Harry Amos takes on the Pacific Ocean

Harry Amos (B1 1999-2004) took on the epic challenge of rowing across the Pacific Ocean from California to Hawaii last Summer, a 39 day, 4,800km adventure raising £130,000 for The Blue Marine Foundation and The Invictus Games Foundation. He tells the amusing account of the journey as well as the mental and physical challenges required to complete the task. You can also watch a video which highlights the best bits of the trip and emotional reunions.

Marlborough College has unwittingly built somewhat of an Ocean rowing heritage with former pupils having rowed the Mid Pacific (2,800 miles), North Atlantic (1,700 miles) and the Mid Atlantic (3,000 miles). Matthew Ponsonby (PR 1978-83) rowed the icy North Atlantic, starting in Canada and landing in Ireland, an endeavour that raised £100,000 for Great Ormand St Hospital. Lebby Eyres (C2 1987-89) and her all female crew ‘The Mothership’ broke multiple records rowing the Mid Atlantic as part of the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, completing the row in 40 days ahead of several male teams.

Ocean rowing came into my life in a very unexpected way. In May 2012, LCpl Cayle Royce MBE was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) on a raid targeting a Taliban weapons cache whilst serving with me in the Brigade Reconnaissance Force in Afghanistan. 40 days in a coma, and multiple resuscitations later, he came round in Birmingham Hospital two legs less and his dancing days behind him (his words not mine). His life was irrevocably changed, however the remarkably journey of his recovery through adventure was about to begin.

A little over a year later ‘Roycey’ rowed across the Atlantic together with another amputee, Royal Marine, Lee Spencer, and Army Officers James Kayll and Mark Jenkins – the most injured team to have conquered the feat. Roycey is a glutton for punishment and so it didn’t surprise those of us that know him when he opted to do it again a year later but this time with an all amputee crew boasting a total of three legs between four men.

Watching Roycey complete two rows across the Atlantic was awe inspiring and it set off a chain reaction that meant nine years later our team ‘Brothers N Oars’ were rowing into a coastal storm off the West Coast of the United States of America. My brother Oliver Amos as skipper, me, and his two great school friends, Parris Norris and Barney Lewis, had begun our 2,800mile (2,200NM) journey across the Pacific Ocean from Monterey, California, to Kauai, Hawaii, something only 80 individuals in the world had achieved until last year. After three days and amidst hideous sea conditions, the realisation of the mammoth scale of what we had embarked on began to sink in.

1.8 million oar strokes to go and the freezing cold weather was throwing us in every direction but the one we wanted to go. For 12 days we were in by far the biggest seas we’d seen in two years of training; rowing in heavy cross winds, the waves the size of houses (35ft swells), and under cold dark grey skies. Paris was horribly sea-sick, unable to eat any food for the first 5 days, which, considering the calorie burn rate is in the region of 6,000kcal per day meant he was in a very dark place. Meanwhile, Oliver, suffering from the separation from his pregnant wife and experiencing levels of exhaustion beyond his known threshold, was in an emotional state.

In high seas getting around the boat is a balancing act! Imagine walking down a three-dimensional seesaw whilst hopping over safety lines and skipping over moving oars, all whilst being dowsed by the freezing Ocean. It might sound like the TV series Total Wipeout but it’s not fun and movement around the boat is tricky enough for any agile and fit person. It dawned on me a few days in that Roycey and his crew had had to do this without legs; pulling themselves by their arms out of the cabins and across deck night and day just to get to the rowing positions or to conduct any sort of administration… so we had no excuse.

But for the occasional sunrays popping under the cloud for a blustery sunset, there was no respite in the weather. We rowed 14 hours a day, two hours on, two hours off, donating an additional two hours to fill the third rowing slot as much as possible for the extra mileage whilst trying to achieve about 5 hours sleep. The endless repetition is physically exhausting and mentally draining, and, freezing cold night, we were falling asleep on the oars but for the fear of that one rogue wave that would catch us side on and capsize the boat. But none of the lads missed a stroke and we always managed to find a laugh, be cheerful, and keep morale high.

