Oli Glanville and George Randell rowed across the Atlantic Ocean and lived to tell the tale to Richard Lofthouse

Rowers

George Randell (L) and Oli Glanville, 13th Feb. 2018

28 teams of soloists, fours and pairs set off from the Canary Islands on December 14, 2017, and some of them arrived 3,000 miles later in Antigua, having taken part in the 2017 Talisker Atlantic Whiskey Challenge.

On the day we meet, as grey and as cold as London can muster, Oli mentions that a couple of crews are still out there on the ocean, still rowing towards the finish line, which is mind-boggling when you consider that they’ve been on the open ocean for almost two months.

Oli Glanville (St Catz, 2013) and George Randell (Trinity, 2013) made their crossing in 37 days, beating the previous World Record by 2.5 hours but conceding first place to another, very accomplished and experienced duo.

Barely three weeks later, we're huddling around an image of Oli and George holding aloft flares reflected in the seemingly perfect warm waters of Antigua. It’s a photograph that glimmers with an aura that even a smart phone screen cannot dent. I can tell that they’re still in a bubble, having just returned to a draughty and fairly dismal England, like so many adventurers in so many distinctively English narratives that have filtered down across decades.Lows included being capsized three times in a boat that won’t sink or lose its positively strapped-in occupants, the shock of which was nonetheless immense. ‘It tended to happen at night when there was no moon. You couldn’t see the wave before it hit the boat.’

On another occasion their fresh water-making device didn’t have quite the power it needed (from a solar trickle-charge) and they had to ration their water – ‘a bit scary because 750ml per hour isn’t really enough.’

In a broader sense, notes George with a laugh, ‘The conditions are never right. If it’s flat calm you are rowing the entire weight of the boat, roughly a tonne, and it’s like treacle. If the sea has a bounce to it you are battling the wind in other ways.’ When they set out it was often cool to cold, but by the end it was climbing into a cloudless 30-35 degrees centigrade, which was ‘far too hot for comfort.’ They encountered two serious storms and a tropical squall, the intensity of the last exceeding anything they had ever imagined.

‘Highs’ included having a pod of five pilot whales come to within ten metres of their boat; being tailed by a huge shark and seeing waves breaking up and down the gleaming flanks of a London bus-sized humpback whale (‘it sounded like a steam train when it breathed, and seemed genuinely curious about our presence.’) There were many dolphins and innumerable flying fish, with their extraordinary ability to skim just above the roughest sea, occasionally however hitting whoever was rowing at the time. ‘This was funny but it actually hurt and was a shock,’ as was ‘being hit in the face by a squid that emptied ink all over George.’

Having set out to deliberately shake off social media and the shallow demands of addictive technology, they found themselves asking relatives via satellite phone, on heavily rationed phone calls, ‘what are people saying on Facebook/Twitter?’

‘But after a period of painful adjustment I had what can only be described as a week of ecstasy,’ says George, about two weeks into the five. ‘It was a meditative state of mind. I’d end my two-hour long rowing shift feeling as fresh as a daisy. You would find yourself completely immersed in the moment, perhaps thinking about a person or an experience, but firmly in the mid-Atlantic, in the moment.’ He says that this state eventually turned back to normal ‘and the pain returned, as the fatigue piled up.’

finish

The finish line in Antigua

Oli adds that there is simply no space or time for anything elaborate. Alternately sleeping and rowing for two hours in rotation, ‘you simply lowered your head in the tiny cabin, having crawled into a military ‘waterproof’ sleeping bag, and then you were asleep. There was no thinking about it or reading a book to relax.’

In fact there was no relaxing in such a tiny space and on some occasions they wished to be alone and could not be, something they had been warned about. By a certain point in the event, hallucinating became a common experience.

George remembers Oli suddenly saying that Mark Beaumont, the long distance cyclist and film maker, (who supported them), ‘Wants us to do a 312.’ Asked what this meant, Oli replied that they were to do 312 miles swimming, 312 miles cycling and 312 miles running, in a triathlon like no other. George suggested that 312 miles swimming wasn’t really on the cards and the fantastic thought perished on the wind and waves as the great effort of rowing continued.

Facing a 'Biblical' squall

Facing a 'biblical' squall, somewhere mid-Atlantic, moon-lit. The image was caught on a fixed camera.

Eating was a matter of routine with freeze-dried rations amounting to a minimum of 6,000 calories a day. Even so they lost about 22 lbs each in body mass, having burned 10,000 calories a day.

By the time they crossed the finish line their exaltation was intense, yet didn’t for long cancel out the fatigue. ‘There were jugs of rum punch but frankly we couldn’t drink it. We were completely dead on our feet.’ Almost as soon as they had lived their celebration it was a bed and a long sleep, followed by a sort of blissful and surreal mini-holiday of eating and sleeping and wondering what had happened and how they would finish fundraising and what to do about the boat and how to get home.

Raising money for two charities, both with links to Oxford research – Alzheimers Research UK and Against Malaria Foundation, the Oardinary Boys will continue to fundraise until September 1, 2018. They are already above £50,000 for the charities, having first pulled together a massive effort spanning families and friends in 2017 to merely reach the start line. The naming of the team was simple. Every team had to have a pun in their names, as in ‘oar’, also to denote that neither Oli nor George ranked themselves rowers as such.

If there is one remarkable thing about their entry it is this, that they dabbled in rowing at Oxford as little as most other undergraduates wishing to give it a go for one term. But George captained the Catz rugby team and Oli has an extensive nautical background – and they both went to school together and had notched up other land-bound adventures together, such as a 1,000mile cycling challenge in Norway.

‘The preparation for the Talisker Whiskey Challenge was like an Oxford tutorial essay from beginning to end…’ They raised an estimated £85,000 to take part, the main investment being the boat. And they trained together extensively in the North Sea. Just a couple of months before the event George had surgery to his shoulder, which had suffered dislocations from rugby, while Oli only finished his Masters degree in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance (in Oxford’s School of Geography) in September 2017, less than three months before the start.

So it was nuts, in other words. And yet they broke the previous world record when other teams had to be rescued. So chapeau to the Oardinary Boys…

OARDINARY BOYS

Pictures by Ben Duffy, Oli Glanville and George Randell; University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse

Oli Glanville (22) and George Randell (23) are the youngest pair to ever complete the Talisker Whiskey Challenge. www.theoardinaryboys.com