Each month inside Pathfinder International you can find new magazine supplement – Military Muscle – designed to motivate the ethos of an active body can mean an active mind, keeping on top of your game in military resettlement and life in general.

In issue 2 of the supplement, Team Leader of the Royal Navy’s four-man crew who entered the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, considered the World’s toughest rowing race, Hugo Mitchell-Heggs gave us an insight to life on board HMS Oardacious.

Read the entire special issue of Pathfinder for free here.

What was your motivation to participate in this project?

We wanted to showcase Royal Navy Submariners in a different environment and test ourselves as individuals above the waterline instead of below it. Our mission statement was to inspire others and raise awareness for Mental Health. In doing so, our platform has raised over £110,000 for charity, to provide mental health and wellbeing support to our submariner community, to veterans and to the families of those who serve via a fantastic charity (The Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity). We were the first ever serving Royal Navy team to attempt this challenge and as such felt incredibly proud to represent a service that for centuries has “ruled the waves”. We have grown a project that we hope continues to build. We would love to see what else we can achieve to keep the story going, develop our legacy, to keep inspiring others, all in the name of charity and adventure. Ideas are in the pipeline and I’m sure you will hear of more Submariners taking on extraordinary challenges… there are plenty of other oceans out there that still need rowing across!

Enlighten our readers on life in the World’s toughest rowing race…

We faced the ocean as we had never seen it before, 40 foot waves, tropical storms, wind so strong you can’t hear each other speaking and waves so powerful they could throw the boat off course or capsize us with ease.

As a team we were very lucky to have seen some of the Atlantic’s most stunning wildlife, including a Humpback Whale and her calf curiously swim by us at night for half an hour and a large pod of Pilot Whales joined us at breakfast time one morning and aggressively charged at the boat only to dive beneath us at the last minute (what first appeared like intimidation turned into them just having a little play with us).
Yet the most surreal moment of all, the moment which made no sense to any of us, that unique moment that we’ll keep with us forever was one night, there was the biggest brightest full moon in the sky, that it created a night rainbow off one of the rainclouds in the distance; we had to pinch ourselves to believe what we were seeing – a rainbow at night time. Wow! It took getting all four of us awake on deck to be sure we weren’t dreaming the whole thing!
One of our toughest days was when Christmas had just passed, the sun was scorching, there was no wind behind us (which meant it felt like rowing through cement) and moral was starting to dip as we found out on our daily satellite phone call that the more southerly teams were making good progress and some starting to overtake us; it was as if the Ocean knew we needed a lift in spirits and sent 30 dolphins over to join us. The dolphins put on this show-off aerial display, did backflips, came right up to the boat to say hello and generally gave us the biggest morale boost we could have ever imagined; Dolphins are the Submarine service’s mascot so we felt the symbolism of their visit.

There were some scary moments but these weren’t necessarily the worst. Our capsize, whilst terrifying (spinning out of control surfing a 40 foot wave at 19.3 knots and being flipped over) happened so quickly that we didn’t have time to have it as a “worst moment”, in fact it was so exciting that it gave us a boost knowing we’d survived it and gave us the subtle reminder that the Ocean is so powerful it can destroy you in a flash.
The experience re-emphasised the culture we had started the crossing with, that you must at all times Respect the Ocean, be safe as a team, don’t just go through the motions, really believe in a safety culture and have a self policing culture: i.e. by being clipped on to the boat at all times by our waist harnesses, securing our safety kit to the boat so it didn’t wash overboard every time a rogue wave hit us, ensuring our hatches were shut at ALL times so that if the boat capsized its natural buoyancy would allow it to pop back round. By respecting the power of the Atlantic and nature we were granted that safe passage.

The laughs we had came a lot from our support team (wives, partners and support team manager) who made a huge effort to keep us entertained, motivated and generally boost our morale.

They would get an email to us on our satellite comms once a week with a load of good luck messages and shoutouts from high profile individuals that had heard of us. Around New Years they didn’t find a “Celeb” to give us a shout out so they made one up, pretending to be Dame Judi Dench (DJD), wishing us well and inviting us to DJD’s Premiere of Cats… what they didn’t realise was that we would believe every word of this practical joke and would spend the next 3 weeks on the Atlantic obsessing over our new patron DJD, planning our outfits for the Premiere and talking ourselves into maybe even enjoying the film. We eventually found out it was all a masquerade and that we had been tricked, our disappointment was so powerful that the support team actually managed to get hold of Dame Judi Dench (via Scott Mills, Emily Atack and Chris Stark) to give us an official shoutout… best day ever!

How did you feel at the end?

It was such an incredible feeling completing our 3000-mile journey; the Atlantic threw everything at us but some real perseverance, drive and determination from my team saw us arrive safely into Antigua after 37 days, 6 hours and 40 minutes of rowing. Seeing our families waiting for us in the harbour with a welcome crowd of hundreds of people was the most incredible feeling and made the whole experience even more special. Our first steps on land were a bit wobbly as we’d been used to living on a tiny boat that’s always rocking around but we quickly got used to it. It’s been really nice having basic luxuries back: fresh food, a shower, a toilet (instead of a bucket) and of course a bed! The dream!

Anything else you wanted to add?

We count ourselves incredibly lucky to have had a great team that got on. The grind of rowing an ocean often sees the monotony of “Groundhog Day” set in as you row 2 hours on 2 hours off, all day, every day for well over a month.

We all faced our own physical and emotional challenges, whether due to sleep deprivation, physical sores, blisters, muscle aches and of course dealing with being away from our children, partners, families… it all took its toll; so being there for one another was essential when we each needed that support.

Whilst our professions as submariners had helped us develop an element of mental and physical resilience, understanding that the conditions, sleep deprivation and fatigue can and will expose vulnerability, meant that showing compassion and empathy made us a successful team.

This came about in many ways, whether it was knowing when to have a chat, give each other banter or just give someone a bit of quiet headspace to reflect helped us keep going as a team and learn to encourage each other when we each needed it. One of the best feelings was finishing as a team, looking each other in the eye at the finish and saying “we did it” before igniting our finish line red flares and roaring our lungs out at the media boat.

The HMS Oardacious Team:
Lieutenant Hugo Mitchell-Heggs RN , 33 (Expedition Leader)
Lieutenant Callum Fraser RN, 30
Petty Officer Dylan Woods, 29
Leading Hand Matty Harvey, 34

About the race:
The Atlantic Rowing Race is an ocean rowing race from the Canary Islands to the West Indies, a distance of approximately 2,550 nm (2,930 statute miles or 4,700 km). The race was founded in 1997 by Sir Chay Blyth with subsequent races roughly every two years since. The race is now called The “Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge” – The World’s Toughest Row”. Since 2015, the race has been held annually starting each December.