routing for the team.

 Rose, Tony and Sue Unwin meet for the first time in La Gomera, despite attending the Berkshire MS Therapy Centre together for years. They made a special effort to come and wave off Atlantic Discovery. Photo credit Tammy Demmers.

Rose, Tony and Sue Unwin meet for the first time in La Gomera, despite attending the Berkshire MS Therapy Centre together for years. They made a special effort to come and wave off Atlantic Discovery. Photo credit Tammy Demmers.

  • Ben dropped his wallet in the street on the day before race start. A do-gooder picked it up and handed it to Leven Brown, our weather router, to return to Ben. (The people in La Gomera are wonderful, and Atlantic Campaigns has fostered heartwarming relationships with the locals.)

  • Emma Self designed the Atlantic Discovery logo and info graphic to track the team’s journey (which she updates every week) but she has also made a donation to our MS charities.

  • Thank you to the past, present and and future rowers who supported our Hot Santa run. We organised it to coincide with the Reading Santa Run in the UK which is one of the Berkshire MS Therapy Centre’s annual fundraising activities. It was a wonderful sight!

 Two dozen Hot Santa’s watched the sunrise and then walked to the lighthouse to show solidarity for Atlantic Discovery’s commitment to a world free of MS.

Two dozen Hot Santa’s watched the sunrise and then walked to the lighthouse to show solidarity for Atlantic Discovery’s commitment to a world free of MS.

I can’t possibly include all the wonderful gestures people have made, all the donations, all the kind words. I just know that this huge wave of positivity is going to help the team reach Antigua and make all of us proud.

 A last wave from the team as they turn to face the greatest challenge of their lives.

A last wave from the team as they turn to face the greatest challenge of their lives.

Follow Atlantic Discovery’s journey along the green line. Be part of our story by donating here.

Watch this space @virtualstowaway  Penny Bird is a professional photographer and writer documenting Atlantic Discovery's incredible journey.

Racing the green line

A life not lived for others, is not a life. Mother Theresa.

Our journey log

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seven days to race day

In one week, Atlantic Discovery will dip their oars into the calm waters of San Sebastián, La Gomera, and pull the first of 1.5million oar strokes it will take to make landfall in the Caribbean.

Their bow will be pointed in a south/south-westerly direction and the team will become one with currents and, hopefully the winds, to reach Antigua. Rowing 24-7, they will draw a solid green line as they cross our chart - each dash representing100 nautical miles travelled. We’re hoping that they will move that line at least five dashes each week. Fingers crossed.

make the action happen from your sofa

For those of us who prefer standing on solid ground, eating fresh food, and sleeping eight hours in a dry bed, there are two lines we can race: an orange line (The MS Society) and a blue line (The Berkshire MS Therapy Centre). And yes, we move those lines with our donations!

Best of all, we have a head start on the green line - so far, 171 supporters have donated over £7,654. We have a strong chance to beat Atlantic Discovery to the finish line!

Let’s make this row a triumph for Ben, Cam, Isaac and Jack

According to race organisers Atlantic Campaigns, buoyant and enthusiastic supporters can, and do, make a huge difference to a row. Event co-ordinator Nikki Holter says:

“Even though we’re far from the action, and shore-based, we can make the experience for rowers and their loved ones a positive and unforgettable experience.”

 The 2018 tracker is live and the boats will be added in the run up to race day, ready for the start. Check back to see when Atlantic Discovery is uploaded.

The 2018 tracker is live and the boats will be added in the run up to race day, ready for the start. Check back to see when Atlantic Discovery is uploaded.

Follow #thegreenline

You can watch the green line’s progress in real time using the race tracker (shown above). Here’s how to have a bit of fun with friends and family - or raise money for our MS charities.

  • Company sweepstake - choose the top three teams to win.

  • Guess the finish position of Atlantic Discovery.

  • Guess the number of nautical miles Atlantic Discovery will row.

  • The team can go north - the most direct route - or south, to catch the trade winds. Which route will they take?

  • Predict Atlantic Discovery’s arrival date.

NAGICO’s Niala Singh has been busily asking her friends to make donations with great success; our bronze sponsor Lyme Bay Consulting has promised the team a finishing donation of £1K to MS on their arrival in Antigua and, in addition, a family member has initiated a school fundraising project to boost this donation further. Wow. Isn’t all this support super-heartwarming?

When the team arrives in Antigua, weathered, wild and at least 12kgs lighter than when they began, having experienced despair and fear, found courage, and realigned their sense of self, they will have joined a small, elite community on our planet.

More people have climbed Everest than have rowed an ocean.

