Kayaking, Canoeing & Rafting

Terrors Of The Ocean | 8 Things To Be Scared Of When You’re Rowing Across The Atlantic

From big waves to bad bathroom breaks, this is what kept British rower Hector Strickland awake at night as he navigated the Atlantic in record time earlier this year…

What was giving you nightmares at start of the year? Back-to-work dread? The electricity bill you’d stuffed down the back of your wardrobe in a bid to make it disappear? That suspicious leftover chilli you found in the back of the fridge? For Hector Strickland, his sleeplessness was a little more… extreme. We’re talking huge waves. Giant sea beasts. And the very real terror of taking a mid-ocean poop.

Back on January 18, Hector and his four pals made history by becoming the fastest five-man crew to cross the Atlantic by paddle power, in a remarkable time of 36 days, 19 hours and 9 minutes. What makes the feat even more incredible, is that their expedition is widely believed to be the world’s toughest row. To find out why, we caught up with Hector to chat through the eight things that sent shivers down his spine while he and his pals were adrift in the middle of their epic oceanic expedition…

1) Giant Sea Beasts

“Apart from one bird that decided, for whatever reason, to follow us for most of our journey, we didn’t see any wildlife for the majority of the row. We thought we might see some dolphins, but soon guessed that we just weren’t moving fast enough for them come and play around us. Then one morning, an hour after sunrise, an enormous whale breached out of the water and created one hell of a splash just 50 metres behind the boat.

“It should have been the most beautiful sight in the world – dawn had just broken, the water was calm, and there was this whale leaping out of the water for me. But the first thing I thought, when I saw that it was the size of a single-decker bus and four-times larger than our boat, was ‘F*ck, that thing better not get any closer.’ Instead of taking it all in, I’m there, plotting my escape route over the side if it jumped out of the water next to me. They leaped about three times then left, but for a long time after they’d disappeared, I was on high alert, just expecting them to rise up out of the water and swamp or crush the boat.”

2) Scary Sleep-Rowing

Photo via The Nautibuoys

“With out-of-the-blue encounters like that whale, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. Because you’re just so sleep-deprived all the time. Our shift patterns were two hours and fifteen minutes on the oars, and ninety minutes off. Functioning just doesn’t come naturally in those conditions. Your body is so desperate to shut down. People talk about hallucinations with that level of sleeplessness, but we found that lucid dreaming was the issue. I wouldn’t realise, but all of a sudden I’d be dreaming, begin trying to communicate this apparently really important issue to my crew, and they’d start laughing, making me super frustrated that they weren’t taking me seriously… in my sleep.

“A good example was when I thought [adventure-swimmer] Ross Edgley was swimming behind us to come and talk about snacks, or when I thought a parrot had landed on our mast. We didn’t have a mast. It’s scary, because you’re just not yourself. You’re between worlds. And yeah, it can be funny, but it can be dangerous, too. One of our crew, Big Paul, started changing the autohelms – our automatic steering units – in his sleep. What that meant was, all of a sudden we’d be side-on to a wave. It was terrifying. We’d have to bang on the cabin door to wake him up.”

3) Sketchy Number Twos

Photo via The Nautibuoys

“Our journey was very intimate – we were a five-man team in a four-man boat. Personal space was non-existent, so much so that when someone needed to number two, you were back-to-back with them. Without going into detail, we didn’t have the biggest variety in our diet. We had a choice of five meals, and one of our crew ate nothing but chicken tikka curry for the whole time we were at sea. When nature called for him, you’d do your best not to be downwind. Combine that with having to poop into a bucket in a big swell, as the boat’s rocking about, and yes, it could get pretty awful. We had to use these poo bags – you’d cover the bucket with a bag, drop your goods into it, tie it off and drop it over the side. We did have a bag split, mid-throw. And let’s just say there was a ‘missed opportunity’ on one occasion. The bucket moved at a bad time. I was lucky I was in the cabin for that one.”

4) Braving The Hull

Photo via The Nautibuoys

“When you’re rowing an ocean race, it’s very important to clean the hull regularly. Barnacles build up on the underneath of your boat, and add resistance that will slow you down. We only did it twice, and it was quite nice to be tied to the boat and able to stretch the legs. But as soon as you put your mask on and see that there’s nothing but dark water below you for 5km, and that there’s nobody around you for hundreds of miles, you really get the impression that you’re alone out there. Not only that, but you feel just how fast the boat is travelling. The worst-case scenario plays in your mind, in which you go overboard with nobody noticing, and watch the boat go over a wave and disappear forever.”

5) Protein Shake Catastrophe

Photo via The Nautibuoys

“At one point, someone dropped a protein shake in the cabin. Even better, he didn’t tell anybody for two days. Old protein shakes stink and mould up at the best of times, but couple that with the intense heat we were in, and you can probably understand why we had to pull absolutely everything out of there and scrub every inch of it clean. Dear God, it was horrendous.”

6) Crazy Waves

“You want big storms and winds, so that you can get to your destination faster. Unfortunately, a lot of our weather was – we didn’t have tremendous wind and rain, but we also didn’t have to go to sleep absolutely soaking wet. We only had six storms, but when they kicked off, you’d be looking at a wall of rain coming towards you. And the waves! When you’re rowing, you can actually surf down the waves – it’s a big boost to your speed, and it’s pretty fun. But if you catch them even slightly wrong, you’ll capsize immediately. Especially when you’re riding down 30-footers. In those moments, you have to be so so careful. It’s super terrifying.”

7) Night Frights

Photo via The Nautibuoys

“I’ve got very pale skin, so I had concerns about rowing during the day. I thought rowing at night would be better for me, but also a really peaceful and tranquil experience. Actually, it’s constantly tense and insanely scary. There would be these side waves coming out of nowhere to wipe out the boat, crashing all over me and smashing us so hard that everything rocks.

“My first night row was really bad. A couple of the boys got sea sick really badly, so they were completely out of action. Meanwhile, we were experiencing extremely high winds for the first time, and those side waves trying to roll us over. I remember thinking, ‘Shit boys, we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ The scary thing wasn’t so much the weather, but the realisation of exactly what we’d got ourselves into.”

8) Losing Your Shit

Photo via The Nautibuoys

“If I’d lost my phone overboard, it would have been game over. Obviously, I didn’t have any signal out there, but it’s what I used to record my diary, and dip into photos and messages that my family had left me, when I needed them. Not only that, but my music was on there too. Music was absolutely vital – as much as I like the guys and as funny as they all are, the banter died after about three days.

“You’ll laugh, but we listened to a lot of Disney songs. A lot. When things were going to shit, I’d put on ‘Hakuna Matata’ and we’d have a sing-along. Hooked On A Feeling’ by Blue Swede worked well, too. In that respect, a mini speaker was one of the best, most motivational bits of kit I brought out there. Funnily enough, it survived the crossing across the Atlantic, but died shortly after when I dropped and lost it in half a metre of water, off my paddleboard. She’d served her purpose well, though.”

For more information on Hector, his team, and their record-breaking row, check out

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