A place’s mystery deepens when you arrive after dark, guided through the silhouettes of trees and rocks by only a narrow dart of torchlight and a grid reference. Friday night boy-racers revelled and revved their mopeds in the town below whilst I sought out the softest patch of grass available. The sodium streetlights glowed through the mist as I fell to sleep.
I woke with a cool breeze on my face, emerging slowly to consciousness with the grey dawn breaking. The noisy biker boys were gone now, tucked under duvets in their mums’ houses, so all of this morning was left for me to share with the early-rising, raucous rooks and a couple of robins robustly belting out their morning song.
I am familiar with mornings like this, but I have not slept on the stage of an outdoor theatre before (or at least not since a night in the Roman theatre at Bosra in Syria), so I was amused as I sat up and looked around me. I felt delighted that I had made the small effort to seek out this peaceful place.
But I did not linger: I had come down to Cornwall for a reunion with the friends I once rowed the Atlantic with. So I packed up quickly and hurried towards a welcome breakfast of tea and pancakes and seven years’ of stories to catch up on.
What gift do you take for a young boy of five who was not even born back when you crossed an ocean with his Dad?
I found the perfect solution.
After packing away my bivvy bag, I crouched beside a small stream to splash water on my face. That’s when I spotted it.
I rinsed the last dregs of coffee from my flask, and slopped it full with the first frogspawn of the year. Feeling very pleased with myself, I hurried towards our Atlantic rowing reunion clutching a coffee flask of frogspawn for a five-year-old.
Busy lives, far-flung geography, and traditional male crapness meant that the four of us had not all been together since we stepped off our little rowing boat after 3000 miles on the oars.
We gathered by the sea, for we had met at the sea, spent most of our time together on the ocean, and because the constancy of the water seemed like the right place to catch up on the ebb and flow of seven years of life that has passed since we set out together to attempt to row across the vastness.
‘Dear God,’ I thought to myself, looking out towards the horizon with the friends who had been strangers until we came together to launch out into the Atlantic in a rowing boat, ‘be good to me – the sea is so wide, and my boat is so small.’
It was not until the morning’s first wave broke over my head that I properly woke up. Until then I had been weary with the long drive to Cornwall and the inevitable broken sleep of a night in a bivvy bag. It’s funny how you can think you are awake, when in fact you are merely sleepwalking through your days and life. It can take putting out to sea — either in an Atlantic rowing boat or a fun sit-on-top kayak — to jolt you truly alive once again.
Fooling around in the small surf at the mouth of the River Hayle was an easy way to bring the four of us back together again for a weekend of reminiscing about our big adventure. Much had happened to us all since then, of course.
Choppy times. Calm seas and sunshine.
Moments of luck as when a wave gleaming with sunshine catches your boat and hurtles you forward, racing thrillingly fast in the direction you want to go, and all you have to do is steer a little, hold on tight, and relish the ride.
Capsizes and storms and the frustration of being becalmed.
Periods when the current is against you and no matter how hard you haul on the oars and curse the Gods, you make no headway.
The outpourings of relief and weariness and appreciation that rise with the sun after the passing of a dark, cold, heavy night. This too shall pass, we thought out there on our little boat each time the night squalls rolled in and enveloped us with mayhem. Even the cruellest headwinds turn and become kind eventually. All you gotta do is hold on until then — hold on and keep on rowing.
And if you can do that, if you keep persevering and helping those around you when they falter, then you’ll have your reward at last, even if that is just goofing around with old friends on small waves on a quiet Saturday morning. Time by the ocean is never wasted.
The episodes in my life that I remember most fondly are those where I have consciously chosen to seek out risk and living adventurously. Many of those memories came about because what I actually did was seek out other people who were making these same choices in their lives. For they have an impact on you and inspire you to stop dreaming and start doing. It is worth making the effort to find these mad ones, ‘the ones who are mad to live, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn across the stars.’
The sort of people, in other words, who sit in a nice warm cafe enjoying coffee and gentle chat, but who somehow persuade each other to head out instead in search of daft excitement in the cold February ocean.
We began our row across the Atlantic from Puerto de Mogán on Spain’s Canary Islands. And there is a Spanish saying which goes like this:
“Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres.”
