On the 12th December 2021, an unprecedented 36 boats with 107 rowers left La Gomera in the Canary Islands to take on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge (TWAC). On Friday the 25th February 2022, the last team arrived in Nelson’s Dockyard, English Harbour, Antigua with 106 rowers having made the 3000 miles. For one solo rower however, there was what should have been huge disappointment. Within the first 24 hours, a slip on the deck causing a catastrophic elbow injury meaning that he was unable to continue. For most folk that would have signalled an end to the attempt, but for Simon Howes there was a silver lining in the clouds. The fact that the injury happened so early on meant that both he and his vessel were rescued, and for Simon, that meant it wasn’t over. This year, Simon finished what he’d set out to do, and has already raised almost £93k of his £100k target for red squirrel conservation.
To understand the enormity of this set-back and his subsequent rebound, RSST were able to talk to Simon recently and get his perspective on the story.
How did this come about, the challenge of the event, or the reason to raise money?
“In all honesty, it was the event. A number of years ago, like a lot of Dads I suppose, I promised my children that one day I would do something to make them all proud. I remember them asking if I would climb Mt Everest or something. I knew I wasn’t going to do that, but a few years later it came to me whilst on holiday exactly what that something might be. We were in Antigua and I saw a solo rower from the challenge come into the marina. I made contact with him and said I’d like to buy his boat. He didn’t think I was serious but eventually we agreed on a deal, and once the boat had been shipped back to the UK, I was able to get it across to the Isle of Wight where we’d been living since 2017”.
Obviously living on the Isle of Wight, you’re a keen sailor/oarsman?
“Unfortunately not, I had no experience of either, but being 65 years old then and having an inherent keenness for red wine and smoking, I knew that I definitely needed to get practicing if I was to get across the Atlantic. I signed up for the TWAC in 2021/22 (now known as Worlds Toughest Row) as it is a transatlantic rowing organised event, held in very high repute. My training began in late 2020 and consisted of many hours at sea in The Solent and the North Sea and some time on a rowing machine in our garage. I can honestly say that I’m probably the most unlikely chap to row an ocean.
So where did red squirrel conservation come into it?
“Whilst completing all my preliminary documentation and organisation for the race, TWAC informed me that some entrants did the race for a chosen charity or charities, something I hadn’t really thought about. In my garden there are six or so red squirrels that visit and I was aware that they were an endangered species. I found the contact details for Helen Butler, Chair of the IOW Red Squirrel Trust and asked if she would be happy for me to choose their charity to try to raise money. I don’t think either of us realised how much we might raise. I had already made the decision to self-fund the whole adventure and not have corporate sponsors either. This meant that whatever was pledged would go to the charity in full.”
And obviously once the race started, things didn’t go to plan?
“No they didn’t. I was barely 24 hours into the race having got off to a good start. Very early in the morning, I slipped on the wet deck and severely injured my elbow. I had hoped that it might wear off, but it got to a point where I could only row one handed. At that stage I knew I had to contact one of the support vessels and get picked up. The only upside was that I didn’t have to leave my boat and that was recovered too. Being 66 years old at that time I knew that once I’d recovered from the injury, I might have only one more shot at doing the challenge.”
So, when you decided to go again, you didn’t sign up with TWAC?
“I would have, but their entries were full for the next two years or more. At that point I decided to go it alone. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without having gone through all the preparation with them the year before so I owe a lot to them. Going it alone also meant that I’d be completely unassisted, so no support vessels and organised communications. I also changed the start and finish points too. I decided to row from Gran Canaria, to Rodney Bay St Lucia, which is a longer voyage than Antigua. Only one other person in history had completed the row on the same basis. I had a good friend in Sean Deveaux, CEO of the Rodney Bay Marina and my research told me that if I was successful, I’d be the first person to make the trip, solo and unassisted for 26 years, and at my age, I’d be the third oldest in history to complete any ocean crossing, solo and unassisted.”
So how did the second attempt go?
“All in all, really well. Doing it alone, meant that it was without the associated razzamatazz and that helped me concentrate. As I mentioned before, going into this fairly blind, insomuch as having never rowed on an ocean before, I’d never seen what 35-40ft waves looked like. Being naïve probably helped though, as with more experience, I might have had second thoughts. With this sort of rowing, you have to be comfortable with your own company as some have suffered mentally with the solitude. One chap who was a huge help was Simon Rowell, meteorologist for the British Yachting team based in Cornwall. We texted every day and Simon was so accurate with his forecasts as to what was coming my way, I suspected he was ahead of me the whole time just over the horizon. I had no issues with seasickness, and to be honest, there is so much to concentrate on that time really does pass quite quickly. I also had a couple of satellite telephones, so on becalmed days I was able to call my wife and catch up on everything. Huge storm waves did cause a few problems, and on a couple of occasions I was capsized through over 170 degrees, the boat slowly righting
itself, but with me hanging on to the guard rails, knowing another wave was about 20 seconds away. This resulted in a broken oar which rendered it useless. On another occasion, hatches on the deck were smashed resulting in my losing a considerable amount of food.”
And in terms of the experience overall, were there any standout moments?
I was just past the halfway mark, when I noticed in the distance, what looked like the upturned hull of a superyacht with no keel. I realised that this could be a major shipping hazard so I’d better call in and report the location. Before I grabbed the satellite phone, I realised my ‘hull’ was actually moving and it dawned on me that it was a sperm whale, almost sunbathing on the surface. Having already passed the whale, I was quite cross as I was moving in the opposite direction and it made getting a picture or two almost impossible. I began rowing again and within a few minutes two huge sperm whales came to the surface ‘Goodnight Mr. Chips’ for my adventure. It seemed to me that they were just curious, maybe having heard my oars in the water, and after twenty minutes or so, they dived away, with that classic raising of their tails and were gone. The other really emotional moment for me was seeing my wife and the children as I arrived in Rodney Bay. I knew my amazing wife would be there but seeing the rest of the family as well was wonderful.
How have you done relative to other rowers etc?
“I rowed 3,335.24 statute miles in total, last completed in the same manner in 1997 in 116 days by a forty year old. In fairness to him though, boat technology has advanced so much that I would have had the advantage technologically speaking. In completing the journey in 72 days, 1 hour and 45 minutes, I now hold the record for the fastest, solo and unassisted row between Gran Canaria and St Lucia having beaten the previous time by 43 days. In some ways it was good that I did, given that I lost so much food in the storm. I am now the third oldest person to row across any ocean, solo and unassisted.”
So to sum it all up?
“To all the friends, colleagues and the public who have donated to the cause I can’t thank you all enough. I had no idea we’d do so well, and I think we’ll make it to the target before the end of the year. Helen’s plan is to acquire woodland on the Isle of Wight for community, amenity and education uses. It would be a way to showcase the important role that the IOW plays in providing a secure stronghold for red squirrels, whilst also educating everyone on the role that our native squirrel plays in a balanced woodland ecosystem. Native woodland habitat is as crucial to the red squirrel, as it is to us. Too often, tourism/leisure (rather than commercial forestry) is to blame for the gradual erosion of tree cover on the island and Helen’s project will go some considerable way to restoring some balance.