Let’s do our bit and help them achieve their goal to raise £60K for a world free of MS.

Watch this space @virtualstowaway  Penny Bird is a professional photographer and writer documenting Atlantic Discovery's incredible journey.

Boat #42 reporting for duty

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“I don’t stop when I’m tired. I stop when I’m done.” James Bond

Boat #42 reporting for duty

My story starts with four Daniel Craig-wannabes, who’ve been practicing their special agent moves for weeks, in anticipation of reporting for duty in La Gomera, to Nikki - the beautiful and talented heroine of this story - who is also the Atlantic Campaigns Event Co-ordinator.

(I’m not sacrificing my title of Miss Moneypenny to you, sorry Nikki! You can be the Bond girl - but I’d start running now if I were you!)

Instead of an Aston Martin, they have a sleek green R45 ocean rowing vessel named Ellida, with three ejector seats on deck (take that James!) and multiple hatches for contraband goodies (mostly sweets that Ben, Cam and Jack have squirrelled away out of sight of Isaac’s watchful eye, and possibly a bottle or two of the tasty Talisker Whisky…).

A new Bond movie?

So, I’ve been thinking about whether these guys would be contenders for a new Bond movie, starring opposite you Nikki? We’ll get to the name in a minute.

To me, the ‘whole package 007’ should be in peak physical condition - with a few battle scars of course - a penetrating gaze (preferably focused on me), a razor-sharp wit (I’m laughing already), calm, confident, super tough and sexy, with a little hint of badness...a man who creates a tingle of excitement in the air when he gets close. (Sigh.) What do you think Nikki? Sound about right?

Hmmnn. Well, Atlantic Discovery is definitely fit, but I’m not sure they fit the bill…

OK. So let’s look at the storyline instead.

Adventure? Rowing 3,000 miles across open ocean, unsupported, being horrendously shaken and stirred… Yep. Totally qualifies for this.

Bad guys? Oh yes - 27 boats piled high with 84 bad guys (only kidding teams! We love the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge community - especially Team Antigua - The Island Girls - they’re our favourites - and it’s not because they’re dressed like Bond girls).

 Team Antigua - The Island Girls

Team Antigua - The Island Girls

A worthy cause? Yes! We’re doing this for Rose and a world free of MS for future generations.

Bond girls? Hey Nikki - you’re front of the queue here.

Miss Moneypenny? Here I am!

A plot? Well, this is the point at which I’m going to stop. You’re going to have to watch the story unfold as Atlantic Discovery face their demons, experience the most incredible force of nature at her best, and at her worst, triumph over adversity and emerge from a very real experience as hero’s. This story is definitely going to make me laugh, and make me cry, and gasp at the wonders of the mid-Atlantic.

And the name? Why, Atlantic Discovery, of course.

Wishing you the best of luck and fair winds boys. My heart and mind is with you on your travels.

Follow Atlantic Discovery’s journey along the green line. Be part of our story by donating here.

Watch this space @virtualstowaway  Penny Bird is a professional photographer and writer documenting Atlantic Discovery's incredible journey.

Surviving the storm

Humanity reaching out, across an ocean

We are very, very small, but we are profoundly capable of very, very big things. Stephen Hawking

Atlantic Discovery spent a little time talking to two employees at NAGICO Insurances Group - our primary sponsor based in the Caribbean. Both Niala and Kyria have remarkable, very personal stories to tell.

I am sharing their stories with you, because there is so much value, learning and growth in simple human connection, in reaching out across an ocean.


The story told by Niala Singh, Insurance Administrator (aka Policewoman), NAGICO, Trinidad

Atlantic discovery’s challenge is a metaphor for my life, and for nagico

 Niala Singh, Insurance Administrator, NAGICO

Niala Singh, Insurance Administrator, NAGICO

I have worked at NAGICO for three years and from the first moment I read about your extreme challenge to raise funds to research a cure for Multiple Sclerosis, you had my heart. I am your biggest fan.

In particular, I felt an immediate affinity with Ben. We both have parents who have been struck by illness. Just over a year ago, my active, lively, outdoor-loving father Barat had a stroke. He is 61 years old. He is now in a hospice, and I cry to know that he won’t be able to hold me and dance with me at my wedding.

 Ben as a baby, with his beautiful mum Rose. She has lived with MS for two decades and is the inspiration for our fundraising row #row4rose

Ben as a baby, with his beautiful mum Rose. She has lived with MS for two decades and is the inspiration for our fundraising row #row4rose

To get me through this time, I set myself little personal challenges every day. Sometimes I stop and question whether I can do them, and then something in me changes. I grow strong and fierce and resilient and tell myself - I can do this!

