Solo Atlantic rower: a chat with Tommy Tippetts

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After 3,000 miles, 82 days and a million oar-strokes, Tommy Tippetts became the youngest ever solo rower to cross the Atlantic, whilst raising money for mental health charity Mind. Not bad for a chap once ravaged by sea sickness. AlumNews chats to the University’s latest world record breaker.

On 12 April 2012, Tommy Tippetts (BA Politics and Economics 2010) docked his one-man rowing boat into port in Barbados, 82 days after leaving the Canary Islands in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge – the world’s toughest rowing race – becoming the youngest ever male to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Tommy first came across the race when he was approached by a friend in the University’s Boat Club to take part as a pair. ‘I’d never been a rower and I never even knew it was possible to row across the Atlantic,’ says Tommy. ‘But it captured my imagination and I realised it would be a fantastic thing to do – but on my own’.

His last experience at sea was less than comfortable – heavy sea sickness on a fishing trip – but the seed was sown. Tommy learned to row in his final year at University and spent two years planning, training and fundraising for the race. He set sail from La Gomera, Canary Islands, on 4 December in his boat, Ked Endeavour, alongside 16 other teams from around the world.

There are few solo participants in the Atlantic Challenge, with the majority of entries in pairs, fours or sixes. But with a history of audacious bids under his belt, from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro as a child to driving 10,000 miles across Europe and Asia in the Mongol Rally, this was finally an opportunity to blend his thirst for adventure with an extreme physical challenge.

Tommy’s physical preparation involved a mixture of cardio and strength training, and he put on as much weight as possible before the race. But with three months alone at sea, it was the mental challenge which was perhaps the most demanding.

Through his own research and consultation with renowned sports psychologist Neil Weston of the University of Portsmouth, Tommy found that prior preparation was less important than managing his mindset on the boat. ‘If you spend a week on your own in the Lake District, all it proves is that you can spend a week alone in the Lake District,’ he says. ‘On the boat, it was all about setting myself targets every day and giving myself little things to look forward to’.

Tommy Tippetts on board Ked Endeavour

With 10 hours of rowing each day broken down into four or five shifts, Tommy would listen to music, audiobooks and podcasts on the boat’s built-in speakers whilst looking forward to meals. He’d also speak to his family once a week via a satellite phone, which also let him check emails and publish a blog; and every 10 days he would open a gift package that one of his friends had prepared for him. ‘Once you get into a routine your body adapts, and it’s amazing how quickly the weeks begin to go by,’ he says.

His daily calorie intake was between 5,000–5,500 calories – with 3,500 calories worth of dehydrated foods and 1,500 in energy drinks. ‘I put 70 days’ worth of food on the boat, and catered for 6,000 calories a day, which is the maximum your body can take in. But as the crossing took 82 days in total, I had to ration myself in the last two weeks – although I had quite a lot of leftovers so I was never in any real danger of running out of food.

‘I used a Norwegian company who supply food for expeditions, and it was really good. I’d happily eat it now. Dehydrated oriental casserole was a personal favourite,’ he laughs. ‘It was nice to have food that I could actually look forward to, and I never really longed for anything else.’

The boat has a built-in cabin which Tommy slept in, but at seven by four feet wide and crammed with supplies, there wasn’t much room for him to kick back. ‘For most of the crossing I had to lie on my side – but that’s not a bad thing, because if the weather gets bad you want to be as tightly packed in as possible,’ he says. ‘And when you’re as knackered as I was, you don’t care where you sleep. You put your head on the pillow and six hours later you’re awake again’.

Tommy Tippetts on board his boat, Ked Endeavour

When Tommy was asleep, an early-warning system would trigger an alarm if any ships came within a two-mile radius. ‘The big cargo ships can take up to two miles to change direction, so I’d need to get on the radio straight away to confirm my position, although the automatic identification system (AIS) you get on most boats meant they could always see me.

‘In the first few weeks I’d get quite nervous when the alarms sounded, but when I realised they could see me it became an opportunity to have a nice chat. I came into contact with half a dozen cargo ships and I loved speaking with the captains, finding out about where in the world they were coming from and what they were carrying, whilst trying to explain my own exploits.’

