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Essence of Life: Aldo Kane

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Essence of Life: Aldo Kane Photo by Martin Hartley

Aldo Kane was part of a team of five who recently became the fastest team to row the longest route across the Atlantic Ocean from mainland Europe to mainland South America. Here he tells the story of Team Essence’s achievement.  

Where are you right now, and how do you feel after your challenge? 
I am currently on the train back from London after a full-on day of expedition meetings and interviews. I’ve only been back in the UK a day or two and it feels strange that, just a few days before that, I was one of only five men on a boat, and it had been that way for the last seven weeks. Today, I got the tube and was truly amazed at the amount of people around me; everyone crammed on, going about their daily routine. It’s the most people I’ve seen in weeks. Today was the day I realised that the expedition was over – it was back to reality with a thump and the usual post-expedition blues set in. Was it really that tough out there? I feel elated in collecting at least two world firsts/records but am truly amazed how quickly my brain and body have switched back to reality. The world keeps on spinning, nothing and everything has changed.

Why did you decide to do this challenge? How did the idea come about? 
The idea to become the first team to row unsupported mainland Europe to mainland South America was borne from a desire to achieve a world first, but above all a unique quest for real adventure. None of us had any rowing experience and genuinely did not know what the outcome would be as we set off west towards the horizon. In our research we had found that several teams had completed the standard, shorter route from the Canaries to the Caribbean but no team had ever completed a true continent-to-continent, mainland-to-mainland passage. As soon as we discovered this, our goal was cemented. We would attempt to be the first ever team to make and complete the journey.

What did you hope to achieve? What was the key aim?
From the start we decided to aim high, even though none of us were ocean rowers. We decided that if we were going to commit time, energy and money to the cause then we wanted to do it properly. We wanted to set new world records and raise a huge amount of money for the NSPCC. After a few meetings we decided that we would be the first ever team to row one of the longest routes in the shortest time possible, opening up a new transatlantic rowing route. This is exactly what we then went on to do, creating a route from Lagos in Portugal to a remote peninsula in Venezuela, a route never before completed by anyone. Our journey took us down the rough coast of Africa and then west out into the Atlantic, finishing after 50 days, 10 hours and 36 minutes. The total distance travelled was 3,677 nautical miles.

What were the biggest challenges?
Our biggest challenge over the course of seven weeks at sea was managing small and niggling injuries and illnesses caused by prolonged time at the oars. Our bodies were almost always damp and we sustained fungal infections and abscesses. Nearly every member of the team had one or both of these after about five weeks. This meant that we had to be extremely careful not to worsen or spread the infections. This is easier said than done when five large men are sharing a boat no bigger that 8m long and 1.5m wide. Each abscess had to be cleaned, packed and dressed daily. Some of the abscesses were almost a centimeter deep and most of them became infected. By the time we arrived in Venezuela we had used almost all of our medical supplies. There wasn’t much we could do for the fungal infections, as the environment wasn’t conducive to healing. The majority of our time at the oars was miserable. A further problem was that after two weeks we started to lose a lot of weight from our backsides, so the point loading on the bones of our arses became unbearable. Everyone had to fashion some sort of cushion that went on top of the rowing seat, either from foam or something soft like clothing. By the end of the seven weeks there was nothing we could do to reduce the absolute agony we felt every time we sat down and picked up the oars.

There is nothing on this earth that can prepare you for the first time that you capsize. It is truly one of the greatest terrors that I think you could possibly have to deal with at sea.

You capsized three times – were they the scariest moments? 
We capsized and rolled three times in the first three weeks of our passage. This is relatively unheard of in ocean rowing and certainly not a common event. The route that we had chosen took us down the west coast of Africa where many currents, swells, weather patterns and winds collide. Couple this with a large storm in the Northern Atlantic and a cold front coming from the west and you have a recipe for an extremely large and violent sea. This section of the row humbled us and made us feel like we had truly bitten off more than we could chew. Who were we novice rowers to think that we could dance with the Atlantic? At this point it became apparent why other rowers did not use this route. The same weather pattern had already capsized another team’s boat that week, leaving them stranded and waiting for rescue as they had lost all of their oars. Another boat had been hit by a wave which swept one of their crew overboard and to their death. This is as real as it gets.

