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ROWING THE ATLANTIC

15 October 2003

Sixteen pair-oared crews are entered for the WoodVale Atlantic Rowing Race 2003 due to start from San Sebastian on the island of La Gomera in the Canaries on Sunday at noon.

Ahead of them is the challenge of rowing 2,900 miles across the Atlantic to Barbados in 23 foot wooden boats. South Devon interest in the race is fuelled by the Royal Air Force crew which includes 33 year-old Matt Stowers from Teignmouth.

Born and bred in the town and with his family well known there, Matt and his crewmate Mark Jacklin, also 33, did their final sea training at Teignmouth.

Now acclimatising in San Sebastian, the island's capital, the RAF pair are fully prepared.

So well prepared are they, in true RAF tradition, that they were one of the first crews to have their kit and boat inspected by officials of the organising company, Sir Chay Blyth's Challenge Business.

They passed with flying colours and were taking a final two day sea row around the island this week. The venture for the RAF crew, part of their service adventure training, has cost in the region of ?40,000, but they also plan to raise ?30,000 in sponsorship for The Philip Green Memorial Trust, a UK based children's charity which supports projects to help physically and mentally disabled children by funding infrastructure.

Donations can be made by a link from the web site www.atlanticrock.com.

The RAF boat, which went in the 2001 Atlantic Rowing Race as 'This Way Up', is now named 'Per Ardua' which is the RAF Regiment motto, 'Through Adversity.'

Matt, a self-confessed novice rower, said: "It's going to be entertaining. We have no doubts about getting their and will endeavour to be competitive."

Other crews of interest to South Devon include Jason McKinlay and Philip Carrington, both 32 from Cheshire, who spent April and May of this year on sea trials at Salcombe before moving to Lanzarote to complete their acclimatisation. Their boat, named Pura Vida, was Bitsa in the 1997 Atlantic Rowing Race.

Miles Barnett, aged 30, rows aboard 'Bright Spark' with Alan Watson. Miles is a member of RAF 22 Squadron Search & Rescue based at RMB Chivenor which includes South Devon in its area of operation. 'Bright Spark' was also an entry in the 2001 race.

The major influence on the race comes from Newton Abbot based Simon Chalk whose newly formed company WoodVale Events (motto 'One life - Live it') are sponsoring the event.

Simon, a veteran of ocean events, has a wealth of experience from his exploits. He was a competitor in the BT Global Challenge in 1997 as member of the crew which won the leg around Cape Horn aboard the yacht 'Save the Children'.

The same year he took part in the Atlantic Rowing Race with George Rock completing the crossing in 64 days aboard Cellnet Atlantic Challenge.

He then set about rowing the Indian Ocean in 2002 but disaster struck 120 miles out from Western Australia when Simon believes the boat was hit in a violent storm, possibly by a whale migrating down along the coast.

He and his crewmate clung to the upturned boat for 15 hours before being rescued.

However, Simon returned alone to resume the challenge to become the first person to row the Indian Ocean.

From Kalbarri in Western Australia to the North Mauritus island of St Branden took just 107 days in seas far rougher than the Atlantic.

At times he was engulfed by 45 foot waves and capsized four times during the crossing.

He was on La Gomera for the start of the boat inspections but flew back last Friday for a meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace on Monday this week.

He returns to La Gomera tomorrow in readiness for Sunday's start.

He had been invited to Buckingham Palace in recognition of his contribution to the nation as one of its pioneers.

Of his new company he said: "The next six months will be interesting."

He remained tight-lipped about the exact nature of the events planned but they would appear to be in rowing and sailing and will be of major importance to Devon on a scale even larger than the Goss Challenge which was based at Totnes.

When asked if he felt the urge to row in the 2003 race he said: "It's very tempting to jump in a boat."

The winners from the 2001 Atlantic Rowing Race, Matt Goodman, aged 33, and Steve Westlake, also 33, of New Zealand, are firm favourites again and out to break the record of 41 days 2 hours and 55 minutes set by fellow countrymen Rob Hamill and Phil Stubbs in the 1997 race which went from Los Gigantes on Tenerife.

Phil Stubbs was killed in an air crash so Rob Hamill was to be partnered by Steve Westlake in the 2001 race which went from San Juan on Tenerife.

Just a couple of days before the start, Hamill was involved in a brawl on the island breaking a bone in his hand and he was replaced by Goodman.

Westlake and Goodman missed out on the record by just under a day having faced uncooperative trade winds.

When I spoke to them, they were still awaiting the arrival of their boat 'Team CRC' in San Sebastian. It left New Zealand in August.

With typical confidence Matt Goodman - in reference to Teignmouth's Matt Stowers - said: "I didn't know that the RAF could interfere with container ships. But it doesn't matter when it arrives because we'll win anyway."

When quizzed about the important factors for success in the race he said that rowing experience was important but added: "The difference between adventure and mis-adventure is planning and preparation."

And when asked if, like Debra Veale, he had written a book about his experiences in the 2001 race Matt said: "We weren't out there long enough to even write a pamphlet."

Every crew has a story and none more so than partners Marcus Thompson, a comedy writer aged 36, and 26 year-old Sally Kettle.

Marcus is an epileptic and will have to take a large store of medication. They have set a target of raising  £1million for an epilepsy charity and have already raised £200,000.

Their boat 'Calderdale - The Yorkshire Challenger' - named 'Chaos' in 2001 - has the full support of the Mayor and town of Calderdale and they have been coached by Tony Plank of Shoreham Rowing Club.

The only other female and the youngest competitor in the race is Faye Langham, aged 25, who partners Andy Giles, aged 31, in 'Bluebell.'

The oldest rower will be 51 year-old Sjaak de Jong of the Netherlands who partners David Pearse, aged 44, from Hampshire.

In addition to the British crews there are two from New Zealand, one from France, a father and son from South Africa and a crew from Barbados whose boat is appropriately named 'Rowing Home.'

Sat forlornly on the dockside was 'The George Geary', a boat of some repute amongst those who follow ocean racing.

The boat, named after an English cricketer, was built by carpenter Graham Walters, who rowed her in the 1997 race with Keith Mason, finishing tenth.

She was transported back to his home in Leicestershire where she rested in his garden. Graham's wife complained that the boat looked untidy so Graham painted flowers on the port side.

With the boat rotting away, just three months before the 2001 race came a call from legal chambers practice manager, Michael Ryan, which galvanised Graham into action.

Michael said: "You provide the boat and I'll put up the money."

Within no time they were ready and they went on to finish 22nd.

On both occasions Graham did not fit a water-maker to his boat like other crews and took a ton of water supplies with him.

However, he is not entered for the race this time because the race is for pairs and Graham intends an adventure of his own.

He was due to arrive on the island this week and will set out to cross two oceans, across the Atlantic, through the Panama canal and then across the Pacific.

At 56 years-old, that's some challenge!

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