The boats made it real.
For years two Jacksonville-area rowing teams have been planning and fundraising for a 3,000-mile charity race across the Atlantic Ocean that begins in December. The turning point, they said, was the arrival of their specially designed boats last fall.
“It was a tangible representation of the reality of the event: Our boat which would carry us across the ocean was now in our possession and it was time for training to begin,” said Texan Ben Odom, who with Jacksonville-based colleague Mat Steinlin, formed the two-man Row4Hope team. “Mat and I have matching countdown clocks on our work desks.”
Their boat and the boat to be used by Fernandina Beach-based team Foar from Home — formed by friends and military veterans A.M. “Hupp” Huppman, Paul Lore, Billy Cimino and Cameron Hansen — were made to order by English builder Rannoch Adventure with all the necessary electronic, navigational and safety equipment. The Row4Hope boat is new, but the Foar from Home boat has a history: It was used on a British reality TV show last summer called “Don’t rock the Boat.”
“It’s incredibly exciting, but we are starting to feel the pressure of many things we have yet to master before we get to the starting line,” Huppman said.
The race is the 2021 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, billed as the “world’s toughest row” with participants enduring sleep deprivation, exhaustion, exposure and other health challenges. Still, every December about 30 teams from across the world race unique row boats — self-righting but with no motors or sails — from the Canary Islands to Antigua to benefit a charity of their choice. The title sponsor is Talisker Single Malt Scotch Whisky from Scotland’s Isle of Skye.
A two-man Dutch crew won the 2020 challenge in 32 days, 22 hours and 13 minutes.
The event website describes it as “Teams from all walks of life united by the same objective: to take on the unique challenge of crossing an ocean in a rowing boat. Rowers are left with their own thoughts, an expanse of the ocean and the job of getting the boat safely to the other side.”
One team member has to be rowing at all times, two hours on, two hours off. The bathroom is a bucket. Electronic support is available around-the-clock, but support vessels may be as much as a week away.
“The mental and physical endurance will result in a life-changing achievement that will never be forgotten,” according to the website.
Members of the two Jacksonville-area teams took on the challenge for a variety of reasons: to test their athletic endurance, bond as friends and teammates and give their communities a unique way to support their respective charities.
Row4Hope selected Make-A-Wish of Central and Northern Florida. Foar from Home will row to raise awareness of the average 22 veterans who die by suicide every day and to raise money for two veteran-focused nonprofits: K9s for Warriors of Ponte Vedra Beach and the Cross the Line Foundation of Fernandina Beach.
A “positive side of this campaign is that people are talking openly about the issue of veteran suicide and the statistics that are staggering in our nation,” Huppman said. The loss of 22 veterans per day on average is simply unacceptable. Many people we talk to have never heard of the problem.”
Odom and Steinlin initially planned to row the 2020 Atlantic Challenge — under a different name, Team Praetoarian — but the pandemic prompted them to shift to 2021.
Since their $120,000 boat arrived, they have taken several training trips on “calmer inlets” around St Augustine and two ocean-based trips that each lasted two days and included overnight rows.
In the coming months, they will tackle as many ocean-based overnight trips as possible “to specifically get accustomed to living and rowing on the boat in various conditions in both daytime and nighttime,” Odom said.
“Preparation is everything. There is no day since mid-2019 going by where Ben and I have not worked on Row4Hope,” Steinlin said. “On the day that we start rowing out of La Gomera [in December in the Canary Islands] … we will have prepared for a total of 887 days.
“The real adventure has just begun,” he said.
So far the biggest obstacle they encountered in training is not something they will encounter on the actual challenge — getting in and out of inlets without motorized assistance. Also, they each have had minor seasickness during their ocean-based training trips, but symptoms have not interfered with their two-hour rowing shifts. They are testing remedies, Odom said.
When they are not in the water, they maintain strength, cardio and mobility training “to ensure that our bodies are in the best shape possible to endure the physical requirements of the row,” he said. They have had required classroom courses in first aid, navigation and VHF radio, among other things.
Foar from Home purchased its used boat — called Courageous, it was blue on the “Don’t Rock the Boat” show — for $81,000. After it arrived, the team began training on the Intracoastal waterway, where they have logged 90 hours in the water, said Huppmann.
“Our longest journey so far was a 30-hour row from Amelia Island to Saint Simons Island. Unfortunately we did it on the weekend that the temperatures were 36 degrees,” he said. “It was a pretty grueling 30 hours. Taught us to endure some difficult conditions.”
Like Row4Hope, they have taken Royal Yacht Association online courses on navigation and seamanship and completed FCC certification as VHF radio operators. Upcoming trainings will focus on sea survival and sea first aid.
“Once we complete those two courses of instruction we will actually make our way out into the ocean for extended overnight training sessions,” he said.
The team has not experienced seasickness, at least not yet. But they received “an insider tip from overseas” recommending ginger biscuits, Huppman said.
Both teams are also spending time on the fundraising trail, seeking corporate sponsorships and donations of all kinds, as well as volunteers. Mounting an Atlantic Challenge team can cost as much as $200,000, including buying a new or used boat or leasing one and a $25,000 registration fee.
One of the Foar from Home’s fundraising efforts is a sponsor-a-mile campaign, where supporters pick a mile from the 3,000-nautical mile course and sponsor that specific mile.
“They can dedicate that mile to someone,” Huppman said, “and we plan to notify them no matter what time of day or night when we cross that mile during the row. We have a land team of volunteers that have agreed to stay up 24 hours a day monitoring our mile completions and sending real-time text notifications to people that have sponsored miles. It’s an exciting campaign.”
Both teams and their boats have become popular among the public.
“The public reaction to seeing an ocean-rowing boat is very fun for us to watch,” Odom said. “So many visitors are intrigued by the appearance of the boat and will always stop us to ask questions about its purpose and features. We have learned by now to always allow for extra time at the boat ramps to talk with the public who want to get a closer look at the boat and ask questions.”
Huppmann said, “The public reaction here on Amelia Island has been nothing but excitement. When people see the boat go by either on the trailer or in the water, they have to literally do a second take to figure out what they are looking at. In most cases many people have never seen a boat like this before.
“It’s exciting that between our team and Ben‘s team down in St Augustine there are two boats in the same area operating and training,” he said.
Beth Reese Cravey: [email protected]
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