Solo rower Craig Forsyth features in The Times and The Sunday Times! 24.02.2021
“Infection, back pain and imaginary interviews – meet the last man to finish Atlantic Challenge”
Photo Credit: @Atlantic Campaigns
Rowing across the Atlantic Ocean as a soloist necessitates that you spend plenty of time not rowing at all. Even so, the six-day period in which Craig Forsyth had to put out his anchor and make no progress was typical of the difficulties this challenge can pose.
He was buffeted by the weather for almost a week. In among that came 12 hours where conditions were in his favour, a chance to travel nearer his target. “I rowed for 11 hours solid without a break, just had little snacks, and I maybe rowed 14 miles,” Forsyth, 50, says. “I only made two miles to my destination. It was either don’t do anything and don’t make two miles, or do something and break the monotony of six days with sea anchor, so I had that little row.”
Forsyth overcame that and other problems — more on them shortly — to complete the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge on Tuesday, arriving at Antigua 73 days, seven hours and two minutes after he had set off 3,000 miles earlier from San Sebastián de La Gomera. Last month we spoke to Mark Slats and Kai Wiedmer, who were the first duo to finish the race. Teams of varying sizes have been filtering into Nelson’s Dockyard ever since: two weeks ago Frank Rothwell, 70, became the oldest person to cross the Atlantic unassisted; last weekend Jasmine Harrison, 21, was the youngest woman to row an ocean. With Forsyth’s arrival, this year’s challenge is complete.
There are universal truths for competitors: aching bones, callused hands, sleep deprivation, sealife sightings — including, in Forsyth’s case, getting hit by fish over the boat. He never got more than 2½ hours of kip in one session and fell asleep mid-stroke on several occasions. His sleeping bag was cut up for use as a cushion, eventually leaving only a deflated mattress. “You only slept out of exhaustion,” he says. “It was like putting yourself in a sealed box, because they are so watertight. Leaving the door of a hatch slightly ajar to allow some airflow, you also allow some water to come in. Any water that comes on runs up to where you are.
“It was bizarre how a ten-minute catnap was enough to get you going — you feel like you can’t do any more, you come back out and can do three hours. The mental ability to keep going is far greater; your mind always wants to quit before your body is ready to quit.”
Each competitor faces unique troubles too. Some have three team-mates, others have only their thoughts, nature and whatever entertainment they have brought for company. Victory is achieved by arrival, not by the hours on the clock. There was a point when Forsyth feared nature would prevent him reaching the finish line. His water-maker stopped working at around the time he acquired a skin infection “in the most ridiculous place a male human could get it” — which, if you read Forsyth’s race blog, you would know was the scrotum. “It just felt like everyone was against you at that point,” he says. “The quickest way to stop the infection was to remove yourself from that environment. The only way to get yourself out of that environment was to row faster, but by rowing faster you were putting yourself in that environment even more and in a worse situation. It was chicken and egg.”
The chaps are on the mend thanks to some on-boat antibiotics after a few stints of naked rowing, and on land in Antigua it is only a sore back that ails Forsyth. After so long exercising, just as Slats and Wiedmer experienced, the body struggles to acclimatise to normality. “I woke up this morning, my back was in real agony, but it has been the last six weeks or so,” Forsyth says. “The way I got over the agony was to start rowing again, so I kind of wanted to get up this morning and start rowing because it would make me feel better. I was in a hotel room, so that wasn’t happening.
“I woke up this morning missing rowing but maybe that’s testimony to how nice and good it was to be doing that in that environment. Getting to the end and thinking, ‘I never want to do that again and I’m so glad it’s over,’ which is not how I feel. I loved being out there in the ocean. There were some times where I looked left, looked right, looked behind, looked in front, and thought, ‘This is so amazing, so tranquil, so nice to be such a part of nature.’”
All 21 teams experienced that tranquillity and used it to fundraise for charities. As of yesterday, Forsyth’s JustGiving page had more than £11,000. He rowed as Sporting Chance, in honour of one of two under his banner, a sports mental health charity set up by Tony Adams. “Sporting Chance was a charity I became associated with when they helped me get over the sudden death of my father, which happened in 2018,” he says. “I’m stuck in that crossover phase: I was brought up by someone who told you never to show your feelings, and men don’t have feelings. Then my teachings to my own daughter were to express your feelings and it’s OK not to be OK.
“I was having that conflict with myself. I couldn’t understand it in my own head, and I struggled to come to terms with the loss of my father. He was such a massive influence on my life without really realising it. The greater the love, the greater the loss.”
Forsyth’s father was a rugby league player and his son followed suit, playing semi-professionally for Doncaster Dragons, Scarborough Pirates, York Wasps and York City Knights. It was stories of the sport that kept him going during the quiet moments on the ocean. He had three iPhones loaded up with downloads, two of which broke.“I listened to a podcast that’s called Talking with TK, an Australian guy, and he interviews a lot of rugby league players,” he says.
“I downloaded the guy’s full catalogue of 200 interviews and listened to them backwards from 200 to 1. For one day, bizarrely I pretended I was getting interviewed on his podcast, sat there chatting away and giving my life story to him. That disassociated you from what you were doing.”
It was Forsyth’s connection to the sport that inspired the choice of the second charity: the Motor Neurone Disease Association, in honour of Rob Burrow, the former Leeds Rhinos and England half-back who revealed his diagnosis 14 months ago.
“The shock when Rob was diagnosed would have been felt by every person who supports and loves rugby league,” he says. “It’s amazing how that one person has raised the profile of such a horrible disease that has no cure.” Burrow had a message sent to Forsyth. “If there was one message that put salty water in my eyes and made it look like I was having a tear, that was the one message that did that.”
There is little time for Forsyth and his partner, Emma, to enjoy their Antiguan experience. They fly back to the UK today and once isolation is over, he will return to building the house that he left half-done for a married couple taking refuge in a motorhome, a dual status which he hopes is still the case. Quarantine does at least allow for plenty of sleep.
On the adventure front, Forsyth has his eyes on mountain-biking events in Australia, Iceland and Mongolia. Previously he has cycled the length of the UK and completed the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race. Of his many pursuits, he does not rate the Atlantic Challenge as his most difficult.
“This might sound a bit weird but I still think that running the London Marathon in 2012 was the hardest thing I’ve done,” he says. “That’s the one thing that has nearly broken me to the point that I nearly couldn’t finish. This, I always knew I would finish it, it was just a matter of when.
“If you were to put me in La Gomera now, and you’d have said it would take 73 days, I’d have said, ‘No, I think I can do quicker than that.’ If you took me back to La Gomera now and told me it was going to take me 73 days, I’d still set off and try to prove you wrong. You’re just at the mercy of the ocean. If you’re going to have days where you’re going to be on sea anchor for six days, not make forward motion, that’s just nature. If you don’t want to do that, don’t put yourself in nature’s environment.”