The only major low point for Tommy was having to drop out of the race after five days in December, when rough conditions meant he was unable to control the boat. ‘The winds had really picked up, and the waves were reaching 25 feet, so I had to call the race’s support boat to tow me back to La Gomera,’ he says.

‘The boat is designed to capsize – it self-rights as long as all the hatches are shut – but you don’t want to test that out because you can still sustain heavy damage to yourself and the boat. There wasn’t enough weight on the boat to cope with the weather, and I hadn’t been able to train in heavy winds as you need a tow boat if you get into difficulty – you can’t row into the wind. It’s the one thing I hadn’t prepared for and the one thing that made me turn back.’

Tommy returned home for Christmas and the New Year, before returning to La Gomera in early January to give it another shot. This time he was completely on his own and he didn’t look back. ‘At no point did I feel like I was giving up because you don’t have the luxury of choice! The only way you’re going to get off the boat is to keep going.’

He quickly got into his stride. ‘It’s not the high-powered rowing you see on lakes and rivers, it’s much more slow tempo. You could compare it to walking as opposed to running,’ Tommy says. ‘And the changing conditions on the water mean you can’t keep a uniform pace the whole time. Sometimes you’re even rowing with just one paddle.’

A hirsute Tommy arrives in Port St Charles, BarbadosTommy conquered the sea sickness by initially taking strong pills every few hours and then focusing on the task in hand. ‘It seems to come when you start thinking about it, and when I wasn’t rowing I was eating or sleeping, so I was almost too busy to be sea sick!’ he laughs.

He arrived at Port St Charles, Barbados, on 12 April, and was greeted by his parents and sister. ‘They did a fly-past in a plane a couple of days before I landed, which was amazing,’ he smiles.

Tommy was awarded £500 by the University’s ncl+ Foundation – now the Alumni Association Student Initiative (AASI) Fund – to get the project underway. ‘It was invaluable,’ he says. ‘I was looking at raising £60,000–£70,000 for the whole project, without charity sponsorship, so it helped me get a website up and running and develop a professional look.

‘Beyond that I was very fortunate that people donated some generous amounts of money and time to the cause, and I got some sponsors on board too. Corporate sponsors want to back a campaign that looks professional and has other sponsors on board, so I’m grateful to everyone who helped me achieve that.’

Tommy’s main fundraising event was a dinner and auction he held in London for 200 people, which raised £20,000 alone. ‘The project taught me huge amounts about marketing, brand management and getting investors on board. It’s like trying to launch a start-up company and asking people to believe in you. I loved it but it was hard work.’

So far, Tommy has raised £15,000 of a £25,000 target for mental health charity, Mind. ‘It’s an ambitious goal for the climate we’re in, but mental health is such an undervalued cause. No one likes to talk about it and no one really realises how much of an issue it can be within society.

‘Mind is a small charity and the great thing is that every pound I’ve raised will be felt there. I’m pleased with what I’ve raised so far, but even if it takes another year to get that target higher, I’m going to keep going. It would be fantastic to achieve £25,000.’

Tommy is presented with a hand-stiched quilt by the wife of his parish vicar.

Tommy pays tribute to the support he’s received from his family and friends, and his community back home. He gives a special mention to Catherine-Anne Redparth, the wife of his parish vicar, who raised £750 for Mind and hand-stitched a quilt for him. ‘It’s an unbelievable gift which she’s given me: she’s sewn in my logo, things relating to La Gomera and Barbados, and a beautiful wave pattern. It’s great because she felt that my row really brought the community together’.

Now, Tommy has his sights set on joining the Royal Marines as an officer – having served in the Marine Reserves during his time studying at Newcastle. ‘Getting into the Marines is fiercely competitive,’ Tommy warns. But we think his recent exploits might help him make an impression…

Congratulations to Tommy on behalf of Newcastle University and the Alumni Association. If you’d like to help him reach his fundraising goal for Mind, you can donate via his Virgin Money Giving page.

published on: 7th June 2012

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