17 February | People
We chat with our good friend Stu Watts, who left the UK as an amateur rower and returned a world record holder.
Stu is one of The Four Oarsmen team that included George Biggar, Dicky Taylor and Peter Robinson - four good friends who decided two years ago to set themselves the challenge of rowing the Atlantic Ocean (having never rowed before) as part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

Setting off from the Canary Islands just before Christmas 2017, they spent 29 days and 15 hours at sea during the 3,000-mile crossing before arriving in English Harbour, Antiqua. A time that not only smashed their personal ambitions of 40 days but is now the fastest Atlantic row of all time.

For a great cause

Pete and I cycled from John O'Groats to Land's End unsupported and pretty much unplanned - it was very hard going due to having a headwind the entire way. It was only later we found out everyone typically cycles South to North with a tailwind but at least we know now! We completed it in 7 days which we were very happy with and on the train home we agreed to do something bigger and better for charity. We created a WhatsApp group titled 'Atlantic Row 2017' and we invited Dicky and George to join.

It seems bonkers now, but we all agreed to row the Atlantic pretty much at that moment. We later met up over a beer and decided to raise money for two charities very close to our hearts. Mental health charity MIND in memory of George's mum Anne, who suffered from depression before she sadly passed away in 2001 and Spinal Research, inspired by Pete’s rugby friend Ben who sustained a spinal cord injury whist playing rugby in Hong Kong. All through the journey it has been about raising as much money as possible for these two charities.

Two years in the making

A massive amount of work that went in to raising money and preparing for the row itself. From sorting out the little things like our team name, logo and clothing, building a website to raise our profile, agreeing sponsorship deals with large corporations - to buying our boat itself. Many long evenings were spent preparing, not to mention the increasing need to get into training.

Although we had all agreed quite early on not to will ourselves to win, we were always planning on giving it everything and being four incredibly competitive blokes we did a fair amount of training so we could turn up on the start line in the best shape. The best shape being fat adapted, 10kgs overweight but having done nearly 18 months of the correct training. In my case this was rowing training nine times a week, CrossFit and yoga. I then scaled the rowing back to just doing two or three hour ergs and increasing my food intake to a level that I can only describe as obscene.  

Moments to remember

The whole lead up was unbelievably draining we all have full time jobs, so managing the boat preparations, training, mandatory courses, interviews, social media and charity events was tough. But the final charity event where we raised over £100,000 at Pergola Paddington was absolutely amazing - 400 people turned up and the atmosphere was beyond anything we could have imagined. I might add that we raffled a Farer watch as part of the auction, which fetched over £800.

The start line was also pretty special. They set us off in 15 minute intervals so when we left the marina staring out at the Atlantic all you could see was our competitors heading West in front of us. We tried to resist but ended up rowing like it was a 2km race, for thirty hours we rowed two hours on, forty minutes off and ended up over ten miles in the lead. One of the race organisers even called us on the radio to see if we were alright because we had gone out way to fast. As a four we barely ate and I don’t actually remember even drinking in that first day or so - but it was great fun.

We also saw some wildlife along the way, although in total it would probably add up to about fifteen minutes in the entire month we were at sea - so it wasn't exactly Blue Planet! The highlight was definitely a whale and calf following us for a few hours. We would only catch glimpses but eventually they passed right under our boat, no more than two feet away from scraping the underside. Most dawns were spectacular, the ocean would often be at is most serene, I can’t say calm because at times there were fifty foot waves at dawn but still it always seemed special. As a team we always liked dusk as well. We loved just smashing it at night, you can't really see where you are going, the best analogy I can give is cycling flat out in the pitch black. It was a strangely liberating experience.
The final highlight was coming in to English Harbour in Antigua. It is one of the most exclusive ports in the world, the super yachts appeared to be the same size as British Navy ships. Everyone was cheering us in playing music, setting off flares, sounding their air horns and there was a party of about 500 people waiting for us on the docks (it was 11pm on a Friday night!). It was sensory overload for us, unfortunately Pete and I had to row us in - as Dicky and George lapped it all up.

A record breaking journey

As a team we didn’t know what the world record was, for the first two weeks we didn’t even know if we were winning the race. At that point it was immaterial, the mantra was go as hard as you can. That said, once we realised that Dicky's dad was willing to send us a text message every four hours to say how we were getting on - we knew we were in the lead.

About three days from Antigua, avoiding any disaster we should win the race and break the race record, but then we were told we were on for a world record. I think none of processed it properly and we just kept on going to win the race. Only until we saw all the media coverage on things like the BBC and front of The Times did it actually sink in a bit more. 

The next adventure 

For now it’s great to be back on dry land and in the UK. We’ve talked about the idea a potential unsupported cross country ski together but nothing is confirmed yet. Definitely no more rowing -  in the meantime I’m off on honeymoon!

The Four Oarsmen have so far raised over £350,000 for both MIND and Spinal Research. If you would like to donate to the fantastic cause and be part of the story please do right here.