What does it take to spend over a month rowing a boat across the Atlantic Ocean in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge? A little bit of crazy, and a lot of mental toughness.
It’s 1 a.m. somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and you’re staring out at a great black abyss of nothingness. Clouds cover the stars overhead, no moon is lighting your way, and you’re 800 miles from anything that might resemble civilization.
You haven’t slept for more than an hour in weeks, and though the darkness doesn’t help things, you know that the minute you stop rowing you’ll succumb to the exhausted fog in your head. And so you row, and you row, and you row, despite the blisters all over your body, that now seem to have blisters of their own. You ran out of things to talk about with your boatmates days ago. The only sound is your oars cutting through the water, and the synchronized breathing of you and the other man up rowing with you. The only light is a red clock counting down the minutes until you get a two-hour break that passes unfairly fast.
It’s cold. You’re wet. And if things go wrong, the nearest rescue boat is almost a week away. As miserable as all of this sounds, you spent two years of your life and a small fortune for the privilege of doing it.
Crazy? Maybe. But such was life for former Navy SEAL Chriss Smith and his three boatmates for over a month as they rowed across the Atlantic Ocean during the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. The race runs 3,000 nautical miles from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean and is a superhuman test of both physical and mental toughness. Making it through takes more than training and discipline, it takes an exceptional fortitude to keep pushing no matter what the world throws at you.
Because inevitably, something always goes wrong.
The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge
Former Navy SEAL Chriss Smith Builds “Shut Up and Row” Crew
You don’t have to be a former Navy SEAL to row across the Atlantic Ocean, but it helps. The draw to extremes that forges a Special Forces warrior is the same draw that makes a man think the Talisker challenge sounds like a good time. And Chriss Smith fits the bill.
The former SEAL had been running a couple of CrossFit gyms while heading up Trident Mindset, a program where he uses the skills he learned in special ops to help people become better versions of themselves. One day he got a call from mountain climber Brian Nicholson, who had a crazy idea about rowing across the Atlantic.
“Brian had a hair up his ass about it for a few years before we even fielded a team. It’s difficult to convince people to take two years of their life to train then take two months to row across the ocean,” Smith says. “Brian reached out; it’s hard for me to say no to a challenge in general, so before it even registered the magnitude of the event I said, ‘I’m in!’”
Nicholson also managed to convince James Hein and Brian Chontosh, who combined with Smith to form Team Shut Up and Row. The team’s first act was to hire a campaign manager who’d rowed the crossing three times before, who joined forces with a strength trainer to craft a two-year training plan for the herculean effort.
“I didn’t do any research,” Smith says. “I just blindly jumped in the boat, so to speak. Then as things started to materialize I realized, ‘Holy s**t, this is a massive undertaking.’”
Rowing Across the Atlantic Begins with 40-minute Intervals
Training began with two- to three-hour sessions on a Concept 2 rowing machine, rowing 40 minutes with 10 minutes of rest. That slowly increased to six- and eight-hour sessions, rowing an hour on with five minutes off, then another hour with only one minute off. This coupled with regular strength training including squats, low back work, and developing small muscles in the hands and feet.
A year and a half before the race, the team bought its boat, a 26-foot Raynoch R45. They kept the boat in Florida, where the men would travel for long weekends every three to four weeks, rowing for two to four days at a time from southern Florida to the coast of Georgia. The boat didn’t leave much room, with three rowing positions and six-foot-long by three-foot-high cabins on the bow and stern.
Nutrition was another critical aspect of training, as each team member had a specialized nutrition plan based on their caloric needs. As race day approached, they each stocked up on 55 days’ worth of food to get through a race that takes anywhere from 30 to 90 days. The food was mostly freeze-dried meals combined with peanut butter bars and other calorie dense snacks. The boat also carried a desalination unit, so the crew could drink ocean water during the trip.
How Long is Two Hours? It Depends
The plan was for the four-man team to row in two-hour shifts, with two men rowing per shift. They would then rest for two hours, during which time they had to eat, bathe with wet wipes, use the toilet bucket in the back, take care of any blisters or injuries, and perform necessary boat maintenance. Then, maybe, they got to sleep.
