Hard Crossing

In March this year, former Royal Marine Lee Spencer smashed the world record for able-bodied solo rowing across the Atlantic, despite having lost his right leg in an accident. Here he describes how he dreamed of liver and bacon as he battled the waves...

By Lee Spencer

July 25 2019

You travel backwards when you are rowing. The sea was racing, the waves pushing me westwards, when a black wall of water somewhere between 40 and 50 feet high engulfed the horizon behind me. It was coming my way – and fast – with white crests forming at its peak. I was staring straight at it, into the abyss.

The expletives that came to mind are unprintable. I knew that waves like this come in threes, the second bigger than the first and the third bigger than the second. I braced myself, remembering that as long as I kept my craft, Hope, at 90 degrees to the waves, I could ride them. In theory! But my faith in theory was fast diminishing as the last swell rose up and bore down.

The belly of the wave pitchforked Hope down into its trough and I felt a backward somersault coming on. I was at an angle of more than 45 degrees, and my feet were far above my head. Then the wave engulfed the boat. I did not somersault, however, and emerged with oars still lashed to the stanchions, me still in place, and spare sculls still bolted to the deck.

That, thank goodness, came near the end. The sea was dangerous for much of the crossing, with heavy easterly swells, great for breaking Atlantic records but lousy if you’re scared of waves. And none too good if you want to prepare a three-course dinner with wine. (More of that later.) The middle section, where I sat with the blades, was only a foot above the water, which is ideal for rowing, but means you are continually soaked from both sides and the front.

One of the biggest chores was dealing with the salt. You have to wipe yourself down every four hours with wet wipes to save your skin from cracking. Hope is 7.5 metres long, flatbottomed and will surf down waves, reaching up to 20 knots, though the fastest speed I clocked was 15.2 knots on a day when I covered 87 miles.

The sea was dangerous for much of the crossing, with heavy easterly swells, great for breaking Atlantic records but lousy if you’re scared of waves
The sea was dangerous for much of the crossing, with heavy easterly swells, great for breaking Atlantic records but lousy if you’re scared of waves

First rule of solo navigation: Man and boat must not part company. So I clipped my rigger’s belt to the deck, only taking it off in the cabin, where I retreated after two hours of rowing, rarely resting for more than an hour. You can never really sleep because you have to be vigilant at all times, so deep exhaustion as well as fear crept in.I served 24 years in the Marines, with three tours of Afghanistan, and was a volunteer for special undercover duties for the last eight years. But I was always part of a team, and that is comforting no matter how hairy the circumstances.

Here, in the wide-open hostile ocean, you are utterly alone, and weather is the mother of all enemies.

Food was part of my coping strategy. I’d listen to podcasts and music while preparing meals in my head. I rationed 6,000 calories a day for 90 days, but was burning 8,000 to 12,000. Just as well that I had set off fat, fit and strong because I finished three stone lighter and weak as a kitten!

Breakfast was typically freeze-dried porridge and fruit or granola. Lunch would also be freeze-dried delights, such as potatoes, peppers and scrambled eggs. For a treat, I added chorizo to the mix on Wednesdays and Saturdays, which were also when I changed my underwear. These twice-weekly treat days were great morale boosters.

Daytime was punctuated with snack packs of sweets, protein bars and biltong. The evening meal might be a carbonara, cooked on a jetboil stove. This was one of the more dangerous procedures, as one cup of scalding water would have spelled the end of the whole thing. My rations were like posh Pot Noodle, and they were jolly good in their way, but after a while you do start to think about the real thing.

Curiously, I started fantasising about liver and bacon, which in reality is not my favourite meal. I became so obsessed that back in London I went to Langan’s Brasserie to scratch the itch. It was bliss. My “wine cellar” comprised a bottle of whisky, which I never touched for fear of losing concentration. But the military ration-packs of wet food, soon acquired Michelin-star status, as did a stash of oranges and tinned fruit.

Having one leg means that I was very unstable walking about the boat, so I had to shuffle about on my bottom. Also, about 70 per cent of the power generated from rowing comes from the legs, so I had to compensate with my upper body.

First rule of solo navigation: Man and boat must not part company
First rule of solo navigation: Man and boat must not part company

The first five days out of Portugal went swimmingly until the solar powered navigational equipment shorted after becoming waterlogged. As I was trying to repair it I felt an urgent call of nature, which was the onset of gastroenteritis. I had to navigate 600 miles to Gran Canaria using a chart, a hand-held GPS and a compass. Not easy when having to relieve myself over the side every few minutes. A pack of food must have got contaminated.

I lost five days in the Canaries getting the navigation fixed, knowing that a Dutch rower, Ralph Tuijn, was setting out from Portugal for a world record attempt. I set off at a furious pace and hit “the wall” after six weeks. One minute I was fine and the next I had no energy. The last three weeks were the hardest of my life, physically and mentally. Thank heaven for the satphone. Talking to my wife Claire, and to my friend, Leven Brown, the rower and adventurer, was great. Tuijn quit when he reached the Canaries.

At one point I was followed by a sperm whale and her calf. They came right up to the boat, then dived underneath me. I could have touched them. There were jumping dorado, turtles, a huge 20-metre whale, and I was frequently trailed by sharks. If I’d been quicker, I could have eaten the flying fish that whacked my head.

In 2015 I rowed the Atlantic with three other disabled former servicemen. We only had three legs between us. That helped me come to terms with the amputation. I realised that I was still the same person I was before the accident, which happened when I went to the aid of someone who had crashed on the M3.

I was hit by flying debris when another car hit the one blocking the fast lane. As a man who had defined himself through physicality, the accident was devastating, but I found myself and am ready for another challenge. Maybe kayaking the Amazon?

Lee “The Rowing Marine” Spencer completed his voyage in 60 days on 11 March 2019, smashing the 2002 world record by 36 days. He is the first disabled person to cross the Atlantic unsupported. He has raised £90,000 for The Endeavour Fund and the Royal Marines Charity. Support him at uk.