The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge is an amazing race. It involves rowing more than 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands to Antigua and is known as 'the world's toughest row'.
Four Royal Navy submariners will be taking on the challenge with PH in their bottles this December and we caught up with the leader of the HMS Oardacious team, Hugo Mitchell-Heggs, to find out more about their adventure...
Hi Hugo, great to meet you! So, how do you prepare for something like the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge?
Hi guys! I'm delighted to say that my team and I have just completed a seven-day training expedition in Scotland to prepare ourselves for our Atlantic Crossing in December.
We departed HMNB Clyde [the home of the Royal Navy Submarine Service] on the morning of the 31 July, with the aim of building our confidence in our 'home on the water' and to get to grips with our equipment and routines.
We rowed about 240 miles, mostly fighting tidal currents and strong winds, and we rowed two hours ‘on’-two hours ‘off’, exploring the Argyll and Bute Loch network during a yellow weather warning.
We were privileged to have seen some incredible wildlife on this expedition, including seals, porpoise, puffins, otters, a frog and a jellyfish the size of a coffee table.
Amazing! How on earth do you approach rowing for two hours and resting for two hours each day?
It’s been a learning curve for sure. The routine on the challenge won’t be too difficult because as submariners we’re quite used to a broken shift pattern and we’re used to working with limited sleep. If things are going wrong on the submarine you might go two or three days without sleep, depending on the state of affairs.
That should lend itself really well to what we’re trying to achieve.
It sounds like you've got the perfect job for a challenge like this. Is there a 'typical day' for you when you're below the surface?
You’re very much in a watchkeeping routine during a typical day.
For me personally, I work in shifts of three hours on, nine hours off during the day, and then four hours on and twelve hours off overnight.
The reason for that breakdown is that during that time on we are watchkeepers and we oversee a very specific range of equipment; the nuclear reactor and complex propulsion system which keeps the submarine driving through water needs a team of 15 technicians and engineers - all at heightened concentration - looking after it at all times.
Outside of that you’ll have your admin to get in, then there’s your food, your sleep, the gym.
You need those other little bits and bobs to keep your day ticking by because it can get pretty monotonous, with some of these deployments lasting in excess of 100 days.
Do you think your job will help you prepare for 25 or more days rowing at sea then?
We’ll hopefully take it in our stride because we’ve spent a combined 40-50 years working as submariners, so we’re quite used to routines and drills.
We like to follow procedure so we will look to set up some routines whereby we get on with the task at hand without thinking, even when we’re tired.
Getting into those good habits where you just do it without thinking is where want to be, which is why the training phase will be so crucial.
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I can only imagine. How do you approach your nutrition and hydration when in the submarines? Can that get quite monotonous?
We're really lucky because we’ve got some incredible chefs on board the submarine. Even though your shift patterns are a bit weird and may make you temporarily nocturnal for stages, the thing that remains consistent is meal times.
Very specific meals on specific days effectively define your week and provide that routine, while the chefs also make it a bit engaging and fun as well.
For example, Saturday night is always ‘morale night’ because it’s steak night!
There’s probably four chefs feeding a crew of 150 people. They do a great job with what they’ve got and the space they’ve got to work in.
Hydration-wise, depending on the type of submarine we use, we either distil sea water using auxiliary heat from the nuclear reactor or through reverse osmosis which turns salty, manky sea water into quite a nice, drinkable product.
With hydration in mind, I see each rower needs to consume around 10 litres of water each day. How are you going to approach carrying your fluids on your Atlantic Challenge?
We’ll use an electronic water maker, which will purify sea water by pumping it through a set of membranes and filters, and we’ll need to produce at least 40 litres a day for the crew of four.
So one of the first jobs in the morning when the sun is high – because we rely entirely on solar power for power when we’re on the boat – we'll make sure the solar panels are nice and clean, run the water maker and fill our four 10 litre jerrycans of water, which will give us a good marker of what we should be getting through.
That will give us a good average based on what teams have done in the past, although our team are all a bit bigger than average and we might have to look at producing a little bit more.
You're all quite big blokes, will it be difficult to get enough nutrition on board?
We’ve been working really closely with the institute of naval medicine, which is a facility that looks at every aspect of medical life in the Royal Navy service.
We work with a few experts down there and they’ve put us through some sub-maximal testing and have looked at our minimum calorie requirements.
We probably consume more than the average team taking on the challenge, with some of our guys aiming to consume up to 9,000 calories to sustain their body weight.
Part of the race rules involves being entirely self-sufficient for the crossing so we’ll be carrying everything with us.
How will you approach carrying your food?
So most of what we’re carrying will be dry rations and dehydrated meals - they normally come in packs that carry anywhere between 600 and 1000 calories, so you add water from your 10 litre allowance and you can either have it cold or hot.
We’ve got about 60 different meal types to choose from, anything from macaroni cheese to reindeer stew. We’ll keep track of our favourites and see what works for us!
Aside from that, 20% of our rations have to be wet, which are the back-up rations, although they’re obviously heavier so we don’t want to take too many of them. You also need your ‘filth’, what I call your morale food – your jars of peanut butter, your chocolate bars, your sweets, the things that get you through the day.
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PH will hopefully get you through your days too - how did you first hear about us out of interest?
My partner is a marathon runner and has done the London Marathon, so I actually met your team at the Expo the day before.
In my life post-rugby, I took up triathlon for a year and did a little half-Ironman myself. For me, endurance sports were a completely new thing and I got it wrong in an Olympic distance race once – so I had the worst cramp after the bike ride because I was just drinking water.
Straight after the bike, I got about 200 metres into the 10km and my legs stopped working. It was a really weird, awful experience, and I’d try and stretch an affected muscle one way, but it would just cramp the other way. I’ve got no doubt that it was down to sodium-depletion.
I had the Sweat Test with you guys out of curiosity and it made sense to me to get in touch with you and work out what I had been doing wrong.
Good stuff! You've got your nutrition and hydration sorted, but what does your physical training for a challenge like this involve?
The fortunate thing is our team are all from a rugby background and it’s not too dissimilar to training for a rugby pre-season in that you’re not going to be able to consume as many calories as you’re using and the muscle groups involved are the big movers – posterior chain, legs and back.
It's all about getting big bums, big quads and big backs, so we’re doing a lot of power lifting and deadlifts, squats, bench presses and pull-ups.
And finally, you're looking to raise over £100,000 for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity to develop a specific project around improving mental health in the submarine community. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
I think everyone has a certain capacity and resilience when it comes to mental health and well-being. It’s a fresh topic that we’re all getting better at understanding.
The submarine service is a brilliant part of the navy and a great one to have worked in, but it also comes with its difficulties.
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There's the working away from home, the not being able to receive certain news while you’re away and we’ve seen some people struggle at times.
What we want to do as HMS Oardacious is to raise awareness about providing support for an individual’s well-being.
You maintain your car engine so it doesn’t break rather than wait until it breaks, so I think any organisation should take that approach with their people.
We’re working with the Royal Navy charity and we handpicked this project as our own and they’ve supported us from the start.
Brilliant, thanks for your time, Hugo, and best of luck with preparations for the challenge!
Check out the HMS Oardacious fundraising page for more details on how you can donate.