From Zero To Atlantic Rowing World Record Holder

When he decided to row across the Atlantic, George Bigger had zero rowing experience but he and the four man crew of The Four Oarsmen went onto win the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge by smashing the World Record

It’s easy to find reasons not to do something. Easy to look at challenges overcome by other men and think: “I could never do that.” But even the most experienced mountaineer started as a novice. What’s harder is seeing something totally beyond your abilities and thinking: “I’m going to give that a go.”

George Biggar was working as a lawyer when he and three friends decided they would enter the gruelling, month long 3,000 mile race to row across the Atlantic from La Gomera to Antigua. The closest he had come to rowing before was pootling around on the Serpentine in a tourist tub.

Biggar wanted a challenge with which to commemorate his mother, a trustee of the charity MIND, who had died seven years before while suffering from mental illness. He thought taking on waves as high as a three storey house would get the necessary attention for a fundraising campaign that would eventually exceed £300,000.

What followed was 18 months of training, preparation and learning. The band of brothers was competitive but little did they know that their journey would end in victory after 29 days by obliterating the previous World Record time of 35 days...

A steep 30ft wave came at us and almost threw the boat end over end

Biggar wanted a challenge with which to commemorate his mother, a trustee of the charity MIND, who had died seven years before while suffering from mental illness. He thought taking on waves as high as a three storey house would get the necessary attention for a fundraising campaign that would eventually exceed £300,000.

What followed was 18 months of training, preparation and learning. The band of brothers was competitive but little did they know that their journey would end in victory after 29 days by obliterating the previous World Record time of 35 days...

Q: You rowed the first 36 hours of the race with a punishing three-crew rowing pattern, which meant two hours on, 40 minutes off – why was that?
A:
‘We were aiming to get across as fast as we could and get away at lightning pace to stretch the field. In previous races it seemed the teams that got ahead in the first few days held near the front. We flew out and the duty officer called us 30 hours in saying: “Guy’s you do know this is a 3,000 mile race?”

Q: What’s it like to be isolated in an endlessness ocean, rowing continually for a month?
A:
‘You have nothing on the horizon, other than water, and you see no one else. You do the same thing 18-20 times a minute for two hours before you stop for two hours to sleep, before you do it again for two hours; come day, come night. You become incredibly robotic. It can be a very demoralising, painful, boring and gruelling experience so it’s vital you find the mental zone where you’re happy and content.’

Q: How did you work on getting into that zone?
A:
‘It’s about creating goals and breaking down the 3,000-odd miles into 100-mile challenges, and having a positive mental attitude at all times – it really gets you through it. We’d ask each other to tell the story of our best try in rugby. I’d say: ‘Stu, run me through your best catch in cricket.” He’d start to tell the story and I’d say: “No, you’ve got two hours here mate, let’s go back. What did you have for breakfast that morning?”

Q: How did you deal with rowing for two hours then resting for two hours, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a month?
A:
‘For the first week it feels incredibly alien. You’re just dragging your dead weight body out, almost falling asleep on the oars and you just can’t see how you are going to sustain it. But very soon your mind and your body come to terms with the new normal.’

Q: Did you have any monstrous waves come down on you?
A:
‘We did have some 40ft waves – when you’re on top of it you think: “God we’re high,” but they are quite long waves. We had 20ft ones coming at us from all directions and that’s when you would be nervous and battered by the waves. We had some breakers come over us and one 30ft steep wave came at us, and very nearly sent us end over end – that’s when you do the damage to the boat.’

Q: What about the personal toll on your body of rowing day in, day out in sea spray?
A:
‘I got taken to bits by blisters on my feet for the whole crossing. I quickly developed blisters on my heels, then I decided to wear socks and no shoes but the Caribbean sun would dry them. This meant the big, open blisters on the top of my feet would get glued to the sock. I had to rip the socks off and bled all over the deck – it was quite disgusting!’

Q: Did you see any marine wildlife during your crossing?
A:
‘On about day seven a minke whale and its calf followed us for an hour and a half, swimming under our boat, coming alongside and blowing its blowhole. A storm petrel we called Bob The Bird would come and check us out every day and amazingly the night before we landed in Antigua another minke whale joined us for an hour.’

Q: Is there a life lesson you’ve learned from the experience?
A:
‘It’s the sense of enablement. The idea that anything is possible if you dedicate yourself to it, and prepare for it wholeheartedly. Society puts massive limitations on what people see as their limits and what they can and can’t achieve. Through 18 months of dedication to the task, through physical training, rowing, nutrition, speaking to a really seasoned sea dog called Leven Brown, learning about navigation and weather, we went from knowing nothing to setting a new World Record.’

You can find out more about The Four Oarsmen’s feat at www.thefouroarsmen.com and www.taliskerwhiskyatlanticchallenge.com