“Tell me with whom you walk and I will tell you who you are.”
Step out of the cafe, and go jump in the water!
Surf boat rowing is one of those niche, dangerous, exhilarating sports that onlookers enjoy watching from afar whilst shaking their heads in bafflement. Steve, one of our Atlantic crew, is a member of a surf rowing club in Cornwall and regaled us with tales of charging out through the waves, rowing as fast as you can round a buoy, then hurtling back into the beach on the crest of a powerful breaking wave. He arranged for us to give it a try (in non-existent surf, I was relieved to discover) so that our Atlantic rowing crew could get behind the oars together for the first time since we disembarked in Barbados seven years ago.
The rhythm of rowing brought back so many memories for me as we slid back and forth on the seat, pulling strongly with legs, body, arms, legs, body, arms…
I realised that time has made me take that adventure for granted, and to play down its scale in my mind. But crossing an ocean is SO far, and so hard! I could not imagine rowing like this for two hours on, two hours off — non-stop — for 45 long days and nights. That was madness! And we were so vulnerable in that small boat, thousands of mile from land. There is no chance now that I would have the bravery or the drive to put out to sea like that again.
This felt enough for me these days: to haul on heavy wooden oars for an hour in the company of my friends. We laughed so much at how crap we had all become at rowing! We caught crabs, fell off seats, and whacked each other accidentally in the back with oars. But, always up for a challenge, we nonetheless called out to a nearby wooden boat of six ladies in their 50s, asking if they fancied a race. They laughed, and accepted the challenge.
As we lined up our boats beside each other both crews busily called out potential early excuses.
…“We haven’t rowed together for years!”
…“We’re just out for a bit of fun!”
…“We’ve already been out for ages this morning!”
The race was fun though. I loved the frisson of pulling hard on the oars, of upping the stroke rate faster and faster, daring yourselves to screw up, the thumping inside my chest, concentrating hard not to be the one to catch a crab and let down the crew, the temptation to slack off a little because nobody will notice versus the pride to really pull your weight, and the satisfaction of narrowly winning a contest even as informal and friendly as this.
After the race, we all agreed that never again would we want to row across an ocean. All of us, that is, except Marin. He demurred and claimed that he would be keen to go again.
I believed him and was impressed, briefly, until he was the one who called an end to our brief outing, declaring that it was surely time to turn back for shore, and instead seek out a cappuccino and croissant…
Seven long years have passed in a flash since four of us rowed across the Atlantic Ocean together. All of our lives have been up and down since we walked away from that boat and went our separate ways. I am sure the same is true for anybody who might read this and reflect back on their time since 2012.
Life is a tricky old thing to summarise succinctly in a trite little social media post. (Hell: anyone who is genuinely looking for answers would do well not to look on a site like this, but go read a good book or talk to a friend instead.) But with all of us looking back together, I understood that whatever storms and strife have come my way since 2012, there are a few things that have been guaranteed to help get my boat back on a slightly more even keel:
- – Laughter with friends
- – Spending time outdoors, ideally overnight
- – Being by, on, and in the ocean
- – Jolting myself out of lassitude by doing something exciting and scary (like coasteering)
- – Physical activity that burns the muscles – like granny-gear pedalling up a steep forest path or pulling hard in a rowing boat
- – Riding downhill as fast as I dare, grinning and whooping as I fly.
And in the end, is this what it all comes down to? After the doing of deeds, the striving, the ambition and ego, the tumult and the shouting, the suffering and adrenalin — after all these things have passed and gone and we half-forget them, or wonder was it all worthwhile — is this what it all comes down to:
That we gather together once more, from our separate homes and lives, and relive it all as friends.
To crack a popadom and a joke together, to share round the lurid dishes of a small-town curry house, and then to begin a hysterical night of “Do-You-Remembers” and “I-Can’t-Believes”.
All the storms and strife, the pain and the irritations, the doubts and despair, the seasickness and thousands of empty miles, and all the dark nights of the soul – it can all now be remoulded and gilded in gold, and remembered and retold as this:
That these were amongst the best days of our lives, the days of our lives when we truly WERE alive. And that it was a both a pleasure and a privilege to have shared all this with friends.
“And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover…”