Two weeks in, and two of three auto-tillers burnt out (our automatic steering system), the weather eased before seemingly disappearing all together and the sea turned to glass. At first, we were relieved but after 4 days of heavy water and the illusion of going no-where, boredom and frustration started creeping in. On the plus side the nights were becoming more pleasurable, warmer, and with the disappearance of cloud all together we were witness to the spectacular Oceana night sky. Now consistently heading West each night we watched Ursa Major (the ‘Plough’) spin around the North Star on our left shoulder and Scorpio (the ‘Fish Hook’) on our right shoulder. The sky was incredible and with no aircraft lights in view (they fly straight not in a curve with the currents like us) we saw the ISS and Hubble several times a night and occasionally we’d catch Elon Musk’s Starlink. Accept perhaps in the Afghan desert I’d never seen meteors like it – one a minute and all night. One in particular was so big and so close it shone bright green, seemingly flying in slow motion, and then zig zigging before a flash and disappearing – Oli and I cheering in delight. A particular highlight during those calm days was when a large shoal of flying fish skipped across the boat, a fairly regular occurrence, except this time Paris yelped as something larger than a flying fish smacked him in the face and landed in the boat. It was flying squid! We later discovered these ‘Japanese Flying Squid’ draw in water through their bums and release it at high pressure to launch them through the air to escape predators.

Halfway looming, and the weather was warming into the thirties. Fine when on deck, but we were now also riding warm currents and the cabins started heating up a lot. Before long we were missing the cold where there was always a jacket or warm sleeping bag to look forward to. Now we were down to wearing just thin sun protective layers and a regular routine of dousing our sunhats and shirts with water every 30 minutes… the cabins however turned into sweltering furnaces.

One midday shift, we were all chipper and chatting away; I was awake sat in the cabin in vibrant debate with Barney who was rowing on the rear position with Paris behind him. ‘Goodbye My Lover’ by James Blunt came on the speakers and Paris seemed to go quiet before letting out an audible whimper. Barney and I wrote it off as a weird noise initially but on a cursory check over Barneys shoulder I could see Paris in sobbing tears! The song had unleashed a buried memory of an ex-girlfriend who had unceremoniously dumped him. The general level of tiredness combined with a deep comfort and bond between the four of us meant that at a lot of emotional barriers had dropped. We talked it out and threw out a bunch of platitudes along the lines of, ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea’ (seemed fitting considering where we were), before a barrage of jokes and jibes were unleashed and we were all laughing hysterically. It was wonderfully cathartic and later that day on my commute to the bucket I took a moment to put my arm around Paris. James Blunt was subsequently banned on the boat although we soon reneged on this because we love him.

Food was getting tastier and we were getting hungrier. Where we had struggled to force down the six meals and the 2,500Kcal snack pack in those first few days, we were now eating every morsel of food we could get our hands on. Our main food source was the lightweight freeze-dried food, but in our reserves were the coveted ‘wet meals’ from our kindly donated Army ration packs. These meals were traded like high value commodity items. I had managed to convince the crew that ‘Chicken Sausage and Beans’ was the worst option and I was ‘taking one for the team’ in eating them… but the cat was out of the bag and someone had realized that it was in fact the best meal and I had lied through my teeth. I had a serious talking to from the crew and my Chicken Sausage and Bean stash confiscated – this was a dark day for me. To add salt to the wound someone had been stealing my Tabasco and was now having to ration it but I was comforted by the fact that I still had enough tinned Mandarins, rationed at one per week, to get me to the end. On about day thirty we thought it was an appropriate moment to bring out the reserve chocolate supply of 100 mini KitKats and Twirls but Oli, who had packed them, couldn’t find them anywhere! Another argument ensued and our kangaroo court convicted Paris of eating the entire stash; the evidence being that he appeared not to have lost ANY weight after a month at sea. His innocent pleas turned out to be justified when in Hawaii emptying the boat’s rubbish we found the entire stash nestled under the rubbish bag in a porthole – we’ve since apologized.

The days continued to get hotter but at least now we were really gaining speed and momentum. Spirits were high until about 5 days out from Hawaii when we received notice that we were on a collision course with a fast moving extremely high pressure system. Since our tough start we had become quite complacent, and we were filled with a mild sense of dread that we were going back into an even bigger storm, albeit Tropical this time. Acknowledging the seriousness of what was on the horizon, we took a moment to assemble on deck and go through our emergency drills and SOPs and chat through a few likely scenarios. We then made sure all our safety gear was to hand, checked the sea anchor, and rigged up the ‘drogues’ ready to deploy, which would slow us down and keep the boat from twisting side onto the breakers and capsizing.

