Hello, and welcome to Microsoft Stories, a new podcast about technology and innovation.
In this first episode, we hear from Anna and Cameron McLean, who spent 43 days rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. When they had completed the 3,000-mile journey, they had set two world records: the first brother and sister to row across an ocean, and the fastest mixed-sex pair to row across the Atlantic.
This is the story of their journey, but it’s also much more than that. I wanted to find out if innovation played a part in their success. If it did, then how? How did they innovate while facing rough seas and sharks? Did they innovate together on that tiny boat, or were they innovating while taking turns on the oars?
In this podcast, you will hear directly from Anna and Cameron about their Atlantic crossing and how they innovated along the way.
Click the play button and join us on our journey.
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Transcript of this episode
Hi, I’m Andy Trotman, Head of News at Microsoft UK. Welcome to Microsoft Stories – a new podcast looking at technology and the people who use it.
In this series, I’m trying to answer the question: what is innovation? It means different things to different people. Innovation can be as simple as adding an eraser to the end of a pencil or as complex as sending people to the Moon.
What does it mean to be innovative? How do you know you’re being innovative? Along my journey, I meet people using technology in amazing ways, and discover what innovation means to them.
Join me on my journey.
(UPBEAT MUSIC INTRO)
In this episode I’m going to push the boat out. Literally. I’m meeting a brother and sister who hold not one but two Guinness World Records. Anna and Cameron Maclean were the first brother and sister team to row across the Atlantic, and no mixed-sex pair has ever completed the 3,000-mile crossing faster than they did.
(SOUND OF WAVES)
ANNA: I remember getting back on the oars, and my body was saying, “what, you’re doing this again?! You’re back on the oars again?! You’re doing another two hours?!
That was Anna. I caught up with her and Cameron, Anna’s older brother, at a rowing club in south-west London shortly after they returned to the UK. It was her idea to do the Talisker Whisky Challenge, a race with dozens of other boats from the Canary Islands to Antigua. Taking turns to row in two-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, it took them 40 days to make the crossing. On the way they faced rowing in the dark, sleep deprivation, salt sores, massive waves and sharks, while Cameron fell ill with a serious infection, leaving Anna to row for 36 hours straight.
One of the things that kept them going was technology, including Microsoft Teams, which they connected to via a satellite and a phone. It allowed them to talk to family and colleagues on land. To be more accurate, what kept them going was what Microsoft Teams enabled them to do. Because innovation, at its core, isn’t about the technology, it’s about what it enables people to do with that technology.
ANNA: It helped us to compete rather than just to survive. Technology allowed us to know where we were in in the Atlantic, know how many more miles you’ve got to row, to navigate. Microsoft Teams helped us to communicate with land, which was essential. Because out there, we had no idea what the weather was going to do. Only people on land had that information. So for them to be able to relay that to us, gave us an advantage, because we then were able to forecast what we would have in three days’ time, if there was going to be cloud coverage, we could then reserve the water and make sure all of our batteries are charged at that certain time. So we had enough power in three days’ time.
Part of why their story is so innovative is because of the technology Anna and Cameron used, but it’s also about where it was used, too. To put their crossing in context: fewer people have rowed an ocean than climbed Mount Everest. And there were times that the closest people to the pair were on the International Space Station, orbiting the Earth hundreds of miles above them.
So those messages of support from back home via Microsoft Teams were crucial. They coming from a group of around 70 friends, family members and colleagues across the world who were part of a Teams group. They could send images and videos back and forth, and even hold voice calls.
I spoke to Anna, who works for the Microsoft partner AlfaPeople, via Teams while she in the middle of the Atlantic. We chatted for around 20 minutes about how the race was going, the highs and lows, and looking forward to a hot shower in Antigua. Then we tried a live video call via Teams. I could see Cameron rowing, their sleeping quarters, their calendar that had days marked off, their wall of photos and messages of support.
Here’s a snippet of that call.
ANNA SPEAKING WHILE ROWING IN ATLANTIC: We are able to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world, even from here, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s just incredible. It’s just amazing.
During the race they burned 10,000 calories a day and struggled with blisters and bruises. Sea water was filtered for drinking, and they aimed to drink at least 10 litres a day. Meals consisted of “space food” that had to be mixed with water and left on deck so the sun could warm it up. They had the tools to boil water, but most of the time the sea was so rough that trying to pour boiling water was too dangerous. Any injury could seriously affect rowing performance.
