Student becomes youngest-ever rower to cross ocean

Wednesday, 21 April 2010


Atlantic adventurer Tom Heal is celebrating after becoming part of the youngest crew to cross an ocean in a rowing boat.

Atlantic adventurer Tom Heal is celebrating after becoming part of the youngest crew to cross an ocean in a rowing boat.

Tom (pictured during the race), a second-year Business and Management student, and his friend Will Smith, who are both 22, conquered the Atlantic as competitors in one of the world's most mentally and physically challenging races.

The friends spent 80 days rowing 2,550 nautical miles from the Canary Islands to Antigua in the West Indies as part of the Woodvale Challenge.

The Woodvale Challenges see rowing teams comprising two- and four-man crews as well as solo entrants battle their way across the world's oceans.

Tom and Will beat the age record held by a pair who crossed the Indian Ocean in 2009.

Very little prepares entrants for the massive demands of ocean rowing.

'We found out it's a big shock to the system,' explained Tom as he relaxed back in Oxford. 'Everything changes. There's the physical aspect. You're trying to take on 5,000 calories a day, you're sleeping in a coffin-sized cabin.'

And overcoming those physical hardships requires great mental strength. 'It's about getting up every night as we'd row from 7pm to 7am two hours on and two hours off and during the day one hour on and one hour off.

'We didn't get much sleep!'

As each took turns to row their vessel, named Heritage Explorer, they maintained a steady speed of 3.5 miles an hour.

In the middle of the Atlantic, hundreds of miles from land, the crews were entirely self reliant – and Tom and Will were dependent on one another.

'When you're trying to sleep in the cabin and it's the middle of the night and the other person is rowing along, you are really vulnerable. The other person is on watch, they are in charge of the boat and your life is in their hands.'

Because Tom and Will lacked extensive experience of ocean sailing and survival, they were meticulous in their planning and went into huge detail with their preparations.

'We were both very aware we were incredibly inexperienced.' said Tom. 'I'd grown up around boats because my family are quite keen sailors but I haven't done much rowing. Will hadn't spent much time at sea at all. It was a huge, huge undertaking.'

Everyone taking part in the Woodvale Challenges needs a particular mindset.

'Everyone there was on a mission. Everyone was pretty seriously determined. I was ruthlessly determined.'

Tom was not surprised by the beauty of nature – but he was sometimes taken aback by the stillness he experienced in the middle of the Atlantic.

'We saw a lot of wildlife. Sometimes it would feel as though it was quite busy with lots happening. Sometimes it was absolutely dead.

'Around day 40 there was no wind at all. I never realised the sea could get that flat. It was like rowing on a pond. It was dead silent and the only sound you could hear were the oars going in and out of the water.'

Now safely back home, he has been invited to give talks about his inspirational achievement and is telling family and friends about his adventures.

'I think there's a slight element of disbelief. There were quite a lot of people who doubted that we could do it.'

Their adventure should raise about £20,000 for the Special Boat Service Association charity.