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Ocean Valour – An Interview with Thomas Rainey

Ocean Valour – An Interview with Thomas Rainey

In just over a year’s time, Tom Rainey and Sam Coombs will spend up to three months rowing across the treacherous North Atlantic Ocean. Their aim is to break the 55 day two-man speed record, first laid down by the Norwegians George Harbo and Frank Samuelson in 1896, and still standing to this day. Considered one of the pinnacles of ocean rowing, the North Atlantic crossing has been attempted by 60 crews, completed by only 22 and with five crews lost at sea. By comparison, over 170 teams have attempted the more placid Southern Atlantic crossing, with the majority succeeding. If that wasn’t enough, Tom (22) and Sam (23) will be the youngest ever team to row from the mainland USA to mainland UK, they will be entirely unsupported, and hope to raise £250,00 for the Brain Tumour Charity in the process.

With a little way to go until the May 2015 launch date, we got through to Tom – stuck behind a tractor with poor reception somewhere in the lost lands of North Devonshire – to ask him how preparations were going for the launch, what the team’s strategy is for smashing the 128-year-old record, and – if they absolutely had to pick a name for their boat – what it would be.

Hi Tom. Thanks for chatting. First of all, what stage of preparation are you currently at with your project?
The boat started construction on March 1st. We’ve basically got most of the money for the boat, so there’s pretty much no turning back now. The website is nearly up and running, and we got an App being built for iPhones too. Because we need to get money to pay for the project, if someone says: ‘How can I help you with your expedition?’ We’ll soon be able to say, ‘Download the App to your iPhone and then it’ll come up with a list of all the pieces of equipment we need: from bolts to oars, a desalinator, hatches, anything.’ You can pay for those items and then take and upload a selfie. Anyone who helps us in this way goes on the boat; we’ll have a tapestry all round the bottom of the hull, just above the waterline, of the faces of everyone who’s helped. So that’s all going ahead quite well. The logo’s being designed, we’re training every night and sending out letters every single day – over a hundred have been sent out now. So yeah, that’s basically where we’re at right at that moment – that’s seven months of planning.

How did the idea for the row originate?
My father passed away a year ago, at Christmas. He taught me to sail and I spent the whole of my life growing up out on the ocean with him. I wanted to do something that remembered him and also raise money for his charity at the same time. He died of a brain tumour, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to raise money for the Brain Tumour Charity. So six months after he passed away I was on a rig in Africa and that’s where I came up with this idea, and I started researching it. It’s grown a lot from there – I’ve got a teammate and it’s all kind of happening quite fast now.

You also have an environmental aspect to your project too, is that correct?
Yes. In the North Atlantic there’s a thing called the North Atlantic Garbage Patch; it’s an island of rubbish – I think it’s something like 22,000 pieces of debris per square kilometre. It’s mainly composed of plastics, which get broken down into loads of little pieces. Then birds fly over, think the pieces are food, put them into their beaks and go to their chicks and feed them that plastic. You might have seen these pictures of birds washed up on beaches with their bellies full of bottle caps. It’s a known problem, but we want to raise awareness about it and get more people interested in the issue.

We want to try and collect data as well, to try and show the extent of the patch right now, because obviously every year it changes; it grows, it moves. So we hope to collect some information on the position of the actual garbage patch and where it’s going – to see if it’s moving any further north, or whether the gulf stream is keeping it in the same position. Then collecting density records of the garbage spread. My teammate Sam is the marine biologist, so that area is more his side of things!

Please could you walk us through the routine of what you expect life will be like on the boat?
Okay, so we leave New Jersey docks in New York and we’ll start off on a two-hours-on, two-hours-off routine. I’ll row two hours and afterwards Sam will come out for his shift and I’ll go have a rest. We’re going to firstly try and hook up with the Gulf Stream. We’ll take that across the North Atlantic for 75% of the total distance. So basically if we can hit that then we’re on for record time; if we miss it we won’t break the record. Everyday for 55 days it’s going to be this routine of two-hours-on, two-off, just rowing. If we get hit by a storm we’ll chuck out our sea anchor, we’ll sit in the cabin and ride it out. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

How are you going to find the Gulf Stream?
We’ll have radar, to use with Passive Thermal Imaging. The Gulf Stream is a lot warmer than a lot of the rest of the ocean and it sends out a heat wave, picked up by IR-receiving satellites and you can then see on the radar where the warmer water is. Also, we know that 85ºF is what we need to be hitting. So we’ll use satellites to see the position of it, but we’ll also have a ground team monitoring us and they’ll tell us: ‘Okay, according to your position you need to row thirty miles north to get into the middle of the Stream’. Then once we’re in the middle, we’ll use a temperature and salinity probe to verify if we really are there.

