This is what rowing across the Atlantic in 42 days will do to your face

How brave do you have to be to decide you’re going to row across the Atlantic, not long after taking up the sport as a pastime?

Some might say you’d need a backbone of titanium.

Fortunately enough, Hollie Luff has one of those.

In fact, it was while she was recovering from having the titanium spine fitted during corrective surgery for scoliosis several years ago that the idea first came to her.

Hollie, a manager at Premier Marinas, was told to slow down as part of her convalescence – not something that came easy to the adventurous spirit – and when she was finally given the all-clear to start taking on activites again, river rowing was what drew her in.

But she knew there was something bigger for her to take on in the future, even if she wasn’t able to place exactly what it was: a lifetime-scale challenge to demonstrate she was stronger than ever after her surgery.

Then, she saw the light – the light from a red flare, to be specific.

It was at a talk being given by a woman who had completed the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, an annual event that pits rowing teams from around the world against each other, on a race from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean.

The picture on the advert showed her team raising lit flares in the air after crossing the finish line, and it brought back a childhood memory for Hollie – seeing the inspirational Ellen Macarthur hold her own flares in the air after breaking the record for sailing solo around the world.

‘That was a bit of a trigger for me,’ she said.

Not long afterwards, she began assembling her team from friends at the marina company: Elliot Holman, a ‘Falmouth boy’ and RNLI volunteer; Rachel Lasham, with a love for adventure and good sense of humour; and Mike Hatch, the manager of Brighton Marina who had last rowed when he was in the Sea Scouts.

According to Mike, her approach was less than conventional.

‘Hollie said to me, “Mike, I’m planning on rowing the Atlantic”’ he recalled.

‘At which point I said, “Congratulations, I think you’ll do amazing, if you need any help or support let me know.”

‘And she looked me square in the eye and said, “No, you don’t understand, I’m rowing the Atlantic and so are you.”’

Rachel said: ‘I didn’t even think about it, I just said yes to another adventure.’

And Elliot felt similarly: ‘Oddly, I didn’t really hesitate.

‘I then phoned my wife to make sure she was all right with it, and she was like, “Yeah, do it, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so do it.”’

A year and a half of intense training followed, ahead of the Atlantic Campaign starting pistol on December 12 2022.

Hollie said: ‘It was all about building that support network of the best people we could have to help us get the best possible outcome.

‘We were up against navy teams, army teams, big burly guys, but we were very much representing ordinary folk.’

They hired top ocean rowing trainer Duncan Roy to get them in the best possible condition, and picked a good cause to highlight: the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth, which was working to find a solution to global plastic pollution.

And then Team In Our Element were pulling away from the shore at La Gomera, losing sight of land with every stroke.

Rachel didn’t have the best start to her journey, with seasickness hitting her hard for the first few days.

She remembered her vomit hitting the water and glowing green with the phosphorescence, ‘which was really cool’.

As she recovered, she would sit with Hollie with hot chocolates and biscuits at night, looking at the stars over the ocean.

There were special times, but it was also an inescapable grind.

Hollie said: ‘We were all doing really well at saying it’s going to end, but it got to day seven, eight, nine, and the relentlessness just started to wear a bit thin.’

In week two, the team of four celebrated Christmas on the boat with hats they’d packed for the occasion.

‘There was no better place to spend it,’ said Mike.

‘Didn’t have to buy any presents, didn’t have to smile at anyone, it was great.’

They got ham and a Terry’s Chocolate Orange from their rival teams, and a package from one of Hollie’s family friends contained a pirate’s eyepatch, a small compass, a sleeping mask and a swimming cap.

The week of Christmas passed quickly, Elliot said, as the four made swift progress.

But in week three, as a concerning weather front moved towards them, a ‘catastrophic failure’ struck the boat.

Elliot said: ‘We had a bit of an electrical malfunction in week three.

‘We literally lost all of our navigation, auto-pilot, we just lost loads of stuff. Randomly, very early in the morning.’

Thanks to contacts made through their work in marinas, the frightening situation was solved in four hours, but it still left the team shaken.

Hollie, whose back was troubled by the rocking resulting from week three’s poor weather, said: ‘That was the one moment, as much as we’re all comfortable in the water, you realise you do rely on the kit you’ve got.

‘It became really apparent quite how vulnerable you are in that situation.’

There were still three weeks to go, and plenty of days when they were ‘rowing through treacle’ to contrast with the days when they would hit 80 miles or more. Rachel got hit in the face by a flying fish while she was on the toilet. Isolation from friends and family was felt keenly.

‘We were lucky enough to have sat phones, so we could call loved ones,’ said Elliot.

‘I called my wife Lauren quite a lot when I was really struggling. I struggled a lot emotionally, I didn’t think I would but I did.

‘Just to be able to hear my wife’s voice, it just helped. That’s all I needed sometimes.’

The team kept spotting plastic jerry can after plastic jerry can floating in the ocean, a ‘really sad’ reminder of the cause they were supporting. Over the course of the trip, they saw more plastic in the water than wildlife.

At the beginning of their seventh week on the waves, land was spotted on the horizon.

After 42 days, nine hours and 19 minutes crossing the Atlantic Ocean, In Our Element crossed the finish line off the coast of Antigua.

Hollie said: ‘It was absolutely unbelievable.

‘You can feel the support and the sensation, I genuinely thought I was going to have a heart attack.

‘It built and built and built, then the flare goes off at the finish line, you can feel and hear the reaction as you get closer to the shore.’

As a restaurant on the shore blared out We Are the Champions by Queen, the team took out their Ellen Macarthur flares and lit them while crying out in celebration.

Hobbling on shore, they were met by friends and family who had taken a more typical mode of transport to reach the Caribbean.

‘I can’t put it into words, the whole thing was overwhelming,’ Elliot said.

‘Unfortunately, on the way across, Lauren’s gran passed away.

‘Hearing that was quite hard, because I wasn’t there to give her a hug or to be able to support her, so seeing her on the other end to give her that hug was… yeah, it was lovely.’

And although the Atlantic Challenge is technically a race, Hollie remains happy the team took the time to stop and appreciate the sunset every so often.

She said: ‘If you cross the finish line first or you’re breaking records, that’s incredible.

‘If you’re not one of those teams, you’ve still rowed an ocean the same as any of them have done.’

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