Saturday, 11 June 2016

On and on and on: How we set a new 24 hour distance rowing Guinness World Record

I have no idea whether Sir Edmund Hillary thought "I HAVE to do that," when he first realised that Mount Everest had yet to be climbed, or even what went through astronaut Tim Peake's mind when he saw an ad for "International Space Station Crew Member" in "Out of This World Jobs Weekly" (yes, I'm making that up, but you get the idea). But I do remember gasping in delight when, over a year ago, whilst browsing the Guinness World Records site, I spotted that there was an existing record for the greatest distance rowed in 24 hours by a women's team. And, more to the point, at 229km it was eminently breakable.

It just HAD to be done.

If you feel I'm pushing it by comparing a full day's rowing with being the first person to dice with death on a dangerous mountain at extreme altitude, or being blasted off the planet, I'll completely understand. Clearly, a lengthy row on the Thames is not in the slightest in this league. But I hope you'll humour me as the girl who was always (quite reasonably) picked last for any sporting activity at school, and who is still has a double novice in British Rowing classifications, which made the very idea of of making an attempt on a sporting Guinness World Record as significant a thing as it was irresistible.

But back to the point: what does it take to break an endurance rowing world record? Well, the short answer is, "a lot more stuff than just the rowing".

First, find your (on-water) team
I am, of course, a big fan of long-distance rowing (you get all the sense of achievement without the lung burning of sprint racing, and I include head races in that). And over the years, I've built up quite a lot of experience at it. But I'm well aware that my real talent in this area is not the actual rowing, but in persuading other, much better rowers, to join me.

It didn't prove particularly hard. I started with Hannah, who is the only woman to have rowed round Lake Geneva (in a crew) more times than me and, even better, is 15 years younger than I am, does Ironman Triathlons, and loves to have other people organise sporting challenges where she "just" has to turn up and do the grinding. We make a good team. Her immediate response was "Let's do it!". With her on board, the whole thing became much easier to sell to others.

My next stop was Sandra, whose only drawback as a partner for crazy events is that she will only ever do each one once. But this was a new one, so that was OK. Carol then seized the whole idea as I had, followed by Sarah and Naomi who, as former Lightweight World Champions had the best track records for rowing but also for hitherto refusing all my invitations to join my expedition rowing escapades. This time, though, even they couldn't resist.

With the six members of the rowing team that the rules allowed in place, we all swore each other to secrecy in case another group of better rowers got wind of the idea and beat us to it, both in timing and distance. This may actually have been totally unnecessary as no one we've spoken to since the row has shown any interest in even contemplating it. Although I suppose it's possible they they have and are being as secretive as we were!

Second, decide on boat size
To be honest, we never really considered doing it in anything other than a quad, which is the fastest boat class that doesn't require the whole team to be in it at once (so that some people could always be resting), but have since discovered that the equivalent men's record, set by a team of Hungarians in 2013, was done in a double as they'd worked out that the "sprint but get double rest" strategy this permits is actually more efficient. We'll bear that in mind in the ghastly eventuality that there has to be a "next time".

Third, set the date
The date more or less set itself. It made sense to start at about 9am on a Friday to minimise time off work but also avoid weekend river traffic, and also to do it during school term (as the river is busier with cruiser traffic in the holidays) but as close to the longest day as possible. By the time various people's pre-booked holidays and commitments as volunteers at Henley Women's Regatta were factored in, there was only one option.

Fourth: Where to do it
Debate about this raged for at least two emails. Hannah was quite keen on the idea of the long, straight stretches of little-used river from her former club in Boston, Lincolnshire. But this was outvoted in favour of the Kingston stretch of the Thames on the grounds that there's a lot of ambient light at night in Kingston, five of us lived close to it, and two of the team had done GB trials in Boston and never, ever wanted to go back there.