Like clockwork the storm hit us just after midnight on the thirty seventh day with Oli and I on the oars. Unlike the swell off the Californian coast which was pushing us sideways, this swell came up from behind. The speedometer on the boat was cruising in the high sixes and the wind was whistling ominously. Shortly after, the auto-tiller failed to keep us straight on the waves and we aggressively twisted before we could grab the manual steering lines, exposing us side onto the swell, and the whistling wind shifted to a deafening roar. We tried for a few minutes to manually correct the course using hand and oar steering when a jolt yanked an oar out of Oli’s hand pulling his shoulder out with it and Oli yelped in pain. We threw the drogues out which quicky brought the stern back in line and we were momentarily secure until the larger of the two drogues ‘popped’ before wrapping around the other drogue and collapsing it. The boat twisted side on again and in the process of trying to pull the drogues back in they got twisted around the rudder and we lost steering all together. The name of the boat, ‘Goodbye My Rudder’, named on a social media poll on James Blunt’s Instagram, suddenly wasn’t so ironic! Desperate to untangle the drogues and regain steering we toyed with the idea of Oli getting in the water but thankfully, and correctly, we decided to throw the sea anchor off the bow to bring us nose into the weather and safe from capsize. It worked, we were safe and the drogue lines went slack so we were able to pull them back into the boat. We then re-jigged our one working drogue, brought the sea anchor back in, and were back on course!

When day broke the wind and swell had dropped but we were still zooming along. We pulled in the small drogue and spent the day rowing at breakneck speed. In one 2 hour shift we rowed 10NM the biggest so far and by sunrise on the last day we worked out that in a 24 hour period we had rowed 92NM (105miles). We’d had an incredible day and now we were only 60NM from our families. We found out once we hit landfall that the cyclone had been big enough to be been named Storm Kalvin and wind speeds had hit 80mph in the eye of the storm. It was a hell of an experience that preceded our best day on the water – a wonderful reminder that it is often the most serious challenges can propel us forward in life.

We searched the horizon for signs of land all day, arguing with each other that shadows within the low lying cloud MUST be mountain tops but it wasn’t until after midnight that we spotted Kīlauea Lighthouse on the horizon appearing and disappearing in the ebb and flow of the waves. Then as first light loomed and we looked over our shoulders all we could see was a giant vertical green wall of jungle, strewn with countless waterfalls, jutting out of the ocean and into the clouds above. We were only ten miles from the finish and mountains of Kauai were spectacular. The sun rose from the skyline and it started to rain before multiple rainbows appeared to the West where we’d come from. We weren’t unaccustomed to rainbows, they are a regular feature when crossing the Pacific, but in the yellow iridescent light, warm rain, and with our families only miles away, this moment was incredible and we were overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for the experience we had had.

Turning the corner on the morning of 29th July into Hanalei Bay we were greeted by a flotilla of surfers and Hawaiian see kayaks; the first human faces we’d seen other than each other’s ugly mugs for 39 days. They cheered and chatted with us for the final stretch towards the pier in the middle of the bay which was strewn with Union Jacks and a local crowd had assembled with our families. As we arrived in the beach shallows our boat was steadied by members of our land support team and we jumped into the water to wade to shore. The sand felt harder than concrete against our weak and wobbly sea legs but being reunited with our loved ones to the sound of the pū and pū (the traditional Hawaiian wind pipes) in the wash of the shore was a truly magical moment. Tanned, considerably lighter (between 6 and 10kg each), with big unkempt beards, and hands like leather, we were overjoyed and ever so slightly discombobulated.

Our charitable campaign has raised £130,000 so far. £65k has gone to The Blue Marine Foundation whose efforts focus on conserving 30% of the worlds Ocean by 2030; something the international community is on track to achieving. The other £65k has gone to The Invictus Games Foundation, which is Prince Harry’s injured veteran’s Olympics and the organisation that financially supported the epic rows by Roycey. In September last year the team reassembled in Düsseldorf to meet Prince Harry and watch injured veterans from 23 countries compete in the games. The games are an incredible spectacle of human bravery, strength and resilience, and a powerful reminder of the cause that inspired us in the first place. It was a wonderful way to round off our adventure and seemed to make it all worth it.