Achieving the outrageous. Atlantic rowing record set.
“I didn't find being alone too difficult, in itself. But I found being alone and scared absolutely awful,” says Lee Spencer, the new world record holder for the solo Atlantic Ocean rowing crossing.
Spencer, from Great Britain, smashed the record earlier this year, cutting it from 90 days to just 60. On top of this amazing feat, Spencer is an amputee. He now also has the double record for being the first physically disabled person to cross the Atlantic solo.
A second chance
Spencer served for 25 years as a Royal Marines Commando in the United Kingdom. But it was not his time in the Marines that resulted in his injury. Spencer was back home when he pulled over in his car to help someone on the highway and was hit by debris. It changed his life forever.
“I woke up in a hospital bed and thought that the person that I was had gone forever,” says Spencer. “I would have to redefine who I was, but in terms of disability because I was now disabled.”
Just as Spencer was resigning himself to a new life, he received an email. It was an invitation to join an all-amputee crew to cross the Atlantic. He had never rowed before, never done anything nautical, but his sense of adventure was there whispering to him quietly. He agreed.
“About halfway across the Atlantic, I kind of realised I was still the same person. I can't emphasise how important rediscovering that sense of identity was. It made a massive difference, it was such a positive thing to happen to me,” he says.
“It got me thinking about how we as a society view disabled people. It tends to kind of define a person. I defined myself in terms of disability when I needn't have.”
Atlantic bound again
Before he had even touched dry land on the first trip, Spencer was already dreaming about a solo attempt to beat the able-bodied record. He had finished his rehabilitation and had one more year paid by the military so Spencer dedicated this time to training. Three days before setting off, however, tragedy hit again. Spencer’s mum passed away. He decided to postpone his trip for a year. By the time he started his solo row, Spencer had been training for two and a half years.
“A Dutch guy was also going for the record. I thought it would be awful to work on something for two and half years to have someone else come and take the record off you straight away. So, I went out hard and fast and kept that pace up. And I paid for it. I hit the wall at about three weeks - two and half weeks from the end - emotionally and physically. It was like I hit a brick wall. It was really, really hard,” Spencer says.
He also faced unbelievably challenging conditions on the water. “I had absolutely incredible conditions for rowing across the Atlantic in a very quick time, but absolutely awful conditions if you don't like big waves. It was quite challenging and it was very scary at times.”
Spencer’s cites his military training as one of the reasons he was able to remain calm. “It took a lot of discipline to not let it get on top of you. When I hit the wall, I had literally nothing left, nothing in reserve. Nothing mentally, physically or emotionally. It is the hardest thing I've ever done. It is exactly the same as marathon runners I suppose. Except it lasted for two and half weeks,” Spencer chuckles.
The training, the determination and the weather came together in the perfect storm. Spencer achieved the unthinkable.
“My mantra throughout was to get as fit as I could, as strong as I could, and as fat as I could be,” Spencer laughs. “Fit, fat and strong… and actually the most important out of those three is being fat.”
Spencer lost 19kg during the crossing. He was burning between 8,000 and 12,000 calories per day, but Spencer barely managed to eat 6,000.
“I found eating 6000 calories almost impossible. It's just so sickeningly rich food. It's amazingly good food for what it is, but to get that amount of calories, you need to be eating sugar, fat and carbohydrate and I found it difficult to do. I would have to force myself to eat when I didn't want to,” he says.
After 60 long, sleepless days, Spencer arrived in French Guinea. He was considerable thinner, unshaven and exhausted.
“I got a boat to come out and meet me a good three hours from the finish line to help me navigate in, because the last bit is quite tricky. As soon as my son saw me he was sick over the side of the boat, he got sea sick,” Spencer laughs.
His son was lacking sea legs, but for Spencer it would be the opposite. After getting out of the boat, walking was the most difficult thing. Three weeks after arriving on solid land, Spencer is still rebuilding his walking endurance. And he has to learn how to relax again.
“I have found relaxing difficult because I have been sort of wired for 60 days. It took a good couple of weeks to get back to a normal sleeping pattern and to be able to relax,” he says.
But for Spencer, relaxing is planning the next adventure. His next trip will be to kayak the length of the Amazon. “I am determined to make the most of every opportunity that comes my way,” he says.
Now retired from the Military, Spencer uses his experiences to impart wisdom on others. He says that motivational speaking pays the bills, so that he can give talks where he really wants to: state schools.
“I talk about failure with children,” he says. “My message to them is to dream. It's to dare to dream and if you don't fail trying to achieve that dream, then that dream ain't big enough. Get a better dream. Something so outrageous that you'll never achieve it. Be prepared to fail and when you fail, pick yourself up, dust yourself down and keep on going.”