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Misty shot of the boat - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower

Pen Pushers with Mental Toughness

Last time I saw Adam Robson was over 20 years ago in school. I haven’t seen or heard from him since then, yet now, somewhere in the ether, a Facebook message from him is hurtling towards my phone with an exciting opportunity included.

Pinggg.

“Hi Barry, sorry for the random message, I have something you might be interested in”

Could it really be that Adam was offering me free beer after all this time??

Adam was not offering me free beer, but after that crushing disappointment I realised that what he was offering was the opportunity to join him on a new rowing adventure in a months’ time.

Tower bridge in London to the Eiffel Tower in Paris – a surprisingly long 817km of rowing, in a Cornish gig with a group of people from the licencing industry in which he worked. This industry was wholly unfamiliar to me, but it seemed to be mostly office based, and perhaps not the obvious breeding ground for an adventure of this magnitude.

I immediately said ‘Yes!’, (after checking with Emma to see if I was allowed to go out and play, of course) and a month later I was standing on a cold London jetty meeting a whole group of new people preparing to spend the next 7 days with them rowing 2 hours on 2 hours off, 24 hours a day.

Some of the crew - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower
Some of the crew – Barry Hayes – The Ocean Rower

The Cornish gig bit I will admit to overlooking; it took Google to tell me that a gig was infact a type of rowing boat and not a musical event, and I naively thought that it couldn’t be much more difficult than an ocean rowing boat. How wrong I was.

My normal ultralight carbon fibre oars were replaced with something that looked like it had come off a Viking ship; heavy, solid-wood shafts with handles that appeared to have been designed with the brief of ‘maximize discomfort”. My smooth sliding seat on well oiled roller blade wheels was replaced with a fixed wooden plank. My comfy neoprene padded foot straps were now a simple wooden stick bolted to the floor.

As our initial tow was released under Tower Bridge it was abundantly clear that we were all at different levels of rowing ability. Some had no experience at all, some had over 20 years, but as we clacked oars, caught crabs, and generally muddled our way up the Thames we eventually started to relax and gain some rhythm.

‘This’ll actually be alright’ I thought.

I was wrong. Again. Of course.

Rowing into the Seine - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower
Rowing into the Seine – Barry Hayes – The Ocean Rower

By the end of the first day it was revealed to us that rhythm is great, but this wasn’t a challenge where you could just turn up, go through the motions and you’ll probably make it…we were getting way behind, there was a genuine chance, no…a likelihood, that we would not make it to France, nevermind Paris at this rate. If we were going to do this, we would need to have timing AND strength. The support crew advised us that if the oars were bending then that was a good indicator that we were rowing hard enough. At the end of the first day we were not feeling too good about our chances.

By day 2, rowing past comparatively small river boats turned into crossing the paths of super tankers as we made our way across the busy English channel, and it was my first glimpse at the courage of this crew…they either weren’t fearful, or did a good job of hiding it as a hundred thousand tonnes of ship passed close by. As day turned to night we hooked a right and headed for Le Havre, and as the light returned we found ourselves in the familiar, oddly comforting territory of not being able to see land in any direction. Once again I was stunned by the tenacity of the team I was with – people talk about the fear of losing sight of shore, yet that fear did not appear to be present here; I was with a group of people that despite the sleep deprivation could not be loving the adventure more. They did not stop talking, they did not stop laughing, they did not stop.

The white cliffs of Dover - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower
The white cliffs of Dover – Barry Hayes – The Ocean Rower

As we hit Le Havre and started to wind our way up The Seine, injuries were prevalent, and meant that some people would need to take on double shifts. Once again, there were no lack of volunteers. I remember finishing my rowing shift and then doing a shift as cox, at the end we needed a volunteer to stay on for a grueling 4 hour session. I had been watching a member of the crew get more and more tired as the first shift wore on, at the end they looked spent, hunched over, eyes glazed, hands twisted into claws.

“We need someone to stay on” came the call through the darkness from the support boat.

“Me” the hunched figure said, lifting a clawed, rain soaked hand.

It was immediate, it was without fear, it was completely inspiring.

Damage to our hands - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower
Damage to our hands – Barry Hayes – The Ocean Rower

As we wound our way further up the Seine battling the negative current, thunder, lightning, hail and everything in between, our sleep deprivation increased, our injuries more widespread, everything hurt, but mostly we laughed. Not nervous laughter, or a general tittering, but deep belly laughter all the way along which seemed to power the boat. Morale never dipped, not once.

Eventually, as idyllic countryside morphed into cityscape, there she was, the Eiffel tower, resplendent in the morning sun. As we approached the finish line, cup final standard cheering, police style sirens whooping on the boat, and chants of ‘Not as good as Blackpool’ signified that some British people had just arrived in Paris, and that they were very pleased with themselves. Champagne popped, rowers collapsed and we’d done it. 817km in a week.

The whole crew under the Eiffel Tower - Barry Hayes - The Ocean Rower
The whole crew under the Eiffel Tower – Barry Hayes – The Ocean Rower

As I sit here now back at home, licking my wounds and reflecting, it is clear; there is nothing physically special about adventurers or about people that take on these endurance events, they’re not from a particular sector, or lifestyle, or background, they’re just normal people with a stronger desire than the next person.

When desire outweighs pain, anything is possible This bunch of ‘average’ office workers inspired me and renewed my belief that with the right mind-set, average people become superheroes.

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