Dehydration, 50ft waves and the odd shark. Dan Howie tells Sarah Freeman why the fact he’d never rowed before didn’t put him off a challenge.
When Dan Howie decided to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, there was just one small hurdle – he’d never picked up an oar in his life. He also didn’t own a boat, had no idea whether he could raise enough money to launch the challenge and needed to persuade a friend to join him in the adventure.
What the 27-year-old, from Northallerton, did have was boundless enthusiasm and a pretty decent role model. Having been made redundant from a job in the City, he found himself working for a sports marketing company which boasts among its founders James Cracknell.
“It was the end of 2008 and James had just come back from the South Pole. Along with Ben Fogle and Ed Coats, they has trekked almost 500 miles in gruelling conditions. They’d suffered frostbite, exhaustion and lost an incredible amount of weight, but there was something really inspiring about hearing him talk.
“I knew previously he and Ben had rowed the Atlantic and it just started me thinking. When I’d been made redundant I thought it was the worst thing that could happen, but actually it brought new opportunities. It’s really easy just to keep going, following the same routine, but I never want to look back and think, ‘I wasted a chance to do something really incredible’.”
True to his word, Dan signed up to the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge which next December will see more than a dozen boats set off from the shores of La Gomera in the Canary Islands.
Their destination will be Antigua, 3,000 miles away, but before then Dan must not only secure funding for the expedition, but he also needs to learn how to row.
“I’m not worried, but may be I should be,” he says. “I went to Shrewsbury School where rowing was pretty popular, but it was never something I fancied. In fact I’d never been in a boat.
“However, I’d always been quite sporty and I was reasonably fit, so I reckoned it wouldn’t be too much of a problem to learn how to row. That was my first mistake. The first week of training was a killer. I didn’t know it was possible to ache so much.”
Dan’s first rowing partner had to drop out after a medical showed he was suffering from an undiagnosed heart condition. Instead, Will North, an old friend from Oxford Brookes University, will join him in the boat.
It has been something of a baptism of fire. Since signing up to the race, Dan has competed in the London Triathlon and cycled to Gibraltar with the aim of improving his own fitness levels and raising awareness of the Atlantic venture. Aware that when they are alone in the middle of the ocean it will be as much a mental as a physical challenge, the pair have also drafted in a former SAS operative to take charge of their training at Putney Rowing Club.
“He’s pretty fierce,” says Dan. “He’s seen some pretty extreme things and he knows how to cope in adversity. We know that if we are going to cross that finishing line we will need to be tough.
“The truth is that success will be more down to persistence than technical skill. James and Ben ended up in a pretty bad way, so we are under no illusion about what we are getting ourselves into.”
Cracknell and Fogle were at sea for 49 days, 19 hours and eight minutes. It’s a long time to be staring at nothing but water and when you’re rowing two hours on/two hours off, the days can soon feel like months. However, Dan and Will know that boredom will be the least of their worries.
“I’ve asked lots people who’ve done this kind of challenge what the worse thing is and they never hesitate before saying ‘salt sores’. They are horrendous apparently and there is no real way of avoiding them.
“Then there’s the waves, which can apparently reach up to 50ft, the fact we will be sailing in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and not forgetting the effects of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion.
“Oh and not forgetting the sharks. In a previous race, one boat was followed for a week by a shark. That’s not the kind of company you want.
“To be honest, the list of potential disasters goes on... and on. I try not to think about them, it’s definitely a case at this point of ignorance being bliss.”
While the boat they will be rowing in will not be exactly roomy, the pair will be taking a satellite phone to call back to base once a week and, if it works, an on board laptop will allow them occasional contact with friends and family .
“We are going to be pretty limited to what we can take and we’ve already tested out the food, which is basically freeze dried army ration packs,” says Dan. “Because of the amount of energy we will be expending, we will have to take on 7,500 calories a day. This is not going to be fine dining, but you know what, I’ve tried the chili con carne and the chicken jalfrezi and they’re both pretty good. We probably will keep luxuries down to a minimum because anything extra will just weigh down the boat.
“I did hear about one guy who at the start of one epic race smuggled a pair of chinos on board. He was thinking after being at sea for weeks, it would be nice to look smart when they sailed into harbour. Needless to say when the rest of the crew discovered what he had done it didn’t go down too well. In fact, I think the chinos were pretty immediately cast overboard.
“Will and I will probably take a few letters and photographs form home, just something we can look at when we are in need of a bit of a morale boost.”
While Dan has already given much thought to the finer points of the challenge, through which they hope to raise in excess of £200,000 for good causes, before they earn their sea legs they need to find a major sponsor.
Borrowing the boat Cracknell and Fogle used for their Atlantic crossing, the pair are now on a publicity drive, which will see Dan back home next week for a 12-hour sponsored row in Northallerton town centre.
“We really need to land one big sponsor who is willing to invest around £85,000,” he says. “It’s hard because we really should be devoting all the spare time we can to training, but there’s no point being physically ready if we don’t have the financial backing.
“However, from the people we have spoken to, we seem to be in a pretty good position and having the support of James has been brilliant. His boat has been left outside somewhere in Devon and it’s a bit of a state, there’s a great big hole underneath and you certainly wouldn’t want to row the Atlantic in it, but for marketing purposes it’s pretty useful. It tells a story.”
The money the pair hope to raise will be split between Cancer Research, Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research and a Ghanaian orphanage and school.
“Will’s dad was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma six years ago and my own father has had treatment for prostate cancer, so we knew we wanted some of the money to go towards medical research. A friend of ours set up the charity in Ghana, so again that seemed an obvious choice and I always wanted to do something in the memory of another friend who was killed two years ago.”
In May, 2010 Gareth Crockett was planning to raise £10,000 for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research by cycling 450 miles and running four marathons in eight days. However, just a few days into the challenge he was involved in a collision with a car on Anglesey and died aged just 27.
“I didn’t know Gareth very long, but he made a big impression on me,” says Dan. “We met a few years ago when he volunteered to drive the support car when I cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats. He was completely brilliant throughout the tip and we remained friends afterwards.
“It was such a shock to hear that only a few days into his latest challenge, Gareth had been hit by a car. I know it’s a cliché, but when something like that happens it really does make you realise that life is short.
“Gareth was someone who had enormous spirit and I know he would have approved of our Atlantic adventure. People like him really do make the world a better place and this is our way of ensuring his memory lives on.”
Dan sets pace with 12hr row
To raise awareness of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, Dan Howie will embark on a 12-hour row in Northallerton town centre next Saturday.
Starting at 7am, he hopes the Christmas Row Row Row will give people a small insight into the challenge which he and friend Will North will face next year.
“Next December we will hopefully be at the start of an adventure which will see us battling giant waves and extreme temperatures,” says Dan. “Whatever the weather next weekend, it should be a little more straightforward than rowing the Atlantic.”
For more information about the challenge or to find out how to sponsor Dan and Will visit www.atlanticrow.com or call 07793 970598.