Interview: A Look Back at “The World’s Toughest Row”

Posted by Stuart Watts on November 5, 2018

The Four Oarsmen Deltek Insight 2018 Interview with Stuart Watts

An Interview With Stuart Watts, Strategic Accounts Director EMEA, Deltek

Last year, Deltek’s Stuart Watts attended Insight with friends George Biggar, Pete Robinson and Dicky Taylor, to do a 40-hour row, simulating the two-hours-on, two-hours-off routine they would be in for during the race of a lifetime. Together, the friends were training as The Four Oarsmen to participate in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge—a race of 3,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean from La Gomera in Spain’s Canary Islands to Antigua in the West Indies.

Reaching Antigua on January 14, 2018, the team won the challenge, christened “the world’s toughest row.” In doing so, they broke the previous world record for an unsupported row across the Atlantic by six days, completing their journey in a grueling 29 days, 14 hours and 34 minutes. They also set a new world record for the fastest average speed of any rowing boat crossing any ocean.  

Their participation benefited MIND, a U.K. charity that advises and supports those experiencing mental illness, and Spinal Research, the U.K.’s leading charity funding medical research to develop effective treatments for paralysis caused by spinal cord injury. Deltek matched each dollar donated by Insight 2017 attendees to these causes, resulting in donations of $20K to their total amount of more than £570,000, or $735,000, raised.

Today, Stuart, George, Pete and Dicky returned to Insight to share their experiences with 2018 attendees during the conference’s first General Session. But first, we chatted with Stuart about the race itself and what the four friends took from their journey.  

Question: What inspired you to enter the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge?

Stuart: The reason we set out to row the Atlantic was to raise money and awareness for our two chosen charities, MIND and Spinal Research. We also all share an adventurous and competitive instinct, and a desire to push ourselves to our physical and mental limits, so there was a real temptation to take on a challenge of this nature and enormity.  

Question: What motivated you throughout your journey?

Stuart: As a team there were lots of things that motivated us both collectively and individually. A prevailing motivation was making sure we did ourselves justice during the crossing and didn’t let anyone down who had supported us and donated money to our causes. This also extended to not letting each other down.

The fact that the charities had such personal importance and relevance to all four of us really helped us get through some of the darker moments.

Probably the unspoken thread that links the four of us is that we are all incredibly competitive. These traits tend to mean that we would push ourselves that bit harder and endure that little bit more discomfort and pain without letting it show. We weren’t willing to admit defeat or show weakness.

Question: How did you manage to shave six days off the record for this row?

Stuart: Part of our plan, as simple as it sounds, was to go out hard right from the start and see how our best stacked up against our competition. The first 48 hours we rowed “three-up” in shifts of two hours on, 40 minutes off—it was bonkers, but great fun. None of us slept for these first two days, and we barely ate or drank, and it soon became apparent that this wasn’t sustainable; adrenaline alone wouldn’t get us through. It did, however, result in us getting a 10-mile lead within the first 150 miles of the race.

It wasn’t discussed on the boat (it’s not really discussed even now), but I believe we all knew at that stage that if we were willing to push as hard as we could on every shift, we could win the race. From that point onward, we committed ourselves to delivering our absolute best for every two-hour shift on the oars. It was hard on all of us because, although we agreed to do ourselves justice, this approach meant sacrificing a lot of the social parts of the experience that other noncompetitive teams got to enjoy.

We shaved six days off the race record and two off the world record. We did this, as discussed, by genuinely rowing as hard as we could throughout but also ensuring that we rowed smart—meaning rowing in unison and harmony all the time, tweaking techniques to suit conditions and circumstances. Harmony of the boat generally was a huge part of it too; we didn’t have one argument. I believe that is because we could appreciate how hard we were all working and, as long as we were trying our best and digging deeper for ourselves and each other, there was no point sweating the small stuff.

We were also blessed with savage weather, which meant for a pretty hairy but quick crossing. Another blessing was that we were completely naïve to the dangers of the sea. Our closest rivals revealed one particularly tempestuous night that they were waiting for us to deploy our sea anchor because with high seas and winds, there was a very strong likelihood we would capsize. Unknown to them, we were just laughing at how fast we were going. That night in the middle of the Atlantic they were less than one mile away from us and they could even see our boat; we had no idea. We ended up overtaking them that night and we built our lead from that point onwards.

Question: What were your biggest challenges during the race?

Stuart: Being out on the ocean is an amazing experience. However, it is relentless. Your body is physically stressed from the moment you start to the moment you finish. You can’t sleep for more than an hour at a time for a month, you can’t wash and, believe it or not, despite all the exertion you have to force yourself to eat. Essentially, your body starts to break down after two weeks and it only gets worse from then on. But this is part of the experience.

The toughest part for me was, having worked so hard to build a lead, we were informed about 1,000 miles out from the Caribbean that we were going to miss Antigua, our final destination, if we continued on the same course. So, for 10 days we had to row with the wind, current and waves off to our port side. Every day we had to hear how our lead was being eroded by the chasing pack to our south. Mentally, it was a real test to keep morale up and, physically, constantly being knocked off your seat and chucked around by the waves meant getting into the rhythm of a stroke was almost impossible.  

Question: What was it like to cross the finish line?

Stuart: In truth, we were in a pretty low mood leading up to the finish line. It is illogical, but we had pinned our hopes on finishing in daylight and that turned into a big deal for us. I think we were just pretty torn up physically and mentally, having been pushing so hard for a month.

That being said, when we turned the corner into English Harbour in Antigua and saw the support waiting for us on the finish line, it was unbelievable. There were fireworks being set off and our families were there to welcome us in. Having spent the previous 29 days in just our own company, it was complete sensory overload. Our loved ones actually had to book and re-book and re-book their flights again—in some instances up to three times—in order to arrive in time to greet us because we were moving ahead of schedule!

Question: What were some of your lessons learned?

Stuart: To start, anyone can break a world record if they are willing to sacrifice two years of their life and give it all they have got. Also, listen to experts. We spoke to anyone who could offer any advice. We would then decide as a team what could work for us and conversely what couldn’t.

Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses and it is a matter of maximizing someone’s strengths and alleviating their weaknesses. We applied this to our whole challenge. After all, the actual rowing was a very small part of the two years.

Stuart Watts is Deltek’s Strategic Accounts Director EMEA for Professional Service Firms. Connect with Stuart on Twitter and LinkedIn.