How brave does one have to be to decide to row across the Atlantic as a pastime shortly after starting the sport?
Some might say you need a backbone made of titanium.
Fortunately, Hollie Luff has one of these.
In fact, the idea came to her while recovering from having a titanium spine fitted during corrective scoliosis surgery a few years ago.
Hollie, a manager at Premier Marinas, was told to slow down as part of her recovery – something the adventurous spirit didn’t take lightly – and when she was finally given the all-clear to resume activity, river rowing was the way to go.
But she knew she had to face something bigger in the future, even if she couldn’t pinpoint what it was: a lifelong challenge to show she was stronger than ever after her surgery.
Then she saw the light – the light of a red torch, to be precise.
It was at a talk given by a woman who had completed the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, an annual event that sees rowing teams from around the world compete in a race from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean.
The image in the ad showed her team tossing flaming torches in the air after crossing the finish line, and it brought back a childhood memory for Hollie – seeing the inspirational Ellen Macarthur holding her own torches in the air after crossing the finish line Record for solo sailing had broken the world.
“That was a bit of a trigger for me,” she said.
Not long after, she began assembling her team of friends from the Marina Society: Elliot Holman, a ‘Falmouth boy’ and RNLI volunteer; Rachel Lasham, with a love of adventure and a good sense of humor; and Mike Hatch, the manager of Brighton Marina, who last rowed when he was with the Sea Scouts.
According to Mike, their approach was less than conventional.
“Hollie said to me, ‘Mike, I’m planning to row the Atlantic,'” he recalls.
“At that point I said, ‘Congratulations, I think you’re going to be great at this, if you need any help or support let me know.’
“And she looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘No, you don’t understand, I row the Atlantic and so do you.’
Rachel said, “I didn’t even think about it, I just said yes to another adventure.”
And Elliot felt similarly: “Oddly, I didn’t really hesitate.
“I then called my wife to make sure she was okay and she said, ‘Yes do it, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so do it.’
A year and a half of intensive training followed before the Atlantic campaign started on December 12, 2022.
Hollie said: “It was about building that support network of the best people we could have to help us achieve the best possible outcome.
“We’ve dealt with Navy teams, Army teams and big, burly guys, but we’ve represented regular people.”
They hired top ocean rowing coach Duncan Roy to get them in the best shape possible and chose a good reason to single them out: the Center for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth, which was working to find a solution to global plastic pollution .
And then Team In Our Element drifted away from the coast of La Gomera, losing sight of the land with every strike.
Rachel didn’t have the best start to her trip as seasickness hit her hard for the first few days.
She recalled her vomit hitting the water and glowing green with the phosphorescence, “which was really cool.”
When she recovered, she sat at Hollie’s with hot chocolate and cookies at night and watched the stars over the ocean.
There were special times, but it was also an inevitable drudgery.
Hollie said, “We all did really well to say it’s going to end, but it got to day seven, eight, nine and the relentlessness was just starting to wear off a bit.”
In week two, the team of four celebrated Christmas on the boat with hats they had packed for the occasion.
“There wasn’t a better place to spend it,” Mike said.
‘Didn’t have to buy presents, didn’t have to smile at anyone, it was great.’
They received ham and a Terry’s Chocolate Orange from their opposing teams, and a package from a friend of Hollie’s family contained a pirate’s eye patch, a small compass, a sleep mask and a swim cap.
Christmas week passed quickly, Elliot said, while the four made rapid progress.
But in week three, as a worrying weather front moved toward them, the boat met a “catastrophic failure.”
Elliot said: “We had a small electrical fault in week three.
“We literally lost all of our navigation, our autopilot, we just lost a lot of stuff. Coincidentally very early in the morning.’
Thanks to contacts made through their work in marinas, the frightening situation was resolved in four hours, but the team was still shaken.
Hollie, whose back was racked by rocking as a result of week three’s inclement weather, said: “That was that one moment where we all feel comfortable in the water, you realize you’re relying on the gear you’ve got .
“It really showed how vulnerable you are in this situation.”
There were still three weeks to go and many days when they rowed through syrup as opposed to days when they would reach 80 miles or more. Rachel was hit in the face by a flying fish in the toilet. Isolation from friends and family was felt strongly.
“We were fortunate to have satellite phones so we could call loved ones,” Elliot said.
“I called my wife Lauren quite a lot when I was really struggling. I was struggling emotionally a lot, I didn’t think I would do it, but I did.
“Just hearing my wife’s voice just helped. That’s all I needed sometimes.”
The team kept spotting plastic canisters floating in the ocean, a “really sad” reminder of the cause they supported. Over the course of the trip, they saw more plastic in the water than wildlife.
Land was sighted on the horizon early in her seventh week on the waves.
After 42 days, nine hours and 19 minutes crossing the Atlantic, In Our Element crossed the finish line off the coast of Antigua.
Hollie said: “It was absolutely amazing.
“You can feel the support and the feeling, I really thought I was going to have a heart attack.
“It built and built and built, then the torch goes off at the finish line, you can feel and hear the reaction as you get closer to shore.”
As a waterfront restaurant belted out Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” the team pulled out their Ellen Macarthur flares and lit them while cheering with delight.
As they hobbled ashore, they met friends and family who had taken a more typical form of transportation to reach the Caribbean.
“I can’t put it into words, the whole thing was amazing,” Elliot said.
“Unfortunately, Lauren’s grandmother died on the way there.
“That was pretty hard to hear because I wasn’t there to hug her or support her, so it was…yeah, it was nice to see her on the other end to hug her.”
And while the Atlantic Challenge is technically a race, Hollie remains glad the team took the time to stop every now and then to enjoy the sunset.
She said: “When you cross the finish line first or break records, that’s incredible.
“If you’re not on those teams, you’ve still rowed an ocean, just like everyone else.”
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