The route: we did the round trip 24 times.
Our distance would be calculated as complete lengths of a measured distance between two landmarks. Choosing the course required a careful balance between not having landmarks so close together that an excessive amount of time was spent turning round, but also not having them so far apart that there was a risk of a final, partial length not being counted. As the attempt was on a river, we also had to ensure that at least half of our lengths were upstream, which meant that we needed to start at the downstream end of the length, so that if there was only time at the end to get a single length of the round trip in, it would be an upstream one and therefore we would have done n downstream lengths and n+1 upstream.
Kingston RC, an incredibly helpful club

Taking all of this into account, Kingston RC was the perfect base. But although four of us had been members of Kingston RC in the early 1990s, none of us currently were, so the club had no reason to help us. However, Danny the captain grasped what we were trying to achieve wholeheartedly, and after agreement from the committee, generously offered use of a boat (which was expertly refurbished for us by Nick, the club's rowing manager), the boathouse, and launches for the independent witnesses.

Fifth, find the rest of the team
Simply rowing more than 229km was never going to be enough, of course. It also had to be SEEN to be done. Specifically, by what Guinness calls independent witnesses. It took me a fair while to establish a precise definition of what these crucial people were but it was eventually established that they needed to be knowledgeable about rowing but is not a member of any of our clubs, related to any of us, or to any of the other witnesses.This did narrow the field of candidates quite a bit.

They also obviously had to live within kicking distance of Kingston and be free on a Friday or prepared to spend three hours watching us paddle up and down the river, some of them in the middle of the night. We were now in shortlist territory.

Oh, and then I realised that the witnesses had to have us in sight at all times which meant using a pair of coaching launches in relay (no outboard engine is going to run continuously for 24 hours), and that half of the witnesses therefore needed to be qualified launch drivers. As we also needed 16 of them so that they could do 3-hour shifts (safely inside Guinness's 4-hour shift limit), the list of even potential candidates was perilously close to the required 16, and it's a tribute to the generosity of the rowing community that we secured these volunteers, with only a limited amount of arm-twisting and favour-bargaining.

We were supported on the day by a land team of five (who could be related to us and almost entirely were) who worked in shifts, briefing each new pair of witnesses as they turned up, training them on how to use the launch and video cameras, ensuring they completed the right log books when they finished their shift, refilling the petrol tanks, and preparing food and hot drinks for rowing crew members coming off shift so that these were at an instantly-consumable temperature to give maximum digestion time in each c.1 hour's rest period.

Other logistics
As with projects of all kinds, it's easy to describe the various elements of the campaign that we put in place, but arriving at these solutions was often far from straightforward.

One challenge was finding 24-hour stopwatches, as most only run for 12 hours. And another was finding a suitable GPS tracker to hire (thanks

One absolutely critical piece of the jigsaw was the accurate measurement of the shortest rowable distance on the route between Steven’s Eyot and Hampton Court Bridge, which was kindly provided by GWP Consultants LLP, with essential assistance from a retired friend who spent the morning guarding the surveyor's highly valuable base station on the bank whilst he and I slowly moved up and down the river taking multiple positions from a launch (thanks KGSBC).

The row itself
Despite 10 months of planning, my biggest worry come the day itself was whether I'd failed to set something up administratively:the right (multiple) forms, the right codes for wifi, changing rooms, petrol stores, the right people at the right time, camera batteries that would last long enough, sufficiently clear and comprehensive instructions for the witnesses who needed to film at least two minutes every hour and also capture numerous salient moments.

But I was entirely confident we could row the distance provide nothing and nobody broke.

The first couple of shifts passed quickly. During one, a couple of crew members had a long discussion about an issue related to both of their jobs, which was as usefully distracting as listening to Radio 4. Less successful in taking our minds off it was the opener, "So, Brexit?" (this was just before the election), which got three conversation-stopping responses of "Nope."
Only rowing team members helped at the change overs
so we couldn't be accused of allowing anyone else
to "propel" the boat even for a few centimetres

The low point for all of us came around four o'clock in the afternoon, by which time each of us had completed three 2-hour rows which, when you think about is more than normal, but we hadn't even reached the half-way point. The weather was wonderfully calm, but it was also quite warm, and so we were all a bit dehydrated. However, demonstrating the essential long-distance rowing skill of “shut up and row”, none of us mentioned it to the others at the time, and after that it didn’t get much worse.