Even though Anna and Cameron are both experienced rowers, having competed at university, nothing could have prepared them for a race of this magnitude. Here’s Cameron.
CAMERON: Innovation during this whole crossing was probably most fierce when we were at the start line in the Canary Islands, because there’s 35 boats all lined up. And it’s there you start to get ideas from other crews. And you think, Oh, that’s a good idea. Why didn’t we do that? And, oh, that’s a good idea. And then oh, they’re taking a helmet. Why have they got a helmet?
That’s when the nerves began for Anna and Cameron. Even though they had spent two years training, planning and preparing for this moment, the realisation of what they were about to attempt dawned on them. At times like these the adrenaline kicks in, and it’s easy to miss the really important checks and preparations that can either make or break major challenges. Focusing on the task at hand and thinking about what they needed to do was crucial if they were to be creative and innovative, which they would have to be if they were to succeed.
CAMERON: I ended up buying from like the hardware store two bits of wood and making a shelf in one of our cabins that then had bungees and rope attached to it. And we managed to carabiner basically all the essential items like our sunglasses, and torches, a Sharpie pen that we were using to count down the days. Basically anything that we wanted within arm’s reach, because if you have to go through the effort of having to open a container and another bag, you’re just never going to access what you need, because you’re just so tired on the boat, you row, you sleep, and anything else is just extra effort. So to be able to find all those items, essentially with our eyes closed, and within arm’s reach, just made it so much easier. That was a last-minute innovation just before we left.
Just before they set off, the person who had built Cameron and Anna’s boat stepped on board to see if they needed anything. Cameron, who was putting the shelves up, had a drill in his hand and was happily putting holes in the side of the vessel. The boat builder said “that looks dangerous” and made a quick exit.
One person’s innovation is another person’s mistake. When you’re being creative, it’s important to be positive – focus and mental strength play a huge part, but not to extent that you are closed-minded. Cameron needed to believe that what he was doing would help him and Anna be successful, but in a measured way. By carefully entering into that innovative headspace and staying there, he created a vital solution that could help them at sea. The level of exhaustion they struggled with meant that everything they needed to use had to be within reaching distance while they were on the boat.
ANNA: You want it to be as easy as possible. But when you’re in the Atlantic, in those conditions, nothing seems easy. I remember, Cameron would say, oh, Anna could you put the Country playlist on. All this would require was for me to turn around, open the door, literally press a button, press play on the speaker, and put the playlist on. I wouldn’t even have to really move my body that much but the effort it required for me to take 10 seconds to just to put some music on or to grab his sunglasses for him. It just took all of your energy, and you really had very little energy.
Innovation comes when people act on information, whether they are in an office in a busy city, looking at data, charts and feedback from colleagues and customers, or in the middle of an ocean, hearing from weather experts and support teams. Here’s Cameron, Anna’s older brother.
CAMERON: There’s power in information. It was that information that gave us a competitive advantage. The lesson we learned was not rowing to survive, but rowing to compete, which we were able to do from the information we received through the technology.
I love technology. I have loads around the house and we’re quite comfortable with using technology and Microsoft products but I think when you take the technology into an environment that’s unknown, and certainly the Atlantic, we were not sure how things were going to work.
That’s true. Take trusted products into new places and there will inevitably be questions about how those products will work. How will technology cope with the demands placed on it? What Anna and Cameron did was blend that technology with something reliable – their work ethic.
Does using technology in innovative ways have an effect on us, as humans? Does it make us act differently? It did in the case of Anna and Cameron. The technology was making it possible for them to do more, so they responded, in tandem. They upped their game.
CAMERON: I think it just stimulated that inside of us and our competitive nature to just want to win and succeed. Certainly receiving information that said “you’re not doing well” drove us to pull and push harder. And then information saying “you are doing well”, well, we wouldn’t let that slip. We just keep going.
(SOUND OF PEOPLE ROWING A BOAT)
Anna and Cameron’s passion for the sport they love is, frankly, amazing. When I arrived for my chat with them in London on a very cold and windy day, they were rowing along the Thames. This was just weeks after they returned from rowing across an ocean. Their hands were still blistered.
I certainly wouldn’t have the motivation to do that. And it made me think about the physical part of innovation. Can innovation be easy? Can you be innovative without hard work?
In order to succeed in the Atlantic, Anna and Cameron knew they needed an innovative strategy – they needed to do something that the other teams were not doing. They had used technology to give them crucial information on the weather and sea conditions and receive messages from their team and family that spurred them on. Now, they needed to be innovative in how they raced.
