Published: 06:00, 04 February 2021
By Steve Acteson
Canterbury-born James Allan found a novel way to beat the lockdown blues – he rowed the Atlantic.
Allan, 51, and his novice crew of former university and workplace friends, Hong Kong born and bred Josh Stone, 32, skipper Richard Stewart, 51, and fellow Scot Keith Burnet, 50, were competing in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, an epic 3,000 miles voyage from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua in the West Indies.
After 42 days, 3 hours and 47 minutes at sea, including Christmas and New Year, they rowed into English Harbour to a cacophony of noise, finishing sixth overall out of 21 crews and fifth in class in their 28-foot space-age technology boat Valkyrie.
Valkyrie is a self-righting Rannoch 45, weighing 1.5 tons, with tiny cabins fore and aft where the crew cooked, ate, slept and navigated - when they were not rowing in pairs, two hours on, two hours off throughout.
By the finish Allan’s crew had already raised more than £138,000 for their nominated charities, Shelter Box, which helps the 88 million people homeless in disaster zones throughout the world, and Workout for Water, a UNICEF charity bringing fresh water supplies to villages in East Africa.
Overall the race was won by Dutch pair Mark Slats and Kai Wiedmar, who completed the crossing in just under 33 days.
But for Allan, who now lives in Jakarta, Indonesia, with his wife Sylvia and daughters, Lois, seven, and Sophie, five, it was mission accomplished after an 18 months regime of solo training in which they were able to spend less than three days together in the boat before the race because of Covid restrictions.
He said: “It wasn’t just 42 days at sea, this was an 18-month journey, a lot of training, planning and courses on things like sea survival. We hadn’t had so much as three days together in the boat because of Covid, I was in Indonesia, one guy was in Hong Kong and two were in Yorkshire.
“We were real novices. And that’s why the seventh-placed four-girl Dutch crew gave us a real run for our money, they had been rowing together for 20 years as a lifeboat crew and we were four blokes who just tried to muscle it.
“There is a lot of technique involved in ocean rowing. We kind of got it right the last week but we made a lot of mistakes along the way, learned from them and in the end we knew what we were doing.
“The fact that we hadn’t done anything like it before is what made it such a great challenge. We were winging it to start with but I never felt unsafe, I never felt scared and I never doubted that we were going to pull it off.
“And I think what was important was that we got on that boat as good mates and stepped off it as even better mates, that’s the biggest win for us. To share that experience with the boys, that will be with us forever.”
Allan’s mother Lois and step-father, Peter Hamilton-Sade, who live in Spain, were in Antigua to greet them as they celebrated at the end, along with Allan’s niece and nephew Chloe and Charlie Allan, whose family home is in Elmstead.
Mum Lois (nee Acteson) grew up in Herne Bay and said: “It is actually mind-blowing because that was such a hard thing to do. I’m just happy to see them arrive safely.”
Allan’s father, the late Lt-Commander Peter Allan RNR, also served in the merchant navy, was vice-chairman of the Royal Yachting Association and a former commodore of Herne Bay Sailing Club, so the sea was in his son’s blood.
He was educated at a private prep school near Ashford and Kent College before completing a Masters degree in real estate after attending university in Newcastle, North Texas and finally Reading.
But having also taken part in the 2002 Marathon de Sables, which is a combined six marathons across the Sahara Desert, he admitted: “That was a walk in the park compared to this
“This was 42 days, two hours on, two hours off and we did that 255 times, pretty brutal right? My shift pattern was 2am to 4 am, 6am to 8 am and so on.
“You never got two hours sleep because you had to eat and all that, you were lucky if you got an hour but it was amazing how quickly we all fell into the routine, we were like robots.
“The finish was the day I will never forget. The atmosphere coming in was incredible, we had the Antiguan Coastguard escort us in with loads of other small boats, the super yachts were sounding their horns, there were people cheering, it was all quite overwhelming to be honest.”
Separation from family was hard and Allan said: “We had a a satellite phone on board so I could call my wife and girls Wednesdays and Saturdays but apart from that we had no internet networks or social media.
“But the real low was when we hit head winds in the middle of the race and had to put our power anchor out, we couldn’t go anywhere and then realised it was going to take three or four days longer than we had anticipated.
“Sometimes I found the night rows quite tough, when you are getting out of your cabin and there are no stars you can’t see the difference between the sea and the sky. We were trying to summarise what the night rows were like and I would say it was a combination of white-water rafting, bumper cars and turbulence in a plane all rolled into one.
“The waves were massive, we were rowing backwards and it was like a double decker bus coming at you. The sea goes up and down and it was like you were looking down a steep hill one moment and then you were at the bottom of it, over and over again.
“Where we got real speed was when we surfed down the waves and if we caught it right we could get up to 11.8 knots (14mph).
“We definitely took the scenic route, we saw Orca whales and on the second last day we had an Orca whale 15 metres from the boat with her baby.
“We were also regularly slapped in the face with flying fish, we saw dolphins and one of the most amazing things I saw was a Tuna flying out right next to me and chasing a smaller fish across the water, it was like watching a cartoon.”
Despite an intake of around 5,500 calories a day, with a jet boiler to heat packet food, and plenty of snacks, sweets, nuts and protein shakes, Allan lost nearly a stone in weight on the journey, while Stewart dropped 1.6 stones. Burnet, who was seasick for the first two weeks, lost 2.6 stones and Stone, the biggest man on board, lost more than three stones.
At the end Allan was given a compilation video of congratulatory messages from family, friends and even famous author and much decorated SAS veteran Andy McNab.