3,000 miles. 43 days. Two rowers. One boat.
That was the challenge that Anna and Cameron McLean set themselves by taking part in what’s known as “the world’s toughest row”. As they crossed the finishing line in Antigua, they set two Guinness World Records – the first brother and sister to row across an ocean, and the fastest mixed-sex pair to row across the Atlantic.
Their journey earlier this year was full of highs and lows – literally. They battled forty-foot waves in total darkness, sharks, illness, exhaustion, blisters, and arguments that risked tearing their family apart.
One thing kept their relationship (and their boat) on course – technology.
In the middle of the Atlantic, the closest people to them were the astronauts in the International Space Station orbiting the planet miles above them. Microsoft Teams, the collaboration tool, allowed the pair to speak to family back in the UK and their land-based team, giving them crucial support, information and encouragement.
Teams is also proving effective for Anna during lockdown, which is bringing its own isolation challenges.
While at sea, Anna used a portable broadband device to connect her mobile phone to a satellite, so she could use the Teams app. This enabled her to chat, call and even broadcast video from the Atlantic.
“Microsoft Teams helped us communicate with land, and that was important because although there are risks and challenges, the biggest risk for us was tearing our family apart and breaking that relationship between me and my brother,” said Anna, 25. “Having Teams helped us to speak to our mum and dad when we really needed them. We didn’t see anybody else for a month and a half but having that voice on the end of the phone, which sounded so close on Teams, was comforting.”
“That motivation from home gave us strength,” Anna added. “It helped us compete rather than just survive. The information we got via Teams allowed us to know where we were in in the Atlantic, how many more miles we had to row, as well as navigate.”
Cameron, who is training to be a pilot, added: “There’s power in information, and the information from Teams gave us a competitive advantage.”
The journey that led Anna and Cameron to enter the Talisker Whisky Challenge, an annual 3,000-mile row from the Canary Islands to Antigua, started many years before they lined up with around 35 other teams at the start line on the Canary Islands.
Cameron, seven years older than Anna, took up rowing at university, while his sister would watch from the bank and eat bacon sandwiches. She always followed in her brother’s footsteps, and also took up the sport when she went into higher education. “I absolutely loved rowing. I always wanted to be on the water and keep improving. It allowed my mind to be completely clear,” Anna said.
At Christmas in 2012 she was given a book by Roz Savage, entitled Rowing the Atlantic, “which I annotated and highlighted. I remember thinking that it was the one thing I needed to do in my life.”
She asked Cameron to be her crewmate in 2017 after he had swum the English Channel – “I thought, ‘well, he must love water!’” – and then started two years of gruelling training regimes, courses and preparing.
However, nothing could prepare them for the brutal conditions of the race. They rowed and slept in two-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, in all weather conditions, eating packets of freeze-dried pasta or noodles that they added cold water to and left out on deck for the blazing sun to warm up – boiling water was too risky because of the movement of the boat, and any injury would limit their ability to row and seriously hinder their attempt.
To put their challenge in context, more people have climbed Everest than rowed across an ocean.
Anna and Cameron had chosen to embark on what’s known as an unsupported crossing. That meant they had to carry everything they needed to survive with them, including food (they were each burning 8,000 calories a day), water (rationed to 500 millilitres a day), clothing, first aid and emergency flares. Everything on their 24-foot boat – named Lily – had to be there for a reason otherwise it was left on shore, because extra weight would slow the boat down. But that also meant that there was no one nearby to help them if they got into trouble.
“The first time we rowed the boat in that state was when we left the Canary Islands and started our 3,000-mile journey,” Cameron said. “We were in unknown territory, going straight into rough seas. There was about a three-metre swell within the first four hours and we were holding on for dear life. When people think of waves, they often think of going down to the beach, and just the one motion of the wave coming up the shore. But it’s not like that at all out at sea. You have a primary swell and a secondary swell, and they are often different sizes. Then they come together and they amplify. Then you get these random, breaking waves that are enormous. So it’s coming at you from all directions. It’s like you’re on a roller coaster, and that motion doesn’t stop until you’ve reach land.”
They also had mechanical issues. The boat’s auto steering function failed shortly after they left the Canary Islands, forcing them to try to steer with their feet while they were rowing. Their water pump broke, too, potentially leaving them without vital fluids. Luckily, they managed to repair both systems.
Even in the harsh conditions of the Atlantic Ocean, the technology did its job, and those messages of support via Teams were needed most when parts broke or illness struck. Anna developed sea sickness, which “incapacitated” her for three days, and family members reassured her it would pass. “They were on journey with us,” Anna said this. “That’s what kept us going.”
The support back home was unwavering. Their father, Andrew McLean, said it was vital they were able to convey that feeling to his children.
“Being able to talk to them and send messages via Teams was incredible for us,” he said. “Anna and Cameron said those calls kept them going, but they kept us going, too. We were worried about them, and Teams brought us closer to what they were going through. That allowed us to help them, and we felt comfort in being able to do that.”
Anna added: “We could be in a really bad state. We could be exhausted, sleep deprived, feeling really, really low, especially when the conditions were tough. Then we would get a message from our Teams group, which contained 70 of our colleagues, friends and family, and think, ‘we’ve got this, we can do it. We’re doing it for those people out there who are rooting for us.’
