How muscle power drove doctor’s team on Atlantic voyage

Sheffield doctor James Robins successfully rows Atlantic
Sheffield doctor James Robins successfully rows Atlantic
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They survived an attack from a great white shark and a close encounter with a gigantic tanker ship during an epic 3,000-mile voyage. But Sheffield doctor James Robins and the rest of an eight-man crew have joined a small and elite band of people to have successfully rowed the Atlantic.

The team completed their remarkable journey – using nothing other than human power – in just 43 days.

They arrived in Barbados at the end of the gruelling non-stop trip 1,044 hours and 55 minutes after setting off from Puerto Mogan in Gran Canaria.

Exhausted James, a captain in the British Army Reserve (Royal Army Medical Corps), says: “It was really strange to see land after nearly 44 days at sea.

“When out in the ocean, you begin to realise how large the Atlantic actually is.

“In our crossing we only saw four other vessels – and one tanker was headed straight for our course, necessitating evasive action.”

On the 25th day of their voyage the boat, Avalon, was attacked by the shark.

“I was having a break eating some food in the bow cabin,” says James. “There was a huge bang and the whole boat shook. I rushed out on deck and was told a shark had attacked the boat, biting into the rudder.

“The rudder was made of steel and the shark was seen swimming off. This reminded us how dangerous the expedition could be, not least if someone fell overboard.”

The 26-year-old, who has raised thousands of pounds to help buy life-saving equipment and facilities for Sheffield-based charity Neurocare, rowed in two-hour shift patterns throughout the 2,986-mile crossing.

James, of Fitzwilliam Street in the city centre, says: “Despite having breaks of two hours, by the time we sorted out tasks we rarely achieved more than 90 minutes uninterrupted sleep throughout the expedition.

“This sleep deprivation was tough and indeed some crew members, myself included, experienced hallucinations while rowing at night.

“The sleeping arrangements were also very cramped, with the bunks not wide enough to lie on your back.”

The group set off from Gran Canaria on January 20 – just two days after James, who works at Rotherham District General Hospital, dislocated his shoulder and was forced to reset it himself.

He said: “The first 24 were the toughest. Rowing out into the Atlantic in the pitch blackness with choppy conditions and waves – which you can’t see – coming from all angles made sure we all got a thorough soaking and initiation into what we were about to undertake.

“However, before long we developed and settled into a routine. In fact this is what gives you the most comfort. The day-to-day routine is the simple life. All you have to think about is rowing for two hours and then resting for two hours. In your rest period there are only a few options of how to spend your time: sleep, prepare some food, or use the toilet.”

During the crossing, which saw the rowers burn 5,000 calories a day, they ate a special diet.

“We had specially-made, high-calorie ration packs which contained freeze-dried meals such as macaroni cheese – a good one – and beef stroganoff – a bad one,” he says.

“We boiled water on a gas cooker, which can be a rather interesting process in a moving boat, and reconstituted the meals before eating. The ration packs also contained chocolate, energy bars, extra noodles, nuts, and tea bags.”

Despite eating reasonably well, the team were prone to aches and pains along their journey.

“The routine is unrelenting and in the whole crossing I never missed a rowing shift,” says James.

“Rowing 12 hours a day is tough on the body, inducing a slow starvation and weakening oneself and thus putting more strain on joints. One crew member developed a nasty tendonitis in his hands making every rowing stroke excruciating. I developed horrible pain in my bum due to extensive pressure sores and boils from the sea salt. Every time a wave soaked us on deck, these sores would cause horrible pain.

“When rowing, the boat is very low to the water with the deck sitting maybe 50cm about the water.

“This makes you very exposed to the waves meaning that we would be wet during nearly every shift.

“Even worse was the threat of waves coming from the side which threatened to wash crew overboard. This was particularly concerning during night-time. While completing the expedition I developed a huge respect for the ocean and realised how quickly any situation could become dangerous.

“We experienced seven-to-eight-metre waves, a huge mass of water, which made us feel incredibly small when in the trough between two of these waves.

“Fortunately we didn’t capsize or lose anyone overboard.”

The team completed the crossing in 43 days, 12 hours and 55 minutes.

“Originally we aimed for a sub 32-day crossing which would have been a world record,” says James, whose participation was supported by South Yorkshire Orthopaedic Services.

“However, we were beset with bad luck from the start. Firstly the auto-helm, a device which uses GPS to control the boat direction automatically, broke in the first 24 hours.

“This meant only three people could row at one time as one person had to manually steer the boat.

“We were also unlucky with the weather. Ideally the trade winds and currents add to the boat’s speed, assisting the crossing, but we had a two-week period where there was no wind and we were fighting head currents. This took its toll on the crew physically and psychologically – not least in the blistering heat of the tropics.”

James, a Sheffield University medicine graduate, and his companions were greeted by loved ones when they made a triumphant arrival in Barbados.

“It was great to see friends and family and they made sure a steak dinner was ready for the crew, even though it was about 8am,” he said. The taste of real food was fantastic – as was the taste of one or two cold bottles of beer. It’s a bizarre feeling to know the job is complete and we don’t have to row anymore.

“Indeed the culmination of not resting for more than two hours and having less than 90 minutes sleep leaves you in a daze, making the trip feel like a dream.

“We subsequently had a rather large party after all the crew had caught up on some much-needed rest.

“It was a real privilege to complete this expedition and to raise money for Neurocare, which helps to fund the neurosurgical department at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital.”