The MacLean brothers became the fastest ever trio to successfully row across the Atlantic Ocean, despite having almost zero rowing experience until 12 months before their challenge.
The Scots – Lachlan, 21, Jamie, 26, and Ewan, 27 – completed their 3,000-mile row when they landed in Antigua in the Caribbean on December 12 2019 – a 35-day battle through mental and physical battles that took them to the very edge of human endurance.
The trio, who were competing as part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, beat the previous record by a full six days, in the process overcoming seasickness, dehydration and exhaustion.
They even had to row the last 20 days without any music, as their iPhone cables succumbed to damage caused by a combination of sun and seawater.
RSNG spoke to them about their achievement, which also helped raise £250,000 for Feedback Madagascar and Children First...
RSNG Breaking the world record with no prior rowing experience…?! EWAN MACLEAN, BROAR’S ELDEST ‘Yeah, we had pretty much no rowing experience up until about a year or so before. Then, we started to train pretty hard for it and get used to being on the oars. But to be honest, quite a few experienced people have tried it in the past, and it’s interesting to see that those who are experienced at river rowing haven’t necessarily done that well.’
‘I think that’s because there are so many aspects of ocean rowing that aren’t really about the physical motion of rowing.’
‘The most important things were the team mechanic, the shift patterns, the preparation, the diets, the technical elements and keeping ourselves calm. And all those are much easier to do when you have your brothers around you.’
JAMIE, THE MIDDLE MAN ‘Yes, the actual rowing itself is completely different to river rowing, so if all of your experience has been on a flat-cam body of water, you could go out there and I would imagine you would get so frustrated - you’re going into it somewhat naively and not knowing what to expect.’
‘When you’re at about 45˚ to a wave and you can only get one oar in, and you’re using your upper body just as much as you’re using your lower body… I think that if that’s your base level to compare it to, then you just kind of get on with it.’
‘For me it was as much mental strength as fitness - there are teams in the past who have done the Atlantic Challenge who are rowing veterans, and I mean that in terms of their age! Then there were the likes of Row for Recovery, who had about three legs between the four of them or something like that, which is remarkable!’
Being out there can grind away at you, so the fact that we were three brothers actually helped massively
RSNG What was it like to be in that environment on the open sea for that amount of time? EWAN ‘Being out there can grind away at you, particularly if you don’t have the same kind of goals as a team. The fact that we were three brothers actually helped massively.’
‘Not only did we have those similar goals, but I think that we also had the same kind of thresholds for everything. So, for example, in certain conditions we would all agree to ease off or change what we were doing slightly.’
‘If there were teams gaining on us, at the same time we would all come to the same conclusion of needing to push a bit harder. It meant we were on the same page, often accidentally. So, if we had some kind of disparity, it helped us being brothers.
‘Unfortunately, there were some teams who came across the finish line who felt that they hadn’t had quite a positive experience at all! In situations like that, the smallest disagreement can turn into a massive, massive issue and you can end up not speaking to each other.’
JAMIE ‘Or teammates can start the race with different objectives and then, when put under mental pressure, fatigue and stress, friction is understandably quicker to rise to the surface.’
RSNG But when you’re all together in a 28ft boat, there’s no-one who stands up and says: “I’m off” – you’re stuck with each other! EWAN ‘Yeah, that’s right! I think that we were good recognising when one of us was in a sh*t mood and one of us would alleviate some pressure… whether that would be giving one of the other two a slightly longer break or a slightly longer rest in the cabin, or offering them a slightly larger portion of the Snickers bar, haha!’
RSNG How do you eat during the 35 days on the open water, and how do you store everything on a 28ft boat? EWAN ‘We sought out a lot of advice in advance from a lady called Chloe Lanthier, who is a phenomenal endurance athlete and is based out in Chamonix. We actually went out there to do some training with her.’
‘On the nutritional side, she actually changed our approach completely. A lot of the teams put on a lot of weight before the race, which meant that they have to eat more while they were out at sea – sometimes 24/7 – and their nutrition would include sugary carbs.’
‘That meant that although they would go through boosts of energy, it could lead to quite a few lows, as well.’
JAMIE ‘Our approach was to try to eat foods that were slow-burning carbs and easily-digestible. So, we went down the vegetarian dietary route.’
‘She also advised us not to worry too much about muscle recovery because we weren’t really going to go into that phase at all, because of the amount of exercise that we were doing.’