Anna and Cameron looked for something that could give them an edge over the dozens of other competitors. How could they close the gap on other teams who were rowing as hard as they were, in an environment where changes in the sea and wind can affect one boat much more than another? After all, the boats aren’t following the same path, it’s not like an F1 race where you can close the gap by taking the next corner a bit quicker than your rivals.
CAMERON: It can be challenging to know what you can actually control in a situation to give us a competitive edge. So we had to be quite innovative, and finding a sleep pattern that made our boat go fast. So we assumed other crews were doing similar to us at the beginning – two hours on, two hours off. But we eventually changed that to three hours on, three hours off.
Their plan to sleep and row for longer could have backfired. There was a risk they would become more tired, crave more sleep. It was only an extra hour rowing, but the effect on their motivation and mental energy could have been devastating. But being innovative can be about taking risks, too. If you’re going to do something new and break records then you have to think and act differently. However, their thinking didn’t stop there. Anna came up with an even bigger – and riskier – idea.
CAMERON: The pairs team who we were trying to gain on at the time, they were 108 nautical miles from us. We thought, how can we catch them at this speed, going two knots, it’s going to take days, if not weeks, and that’s considering if they’re not rowing at all. So we worked out that we needed to row together. We had to innovate a sleep pattern and a row pattern. Anna went into the cabin and she came out 15 minutes later and she said, “OK, I’ve figured it out. We need to row together for as long as possible to eventually catch them”. And we found a new rhythm and we found new energy. We ended up rowing all day together, but we ended up overtaking that crew that we wanted to and beating them by a day and a half.
I was amazed by this strategy. I said to Anna and Cameron that if they were both rowing at the same time, what if one of them got injured? There was no safety net. The brother and sister both looked at me and said I was missing the bigger picture. That wasn’t the risk they were afraid of.
ANNA: Yes, there are risks, challenges, risks of collision with another boat, but the biggest risk for us was really tearing our family apart and breaking that relationship between us.
As you can hear, Anna and Cameron are sitting in front of me, telling their story. So you know their crossing ended well, and they are still close. Surviving that ordeal and keeping their relationship as brother and sister strong required innovation and creativity, too, but with more fun and playful results. They sang and invented their own TV shows to keep their spirits up. In their words: Teamwork makes the dream work.
CAMERON: The only way to survive really was to find that common ground, to find a perspective where you understood the other person. And you could sympathise because you had that perspective. There was a time when Anna was rowing for 36 hours straight because I was incapacitated, ill in the cabin, I had a knee infection that was contracted through a microscopic scratch, and I tried rowing arms-only for a few shifts. We were taking it two hours on, two hours off during the crossing. And eventually I just couldn’t even get out of bed. I couldn’t rotate from my waist and as Anna was rowing, I was looking for her to fill my water bottle, feed me, help me flush the infection out of my body and remind me when I needed to take my antibiotics because I was just trying to sleep through it. And I was looking for somebody to support her rowing and get on the oars, but I just physically couldn’t do it at that time. And it wasn’t until I was feeling a little bit better and the antibiotics were working that we could have that conversation and realise each other’s perspectives and realise we needed each other, and it was the teamwork that drove us to race and to compete, and to make the boat go even faster.
It seems to me that there was a lot of innovation on board that small boat, because the conditions demanded it in order for Anna and Cameron to be successful. They channelled the information they received via Teams from their land-based crews, processed that in their minds, and came up with a plan that relied on a gruelling physical solution to help them go faster.
I want to end this episode with Cameron, who often asks himself why he attempted one of the world’s toughest challenges with his sister. And why they succeeded.
CAMERON: Now I look back and I’m like, “there is absolute strength in diverse teams”. And we brought the strengths of each other. We are so different. We couldn’t be further apart, you know, personality, gender, whatever you like. upbringing, maybe somewhat similar, because we’re from the same family. But in terms of our thinking, and our mannerisms, but we just found that common ground, we found each other’s strengths and we created a fast boat in the end.
(SOUNDS OF ANNA AND CAM CELEBRATING AT THE FINISH LINE)
An incredible story of technology, innovation and perseverance. Thanks to Anna and Cameron for chatting to me. And thank you for listening. I’m afraid that’s all we have time for today. Look out for the next episode of Microsoft Stories soon.
(UPBEAT MUSIC OUTRO)