The brave Row2Rio team arrived safely in Recife, Brazil after completing a world record-breaking journey across the Atlantic, rowing 3,400 miles from Lagos Portugal yesterday.
The mixed team of two boys and two girls broke two world records all in aid of continuing London’s Olympic legacy and raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support charity.
With full backing from the Ocean Rowing Society, Jake Heath, 29, Mel Parker, 28, Susannah Cass, 27 and Luke Richmond, 31, set off on their epic journey from Portugal on February 29 after cycling 1,500 miles from Stratford in London.
With his feet finally back on dry land, Twickenham rower Jake said: “It’s all a bit of a blur at the moment as I’ve been back on land about 20 hours now and still can’t walk straight.
“Being at sea and not taking more than four steps at a time for 55 days and then having to get off a boat – I couldn’t walk straight, just stumbling around and my mum and my girlfriend had to carry me off the boat.”
When much of the London 2012 legacy had faded, the team hope to carry the honour of the Olympic legacy from one host city to the next.
“The feeling of accomplishment and achievement is just starting to sink in,” said Jake.
“The crazy thing was as a treat my mum and my girlfriend had just sort of said ‘wow we have a fantastic apartment with a lovely sea view’ and that’s the last thing I want to be looking at, it’s very surreal.”
The crew have been in Brazil for less than 24 hours and are trying to adjust back to normal life and recover from the stresses to the body that 55 days at sea can cause.
“I was really worried that I would have to get up in a daze and start putting on wet clothes and start creaming up hands and feet and just walking out of the door,” said Jake from the swish hotel room.
“I was thinking that we would all be like robots not able to function anymore but luckily I think we were just so knackered and relieved, we managed to get our rest and food down us and settle back in.
“It almost feels like the row was the dream and the rest of it is tying to get back into normal life.”
Floating on the ocean at night, the crew were faced with the challenge of getting out of their wet clothes, eating and trying to get some shut eye in a short space of time straining the team mentally and physically.
Sleep deprived and hungry, the crew would only have around four hours of sleep a night due to the hard work and because it was too hot to sleep in the cabins during the day.
“We were having sleep rowing and weird visions – I was convinced there wasn’t just four of us on the boat, it was very weird,” said Jake.
“You’re dreaming in delirium for the first two weeks because you’re breaking your body into the cycle.”
Rowing in pairs on two-hour staggered shifts took its toll on the four over the 55 days of continuous rowing with falling asleep at the oars a regular occurrence.
“At times with the girls their oars weren’t hitting the water and they were just air rowing because they were asleep but they were still moving their arms,” said Jake.
“Sometimes you’d just pass out and not realise you haven’t moved your oars for like five minutes and then Mel or Susannah would do a big stroke and clatter your oars and that would wake you up so it was very strange.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing for the Row2Rio team with big storms battering the boat and almost capsizing the boat throwing the crew into the Atlantic waters in the first two weeks of the mission.
“We had a big old storm and were so near to capsizing and having to put out the sea anchor to slow us down,” said Jake.
“At one point the storm came and this big rope came across and ripped off our antenna meaning we could no longer send bigger data packages.”
Out in the open, the crew were exposed to extreme weather conditions including sweltering heat in temperatures up to 40°C.
“The worst weather was the doldrums where all weather is made,” explained Jake.
“It was just dead with no wind or current and it was baking hot with no breeze.
“Honestly, it feels heaving on you it feels like someone’s sitting on your shoulders like a grill on the top of your head.”
The saltwater became enemy number one during the trip, stripping skin from hands and feet causing annoying injuries that had to be powered through.
The team of four tried to solve the problem of being trapped with no shelter from the elements by coming up with ways to protect themselves.
“We put wet clothes on just to try and cool ourselves down,” said Jake.
“You’d have to do your two-hour stint and then someone else is out on deck but under a blanket because they can’t be in the cabin because that’s turned into an oven.
