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.