I am brave because of my Dad. I remember when I was about six, I was terrified of the sea. It seemed so overwhelming and the waves so big compared to me. My Dad would hold my hand and urge me to go in, and when it got too terrifying, he would hold me tight to his chest and carry me in. He taught my sister and I to be risk takers and to challenge ourselves no matter how much it scared us.

You are going to encounter times when you question whether you can go on. You can. You’re going to be strong and fierce and resilient and come out of this extraordinary human beings. This is a parallel with the NAGICO story. We support people faced with terrible loss or tragedy and help them come out stronger.

 Niala cradled in the arms of her father on the beach at age 6.

Niala cradled in the arms of her father on the beach at age 6.

NAGICO is rapping for you Team AD. You are doing something incredible. Pitting yourselves against extreme adversity in a huge, selfless act for humanity. This is very rare. You want a world free of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and this journey is to raise awareness for the disease and to pay towards research to find a cure. I want everyone to fall in love with you and help you do this.


The story told by Kyria Ali, Chief Strategy and Development Officer, NAGICO, St Maarten

I thought I was going to die that night

 Kyria Ali, Chief Strategy and Development Officer, NAGICO

Kyria Ali, Chief Strategy and Development Officer, NAGICO

One month after I moved my parents from Trinidad, to live with me in St Maarten, Irma struck my home. A direct hit by a category 5 hurricane. One of the most powerful storms ever seen in the Atlantic, and to pass through the Caribbean.

I had heard many stories about hurricanes, but nothing prepared me for the reality. Nature, in her almighty glory, at her most violent, leaves catastrophic devastation and death, in her wake.

We knew she was coming, and we prepared as best we could. But similarly to Atlantic Discovery, we were largely preparing for the unknown. Unless you’ve experienced a storm of this power, or rowed across an ocean, the truth is you don’t know what you will face. We had plenty of supplies and water, barricaded our homes, and planned emergency procedures should disaster strike. Then we waited.

At midnight on 7 September 2017, the massive storm moved in over our heads - stretching 650 miles east to west - bringing pulsating winds of up to 185 mph. It killed 38 people in the Caribbean and caused an estimated $50 billion damage.

The pressure on our heads, deafening sounds and the sheer violence of the storm that night, I will never forget. Roofs and shutters were ripped off, cars were tossed about and there was water everywhere; the battering was as constant as an angry heart beat, and it went on for hours, interminably. The fear of losing your loved ones, your life, plays on your mind through the living nightmare. And, when we emerged from our tiny concrete safe room in the first light of day, deeply grateful to be alive and safe, to have each other, the enormity of our loss stilled us. We didn’t even have water to drink.

 Kyria’s home after the  Hurricane Irma  had passed.

Kyria’s home after the Hurricane Irma had passed.

It is very hard to describe exactly how I felt and what we endured. We are so used to taking our homes, our sustenance, and all the luxuries of life as a given, the setback is overwhelming. It’s a true test of one’s courage, resilience and strength.

You’ve got to reach down into the deepest part of yourself to find the strength to begin your battle for survival.

 Satellite image of three active hurricanes  Katia ,  Irma  and  Jose  threatening land simultaneously on 8 September 2017

Satellite image of three active hurricanes Katia, Irma and Jose threatening land simultaneously on 8 September 2017

Against a backdrop of the frightening possibility of a hit by Hurricane Jose, which thankfully missed the islands, followed two weeks later by Hurricane Maria - a second, and equally devastating direct hit, I rushed to address the basic needs of my family so I could move on to my next priority, work. I knew that I had to help all the people who needed to get their lives back. I had made a promise to them when I accepted my role at NAGICO. I neglected my own needs and family to work 15 to 18 hours a day for months. Even today, my home still bears the scars of Irma.

One never goes back to the way one was before.

Atlantic Discovery will be rowing 24-7 in rotating shifts, sacrificing their sleep, health and comforts. They will find their own path to surviving this test. They will wear the experience of this crossing on their hearts for the rest of their lives. They will never go back to the way they were before. They will be stronger. More resilient. And they will have found their courage.


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Learning from each other

Atticus was right. You never really know someone until you stand in his shoes… or, perhaps, spend time listening to each other. Thank you to Niala and Kyria for reaching out across the ocean to share your stories with us. Compassion, and empathy, are borne of sympathy. The call was uplifting, inspiring and emotional for us all. Tears were shed. Laughter was shared. We ended the exchange as firm friends.

Watch this space @virtualstowaway  Penny Bird is a professional photographer and writer documenting Atlantic Discovery's incredible journey.

