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News > Sports > OT breaks Atlantic Pairs Record

OT breaks Atlantic Pairs Record

Dave Spelman (HS 06-11) and teammate break Pairs record during the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge
2 Mar 2020


Dave Spelman (HS 06-11) and his teammate, Max Thorpe, have broken the Pairs record at the 2019 Talisker Whiskey Challenge by an astonishing 14 minutes, and despite challenging conditions. The pair completed the row in 37 days, 7 hours and 54 minutes, racking up a grand total of 1,075,200 strokes. Read how they overcame adversity and broke the 'unbreakable' world record in Dave's account below:

The first Atlantic row was completed by George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen, two Norwegian-born Americans, in June 1896. The pair traversed 3,250 nautical miles (6020 km) of the North Atlantic from New York to the Isles of Scilly in 1896. In an 18 ft oak rowing boat call ‘The Fox’, the crossing took 55 days and 13 hours setting the precedent for a new tradition of two people navigating their way across the world’s second largest ocean. Since then, almost 200 pairs have successfully completed the challenge with 38 unsuccessful attempted crossings.

One of those ill-fated attempts was undertaken by ‘Team Tenzing’, comprised by my friends, Max Thorpe and Chris Williams. Nine days into the 2017 Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge they had a devastating capsize and fire, which forced them to call for recue. This eventually came in the form of a 250m oil tanker and was a harrowing affair. At one-point, Max was overboard swimming after the tanker for his life. Through a monumental effort, he was able to grab hold of a trailing rope and was hauled up to the deck and to safety.

On Max’s return to the UK, friends and family were relieved and delighted to see him safe and sound. I was keen to help Max find his feet after such an ordeal! We had originally planned on attempting the row back in 2015. But I had just been offered the chance to fulfil my dream of playing professional rugby at Bedford Blues and had to make the hard choice of pulling out of the row, making way for Chris to join Max.

Knowing Max’s burning desire to complete the challenge, I began to sense that there was unfinished business out on that Ocean. We decided to enter the 2019 Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge as ‘Team Resilient: X’, using the campaign as a platform to showcase the power of resilience in overcoming adversity. Over the course of 12 months, we undertook a brutal training program and set about acquiring the specialist kit that would enable us to fulfil our goal of winning the 2019 Pairs Race.

At 12:20 pm on the 12th of December, Resilient: X left the marina of San Sebastian de La Gomera with 3000 nautical miles of the Atlantic Ocean between our 7.5m boat, ‘Wolf’, and the finish line in English Harbour, Antigua. Roaring winds and turbulent seas threw us out of the blocks; but were able to fight off the first week of sea sickness and use the conditions to our advantage, building an early lead on the six other pairs, and finding ourselves keeping pace with the five and four-person crews.

Having a further and more southerly route than other teams, following weather routing advice to position ourselves in the stronger trade winds to the south, Team Resilient: X crossed the halfway mark on New Year’s Day having extended our lead on the next pair by 160 miles.

Then the weather began to change. We found ourselves bogged down in flat seas with the equatorial sun beating down on us. The boat was slowing up and our lead was under threat. Atlantic Campaigns subsequently notified spectators that the prospect of any broken speed records had been taken off the table with the slowing conditions. Unaware of this, we pushed hard to maintain our hard-earned lead, making some of our biggest advances on other crews who had instead chosen to deploy their para-anchors to manage the headwinds.

We battled on. Our efforts were rewarded by the return of trade winds from the East. Having settled into a productive rhythm, we soon found ourselves accelerating across the ocean covering up to 100 miles a day. Some recalculations by Atlantic Campaigns moved the expected arrival 7 days forward to the 18th of January. On the 12th, we were notified that we were on track to break the Pairs world record if we could hold an average of 90 miles covered over each of the next 6 days. However, wind speeds were falling, and we had managed to snap three of our six oars during battles with 10-15 metre waves. Realising we needed to be able to row more shifts together to keep pace with the record, we were able to remanufacture a fourth oar out of the broken fragments, the hull repair kit and part of the anchor.

In that final week, the wind started to drop off again and 24 hours from the record deadline, we had to row 84 miles. This was a good 10 miles further than we had been able to row on comparative flat days earlier in the race. At midnight local time on Friday the 17th, we decided we would have to row together through to the end if we were going to stand a chance. 14 hours later, we found ourselves rounding Antigua’s South Point – the final push before English Harbour and the finish line – knowing that we were within minutes of the record. Putting everything into those last few stokes, as if at the end of a 2-kilometre sprint, we crossed the finish line 14 minutes ahead of the deadline, setting a new world record of 37 days, 7 hours, 54 minutes.

The finish line scenes were incredible. Word had spread fast around the island that two men from the United Kingdom, through pure grit and determination, were making the impossible, possible, in breaking a record set in 2017 that many considered to be unbreakable. We arrived to an ecstatic crowd that had gathered at Nelson’s Dockyard to see history in the making. The challenge first laid down by ‘The Fox’ in 1896 had been snapped up and devoured by ‘The Wolf’ in 2020. Through adversity, uncertainty and pain, we managed to come through victorious and became the champions of the Atlantic.

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