How Forget Me Knot broke an Atlantic Ocean rowing record

With support from Wallenius Wilhelmsen, Johnnie Ball, Stefan Vine and Dirk Von Delft have raised thousands for Dementia rowing 3,800 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. We spoke to Johnnie about the trio’s record-breaking feat.

The Forget Me Knot trio

You set off in appalling weather in January to become the first trio to row from Portugal to French Guiana. How do you feel now you’re back home after such a huge adventure?

I’m still getting used to it, I haven’t really had a chance to sit down and reflect on the enormity of the challenge. Before we set off, the Forget Me Knot expedition was this nigh on impossible challenge, the biggest thing that either Stef, Dirk or I had ever done. Now we’re home, it feels like a dream. Two months is a long time to sit on a boat with three people with nothing to focus on except for the immediate concerns of being on a rowing boat. So, it’s taking a bit of time to adjust.

What was the hardest part of the expedition?

The wear and tear of the row was just so draining, both mentally and physically – I lost about 15 kilos. Strange things happened to my body: muscles wasted away because I wasn’t using them. There was never any sustained period of good sleep, so I don’t think my body properly recovered. You just keep hammering it every few hours without it getting enough calories or sleep to repair itself. Then, suddenly you hit land and put the brakes on, and it’s left reeling from the whole experience.

Forget Me Knot crew

How did you feel when you reached French Guiana?

That was an adventure in itself. We saw land for the first time at night and thought ‘great, we can cruise in’. But suddenly the current turned crazy and pulled the boat all over the place. Then the power went, so we had no steering. For the next few hours, we were in emergency mode, battling the current to reach the coast. When we did get there, we had to row another three miles upriver to a pontoon where we were due to stop. Stef was the first out of the boat and immediately fell over because he had no land legs. We all just lay down on the pontoon and laughed.

Of course, there was no one there to meet us. It was the middle of the night!

How did you keep each other motivated?

This sort of expedition really tests you; you’re left very exposed and situations can bring out the best and worst in you. There’s no hiding from that. Stef, Dirk and I are close friends, we’ve known each other for a long time and we’re even closer now but we all had our moments. The best way to get through if any of us were struggling was by rallying round. We became very attuned to each other’s motivation levels and as individuals we learnt in ourselves what helped us and so we leant on that.

What were the high points of your Atlantic crossing?

The best one was when a pod of dolphins gave us a show. We saw a lot of pods, but these dolphins didn’t just swim alongside us. They surfed the waves, did backflips, spins and somersaults while swimming around the boat, doing it again and again for about 20 minutes. It was just brilliant.

And the worst?

Because of time pressures we set off in bad weather but soon stopped because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. We couldn’t row, so we had to ride out the weather while anchored on the high seas. We were essentially trapped in our tiny cabins unable to eat because of seasickness and unable to sleep because it felt like we were in a washing machine. I think we’d all agree that those first 10 days were the lowest point.

How much money have you raised for Dementia UK?

We’re still adding it up, but I think we’ll be looking at between £30,000 and £40,000; I’m sure it will be one of Dementia UK’s biggest single fundraisers this year. They’ve been in touch and thanked us, they’re over the moon with what we’ve done. We’ve also raised a lot of awareness too thanks to regular updates in the media. We were also undertaking research for a South African charity, Sea Search, recording marine mammals underwater as we went along. They’ve got hours and hours of data to go through now!

The crews boat at the port of Guinea

How did Wallenius Wilhelmsen assist your expedition?

I don’t know how we could have done it without them, they took the whole problem of the logistics away from us so we could concentrate on the row itself. If I’d had to work out how to ship the boat back to the UK myself, it would have been a mind-melting task. We’re incredibly grateful to them and to our other partner, Ian Taylor, Wallenius Wilhelmsen's agent in South America. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to give so much to Dementia UK.

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