“Maybe you slept 40 minutes or an hour if you prepared for your next rest break,” Smith says. “Nobody wanted to miss a shift, and you cannot oversleep because this guy’s been on the oars paddling for two hours. Then you have to calculate when you have to eat. It’s a lot of preparation and a lot of strategy.”
The team aimed to cross the Atlantic in around 30 days, so they started out rowing three at a time in two-hour shifts with 40-minute rest intervals. This lasted about 12 days until the boat started having mechanical issues.
The Ultimate Gut Check
“We lost power steering, this big storm came in, and the rudder was just going crazy. We were rowing in circles,” Smith says. “Then, we had to hand steer, which takes a person off the oars. You realize you’re 800 miles away from anything, and the wind is pushing your boat, and we can’t get the rudder righted because it’s pinned up against the hull.”
“We’re out in the middle of the ocean with no way to steer. No one’s coming to get us. And we’re moving so flipping slow,” he continues. “We had to turn off our electronics, because if you run the batteries down too low, you can’t recharge them again. And everyone was on Christmas vacation, so the land support we had to help with our solar panels wasn’t responding.”
This kind of disaster is the ultimate gut check, and a pinnacle test of mental toughness. “You’re just like, ‘What the f**k am I doing?’” he says. “When your body starts to sluff off, and everything is starting to hurt, it’s miserable. There were times where you’d think, ‘How many more times do I have to row two hours? How long is 60 seconds?’ It’s f**king forever when you’re exhausted. But you have to sit down and row.”
Pushing On When Your Body Says Stop
So how do you keep rowing when the Earth seems to be conspiring against you, and your body doesn’t much feel like fighting? The first thing, Smith says, is understanding why you’re there in the first place.
“What’s cool about this race is you can’t stop rowing. There are no options. You stop, your boat doesn’t move,” he says. “So the most important thing is why. Why are you doing what you’re doing? The how becomes easier when you understand why. The quitting is more delicious than the why.”
On a micro level, Smith and his crew had several methods they used to push on as well. First, Smith says, is self-talk. “Self-talk is the biggest discipline. What you’re saying in your head matters so much,” he says. “So as long as you tell yourself you’re moving towards the finish line, you’re good. All you have to do is row toward your compass reading, and think, ‘Holy s**t, I’m rowing a boat.’”
Eyes on the Prize
Keeping their eyes on the proverbial prize also helped Team Shut Up and Row persevere. “(I visualized) what it’s gonna feel like when you get to finish the race,” he says. “We watched videos of people coming across sunburned and skinny as hell. I played that so many times in my head, what it’s gonna look like at the finish.”
During their seemingly endless two-hour rowing sessions, Smith and his teammates also set micro-goals for each other and played games to reach them faster. They’d break down their enormous goal of crossing the Atlantic into chunks, sprinting for 10 strokes then cutting back for 10 strokes. Then they’d come up with different rhythms to row to break the monotony.
Finally, after running out of conversations, they began to play little games to pass the time during shifts. “There were times where you’re so droned out with this monotonous movement, you’d think, ‘What can I do to make the next 15 minutes exciting?’” he says. “We had little intellectual stimulus, like name as many American presidents as you can. Or name American-made cars, just try and stay engaged in the activity.”
During rest time. Smith says the rowers did a lot of breath work to calm their nervous systems and speed recovery too.
How Long to Complete Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge? 33 Days, 17 Hours, 38 Minutes
Ultimately, the team made it across in 33 days, 17 hours, and 38 minutes. Everyone lost weight—Smith lost 17 pounds, and the team’s largest rower James Hein lost 26 pounds. While it’s not necessarily a weight loss program everyone can follow, if nothing else it’s effective.
Smith admits the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge isn’t for everyone, but people can still find inspiration from what he and his team achieved. “The challenge doesn’t matter what it is, and f**k you for comparing yourself to anyone else,” he says. “Just look at the man in the mirror and say, ‘What gets your juices flowing?’ Then you’ve gotta keep moving forward, no matter what.”