"The first time I tried to do this, I was rescued after 40 hours,” said Mark Agnew days before he set off earlier this week to row across the Atlantic Ocean, unsupported, with a complete stranger.
Agnew, 27, a sports journalist from South China Morning Post, first tried to row across the Atlantic two years ago. As he embarked on the gruelling and treacherous journey again, this time with Lizzie Gill, a teacher from Britain, on Wednesday, he hopes to last longer. Together, the pair is hoping to set a record for being the fastest mixed pair to complete the challenge. The current record is set at 51 days.
“I feel like I should have a poetic, epic reason for doing something like this, but it just sounds like fun,” said Agnew. “The type of fun that involves blisters, sleep deprivation, isolation, claustrophobia and agoraphobia – all at once.”
The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, or the Atlantic Rowing Race, is considered to be the world’s toughest row. Contenders row from the Canary Islands to the West Indies, a distance of approximately 4,700km. The members of each team takes it in turn to sleep and row for two-hour stints, 24 hours a day. Rowers may experience waves that measure up to 6 metres high, and each team will row in excess of 1.5 million oar strokes during the race.
To avoid chafing, Agnew and and Gill spend much of their time rowing naked - often during adverse weather conditions.
“I have placed my mental preparation much higher than training physically,” said Agnew, who admitted that he’d been practising to remain positive, even when the end goal might seem out of sight. “It’s all about changing the way you perceive a situation. When I’m out there on Christmas Day thinking I’d much rather be at home with my girlfriend and family, I will remind myself that I’m going where other people would never have gone.”
To encourage each other at times when spirits might weaken, Agnew and Gill have pinned a Yoda quote from the Star Wars franchise to the wall of their boat. It reads: “Try not! Do or do not, there is no try.”
Agnew, who is dyslexic, and Gill, who has autism, feed off each other’s strengths and weaknesses perfectly.
“She is very organised, I am not. We work incredibly well with each other, and I couldn’t have been paired with a better person,” he said. “We have devised a strategic plan together, and I’m very confident in our ability.”
However, Agnew knows that there will be moments where his mental and physical mettle will be tested to the extreme.
“I fully expect to hallucinate at some point,” he said. “At night, when I’m sleep-deprived, exhausted and in the middle of nowhere, it’s a given I will see things that aren’t really there.”
Although Agnew comes from a family of adventurers – his father mapped part of Greenland and Patagonia – he said that he’s never had to live up to those expectations.
“My parents are super proud of me and everything that I do. They know I’m paving my own way,” he said. “I think my father is actually jealous he’s not doing this with me!”
Initially, Agnew said, he signed up just for fun. But now he is using his adventure to raise money for Dyslexia Scotland, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation – two causes that are very personal to him. “I want to raise HK$10,000 for each of them,” he said.
This kind-of once-in-a-lifetime adventure is a reminder of how inspiring it can be to push ourselves to the limit. In the days leading up to his departure, Agnew’s energy was palpable and he said he was ready to take on whatever the Atlantic hurls at him.
“There’s never a convenient time to do something like this. If you want to do it, go for it. Don’t be one of those people that say you will do it some day.”
If you want to support Mark Agnew, here are his two donation pages: