Forget Me Knot: Taking on an Atlantic challenge

A trio of novice rowers are planning to row across the Atlantic in support of two important causes: dementia and marine life research. Johnnie Ball, Stefan Vine and Dirk Von Delft also hope to break two world records on their 3,800-mile quest. Here, Johnnie talks about the challenges ahead and how Wallenius Wilhelmsen is helping make this dream a reality.

Forget me knot crew on boat

Johnnie Ball is one-third of Forget Me Knot, a rowing crew embarking on a mammoth journey from Portugal to South America in aid of two organisations – Dementia UK and South Africa-based Sea Search. Just before the trio was due to leave, we caught up with him to find out what was the inspiration behind the journey.

Why are you embarking on this expedition?

This row has been 18 months in the making and was borne from the experience of watching my dad deteriorate through dementia. He suffered with the disease for 20 years and I saw how challenging it was for my mum to care for him. When Dad died, I wanted to do something big to raise awareness about dementia and those who care for dementia patients, so we’re rowing to raise £100,000 for Dementia UK.

The expedition is also in support of Sea Search, a non-profit based in South Africa, which researches big marine mammals. Up to now, Sea Search has never been able to do this research beyond South Africa, but our row is an opportunity for them to expand deep into the Atlantic. Being passionate about life below the ocean, we see this as a way of making a valuable contribution. We’re taking a sound recording device that we’ll attach to the boat to track mammals in the Atlantic. Because our boat is completely silent, we’re hoping we’ll be able to pick up whale song, dolphin communications and suchlike.

Rowing the Atlantic

The crew will row in three hour shifts

Rowing the Atlantic isn’t for the fainthearted. What made you choose such a huge undertaking?

When I decided to do something for my dad, I wanted it to be team-based and something that really tested my physical strength – if it’s too easy, it wouldn’t have a real impact. This row will achieve that especially as we’re not experienced rowers. In fact, we have yet to row together! Our first sea trial is five days before we set off.

How did you choose your rowing partners?

I’ve known Stef since we were both 12-year-olds at school together. He was a big support for me and my mum when Dad was ill. I met Dirk when I worked abroad in South Africa and we bonded over our love for outdoor adventure sports. So, when I was thinking about who to do this row with, Stef and Dirk were the only two names on the list. They both bring different skills to the adventure – Dirk is a consultant surgeon and a qualified expedition medic while Stef is an industrial electrician. All eyes will be on him when the auto-helm inevitably packs up!

Forget me knot crew

Johnnie, Dirk and Stefan before departing for their Atlantic row

Why have you chosen this particular route and what records do you hope to achieve?

Most of the people who have rowed the Atlantic go from the Canaries to the Caribbean. Our route from mainland Europe to mainland South America is a lot longer and far riskier, especially as we’re travelling unaided – we’ll have no support team. We want to break two world records – the biggest distance covered and the first trio do it. The aim is to reach French Guiana within 48 days – the record is 50 – and row the entire way without touching land.

Route map

The trio will row from mainland Europe to mainland South America

Your boat is a Rannoch R45, a specialised ocean rowing boat, but it’s only 23 feet long. What are you looking forward to while on board and what isn’t so attractive?

Well, the first thing is I get seasick, so I hope I can get over that quickly! Beyond that, it’s the lack of sleep. We’re working in shifts – three hours on and three off and when we can get some sleep, it's in two cabins the size of a 1½-man tent. It's going to be a tight fit, especially as we're also packing all our provisions and kit because we won't be restocking anywhere on the journey. We’ll be carrying 250kg of dehydrated food as well as peanut butter, energy bars, sweets and oats.

What I am looking forward to though is the sheer simplicity of being at sea – no phones, no emails. We’re so close to the water, we’ll feel we’re part of the ocean.

You say no phones or emails. How are you going to communicate with your families during the trip?

We’ve decided not to. We have a satellite phone for emergency contact and weather forecasts, but we felt that we needed to manage the emotions of this expedition for ourselves and our loved ones. This journey is risky and if either we or our families are struggling at all and that is picked up, it might cause some panic. Our partners are our silent heroes. It’s been difficult living with this risk hanging over us all, the 18-month build-up has been monumental.

How has Wallenius Wilhelmsen helped you on this journey?

Wallenius Wilhelmsen has played a huge role in supporting us. None of the freight forwarders could help us ship the boat back from French Guiana to the Netherlands but Wallenius Wilhelmsen and its partner in South America, the Ian Taylor company, have made this possible. The boat is quite awkward to ship, so Wallenius Wilhelmsen offered a great return shipping solution, as well as the logistics to get it from the arrival destination to the load port back to Europe. Also, its sponsorship means that more money will go to the charity instead of the costs of sending the boat back. It’s been a game changer.

Finally, how do you plan to celebrate when you reach French Guiana?

With a very welcome beer and a big meal!

You can find out more about Forget Me Knot campaign and follow Johnnie, Dirk and Stef’s progress via Instagram and the team’s website.

Three facts about Forget Me Knot

  • The trio didn’t start rowing until lockdown, when they practiced on rowing machines
  • There will be 250kg of dehydrated food on board – enough for 3,500 calories per day each
  • A solar-powered desalinator will be used to make the sea water drinkable. The two-litre bottles of water also on board are to help balance the boat

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