However, family and friends can only do so much when they’re thousands of miles away. One day, as he was rowing, Cameron developed what turned into a serious injury. A small scratch on his knee became infected, leaving him bed-ridden in their shared cabin and unable to row. As her brother took antibiotics and tried to rid the infection from his body, Anna was forced to row for 36 hours without a break.
“I was looking for Anna 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,” Cameron said. “I wanted to get on the oars to help her but I just physically couldn’t do it.
“When the antibiotics started working and I was feeling a little better, we had a conversation about each other’s perspectives and realised that out there, in the middle of nowhere, we needed each other. We were a team again, and it was that teamwork that drove us to race and compete, and make the boat go even faster.”
“Teamwork makes the dream work” was the pair’s mantra. One task they both had to do was clean barnacles off the bottom of the vessel every three days to reduce drag. Despite seeing sharks that the pair estimated were around 14-feet-long (“we saw a fin coming towards us, disappear under the water, and reappear on the other side of our boat”, Anna said), they had to dive into the sea and manually scrape the hull. While the water was a nice relief from the blazing sun, the salt made their skin sore, their blisters burn and the task took even more precious energy from them.
Incredibly, as they both recovered as best they could from illness, exhaustion or bruising from the oars hitting their legs, the pair gave themselves an even bigger challenge. They set their sights on overtaking a specific team that Anna called “a group of Northern lads”, who were 108 nautical miles ahead of them. But catching and passing another boat at sea isn’t easy; it isn’t like a racetrack where you can make up time on the next corner or turn. Winds and wave swells can help one vessel but hinder another.
It was going to take sheer determination and hard work. But what more could they do? They were already rowing all day in two-hour shifts.
Cameron said: “Anna went into the cabin to think. She came out 15 minutes later and said, ‘OK, I’ve figured it out. We need to row together for as long as possible to catch them.’ So that’s what we did.”
Ignoring the blisters, muscle pain and lack of sleep, Anna and Cameron rowed together to catch their new rivals. The pair’s land-based crew used Teams to keep them updated on how far they were behind. A gap of 108 miles turned into 100 miles, then 80, then 40, then 10. Eventually they were alongside their rivals, before surging ahead.
“This is the greatest show!” the pair sang loudly in celebration. Singing songs from The Greatest Showman, along with creating their own TV shows and doing impressions, had helped lighten the mood and focus their minds throughout the race.
They docked in Antigua a day and a half ahead of “the Northern lads”, and registered an overall time of 43 days, 15 hours and 22 minutes. That was enough to earn them 18th place in the overall standings. The winners, a British team of four men, completed the crossing in 32 days.
Now back in the UK, Cameron said everyone asks him the same question: why did you do it?
“At first I would say that I like adventure,” he said. “This is the ultimate challenge, it’s the Everest of rowing. It’s physical, it’s mental, it’s very technical. But I think the real reason is I wanted to understand why no other brother and sister had ever attempted this before. I now realise there is absolute strength in diverse teams. We brought out the strengths in each other, we found common ground and we created a fast boat.”
Their mother, Susan, couldn’t be prouder. “People would ask me how I could let both of my children go out into this great big ocean,” she said. “But how could I not let them go?
“We are here for a very short time and we have to embrace these moments. They had a vision, they worked so hard to get there and we are incredibly proud of them for finishing it. The fact they have done it together makes it even more special for us as a family.”
Less than a month after Anna and Cameron returned to the UK, the Government enforced a lockdown aimed at tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. Anna is still working for AlfaPeople from home, using Teams for meetings (“in one day I can speak to people in six different countries”) and a daily catch-up with colleagues.
Philip Rawlinson, Managing Director of AlfaPeople, agreed. “The first time I met Anna I was inspired by her passion and commitment to go above and beyond, so it was no surprise that she had aspirations to row across the Atlantic. I was naturally worried but I also knew she could rely on Microsoft Teams during the crossing,” he said.
Anna and Cam have now spent longer isolated in their family home in Gloucestershire than they did at sea. However, Anna is using some techniques she learned during her voyage to stay positive.
“When Cam and I were at sea we often thought about the future and what we wanted to do once we got back on land. We put our energy into planning and I’m doing the same during lockdown. I’m writing book about our whole journey, from fundraising to the finish line and what that taught me about leadership. It expands on that notion of rowing to compete rather than just rowing to survive, and I think that can apply to anyone in the world at the moment.
“When we were training for the crossing, we were given some advice from a mental health coach. She said that our minds are like the search engine – you type in a word and it gives you other words related to it. So, if we thought about positive things, that leads to more positivity. Every day, I still think: ‘what am I putting in my search bar?’”
Anna and Cameron had conquered the world’s toughest row, entered the record books and raised £32,000 (approximately $39,600) for UN Women. So, what do they want to do when the lockdown ends?
“I would love to row another ocean,” Anna said. Cameron shifted uneasily in his chair. “I definitely enjoyed the experience and Anna’s a wonderful crewmate,” he said. “But it’s a no from me.”