An epic row

Rachel Hedley's picture
Submitted by Rachel Hedley on


Track of Team Mums Away Channel Row

A light breeze skimming over the waves, a tiny swell as the oars creak in their rowlocks, with a rhythmic splash as they enter the blue sea - different to the river, bigger, but a perfect morning as the two crews of Team Mums Away embark on their Channel Row, Friday 26 July 2013. The White Cliffs slowly reducing in size as the big Spring tide pushes us towards Folkestone, the boat taking an angle at odds to our minds as we follow the pilot boats navigating a course to the Colbart North cardinal buoy on the border of French territorial waters, which we're still not allowed to cross into.

Six oars in each boat, one cox encouraging, cajoling, keeping time, maintaining rhythm. Drink stop: lean onto the oar, swig from a water bottle, back to the oar, "one splash…one splash" the cox calls timed to lift the spirits, urge the crew on. The memory of hours on ergos working together, training sessions on the river, this was the point - this is what it was all for. Our supporters, partners, children, friends, cheering from the beach as we set off this morning, running down Dover harbour pier to blow whistles as we headed out through the harbour entrance to the English Channel.

The night before, the team travelling down in a bus - nervous and excited but quietly confident. This was the point of the whole journey, that started in January 2013 when we set out to row the Channel and raise £24,000 for the AHOY Centre, "A charity changing lives through sailing and rowing", working with young people and people with disabilities.

A journey in which we created events to bring our supporters together and raise nearly twice our target. A Barn Dance with an urban edge: flipping burgers, making salads, running the bar. Quiz nights in Dulwich and Sutton, Boot fairs in Battersea and Romford, a choir concert, a yoga day, a Bond-themed casino night.

Water sessions, at first struggling with the oars, falling off the seats, then grasping the technique, building up our strength. Finally our practice rows - 22 miles from Deptford to Erith and back - past the O2, the Thames Barrier, the Woolwich Ferry and back, checking off the milestones and landmarks one by one.  Endless ergo sessions using the AHOY gym with the linked rowing machines as we mastered the technique back at Easter time and then refined and developed our fitness over the months.

"One splash, good recovery, bow side strong," six oars in unison delivering power, making the boat surge through the water. The best we'd ever rowed was today, a culmination of training and fundraising and now out in the Channel. The fins of dolphins rising and falling to our stern. Jellyfish being swept under our oars. Sun sparkling off the water and the two boats close. Glorious moments strung together. "Think of the story that you will tell, not your children, but your grandchildren."

Every 15 minutes the drink routine, stopping for a minute, resting on the oar, gulping a mouthful of liquid, back to the row. One hour done, two hours gone, three hours. The pilot boat alongside shouting out, "Well done girls, you're three quarters of the way through the first half." Despondency. Rowing for hour upon hour and not even halfway. Upping the tempo, making the boat surge forward again, as muscles start to ache, shoulders sag, will we ever reach the buoy?

Next time the pilot boat comes by, "You've rowed more than 11 miles already, because of the tide, getting to the buoy is irrelevant really" and every one sharing the silent thought that the halfway point, the rounding of the buoy, was critical, a psychological milestone that we needed to conquer.

Then suddenly, over our shoulders looms the buoy, the cox steering us round, Colbart North, right on the boundary with France. Wind now on our backs and the oars rhythmically beating into the slightly choppier waves. Time to swap the coxswain over and a fresh set of muscles comes into the crew, while the first-half cox staggers into the cox seat with cramping muscles and blistered fingers. Over and over the oars beat against the water, tide now with us but pushing as eastwards as we head towards Folkestone to make it into Dover.

"Bow side don't be rowed round. Good recovery. Stroke side strong for three. One splash. One splash."

Back to the shipping lanes with three tankers thundering westwards down the Channel. Pulled up and stopped for five minutes to let them pass by, making the most of the momentary pause to eat and drink and stretch out cramping muscles. Back to the oars, "One splash. Timing. One splash." Five hours gone and on the homeward leg, but knowing this would be longer than ever before, the longest non-stop physical exercise any of us had undertaken.

Six hours and the strong tide, pushing us east, the pilot boat laying a course to the west. So nearly there, just three miles off the harbour, the wall becoming clearer. Strong rowing from the crew, no-one flagging, no-one seasick, toughing out the end of an epic voyage. Hoping our supporters had not given up and gone home. Knowing this had taken longer than we ever imagined. "Dig deep, find the strength you didn't know you had, we need to fight against the tide. This is the final battle to win the war".

MumsAway 2 just beside calling over, "Shall we go in together?" Yes, what a fitting end for this team of women who had worked so hard together, all still rowing so strong. The need to do a time fading into insignificance against the battle being waged against tiring muscles by every oarswoman. The tide so strong that we row hard and stand still. The harbour wall staying the same distance away, 5 minutes, ten minutes, 15… The pilot boat setting a different strategy to row towards the eastern harbour and up the harbour wall out of the tide. Another 15 minutes of treading water and a mix of despondency and relief as the pilot boat calls over that they will tow us the last mile into the harbour entrance. A long ride surfing the waves with the boat pitching and rolling from side to side as the pilot boat, two 90hp engines struggle against the tide to finally bring us through the harbour mouth.

The tow drops, aching and cramping muscles pick up the oars again, "Forwards to row, ready to row, row" back to the oars, keeping the time, rowing up the harbour with supporters whistling and calling from the end of the pier. Kayakers near the beach like packs of ants crawling across the sea, drawing closer and it's Andy, Holly, John, Murray, Ruby, Esa, Simon, Lily - cheering us on from the kayaks for the final few hundred yards, with tears and laughter falling from the exhausted and exhilarated crew.

Back on the pilot boat and round to the marina with supporters lining the rails, champagne flowing and the Mayor of Dover presenting us with medals as we stepped off the boat.

We made it, we raised over £44,000. We rowed the Channel. We did it to raise money for a charity changing lives. We changed our own lives in the process. Nothing will ever be impossible again.