On 23rd January 2019, Team Tyne Innovation, a four-person rowing crew comprising ex-Reece Group CEO, Phil Kite, project manager, Claire Hughes, retired detective inspector, Steve Sidaway, and former fireman turned plumber, Alan Huntly, became the fastest mixed four-person crew to complete the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, the world’s toughest rowing race.
Though, despite each person rowing 12 hours per day for 42 days, covering 3,000 miles of open ocean, skipper Phil told Nigel Wright how he still considers the 18-month journey to the start line as the biggest challenge he faced.
Aged 53, Phil Kite rowed for the first time “on a perfect day with blue skies and flat water” at Tyne Amateur Rowing Club. A family friend had persuaded him to give it a go, after Reece Group, who Phil joined as CEO in 2012, helped fund a new £1 million boathouse for the Club. Despite 15 years of doing “no physical challenges beyond cutting the grass,” pretty soon Phil became addicted, often hitting the blades five days per week. Around the same time, an Atlantic rower asked to store their boat at Reece Group’s Armstrong Works site in Newcastle. As he passed it each day, a new-found enthusiasm for exercise and tacit need to “do something completely different,” led Phil to conceive his audacious plan.
Phil stepped down as CEO of Reece Group in 2017 and focused his efforts on entering the Talisker Whisky Challenge – a 3,000-mile multi-team race across the Atlantic Ocean. A competence in rowing is not a prerequisite to enter the Talisker Whisky Challenge, but it helps. Teams also have to provide their own Atlantic standard boat and additional safety equipment, which can cost up to £100,000.
In April 2017, Team Tyne Innovation was born. Its aim was to demonstrate that an innovative spirit is 'alive and kicking' in the North East, by showcasing innovation generated by the region’s businesses, colleges and universities.
As well as using “a living exhibit” of North East products and services to facilitate their journey across the ocean, the team set themselves an additional fundraising target for its three chosen charities: St. Oswald’s Hospice, Daft as a Brush Cancer Patient Care and The Stroke Association. That summer, Phil and his crewmates began organising a series of events to get local businesses interested in supporting their efforts, with equipment, their time and fundraising.
Early attempts to row on water were scuppered by poor weather conditions. And it wasn’t until May 2018 when the crew first took their boat out for a day at Derwent Reservoir.
Further expeditions ensued in Derwent and Kielder. And in July, with five training months remaining, Team Tyne Innovation spent a weekend rowing off the Northumberland Coast. On the first day they left from Amble harbour and enjoyed a trip around Coquet Island in heavy rain, thunder and lightning. However, crew illness and force 5 weather on day two, meant the team required the assistance of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) to get back to shore.
With only weeks remaining until the start of the race on 12th December, Team Tyne Innovation faced its ultimate test when two crew members withdrew. Phil remembers a fraught phone call with remaining crewmate, Claire Hughes, as the two debated whether they should continue.
Conducting a more comprehensive selection process would have been ideal, says Phil, but with only a small pool of people willing and able to take part, it’s difficult to find the right mix. Thankfully, Phil and Claire found Steve Sidaway and Alan Huntly through an ocean rowing network, who brought varying degrees of competitiveness, practical skills and humour to the team:
"We were one of several teams that experienced recruitment problems before they got to the start line, as personal circumstances changed. By this stage, it was clear selecting Claire was one of the best decisions I'd made. Not only did she offer a wide-ranging skill set, including project management and experience of other outdoor exploits, her inclusion created a positive environment. Having four male egos could have made things uncomfortable, especially as neither of us knew each other that well. We were very lucky because it worked in the end, but it might not have.”
Team Tyne Innovation left La Gomera harbour in The Canary Islands at 11a.m. on Wednesday 12th December. It was the last time they saw any of the other 27 competing boats for the duration of their expedition. Phil feels that the exhilaration of getting to the start line with a boat, the necessary equipment and (eventually) a crew; achieving the fundraising aims and fulfilling an objective which had occupied his mind every day for almost two years, did have an impact when it came to the race.
Despite completing all the necessary training, Phil says he was not fully prepared for what they faced once on the ocean. This was most likely exasperated by the stress of the last few weeks and the challenges of the new team dynamics. Having led the project over a two year period, he noted how getting to the start line felt like he had already achieved his main goal. It led to some difficult conversations early on, as he explains:
“The reality of rowing 12 hours a day – two hours on and two hours off throughout the days and nights – was a physical shock to my system. A combination of a lack of sleep and not eating and drinking enough meant during the first week, I didn’t feel I was performing as I should have been. I have a strong personality and am used to leading people. I was disappointed with myself and knew I had to get a grip. It turned out that was easier said than done."
