Rising Saudi Arabia tennis star Yara Al-Hogbani wins J5 Isa Town Tournament in Bahrain

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - DUBAI: Toby Gregory, alongside crew members James Raley and Raimundo Tamagnini, set out on Dec. 12 on a journey to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a rowing boat slightly bigger than your average car.

As the 43-year-old Brit, who founded the Arabian Ocean Rowing Team in 2021, reminds us, more people have ventured into space or conquered Mount Everest than completed what he calls one of the last great adventures on Earth.

So, with 5,000 km to row over what could be 50 to 60 days, just what will their Spotify playlist look like?

“There are all sorts of songs that come to mind. And when you’re out running, you have a certain type of song; when you’re in the gym, you have a certain type of song,” said Gregory, who is the trip’s project director. 

“And really, I’ve never been out in the middle of an ocean. I’ve never been that tired, never been that fatigued. So it’s actually quite difficult to know what music would motivate you on a crossing like this.

“The mind plays such an important role in the adventure we’re about to take. Your body will give up long before your mind does. With that in mind, it’s one where music’s a big concern of ours. We’re probably going to leave it for a couple more weeks, just until we’re in the right mindset.”

Once out in the middle of the ocean, the soundtrack to the crew’s unique endeavor might have to be paused occasionally.

“I think it depends where you are mentally at that time,” Gregory added. “I hear the sunsets are just incredible, hear the sunrises are amazing. The stars at night, as you look up, you can almost reach and grab them. And I think in those moments, you probably wouldn’t want music, you just want to be very present.

“But there are times we will need to come together; there are times that we’ll need cheering up and motivating as a team. And I think it’s certainly one where I’ll let the others choose the music that they play. As long as they are OK, as they have the right headspace, I’m cool with whatever happens.”

The journey starts in La Gomera in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, and ends in Antigua. Gregory and his colleagues have been training for months, but nothing will quite prepare them for the real thing.

Gregory added: “The closest I’ve ever done is a kind of four-day row.

“Distance wise, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to what we’re about to take on. It really is one of those projects that is so significant in terms of the planning, in terms of the preparation, that actually it’s almost impossible to properly prepare for it.

“What exercises do we do? Is it strength? Is it conditioning? Is it core? Is it mental? In terms of time on the water, you can’t set off and do these massive rows, because that’s like doing the actual challenge itself. I think the closest I’ve come in terms of distance is probably about 500 km, if that. We just can’t replicate the conditions.”

Even energy-sapping endurance events, for which Gregory and Tamagnini have a passion, are easier to prepare for.

Gregory said: “I did Marathon des Sables, which is over a number of days, and you’re carrying all your own equipment. You can replicate a lot of those conditions, but the conditions that we’re going to face out in the ocean are so varied, and so extreme, that’s just impossible to replicate.”

Gregory will share the small space with 47-year-old Tamagnini, from Portugal, and fellow Brit Raley, 42, and says that a certain degree of tolerance and understanding will be needed on the crossing.

He added: “I think ocean rowing is notorious for people getting to the other side and never speaking again.

“It’s notorious for being such a hard mental challenge that there can be issues out on the water. From our perspective, the training that we’ve done has really taught us the importance of empathy.

“How you treat each other has to be true and honest, and that wouldn’t matter if they were a friend or not, it’s irrelevant.

“Because there will be times out in the water when I’m tired, a bit grumpy, but how I deal with that has to come from the heart, and how I deal with the other people on the boat has to come from the heart.

“So does it matter if we’re friends? I think it certainly helps, but I think going into situations with a great deal of empathy for other people at all times is absolutely critical.”

The Arabian Ocean Rowing Team will set off on journey to cross the Atlantic from Dec. 12. (Supplied)

A typical day will see a shift pattern of two hours on, two hours off, or two on, one off, for 24 hours.

Gregory said: “Within that short period of time, obviously sleep’s a premium, sleep’s critical.

“In terms of taking on board fuel, we each need to have 6,000 calories a day; that’s 18,000 calories in total for the boat. So in terms of what a typical day might look like, I can really isolate into the gaps a list of things that need to be done to the boat.

“Are they critical? Are they going to stop us from continuing our crossing?

“If they’re not, how quickly do they need to be done? But most importantly, while we’re making these assessments, we take our nutrition.

“The 60 minutes or 120 minutes we have off is nutrition, fixing the boat, rest; nutrition, fixing the boat, rest.”

There is one more layer of complexity, or perhaps duty, for the mission. The Arabian Ocean Rowing Team have partnered with the UN Environment Program Clean Seas initiative to raise awareness about sustainability, combating plastic pollution and promoting renewable energy.

Over the last six months, 20,000 people in three different countries, many of them schoolchildren and university students, have engaged with the project’s #bepartofit community program, and the team spoke at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon in late June.

Gregory added: “We are trying to do what we can for science, and the environment. Our current plan at the moment is to conduct a number of surveys the whole way through, looking at microplastics, looking at pollution in the ocean, and doing science experiments on behalf of students who have given us experiments to take.”

While every precaution will be taken to ensure the crew’s safety, with harnesses being worn at all times, unpredictable weather conditions and wave patterns mean emergencies are possible.

Gregory said: “Within the first day we’re out of range of any helicopter. So we’ve got roughly 48 days where we’d rely on other boats, and our proximity to those boats the further into the ocean we go, becomes slightly more challenging.

“In our practice scenarios, and the drills we’ve undertaken to date, we’re working on the assumption that we’re roughly 48 hours from help.”

The building of the boat was commissioned two years ago, and it was completed last year.

“We’ve had this boat built specifically for this journey,” said Gregory. 

“I worked with a team while they built it. It’s wonderfully robust. It’s got a number of different air pockets and chambers, so I have extreme confidence in the boat, but issues do happen.

“We’re well drilled, well prepared and if something goes wrong, it’s not about panic, it’s about process. And we just get on with the tasks that we need to do to ensure our survival.”

Gregory has personally funded 90 percent of the entire project and is now reaching out to potential sponsors and partners to support the team’s efforts.

He said: “I started seriously saving for this type of adventure about five years ago, and really dedicated a significant amount of time to putting money away for it. It has cost a significant amount of money.”

Along the way, the team decided that this mission can be a force for good, one in which contributions would be welcome.

He added: “We are doing what we can for the environment and for science, and at the same time we’ve got a unique opportunity to showcase brands.

“Frankly, if  people wish to sponsor the boat, or have a logo on the boat, then that certainly helps with the financing of the project.”

The team will have access to Wi-Fi throughout their crossing, and Gregory says they will be selective in how they use it.

“We’ll be able to watch England win the World Cup,” he said. “And I wonder if we’ll get a Guinness World Record for watching it in the most remote part of the world.

“But outside of that, we do have global connections. And we will be connecting with scientists with schools throughout our journey.

“With regards to families, it’s an interesting one because you have to keep a clear head; you have to keep focused. Emotional vulnerabilities are not something that you can let creep in.

“We will have Wi-Fi, we will have full sat comms to send videos, to be in touch with people, no matter where we are on the ocean.”

And what awaits the team in the future?

“I think I wish to continue this journey, to kind of campaign and to promote the environmental elements of it,” Gregory said.

“I’m expecting to conduct experiments in the middle of the ocean, where I’ll find microplastics. And from a personal perspective, I just don’t see how that can be OK.

“It’s really lit something inside me. I wish to continue this journey.”

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