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Rowing to France


“A Remarkable Achievement. Congratulations!” – The Prince of Wales


Major Phil Packer was injured in February 2008 in Iraq and suffered spinal cord damage. He is now in a wheelchair.
Phil then decided to raise £1million for Help for Heroes. He explains why,

“Through physical challenges, I intend to support Help for Heroes by raising £1million. Whilst doing so, displaying a positive image of disability, I want to provide information on events and sports available to fellow injured servicemen in order to raise awareness of organisations, charities and people that help the disabled”.

Impressed with his attitude I dropped him an email offering to help in any way I could.
He suggested rowing to France.
That had not been quite what I was thinking of.
“Why not?” I replied.

We set about learning to row. Or rather, we spent two months practising on rowing machines, had three brief, calm sessions together in a boat on a lake, and then we rowed out into the English Channel at midnight on Valentine’s day. Phil tells his side of the tale here, the BBC’s account is here, and The Sun’s here. Our too-short training period is explained here. Our photographer made the fantastic short film above. And here my account of our first foray to sea in a rowing boat:

Salamanca, our boat, felt very small as we maneuvered beneath the dark, slimy, low-tide walls of Dover port in the eerie orange light glowing from the marina lamp-posts. I kept glancing over my shoulder, concentrating on steering towards the open sea. Between the pulsing green and red lights at the harbour mouth the maw of the ocean was a dark void. Nerves fluttered as we pulled hard to counter our sudden drift towards the wall as the waves caught us. It was our first glimpse of the power that the sea held over us. There was much to learn as we rowed out together for our first night on a rowing boat at sea. We wished each other well and pulled out from the calm harbour into the sea.

The night was still and cold. Frost sparkled on the deck. A half moon hung low in the west. We began learning to row at sea, coping with the random rocking and pitching, striving for rhythm and trying to keep our strokes in time. dodging massive, illuminated ships that could crush us without even noticing.

Two or three hours later we moved to a system of one hour rowing, one hour resting until sunrise. I was tired after a busy week so welcomed a lie-down, pulling a sleeping bag over my oilskins and wellies in the tiny aft cabin. It was too cold for sleep and it was almost a relief to return to the oars, straining to warm stiff muscles and to haul us towards France.

The night lights of Dover receded, little by little. I felt so happy to be on the move once again. To experience a brief flavour of life at sea in a small boat. To be out in the darkness, steering by stars. Even just to be remembering once more that stars existed. Out of the orange glow and murmuring traffic that is London at night, and out onto the whim of rolling silver-black waves. To feel the rawness of the world once more. I smiled to myself as I pulled at the oars, grateful that the February weather had treated us kindly.

“…these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang…” – Moby Dick

Unfortunately I had also forgotten my predilection towards seasickness. Dawn saw me heaving over the side of the boat, rowing a bit, retching a bit more. Crossing the Channel unable to eat or drink and feeling sick made the whole thing more challenging and I felt weak and nauseous for almost the whole journey.

Phil’s seat had broken shortly after leaving Dover, an unwelcome added difficulty for him. I have nothing but admiration for the understated, stoical way he tackled the entire challenge and all its difficulties, of which seasickness was by no means the worst. I imagine that the print of the Queen that he gaffa-taped to the cabin door and the regimental marching band music he blasted on the speakers must have helped. His music selection certainly inspired me to get to France as quickly as possible!

I relished the beautiful sunrise, one to add to the memory bank of reasons why it’s good to get out and feel the world on your face. But then it was time for Phil and I to row hard together for a few hours as the tide was against us now. The next few hours were pretty miserable, and we made very little progress towards France.
But little by little, in increments of fractions of a mile, we began to edge towards Calais.

By early afternoon we could see cars and people on the shore. We were so close to France. Huge ships passed us on all sides. But ocean rowing is a slow motion race against forces far greater than your feeble oar pulls, and progress was frustratingly slow. The realisation that Phil and I were going to make it to France and so succeed at the first of Phil’s 3 big Challenges ironically drained away the remnants of our resolve, and the last couple of hours were tough.

Arriving at last in the sunlit lee of Calais marina, sheltered from the vagaries of tide and wind was a sweet moment. We had rowed 30 miles from England to France in 15 hours. It was a huge moment for Phil, almost exactly a year since he was paralysed in Iraq, and a significant stepping stone towards his £1million fundraising target, as well as towards his own personal rehabilitation.

For me it was a privilege and an inspiration to have been involved in Phil’s project. We had some good laughs together. I will treasure the feeling when my seasickness ebbed and my mojo returned. I stood in the boat and danced to Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” that was blasting out of the speakers. Two friends, messing around in boats, and paddling our way to France together.

Rowing to France also gave me a welcome return to the outdoors, an added appreciation of what my ocean-rowing friends go through (Olly, Roz, Erden, Tim, Colin), and a first bite of the apple that may well tempt me out to sea once again. It was a good adventure.

Donate to Phil’s cause here.
My photos from the row are here, or scroll down for a gallery of images.

Some photos courtesy of Danfung Dennis.

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Shouting from my shed

Get the latest news, updates and happenings via my shed-based newsletter.

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