EWAN ‘…and the amount of rest. Because we were having such a small amount of sleep, it didn’t even count as recovery. So, your body doesn’t even notice the recovery and it’s constantly in this kind of survival state.’
‘Chloe also told us protein is extremely hard on the digestion, and that there was almost no point in taking it as we weren’t going to get that much from it.'
‘Obviously, we would have to be eating a certain quantity of calories or we would be wiped; and within a certain window of the day, so we weren’t digesting 24/7 and wasting energy.’
EWAN ‘We started off probably eating about 3,000 calories, but it went up and up because your appetite just increases and increases. So, we had porridge and various kinds of freeze-dried meals, plus nuts, dried berries and snack bars; that kind of thing.’
By the end we were eating between 5,000 and 6,000 calories per day
JAMIE ‘By the end it was between 5,000 and 6,000 per day. That does sound like quite a lot, but you compare it to some teams, and they attempt to consume as much as they are expending. So that means that they can be eating up to as much as 10,000 calories a day, if not more.’
‘Storage wasn’t too much of a problem, and we had a desalinator on board which converted the saltwater to fresh water and we would just use that to rehydrate the meals and to add to porridge oats.’
RSNG Quick maths says that you rowed 75 nautical miles a day. That’s colossal! EWAN ‘We did a calculation which meant that we had to an average of 2.75 knots for us to break the record when it was sat at 41 days. Then, you end up doing pretty terrible maths throughout the journey and because you’re so sleep-deprived, the maths just get worse and worse.’
JAMIE ‘There were the calculations that we did just to sort of get an idea of what we needed to hit. But also, we consciously tried to avoid saying to ourselves and to other people and that we were aiming for the record, because a lot of teams go into it wanting to smash this and that, then the weather or technical issues come in to take it out of their control.’
‘As a result, they have an horrendous experience and think they have failed. Because we went into it knowing there was the possibility of that happening, we were okay with whatever outcome it would be.’
‘Throughout the race, we started to realise that we were keeping up with teams at the head of the pack and we were doing alright in conditions that we thought we were going to struggle with. So, that was just a confidence boost in that environment and then you start to believe in yourself more.’
RSNG How did you split the rowing workload? EWAN ‘It was basically a 2:1 ratio. So, we were doing something like 40 minutes on, 20 minutes off. So that meant that we were rowing for longer and not rowing as hard, if that makes sense.’
JAMIE ‘And in full rest periods we would sleep for four hours every 24 hours, so just napping here and there. We wouldn’t sleep at all during the day. A lot of teams do but it is very uncomfortable sleeping in the cabins and it gets very, very hot, so it’s not particularly pleasant. We were rowing from about 6am until midnight and we would have two on, one off.’
‘In some conditions, you would only need one person on the oars, and it wouldn’t make too much difference if you had one or two. But a lot of the time it would be two on, one off and then when it got to midnight, we would start the night shift.’
‘There would be a six-hour period where there would just be one of us on the oars. So, I would go to bed and sleep for two hours, and then I would get up and onto the oars, row for two hours and then I would sleep again for two hours. Lachlan would start, row for two hours and then sleep for four, and then Jamie would do that and that seemed to work for us very well.’
‘I think that it’s just about getting into that routine and it’s amazing what the body can cope with and then it becomes so much easier. But getting into that routine is the difficult bit.’
The aches moved around from my knees to my back, to my elbows and all-around – then you start to get blisters
RSNG Is the phrase ‘mind over matter’ something that rings true? EWAN ‘Absolutely. Physically, that first seven days was really tough because you get aches and pains throughout the body and for me, they moved around from my knees to my back, to my elbows at one point and all-around, then you start to get blisters.’
‘Then at some point, your body just realises that this is what life is now and you kind of get used to it. It’s like a conditioning and you do get used to it.’
‘With the mental side, I would liken it to jetlag. You’re getting used to the sleep deprivation and the new sleeping pattern that you’re in and then that becomes normalised. For the first couple of days, you’re kind of running off adrenaline with these huge waves and there’s the excitement of the race, and that wears off.’
‘Then, you’ve got the overbearing prospect of still having thousands of miles to row and you realise how slowly the dot moves across the map’
‘The worst thing we discovered was that if we zoomed out on the chart plotter, we would suddenly realise how little in distance we’d moved. We didn’t make that mistake twice, haha!’
WHAT NEXT? Read about the man training to do an Antarctic Ironman in our interview here.