There is only one thing more terrifying than capsizing in the middle of the Atlantic: capsizing in the middle of the Atlantic at night in the middle of a crew change. There really couldn’t be a worse time to capsize. Our boat was picked up and thrust headlong down the black face of a 30ft wave into the waiting abyss below. What happened in the next few minutes will be etched in my brain for a long time. Everyone on deck was thrown from the boat when it turned sideways and was engulfed in the washing-machine froth of the breaking wave. We found ourselves overboard, under the boat and still travelling at a fare pace down the wave. The force removed items of our clothing and footwear. When we eventually surfaced it was difficult to regroup; it was still inky dark and we were on the escalator back up the face of the next wave. Capsizing was without doubt the scariest of times!

What surprised you most during your journey?
When you row an ocean, you take turns at the oars, rowing for two hours then off for two hours. In your two hours off you have to wash, clean yourself and clothing, eat and carry out medical interventions. That means that from the start you are, at most, only getting about 90 minutes’ sleep in your off time. What surprised me the most was that, after only a few days at sea, your body becomes conditioned to the toil and hardship and you can quite effectively function on the reduced amount of sleep. After a couple of weeks, we found that we were only really sleeping for about five hours out of every 24. That was partly due to the extreme heat during the day making it impossible to be in the cabins and partly due to the other jobs that needed to be done on a daily basis.

I felt that, at 38 years old, I have been tested and tried enough to know my body and mind and there wasn’t much I could learn. I was wrong. At sea for 50 days in a tiny cramped vessel with not much to occupy my mind hammered home the need for me to learn more about and practise mindfulness.


What was the most important thing you learnt?
I have been lucky enough over the years to work in many extreme and hostile environments so I think I was well prepared for the challenge.

Mindfulness is all about the ability to focus purely on the present time and embrace the environment, feelings, thoughts and emotions I was experiencing instead of worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. Out there at sea your life can be extinguished in one cruel sweep of a hand – if there was ever a time to be fully involved with the right now, that was it. The most important thing I learned on the row was mindfulness.

What was the most useful piece of kit?
On a record-breaking transatlantic row of seven weeks, you would expect the expensive equipment like GPS, sat phones, trackers, Jetboils or stereo to be the most useful. In fact, the most useful and valuable piece of equipment had almost no monetary value. It was a 12-inch by 12-inch piece of black hard foam. Without doubt, this piece of foam enabled me to row comfortably without injury for at least the last four weeks. Point loading on your backside can literally stop you from rowing; it’s the most excruciating pain you can imagine. When you spend 12 hours a day rowing, you need extra padding on your seat, and that’s where the foam comes in. I cut two holes either side of it for my bones to fit nicely into which relieved the constant pain felt during every two-hour shift. By the end of the row, we would have easily paid £100 per shift for such luxury if we did not have the bits of foam.

To someone hoping to embark on their own expedition, what advice would you offer?
In the planning phase of this expedition, it seemed that we could not get a straight answer from anyone regarding previous attempts, current records and potential issues. By the time we left Portugal, we still did not know if we were doing a ‘first’, or what the parameters were from previous attempts – but by this time it did not matter to us. We had gone full circle and drilled down into our actual motives for the row. Was it just to achieve records or was it to embark on a true adventure, a journey that genuinely had no known outcome? A journey of personal discovery where character, mettle and courage were tested to breaking point. By the time we set off we did not care about the records. We were five men who truly wanted to have an outstanding adventure, we wanted to be tested, we wanted to be stretched, we wanted to be pushed harder than we ever had before and we were not disappointed. In being honest with ourselves about our motives, we released all the pressure and issues that go with trying to break records. We were free to enjoy the process without the shackles of performance. We found this to be integral to our achievement, mindset and performance over the seven weeks. Free advice can be costly but I would venture to say that, based on our expedition, you should be honest about what it is that you want to achieve and, above all, WHY?

Finally, if you could go back in time and tell yourself something as you were setting off what would it be?
If I could go back in time to when we rowed out of the harbour in Portugal, I would have the following to say to myself:

‘Try, regardless of pain, fear and hunger to enjoy every single minute of the expedition. Time spent on the oars, mid Atlantic with four great friends is truly one of life’s great privileges. Practise mindfulness every single day and truly accept the highs, lows and discomfort because this will be over before you know it. Real life will be upon you in no time and you will wish with all your heart to be back there enjoying the true essence of life: adventure and camaraderie.’

Aldo Kane takes a closer look at fear and how to cope with this extreme emotion in the article: An Acquaintance With Fear on Sidetracked. He also tells his story of working within the Ebola Redzone in Sierra Leone in Sidetracked Volume Five.

Twitter: @AldoKane
Instagram: @AldoKane

Photo: @MartinRHartley