Three years ago, John Beeden became the first person to row solo across the Pacific Ocean. Now he and daughter Libby are preparing to tackle the Atlantic. Chris Burn reports.
When John Beeden came to the end of a gruelling seven-month row across the Pacific Ocean on December 2015, he echoed Sir Steve Redgrave’s famous quote after the 1996 Olympics, “If anyone sees me going anywhere near a boat again they have my permission to shoot me”.
But just as the rowing legend returned four years later to win a fifth gold medal in Sydney, John has been tempted back out onto the water for another incredible challenge - this time, alongside his 20-year-old daughter Libby. John and Libby will attempt to row themselves into the history books as they attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean “the hard way” in a boat measuring just 6.1m in length.
While John rowed the Atlantic solo in 2011, he took the traditional Canaries to Caribbean passage which covers 2,600 nautical miles and has favourable winds to assist ocean rowers. He has instead devised a route of almost double the length, going 4,500 nautical miles from Portimao, Portugal to Miami in Florida.
“No one else has done this that I could find, we think we will be the first people to row from mainland Europe to mainland USA,” says 56-year-old John. “Some have rowed from the coast of Africa to Southern America but that is easier because of the trade winds.
“I went looking for a difficult crossing to make it as challenging as possible. I have developed this theory that if you are going to do something difficult, it should be genuinely difficult. Instead of being 2,600 nautical miles, it is about 4,500. With two of us rowing 24 hours a day we should make reasonably good time even if the winds are tough.”
John is originally from Woodseats in Sheffield and his two daughters were born in the South Yorkshire city but the family settled in Canada, the country where his wife Cheryl is from, in 2003. John, a former member of Hallamshire Harriers and Sheffield Athletics Club who has organised annual registrations for the London Marathon, says his passion for ocean rowing came about following open heart surgery to repair a heart defect,
“As my running prowess diminished with age, I was looking for something else,” John says. “It is like running marathons, you get the bug and I’m easily obsessed with things. It feels like unfinished business in a sense.”
John hopes the pair will be able to complete the crossing in between 80 to 110 days - but admits he has been overly optimistic with his estimates in the past. His Pacific crossing - travelling from San Francisco to Cairns in Australia – took weeks longer than anticipated after he was blown off course several times by bad weather.
“During the Pacific journey, I ended up running out of food and had to get resupplied off the coast of Vanuatu,” John says. Following his Pacific voyage, he sold his boat - called Socks 2, in reference to a phrase used by the family “Pull your socks up and get on with it” - and returned to normal life.
He says it was Libby’s interest that eventually persuaded him to buy the boat back and prepare for a new adventure. “When I got off the boat after rowing the Pacific, I was sick of the sight of the boat after seven months at sea,” he says. “I had already agreed to sell the boat so got rid of it.
“A little while afterwards, Libby expressed an interest in rowing the Atlantic together. Part of the reason I wanted to do it in the first place was I thought it would be a good example to my girls about working on big challenges. So when she came back and said she wanted to do it, it was difficult to say no.”
The pair intend to row 24 hours a day, taking on two hour shifts in the daytime and three hour shifts at night. They expect to be battling winds, currents, extreme temperatures and tropical storms.
While the effort will undoubtedly require great endurance, the pair also expect to share amazing sights of flying fish, sharks, dolphins and whales, watching tuna feeding frenzies and taking it the star-filled skies above them.
Libby, who is currently living in London and is between university courses, says she can’t fully remember that conversation with her father but adds she has been keen to take on a big challenge - to the bafflement of some of her friends.
“Some of my friends have been asking me, why have you signed up to this? But because of my dad, it is my normal to go out and do something like this, so it doesn’t seem that unusual. My friends from back in school understand a bit more as they remember when he did it twice before. My mum and my sister I think are used to it by now.”
She says that she found it difficult the first time her dad rowed across the Atlantic. “I hated it, I didn’t really read his blogs or check the website because I was worried all the time and for some reason now, I’m like, let’s try it. But I think you get more worried watching from the outside whereas if you are rowing you actually know what is going on and you have the tools and the knowledge to sort things out yourself.”
She says she is looking forward to sharing what is sure to be a memorable experience with her father.
“Dad can teach me everything as he is one of the most experienced ocean rowers in the world,” says Libby. “I have always been close to him because he works from home and was always there when we got home from school. I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else. I have got no choice but to get on with it. The only problem is he is quite competitive and I’m far from it so I don’t know how that is going to work!”
John says he is also looking forward to the privilege of spending time with his daughter in a unique situation.
“I have never rowed with anyone else but we have done some sea trials together. The boat is a little bit cramped and it will be more uncomfortable than being solo. But the advantages of you have somebody to share the pain and the adventure with. Personally as a father, it will be brilliant to get the chance to do something like this together with my daughter.”
He says the rest of the family now know what to expect when the pair get going in December. “When I first did the Atlantic, everybody was quite nervous, the girls were a bit younger. It was going into the unknown. But after I had been at sea for a couple of weeks, the girls lost interest because they worked out I was going to be sage. So when I set off for the Pacific, everybody was reasonably relaxed because we understood what is involved. We are in the same place now.
“After seven months at sea with the Pacific voyage, I quite often used the Steve Redgrave quote ‘If anybody sees me near a boat you have my permission to shoot me’. But then he turned up at the next Olympics.
“ I feel something similar. You use so much effort and can’t see any point going back to sea originally, but after a while you start thinking, ‘was that the last big thing I’m ever going to do?’ That lure of the big challenge sneaks back into your system.”
John and Libby will both write a daily blog while they are on the trip - writing separately without the other reading each others comments.
The pair say their individual blogs will in essence be a diary for themselves, but it will allow followers to feel like they to are rowing the ocean right alongside them and provide an insight between their contrasting views of how the challenge is going as they travel together at close quarters.
They anticipate navigating away from Portugal will not be easy due to the strong pull of the Straits of Gibraltar. They then need to be sure they get far enough south to catch the trade winds, all before picking their way through the Bahamas safely as they head for Miami.
For more information, visit www.atlanticrow.co.uk