Rowing the Atlantic Ocean

Q&A on the 2022/2023 TWAC


True Summit Adventures' Managing Director, Oliver Browne talks about the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic rowing race.

TWAC! What is it?

The Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge. 

An annual rowing race across the Atlantic from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean.

How did you come to take part?

A friend of mine was interested in the race and asked me if I would like to do it. Initially was luke warm on taking part as I thought it might interfere with my mountaineering projects but after thinking about it for a few days I decided it was a challenge of the level I was targeting and an opportunity I couldn’t pass up! I then recruited 2 more people to join us in a team of 4.

Had you rowed before?

No. We did a warm up race from Barcelona to Ibiza. I d been on a 6 month mountaineering trip prior to the event. I’d only done one row and 3 indoor rows before the race! And had been hospitalised after an Everest attempt just weeks before. We won the race, but it was a baptism of fire to say the least. But we learnt a lot from that event and in the next 18 months worked really hard on preparing for the Atlantic race.

Can anyone take part?

Yes! All you need is a race entry and a seaworthy boat! But the race gets booked up fast so you might have to wait a year or two before you can get a race spot. But that’s ok - it takes a while to get ready and to get the funds together to buy the boat, enter the race and the kit you need. Before you know it will be time to start and you will be wondering where the time went.

How did you prepare for the row?

We had a training program set by the University of Kent sports science department which was pretty grueling! Sometimes 2 indoor rowing sessions a day. Strength training as well which I hadn’t done before. Plus lots of on water weekends on our own boat on the south coast of the UK. I also did a lot of climbing and wild camping which I think helped. 

What was the build up to the race like?

Long! We arrived in La Gomera 2 weeks prior to the race which is mandatory. But once we got there we realised there was still a lot to do in terms of preparing the boat! There was a lot of packing and unpacking, cleaning and making last minute adjustments and purchases. But the build up was fun. There were 42 teams so lots of people and a carnival atmosphere.

42 crews? Who else was in the race?

All sorts of people! And not everyone was racing - some people just wanted to make the crossing. And not every team was a team of four. There were also singles, pairs and trios. The crews were from all over the world and included a lot of people with military backgrounds. Everyone was really friendly. The fleet had a great camaraderie.

When the race started, how did you feel?

We were glad to be getting on with it I think! It had been a very long process so it was good to get underway. I had a few nerves definitely around a back injury I had managed to get a couple of months before the race. Luckily it disappeared after a few days of rowing but it occupied a lot of head space in the weeks and months before! 

What did you eat and drink?

We had a mix of dehydrated meals and varying snacks. Some with low nutritional value but great for morale. Mini Cheddars were a favorite! Of the dehydrated meals - definitely shepherds pie. Water came from a desalination machine that converted sea water into drinking water by pushing it through a very fine membrane. 

How did the race go?

We started very well as I knew we would. We had spent a lot of time on technique and were in pretty good shape. Having a good rower in the boat (our Dutch recruit Jos) helped a lot also - he brought a lot of power. We plotted a more southerly route than the rest of the fleet so to begin with were rated quite low on the leaderboard which is measured by distance to the finish. But at some point we went from 23rd to 1st in quite a short period of time which felt great. We held the lead for about 2 weeks until we were overhauled by the eventual winners, a team of coastal rowers from Spain. We held on for 2nd place which was still a great feeling.

What were the race highlights?

Sadly we didn’t get to see any whales and after the first few days where we saw huge pods of dolphins we hardly saw any wildlife with the exception of flying fish at night! The stars were pretty special. Like standby on a balcony in space. So many and so bright. Otherwise I enjoyed the solitude, the race routine, the competition and just the experience itself. It was pretty special. Truly, I treated the race like a vacation and it felt like that. Away from everything for a month!

How many hours a day did you row?

We started with 3 people rowing and one resting. You rested for 45 minutes and then rowed for 2hrs 15. We did that for the first 5 days before switching to two people rowing for one hour on and one hour off. At night we did 2 longer sessions of 2 hours so we could get a little more sleep. 

What is harder? Rowing the Atlantic or climbing Mount Everest? 

Well I didn’t summit Mount Everest on my one attempt so I should say that! But, I m not sure. They’re very different. Mount Everest is a siege, there are periods of inactivity, periods of waiting whereas the Atlantic row is relentless! Definitely you don’t get the fear factor you have on Everest - 2 people from my group died on my expedition - TWAC has never had a fatality. But it can be uncomfortable and there’s no way to get off the boat really! You’re on for the duration! On Everest you can wave the white flag and be in a 5* hotel in Kathmandu 90 minutes later! 

How long did the race take?

32 days, 13 hours. Amazingly this was the 8th fastest crossing in history which was a nice thing to get as well. We beat a lot of ‘fancied’ teams including some American special forces guys. Never rule out a mountaineer! 

Having done the race why do you think is the formula for success?

Good technique definitely and a very high degree of fitness. The ability to recover quickly and in sub difficult conditions is essential but this can be acquired through long training rows. When we started the race there was no ‘shock’ - we were expecting what came and we just got on with it. I personally enjoyed the tough conditions. Otherwise you need good cohesion and aligned values. If everyone is not on the same page about what they want out of the race it won’t work. But a good rower will beat a special forces guy every day of the week so bear that in mind if you’re trying to make a dream team! 

What was it like arriving at the finish?

I think the the last week once you sense the finish is in sight you just want the race to be over. I wouldn’t say you’re ‘hanging on’ - we could have gone for longer but you definitely manage the sores, aches and pains etc by telling yourself “we re nearly there!” Pulling into the harbour was a great feeling. In mountaineering there’s no one to clap you in or cheer for you as you come down from the summit. At English Harbour there were this thousands of people, not all of them quite aware what was happening I m sure, but there was lots of clapping and cheering. It felt great to get off the boat having bagged a big crossing like that. 

What did you take away from the race?

I found the race straight forward which gave me confidence about how far I have come from where I started. Resilience, endurance and mental toughness can all be acquired is the good news! 

You need less in your life than you realise. I just had 1 pair of shorts, 1 tee shirt and my teammates for the duration of the race..   

Would you do the race again?

Potentially! I d like to try in a pair or as a solo. But like anything it’s time and money.. For the moment I m happy with my ocean rowing record, won one, 2nd in another!