Supporting his crew with their own challenges helped Phil gradually adjust. Some people found rowing at night problematic early on. One person was burned by boiling water too, while another had an abscess on their heal – cutting away dead skin and scrubbing the wound with a brush was required to bleed away the infection.
Once these issues were resolved, the crew settled into a routine of “eat, sleep, row, repeat.” A rotation system ensured one hour of each person’s two-hour shift at the blades was spent with someone different – an overlap, which “helped us to gel better,” says Phil.
The crew faced a few emergency situations, the most serious were associated with the auto steer ram disconnecting from the rudder, which caused the boat to spin out of control in the rolling waves. The first instance occurred at night when Phil was asleep in the bow cabin. He had no idea there'd been a major problem until he was on his next shift.
The rudder problem occurred on several occasions, but Phil says he felt a lack of fear throughout the journey. In a strange way this reinforced his view that getting to the start line was a bigger challenge overall:
“Despite the danger, I never felt worried. All the basic safety systems were in place, so I assumed the boat would be fine and we’d find our way. We were never ready to give up, either. Of course, it’s not fun rowing for two hours in 100-degree heat without taking a break. The first row of the day is tough too because you know there are ten more hours of rowing ahead. There was no backing out. Out of 42 days rowing, we only missed a combined four hours at the blades overall, which is nothing."
It’s even more impressive given the physical strains the crew endured. As well as those already described, back pains, rear abrasions, blisters, calluses, tongue sores and ‘claw-hands’ were also each shared amongst the four. Sleep deprivation caused some to hallucinate too – a crew member thought they were rowing around a Swiss lake at one point, rather than on the ocean.
However, the humour and intrigue provided by Alan and Steve as well as other “lighter moments” made for an overall enjoyable experience. The crew saw whales, flying fish and other sea life, and even had a low-flying bird collide with the boat on one occasion. Christmas Day saw them don Santa hats and jump into the sea. And both Phil and Claire celebrated birthdays, with Phil creating a ‘Colin the Caterpillar’ cake from a Snickers bar to share with the team.
An American yacht travelling to Antigua stopped to chat for a while and the crew hailed a passing Indian cargo vessel on their VHF radio – “The captain couldn’t believe we were rowing the Atlantic,” said Phil.
The intention from the start, Phil states, was to cross the Atlantic safely. Team Tyne Innovation was one of the oldest crews and expectations were that they’d finish in the bottom half of the competitors. At the start, race organisers had also informed teams to expect 15% slower times than the previous year, as fewer winds were anticipated. A 50+ day row was a realistic target to aim for, says Phil. “Our mindset going into the race was never competitive.”
However, within a few hours of the race start the team had over taken two other boats and as a result immediately became competitive. And just over two weeks in, race organisers confirmed Team Tyne Innovation was on track to break the previous record set for a four-person mixed crew. The focus now, says Phil, was getting to Antigua as quickly as possible and creating a new “hard to beat” record.
During the final week, another boat had started catching Team Tyne Innovation. The crew became frustrated that their increased efforts – including rowing as a three person crew on night shift – weren’t making a difference until they realised that a build-up of seaweed on the boat’s rudder was slowing them down. Once this was removed, they powered on and even found time for an unscheduled stop to celebrate, before rowing the last few miles:
“On the final morning, we were still 16 miles ahead of the boat trying to catch us, which was a relief. We knew if we maintained three-mile hours, we’d beat them. Alan emerged from the cabin with a bottle of champagne. It was annoying in some ways to discover we’d been carrying this heavy bottle, but of course we each had a glass. Antigua came into view with around 20 miles remaining – we were relieved we’d made it. We rowed into the harbour and passed the finish line around 5:30 pm, just as the sun was setting – the timing was perfect.”
Team Tyne Innovation had beaten the record for a four-person mixed crew by 14 days, after rowing for 42 days, 10 hours and 26 minutes.
Weeks after returning home and the fanfare of the achievement having died down, Phil often asks himself, “Was that it?”
He admits to feeling “incredibly lucky” to have rowed across the Atlantic but emphasised the team’s story is one of how “average people can achieve great things.” He now urges anyone with dreams of accomplishing something not to let life pass them by. “I’m no different to anyone else,” he says. “You’ve got to make the most of things, work hard and surpass your ambitions. I’m a world record holder at this moment in time. That’s an amazing feeling.”
The team have each experienced “snakes and ladders” emotions as they’ve readjusted to normal life, with some even signing up for other endurance challenges. Phil, however, is still considering his options, but is keen to use his new skills for future projects and endeavours that showcase the region’s innovation. He added:
“To get back up those ladders, I’ll have to find new challenges. Immediately following the race, I thought I wouldn’t attempt anything like this again, but now I’m not so sure.”
Those wishing to show their support can still donate to Team Tyne Innovation’s causes at www.teamtyneinnovation.com.
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