Claire Allinson interview: Oarsome Foursome conquer the Atlantic row

49 days, 13 hours and 49 minutes later, the women tasted sweet victory as their trusty ocean rowing boat, Liberty, finally crossed the finish line in Antigua on 31 January 2020 at 1:59 a.m. GMT.
Ever wondered what it’s like to row the Atlantic in world-record breaking fashion?

We talked to Claire Allinson, a member of the Oarsome Foursome and a Records Management professional, late last year about how she felt going into the toughest challenge of her life: the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. On December 12 the Oarsome Foursome set out from the Canary Islands.

49 days, 13 hours and 49 minutes later, the women tasted sweet victory as their trusty ocean rowing boat, Liberty, finally crossed the finish line in Antigua on 31 January 2020 at 1:59 a.m. GMT.
The women, hailing from coastal Devon and Cornwall, shattered the existing women's trio Atlantic Crossing record, which had previously been set at 60 days. They broke other records too, being the fastest mother-daughter in a trio to row the Atlantic and being the first team with a deaf woman to cross the Atlantic.

A month after returning to civilization, we sat down with Claire on her return to Crown to talk about her achievement.

Q: How would you summarize the overall experience in a few words?
A: It was exhausting and challenging yet euphoric! On the first night, we went out knowing we were going into a storm. That's not something we had experienced before; it was scary, and we didn't know what to expect. It was significantly worse than we expected. All three of us went down with sea sickness from the get-go and we had no idea when we’d feel better! Two boats alongside us flipped on that first night, one of which was a solo who caught it on her Go-Pro. We were extremely lucky we didn’t have that kind of start.

The second day was also exceptionally stormy. Then the next week we got stuck in a second storm, and three or four times the boat filled completely with water (although it drains quickly so the capsize isn't as serious as you'd think).

We had to use the para anchor, which you stream from the boat in heavy weather. Its purpose is to stabilize the vessel and to limit progress through the water. But after that it was very much business as we expected. You must put yourself in the mindset of row, eat, sleep, clean, repeat. That routine locks in and things become easier.

It was also difficult for Mo - Bird’s mother and the deaf member of our team. She didn't always know when to grab the safety lines as she couldn’t hear the waves coming, and she got absolutely battered as a result, extreme levels of bruising all over her body, it was sad to see. It was a turbulent start.  During a storm, your oars thrash about, and can end up hitting you in the ribs, bruising and winding you, it’s fair to say we all got badly bruised throughout.

Despite this, by the end we were genuinely gutted it was coming to the end. It’s hard to put into words how incredible the experience is once you’ve done it – you’re just so privileged to be out there.
Q: What was the most surprising things you came across?
A: We saw a killer whale, which was stunning. It got so close that it nudged the oar. She spent around five minutes with us swimming around and under the boat, she could have flipped us at any time she was huge.  She then presented her calf to us which was incredible!
We also saw six boats that weren't part of the race, which was a surreal experience. The surface of the ocean can feel empty.

Smelling the vegetation when we came into Antigua was also incredibly alien, after being in the middle of the ocean for so long you're not used to the smell of vegetation. That and the noise. You're so used to the sound of oars clunking that human noise also feels bizarre.

Q: What did you do to pass the time?
A: Lots of things. We played the A to Z game: "What are the A to Z of cars/singers/etc", we also did lots and lots of singing, and other games. When you’re faced with an endless horizon of water, you absolutely must keep your mind occupied. A lot of the time we simply talked about life, what we'd like to get from 2020, and more.

In a particularly bad storm, Mo lost her iPhone. She was distraught as she lost her brother recently, and all her pictures and videos of him were on there. Although we'd backed them up, she was understandably upset and feared we'd lost everything.  Her hearing aids were also controlled through an app on her phone, however we managed to bypass these after a call through to our land support team so she could use them again.

Q: The best things about the experience
A:  Seeing the orca and the breaching humpback whale. 

Q: What did you feel you learned about yourself?
A: I have realized that the little things don't really matter anymore. What's important are the big things. If something is outside of my control, I simply don't allow it to stress me out anymore, whereas I would worry about it before.  On the flip side however, I also realised that I need to speak up for myself more.  For instance, if something was bugging me on the boat (people arriving late for their shift which was delaying my rest time) I needed to talk about it, so it didn’t escalate into something bigger.

Q: How was it coming into Antigua?
A: The weirdest thing was rowing into English Harbour, you come in with this massive hill to your left. You have no idea what the reception is going to be like. If you look at English Harbour from Shirley Heights, it's like a Serpentine, so you zig-zag to the left and right, and you're met by these huge superyachts that start honking their horns. The restaurants to your left and right start playing "We are the Champions", and when you hear the voices of the people you know it’s just incredible.

Q: What did you do to celebrate?
A: Atlantic Campaigns put you in a gazebo, give you a burger, fries, coleslaw. And you know what? I couldn't eat it. Rich (my husband), my Mother and my Aunt came to join me, and we went up to Dickinson Bay. The one thing I craved while I was away was Dairy Milk chocolate. So, Rich had brought a huge bar with him from the UK (850kg). We ate the whole lot in the space of about an hour! Then on the Sunday we went up to Shirley Heights, with the whole team and we celebrated and looked at where we had rowed into – that was lovely.

Q: Were you conscious of breaking records during the row? Is it just better to focus on getting to the end?
A: We always knew if we rowed in within our target of 50 days, we would get the record.  Saying that and doing it, then actually believing it though are completely different. In fact, I still don’t think that has sunk in! We just bit it off shift by shift (two-hour bits) rather than thinking about the finish line. We started to talk about the record with around 7 days to go but we knew if we didn’t row hard enough we may be heading into a storm moving up from the south which would have us on para anchor for at least a few days, if that didn’t spur us on – nothing would!

Q: What does it mean to have the records you attained?
A: You know what – as ungrateful as this sounds the achievement is greater than the record.  Some trio of ladies will at some point in the future smash our record. They will never however be able to take what we have done away from us.

Q: Tell us more about the great causes you were supporting
A: That was my main objective all along.  I wanted to raise as much money as I could to give families the support they need through the most harrowing of times. Bloodbikes saved my dad’s life, biking nine pints of blood into hospital for him whilst he was in theatre with two internal bleeds.  These bikers don’t receive a penny for their amazing efforts. 

As a family my Mum Jane, my sister Sarah and I wouldn’t have got through nursing Dad at home for his last two weeks before he sadly died, without the support from Hospiscare nurses. They really are angels who walk and knew exactly how to manage us individually and the situation occurring during Dads last days. I feel absolutely thrilled that we have raised around £52,000 for these charities. We are hoping family employees will match fund this too so we may even be able to double our total.

Q: What's next for the Oarsome Foursome?
A: Everest Basecamp is my own personal challenge. Mo wants to row the Pacific at some point, but I'm not sure whether we can all align for that in 2021 though. There were also talks of cycling in Kenya. We, for sure will be getting back together one day for another challenge! But I doubt it will be rowing again as a team – then again you should never say never should you!