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Next Sunday, three crews will set out from London’s Tower Bridge on the GB Row challenge, an attempt to row round Britain unsupported and non-stop. Should all the participants succeed, they will increase the number of teams who have completed the circumnavigation by an astonishing 30 per cent. Because in the 17 years since it was first done, only nine other boats have managed to finish as tough an ask as any in the sport.
“It’s not the Everest of rowing, it’s the K2 of rowing,” says the GB Row organiser Jim Bastin, who led the first crew round Britain in 2005. “Lots of people climb Everest, not many even attempt to make it up K2 because it is so hard.”
Every year dozens row across the Atlantic; in 2020 72-year-old Graham Walters became the oldest person to do it solo. But to get round Britain without stopping is a different order of difficulty. And there is a simple reason for that.
“The weather,” says Andy Triggs Hodge, the three-time Olympic gold medallist who is part of one of the GB Row crews. “Oh, and the tides. Not to mention the cargo ships, trawlers, ferries. And the mud flats. Yeah, it’s going to be fun.”
Triggs Hodge is speaking after he and his four teammates have just completed a three-day training run, rowing from Plymouth to Brighton, then back to Portsmouth. Enjoying a coffee now safely restored to dry land, he explains that the main purpose of their training expedition was to get used to the routine they will adopt aboard the 10 metre-long boat.
Across more than three weeks theirs will be a demanding timetable of two hours rowing, two hours off all day and all night. Their food will be dried army rations. They will drink water drawn from the sea and run through a solar-powered desalination machine. They will clean themselves using wet wipes. They will go to the toilet in a bucket, which will then be chucked overboard. At no point will they stop or accept any assistance. Never mind taking a chocolate bar from a kindly passing fishing boat, even to moor up in harbour during a storm is against the rules of engagement. The splattering of vomit visible down the side of the boat as it comes into dock at Hayling Island is indicative of the physical difficulties ahead. And that was after three days on a sea resembling a mill pond.
“It's not going to be like this all the way round," says Triggs Hodge, surveying the calm surface of the water. "Somewhere - and it could be anywhere - we are going to face really bad weather. This is Britain after all,”
And for him there is further trepidation: he has hardly touched an oar since he retired from the sport after winning Olympic gold with the GB eight back in the summer of 2016.
“Rowing left me with a chronic bad back, hip problems and AF [atrial fibrillation, a heart condition],” he says. “So, no, I’ve not been anxious to get back in a boat.”
Such is his lack of engagement that after three days on the training run a crop of blisters has bloomed across his palms causing him to wince when he shakes hands.
“When I was rowing full time I had rock hard calluses,” he says, gingerly poking at his inflamed skin. “These days my hands are soft as butter. I’m really physically not the man I was.”
Which begs the question: why on earth is he doing this?
“They were badgering me to get involved for ages, and I kept saying no way,” he explains. “Then they made Active Row the race charity, so I had no choice but to agree.”
Active Row is the organisation for which Triggs Hodge has worked since he retired as an Olympic athlete. Its purpose is simple: to get more children involved in the sport. Currently they have more than 5,000 kids across the country picking up an oar. But he reckons there is no limit to the numbers who could benefit from such engagement.
“It’s a unique sport that enables non sporty kids like I was to be sporty,” he says. “When I was young I was completely useless at anything involving a ball or running. But I was lucky rowing found me. And I was white, middle class, male, so culturally I fitted in. For a lot of kids it’s just not seen as a sport for them. But it could be. And that’s what we’re trying to do: present it in a way that makes them not just want to do it but feel they can.”
And he thinks the GB Row could be something to inspire youngsters into a boat.
“All people ever see of rowing is the Olympics or the Boat Race, when it’s people going flat out in a straight line,” he says. “It’s like if cycling was only the Tour de France. But with cycling you’ve got mountain biking, BMX, cross country, all these other ways of doing it. We need to find rowing’s equivalent of those. Maybe this event could be rowing’s mountain biking: still a tough challenge, but one completely different.”
There is another reason Triggs Hodge was intrigued by GB Row. Each of the three participating boats will carry equipment continuously to sample things like noise pollution and water quality, scooping up between them the most comprehensive collection of data ever gathered.
“To charter a scientific research vessel to deliver the kind of results this will do is hugely expensive,” says Kat Bruce of Portsmouth University who is part of Triggs Hodge’s team. “Plus these are non-motorised boats, which is a real advantage when it comes to recording noise pollution.”
There is one thing, however, Triggs Hodge insists about what he is taking on: the 26-day, 9-hour, 9-minute record for the 2,000-mile circumnavigation that was set in 2013 is not in his sights.
“My old life was going for every record available,” he says. “For 11 years as a GB rower that absolutely dictated my schedule. But not this time, not now.”
Really? A man who won three gold medals is not interested in putting his name in the record books?
“Oh, OK, if we’re coming down the North Sea right at the end in good shape and could go for it, then yes we might push. But, honestly, breaking the record is simply not a motive for doing this.”
And off he heads, looking for some TCP to sooth his hands.