What are you rations going to be like for this trip?
We have two main meals, morning and evening. Then for our lunch we’ll have a snack bag, so in there will be chocolates, nuts, raisons, cheese – things to eat slowly throughout the day. But the two main meals will be in the morning and evening and they’ll be dehydrated ration packs. We have to get in 8000 calories a day and we’re expecting to lose 20% of our body mass over the whole row. But 8000 calories will hopefully be enough to keep us going, preventing as much body mass loss as we can. We can’t take more food as that’s pretty much the limit for how many rations you can take without having way too much weight in the boat. On top of that, we’ll need to be drinking around five litres of water a day.

And presumably that’ll come from your desalinator?
Yes, we’ve got an electric desalinator that pumps out around six litres an hour – it’s a good one. But then we’ve also got a manual backup in case that one goes wrong.

Will your equipment run off solar power?
Yes. Basically, we have three or four rigid panels and then we’ve got flexible panels too, so we can position those around the boat depending on where the sun is. So we if we have a really overcast day but there’s some sunlight breaking through, we can move the panels to get the most amount of Watts. But these solar panels nowadays are super efficient – we have two 90A batteries, and I think to charge them fully takes something like just eight hours of sunlight. We will get enough sunlight up there for that.

I know you’re trying to keep the weight down, but will you carry any personal distractions with you, such as books?
I have thought about it. I will take a book, I expect. But the main luxury will be the speakers built into the deck with an iPod dock. The problem is, the only time we’ll really be able to read will be if we get downtime due to bad weather. Because if you’re in perfect weather, you’re going to row for two hours and then as soon as you finish and as soon as your head hits the pillow, you’ll be out of it. I have heard mixed reactions about books – a lot of solo crews take them because they row twelve hours a day, then have twelve hours off. But for pairs and fours, most people don’t really take them, they just have music, then go to sleep for the rest of the time. Maybe I’ll take a Kindle.

What’s your training routine like at the moment?
At the moment I’m getting up early and doing an hour’s weights session – not like show weights, kind of doing clean-and-jerks, and squats and deadlifts, stuff like that. Big compound exercises. Then in the evenings, Sam and I go down to Totnes, to the Dart Rowing Club and row with the senior crew there. They train every evening on rowing machines and we train with them. We started exercises with them in December and by now, well, now I’m the fittest I’ve ever been in my life – it’s unreal. We’re being pushed really hard every night, so that’s our routine at the moment. We’ll obviously increase the amount of time rowing each evening but as soon as the boat’s finished – which should hopefully be by June – that’ll give us a year to train in that too.

Has your boat received a name yet?
No, because we have our sponsorship levels and we’ve got a slot called the platinum headline sponsor, which is what we really want because it’s a full monetary sponsor. If a company goes for this level of sponsorship, they get to name the boat. I’d rather we’d named it ourselves, but I’m waiting to see if anybody wants to get onboard and buy the whole thing. I know the team that went across the North Atlantic four years ago, Artemis, their investor, named everything.

Go on, if you had to pick a name what would you choose?
I don’t know. I really haven’t thought about it, as I’ve just been waiting on sponsorship. Cassandra maybe? [Laughs]

Cracking name – you should definitely go with that! Now finally, what moment are you looking forward to the most over this whole project?
Rowing at night. Everyone I have spoken to has told me it’s the most blissful thing. When you get a perfect flat and calm sea, stars out on a clear night – it’s meant to be sensational. Apparently that’s what people live for. Obviously though, when we’re coming into Salcombe at the end, it’s going to be peak tourist season – I think that will be an epic time when we finally land. But for me, really, it’s the nighttime rowing I’m looking forward to the most.

More information will be available soon, so if you’d like to know more about Tom and Sam’s row please keep checking for further updates.

Written by Jamie Bunchuk






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