“At night it was horrible for two weeks, that was the hardest and we thought we would get better weather on our way into the South American coast but in the end everything was against us.”
About to achieve two world records as a four-man crew and as an official mixed crew of two men and two women, and finally in view of coastal land, the crew pushed on more determined than ever to complete the journey.
“When we eventually saw our families just come out on this speedboat and guide us in, it suddenly gave us the hugest boost that we could do this and that it was achievable and you start to see the numbers counting down to single digits,” said Jake.
“It was incredible and that sense of excitement just powers you on.”
The crew kept in touch with friends and family back home as much as they could by using a satellite phone before it became increasingly difficult to send large data packages following the storm antenna loss.
The team worried about missing their target arrival date as crew member Luke had family travelling from Australia to Brazil having spent thousands of pounds to be there.
“Potentially for them if we didn’t push hard or got caught in the wrong current to then have to go home would have been awful,” said Jake.
“That’s what got us going and that feeling of elation when we saw them on the boat and knew the second you reach land you’ve got the world record and get to see your family which you’ve worked so hard for was incredible – and then you get a buffet breakfast in the morning.”
So, 55 days with only three pals and the ocean for company, what did Jake miss most?
“I missed music because my iPhone, food, girlfriend and my mum,” said Jake.
“I would read the emails from friends on the satellite phone maybe 15 or 20 times in a row and that support keeps your head going.
“You find out whether you can do it within the first two weeks because then you just go in to robot mode and it’s the mental thing of keep going and keep your headspace in the right frame.”
With no ocean supermarkets or restaurants to stop off and purchase food, the crew survived with the 200 kilos of food stockpiled on board before the trip full of dried rations and snack bags.
“All the dry food variety was eaten and by the end Luke and I were having 800 calorie Chile Con Carne for between four and six meals a day,” said Jake.
“You’re just eating for fuel with no enjoyment, although the 200 kilos of food helped us to not capsize during the storm and we had to adjust where the weight of the boat was distributed.”
Mr Heath described the views and wildlife surrounding the boat for the journey and how living the simple life was refreshing.
“The wildlife was unbelievable – having pods of dolphins jump in unison doing a show for you alongside the boat was crazy and the same bird visited us every night – it was very surreal,” said Jake.
“I like the idea of people doing something inspirational with a group of friends rather than sitting at home trying to get 100,000 likes on Instagram.
“If you find a reason to do something, be a pioneer, there’s still so much to be discovered and conquered.”
The next stage of the team’s journey will see them cycling another 1,800 miles into Rio. However, recovery time is needed before sitting on the saddle.
“We will start cycling when my bum is able to sit on a saddle,” laughed Jake.
“At the moment I’m like a pregnant woman sitting on doughnut shaped cushions because my bum is so bruised from sitting on a rowing seat for 12 hours a day.
“We worked out that we did over a million oar strokes in each pair based on 20 stoked per minute.
“Our bums are bruised to say the least and with muscle wastage we’re now sitting on bone because you lose so much of your glute – Luke has lost nearly two stone and I’ve lost about four inches from my waist.”
The team are hoping the cycle will take three to four weeks and be a leisurely journey with support from the British consulate in Brazil.
Driven by personal experience of family members’ cancer journeys, the Row2Rio team aim to raise £125,000 for the charity.
Jake said: “We just wanted to give something back and do something for them.”
The group have raised £6,000 so far but still have 1,800 miles to cycle to drum up support.
Lyndsey Cape, fundraising manager at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Not only are they breaking records and inspiring people ahead of the Olympics, their money will help Macmillan be there for even more people affected by cancer.”
Follow the entire Row2Rio journey on social media: @row2rio
Donate to Row2Rio JustGiving page: https://www.justgiving.com/Row2rio2016
Donations can be made by texting code RRIO88 and amount to donate (£1, £2, £5, or £10) to the number 70070.
Images courtesy of the Row2Rio team, with thanks