For the entire attempt, we all greatly enjoyed the heavy fragrance of the gorse bushes covering a couple of hundred metres of bank downstream of Thames Ditton marina, but were disappointed that we couldn't hear anything of the Jools Holland concert that was on at Hampton Court that night.

Hitting one of our rest hours some time around midnight, Sarah, my rowing partner, commented "I don't really know what to eat now as I've eaten all the meals and snacks I would ever have in one day", which was a fair point. I think my solution involved crisps.

Fantastic flat water at around 6.30am.
Note lack of sleeping wildfowl.
And if you've ever wondered where ducks and swans go to sleep, we can't help you, but we can say that they don't go to sleep on the water. Lacking, as we clearly were, in any knowledge of ornithological behaviour, we'd vaguely imagined that they might just tuck their heads under their wings whilst afloat, and would be scattered across the river like a load of footballs. Given our steers' middle-of-the-night courses straight up and down the middle of the river to avoid all those stealth sticking-out-trees, it's probably a good thing that they weren't.

And talking of steers, for various reasons (including the fact that I can't foot-steer) Carol and I were lucky enough to enjoy the whole ride in the middle of the boat, whilst Hannah and Sandra did the stroking and Sarah, Sandra and Naomi did the steering. To avoid wasting time adjusting foot stretchers, we didn't, which meant that I spent half my time rowing with my feet too far away from me but hey, the bruises on my ribs had disappeared by a week later,

Breaking the record
This occurred shortly after 5am when we reached Hampton Court Bridge for the 21st time.

As agreed prior to the row, we then carried on for the rest of the time available, completing another 5 lengths of the stretch, which took our total to 273.95km (to save you from the mental arithmetic, that's over 44km more than the old record) with about 12 minutes to spare (thankfully, not enough time to even contemplate trying to squeeze in another length).

List of helpers
We are massively grateful to the sixteen wonderful souls who were the independent witnesses, especially to Paul who stepped in literally on the day to do the midnight-3am shift after another witness suffered a sudden family bereavement. On going through the video clips later, we were amused to find one that was taken mid-afternoon, in which one witness is heard to comment, "It's hot out here, isn't it?" to which the other replied, "Yeah, the witnesses are really suffering!"

Altogether it took the direct involvement of 30 people to break this record. So, THANK YOU to witnesses Pauline, Sue, Richard, Tim, Bill, Liz, Noel, Chris, Ali, David, Paul, John, Martin, Andrew, Geraint and Ed. Plus land team Rachel, Richard, Rachel (another one), Jeeves, and Tricky, Chantal the sports masseuse, Rhys the surveyor, KRC Captain Danny and the KRC committee for letting us use the club, KRC Rowing Manager Nick for refurbishing and rigging the boat, and all the KRC crews that got out of our way on the Saturday morning. And to George, Richard (another one), Brad, Anne, Alex, Duncan, the old lags from KRC, and others for cheering us on.

We really couldn't have done it without you.

"Not bad for a novice"
L-R: An empty bottle of champagne, Carol, Naomi, Helena, Sarah, Sandra and Hannah

The "massive crowds" cheering us on at the end
(the two crew members not in the boat at that point plus George, aged 3)
We are "officially amazing" (blush)
After waiting with a certain amount of angst (had I got all of the documentation right), some weeks later I got the nervously-awaited email announcing, "We are thrilled to inform you that your application for 'Greatest distance rowed by a female team in 24 hours' has been successful and you are now the Guinness World Records Title Holder!" Woo! and also Hoo! Here's the rather nice certificate that arrived soon after. The record can be viewed on the Guinness website.


  1. Immortality!! Great report, as usual. Major congratulations!

  2. Well done to all of you. A wonderful write up. Congratulations. From the 24 record holders of 1992