A place where hearts and souls touch

A place where hearts and souls touch

A VISIT TO THE BERKSHIRE MS THERAPY CENTRE

Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it. Winston Churchill

Last week Atlantic Discovery visited one of our charities, the Berkshire Multiple Sclerosis Therapy Centre. The welcoming blanket of warmth and good cheer when you open the door enfolds every person visiting this purpose-built oasis - it felt to me as if I’d come home.

It’s a place where hearts and souls touch, where kindness happens, where you are understood, and where nothing else much matters.

Waterfalls, wild sea and whisky

Waterfalls, wild sea and whisky

We chose the remote Isle of Skye for our final gathering, because it is the home of the 200-year old Talisker Distillery; official sponsor of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

The weekend visit promised remoteness, a brush with the elements, adventure, and an opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the spirit of this premium brand of fine whisky, made by the sea.

What's our favourite colour?

What's our favourite colour?

GREEN, GLORIOUS GREEN

The colour of life. The colour of nature and renewal. The healing properties of green can enhance vision, stability and endurance. It is also the corporate colour of our main sponsor, The NAGICO Group.


Inspiration wildfire

Inspiration wildfire

The first spark

I’ve lived a very ordinary life; I’ve not put a foot very far outside my cushy comfort zone. But on my birthday, two years ago, my second cousin Chris Bertish (whom I’d not yet met) set off on a journey so out there, that it caught hold of my imagination and triggered a sequence of events, connecting me to a handful of super-inspiring people who have completely shifted my world.

Into the unknown...

Into the unknown...

pulling across an ocean

“Everything that has ever happened in your life, is preparing you for a moment that is yet to come.” Anonymous.

This week I asked the Atlantic Discovery team to tell me about their mental, physical and emotional preparation for the race. But before I share this, I’d like to tell you a little bit about the known factors they will face on their journey.

Rain brings rainbows

Rain brings rainbows

Towards the best possible row

My admiration for the four men in this team grows day by day; through the setbacks and through every one of their triumphs. 

I've been told by ocean rowers that crossing the Atlantic ocean in a tiny rowing boat, standing against tempestuous Mother Nature and overcoming unimaginable physical and mental tests, is something that can be taken on by anyone. 

But I really don't believe this is true.  It takes a special kind of person to take on this extreme journey. 

Rowing through time

Rowing through time

Ah, Ben, Cam, Isaac and Jack always seem to do things a little differently - that's what's so special about my modern-day-adventurer-heroes.  I love this team.  So, why not join in a 100-kilometer run along the coast, erm, with a boat?

On Saturday 21 July 2018, Atlantic Discovery will be taking part in the Jurassic Coast Challenge.  Instead of walking, running or jogging the route like the other 2,000 participants, they will be racing the lovely boat Ellida 60 km in the sea below the stunning 185-million-year-old-cliffs to raise money for Multiple Sclerosis charities.  How cool is that!

The power of giving

The power of giving

The Stowaway Club

From the start, the Atlantic Discovery team impressed me with their commitment to building relationships with everyone involved in their 3,000 mile row.  They wanted to create a community of supporters: somewhere to show their gratitude and share regular inside-story updates on their progress. 

Raising the stakes

Raising the stakes

Partner with us

Sponsoring Atlantic Discovery's crossing will showcase your brand and core values to more than 3 billion people worldwide.  Stakeholder engagement will rocket as your staff and clients connect with this incredible story of human endeavour. 

After last year's race Andrew Redmayne, CEO NRL Group said: “We’re privileged to have been able to sponsor the Four Oarsmen (winners) and share their journey, and see the unbelievable amount of money they have raised for their charities. Everyone at NRL is extremely proud of their tremendous, well-earned achievement.” 

Rough water

Rough water

There is something, almost primal, about watching a rowing boat, powered simply with hearts and minds, harness the energy of the seemingly relentless sea.

This weekend I was invited to join Atlantic Discovery for their second two-day training session.  I was honoured to meet Ellida for the first time, the most important member of the team.  She is a beauty; with long clean lines, grace and strength, and a backbone of experience:  2018/19 will be her fifth Atlantic crossing.

Starting out

Starting out

"There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."  Nelson Mandela

Have you ever done anything right out there?  On the borderline of crazy and inspirational?  Space travel?  Extreme endurance sports or a super-tough mental challenge? 

A team of four, Atlantic Discovery, are launching themselves into the unknown, risking all, leaping out of their comfort zones... and, there's no going back.  They are going to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic.  Their boat needs to be fully equipped for 60 days at sea on departure - as they aren't able to accept any help of rescue, repair, food or water during the race...