British friends battle giant waves to win 3,000-mile Atlantic rowing race

14 January 2020, 17:39 | Updated: 14 January 2020, 20:23

Four British university friends have battled hallucinations and 12-metre waves to win a 3,000-mile (4,828km) Atlantic rowing race.

Fortitude IV stormed into Antigua's English Harbour on Monday evening after 32 days, 12 hours and 35 minutes at sea as part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

Ollie Palmer, Tom Foley, Hugh Gillum and Max Breet, who met at the University of Nottingham, managed to beat 34 other boats to be crowned the 2020 winner of "the world's toughest row" after setting off on 12 December last year.

The next boat is set to arrive about two days after them, but for the 72 hours before they got to dry land the weather was so bad they were not sure they would make it as they capsized several times.

Mr Foley, a former Navy mine clearance diving officer turned trainee surveyor, said: "The weather for the past 48 hours has been really testing - we've had 10-12 metres of swell, which at times has been really scary.

"At one point, as I was coming out for shift, the boat went over and I went with it - flipping myself and Ollie out and flooding one of the cabins with water.

"It was up there with one of the scariest moments I've ever experienced - that could have been the end of the race for us quite easily, and that happened a couple of times in the last few days."

More and more crews are taking up the challenge each year, but there are still fewer people that have rowed the Atlantic than reached Everest's summit.

This year saw extremely difficult weather conditions, with some of the strongest winds ever experienced during the race.

The crews work in shifts, with those on Fortitude IV having two members rowing for three hours then sleeping for three hours in tiny cabins as they battle with strains and bruises.

Hallucinations, weather and sleep are major factors that affect crews, but wildlife, seeing the stars and getting away from everyday life makes it worth the struggle, the four friends said.

On Christmas Day, a pod of dolphins and sea turtles circling their boat lifted their spirits.

Mr Palmer, head of marketing for drinks giant Diageo in the Middle East and Europe - and the only crew member without a military background - said: "The memories we have out there will last a lifetime. With all that time on the ocean, you definitely realise what's important to you.

"The most amazing thing I saw was this incredible array of stars - all moving along in a line in a train - there must have been 200 or 300 stars.

"That for me was the most incredible thing I saw - along with lots of wildlife; dolphins, whales and turtles."

Mr Breet added that although there have been "lots of spectacularly unique moments" he is "looking forward to getting the feeling back in my legs - not just crawling from seated to lying in a cabin for 30 days straight".

Fortitude IV not only entered the race to win but to also raise money for West London Zone, a charity that helps the many deprived children in the area surrounding Grenfell Tower.

The next boat scheduled to arrive is Australian team Rowed Less Travelled, who Fortitude IV had a strong rivalry with throughout the race.

A British team of five, The Ocean 5, who are taking part to raise awareness of plastics in the ocean, is currently fourth.

Nine boats are expected to finish within the next week while some of the seven solo rowers are predicted to spend up to eight more weeks at sea.