Rowing the Atlantic Ocean for Great Ormond Street Hospital

Duncan was born partly paralysed, epileptic and suffered from amnesia after complications at birth. He visited Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) as a child until he was declared epilepsy free at 13. Earlier this year, Duncan rowed 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, raising nearly £3,000 for Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity and the ARCHIE Foundation.

The extraordinary work of GOSH

“When I was younger I was treated regularly at GOSH. A lot of children would find the experience of being in hospital very upsetting and disturbing to a ‘normal life’,” Duncan said. “For me, my treatment was neither upsetting or disturbing. The staff and the facilities at the hospital made my appointments painless and attending the hospital was never worrying,” he added.

“I am able to live a fully independent life due to the work of GOSH, which was something that was regarded as highly unlikely during my early years. The hospital’s treatment prepared me to take part in one of the greatest endurance events on the planet, the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge.

“Simply put, I would not be where I am today without the extraordinary work of the hospital. Fundraising for the charity will be a lifelong effort on my part.”

Atlantic inspiration

Duncan was inspired to complete the Atlantic challenge after watching a DVD of Ben Fogle and James Cracknell rowing across the ocean in 2005. “The footage of their experience was breath-taking” he said. “I was also motivated to be able to measure up to James Cracknell – a man who already inspired me to push myself harder at rowing.

“Months later, when it came to preparing for the challenge, a deeper motivation surfaced. I struggled through school and exams, I had seizures into my early teens. The challenge was an opportunity for me to prove to myself that my difficult past was behind me and to emerge with a new found self-belief that I was as capable as anyone else.”

Preparing for the challenge

Duncan and Andy who rowed the Atlantic for GOSH
Duncan is a personal trainer and a competitive flat water rower, giving him a head start in training for his challenge. “I trained six days a week, sometimes seven, consuming over 5,000 calories a day. The extra bulk was necessary to stop me from feeling weak towards the end of the challenge.”

During the crossing, Duncan would need to row for 12–15 hours per day. “My training sessions consisted of long cycles, indoor rowing for more than two hours and two to three hours of weight training each day. I also did a lot of work on my flexibility.

“When the big day arrived I was in the best shape I’d ever been in. I’d prepared by crossing every ‘t’ and dotting every ‘I’. I’d never felt so strong and confident, a mind-set really important before an event like this,” Duncan said.

An alien experience

Duncan was at sea for 75 days. He originally began the race with his friend Andy who became unwell during the race, leaving Duncan to complete the challenge solo. “Rowing in the ocean is full of ups and downs. The downs are usually pretty devastating, and regular, but it teaches you to celebrate every high point as best you can.

“The whole experience was alien at times, so beautiful and peaceful beyond words. Other times, it was hard not to imagine the sea was out to get you, but it made it exciting. Every wave was an opportunity to get torn from the sea and carried off into the currents.

“The scariest moment was a near capsize. A freak wave turned the boat on its side and a second one slammed into the side before I could recover. The boat fell several metres into a trough that had been created and the boat took on lots of water. When I came to, I was no longer on my seat. I was lying on the deck with water up to my chest and the boat was half submerged. I was furiously bailing water from the deck, it was so frightening.”

Duncan hasn’t completed a challenge like this before: “Living on the very edge of life and death is something I had only heard about in books and film before this experience, but it’s those moments that make you feel most alive,” Duncan explained. “Adrenaline, along with a primal urge for survival, take over and the ride is completely addictive.”

Beating boredom at sea

The view from a fundraising mission to row the atlantic for GOSH
After Andy left the challenge, we wondered what Duncan did to keep himself entertained: “I had an mp3 player but I couldn't use it while rowing except on very calm days, which were rare to say the least. I mainly used the mp3 player to block out the sounds of the ocean slamming in to the boat at night when I had to catch a precious few hours of sleep. I do admit that I sang sometimes.”

Living at sea for two and half months meant Duncan had to create a new sleeping and eating routine: “I usually slept for about four to five hours in every 24-hour period. I was so tired when it came to sleeping that I didn’t struggle to nod off, despite sleeping on a nearly solid floor in a tiny rocking boat.

“My food was all dried and in army rations. Each ration is around 800 to 1,000 calories and I would eat five or six every day. We had to carry all our food on board so couldn’t take much. When you’re that hungry, anything tastes fine,” Duncan said.

Motivational messages

Keeping yourself motivated during a solo Atlantic crossing is important. We asked Duncan how he did it: I would mainly think about what I was going to do when I got home, and all the foods I would eat. The sea was rarely calm enough for my mind to wander too far.

“The support of my friends and family was invaluable, I received regular text messages from people at home that I knew would be waiting on the other side.”

Making waves

“I saw so many dolphins and flying fish. The scariest animals we saw were huge squid. They were not too scary in daylight but at night they became bioluminescent, they would follow the boat. We would catch flickers of them as they shot about in the black water.

“One of my most memorable moments was an enormous wave I saw, perhaps it was more of a swell. In the middle of the ocean a swell isn’t limited by anything so they grow so easily. All of a sudden it dawned on me that I was rising up and up and I could see so far, down into a valley easily miles wide, created by a 40-metre-high wave."

Home comforts

Fundraise Duncan with his family in Scotland
“I thought about some really random things while I was rowing. I really wanted to buy an ice cream maker, I did as soon as I got home. I missed my girlfriend, my mum’s cooking and my own bed. All of it seems glorious when you’ve been rowing for 15 hours a day with scorching heat and no more than two 30-minute breaks.

We asked Duncan what fundraising challenge he would do next: “I’d like to go to the North and South Pole. To stand on the very top and very bottom of the planet would be amazing. It’ll be a while yet though, but whatever happens, GOSH will know about it.

If you’d like to organise your own fundraising challenge to raise vital funds for the patients and families at Great Ormond Street Hospital, call 020 3841 3131.