Embrace The Obstacles, Rather Than Fearing Them

Posted on: 27th April 2016

James Whittle and Tom Caulfield are just 25 years old. Earlier this year, they arrived in Barbados after rowing across the Atlantic ocean, entirely unaided.


Two men. One boat. The Atlantic ocean.


At incentivesmart, we help businesses to uplift company culture. We like to focus on how employees feel and how we can focus them into becoming engaged with business objectives and have the desire to achieve. 

We found James and Tom’s story so inspiring, that we asked them to answer a couple of questions about their journey and wanted to share their exciting story!

Q. What was the catalyst that lead to this quest? Where did it all start?

A.  Tom - The idea originally formed when I was at an event, watching the boats of the Clipper World Race come into London after racing around the world for a year. My Mum actually completed the first leg from London to Rio with no sailing experience, and seeing the elation of all the teams lead me to think ‘what have I done that I can be truly proud of?’ - Nothing was the answer. So I text James asking if he wanted to row the Atlantic with me, and it all snowballed from there.

Q. You have been raising for two incredible charities - Make A Wish and Brain Tumour Research - What made you choose these charities? After raising over £10k, you must be feeling very proud! Have you spoken to the charities about how much you've raised yet and if so, how has this made you feel?

A.  James - We are very proud to have raised the sum of money and really want to see the donations continue to rise. Having spoken with the charities, they were extremely appreciative of the donations and are now helping to raise further awareness through our adventure with their audience.

We chose a charity each for varying reasons, I went with brain tumour research, as my mum, Claire, had a severe brain tumour in 2011, she made a great recovery and sent the tumor into remission. I wanted to acknowledge the amazing work by brain surgeons across the country, and help to continue the fight against brain tumours, by helping to fund the extensive research that is required to help more people beat brain tumours.

 Tom- My charity was Make A Wish Foundation, purely for the amazing work they do with some incredibly brave children. We are lucky enough to have been able to achieve one of our dreams, and these guys are acting as enablers to making dreams a reality.


Q. Can you give an overview of how much the training for this adventure took over your life, and how you were able to stay committed before you even set off to sea? Were there times you wanted to stop altogether and what helped you to get over this and re focus?

A.  James - With such a huge goal in mind, the adventure really started the moment we agreed to take on the challenge. Considering we both had ZERO previous rowing experience - that was the first obvious hurdle that needed attention. We teamed up with a company called Water Rower who provided us with sleek machines that “would not look out of place in any living room” meaning we had access to row training whenever we needed it and no more excuses not to train. This meant hours spent before and after work sat on the rowers in front of the TV screen. We soon found out that although rowing experience may be preferable, it isn’t required and rowing on the ocean is a completely different ball game so the naivety we brought to the adventure may have landed in our favour when it came to the ocean (sometimes, we rowed with 1 arm for an entire 2 hour shift, just to keep the boat on track!). We partnered with Caveman Conditioning, for a bespoke training plan that we could follow. This was separate to rowing but meant we would build up overall strength and mobility, especially in the core, covering us for the high load and stress we would be putting through our backs.  I felt a huge benefit from this training and it made the rowing on the ocean considerably more bearable. 


Q. In the blog you wrote along the way, you mentioned “…rowing under some of the most amazing stars we’ve ever seen, along with phosfluorecent plancton and jellyfish” Can you tell us more about this?

A.  James - The scenes were something we could never have planned for, its hard to explain to people just how incredible the nights were. We had shifts where the dark night would light up every 5 minutes as shooting stars shot all over the sky, burning pink, yellow, and green. The sea would light up from the plankton and jelly fish, meaning we were being lit up by things I had never experienced before and maybe never will again. When this happened, it was just a case of taking out the headphones and trying to be in that moment as much as possible. Soaking it all in as an experience that not many people will ever witness. I remember telling myself that I should remember this when on the tube in London or stuck in traffic. It was a real experience that made me not want to be anywhere else in the world.


Q. What helped you get through the Christmas period? Did you feel lonely?

A.  James - I think the fact that we had each other meant that we could share a different type of Christmas than we were used to, telling stories of past Christmases and how we would have been celebrating at home on what is usually a heavily family and friend event was great. It was made easier by talking to our families on the day and reminding each other that this would be the Christmas we would never forget, it wouldn’t blur with any other year and would end up being the one we would talk about the most. For me, Christmas was always going to be the toughest time with missing home, knowing the routines and rituals that occur every year meant that I could picture family and friends at various places and would catch myself wishing I was there. That feeling didn’t last long though and it was a reminder to enjoy the day for what it was, the job was to keep rowing and get to Barbados, our energy went towards that goal, 100%.

 Tom - Christmas day will remain a real highlight for me, and James didn’t disappoint with presents either. I was the lucky recipient of a pair of pan-pipes, and a ‘real’ Breitling watch, which felt amazingly plastic, very generous of James though! We gave ourselves time to enjoy the day, and didn’t put too much pressure on mileage. The weather changed that evening, and we had a real slog for a couple of days which brought the mood down a bit, but I certainly will appreciated pigs-in-blankets more this year!


“we were hugely lucky”


Q. Okay - the capsize. You’ve explained what happened and how you sorted yourselves out all quite “matter of fact” in your blog. At incentivesmart we base our work and ethos on human emotion, so please - tell us how you REALLY felt? It must have been terrifying. Did you want to give up!?

A.  James - My initial reaction when I saw THE wave a split second before it hit me was “holy s***”. I didn’t have long to think to be honest and the next moment, the wave had smashed me into the sea and I was underwater being thrown around like a rag doll. Again, not many thoughts whilst under water other than not to get hit by the boat. I think the sheer fear of the moment meant my brain only processed info it thought would be vital. I had a vivid memory of a family holiday we went on where me and my brother went surfing and got “washing machined” by a wave. It was only when I surfaced and the boat had self-righted, I got back on to the boat that I felt some panic set in. Our EPIRB (Emergency position indicating radio beacon) was flashing - not because we had triggered it but the force of the water had pushed the ‘Test’ button down!! The EPIRB send an emergency signal to Falmouth coastguard and would have triggered a rescue mission! Not ideal, especially as we were fine… The boat deck was pretty much entirely underwater so bailing out that water was my urgent priority. I shouted to Tom, and when he stuck his head out of the cabin (with a considerably cooler head on that I had), the whole thing seemed half as bad and we began going through the tasks to get the boat back in shape. Only when the sun came up, and the boat was back in working condition, did we have a good idea of how mental the whole experience had been. 

 Tom - It was certainly a strange situation, I woke up on the ceiling along with the majority of our kit and was then thrust back down to the cabin floor. It all happened very fast, but after checking I wasn’t under water I managed to clamber out of the cabin and check James was OK. We suffered a lost pair of oars, which was frustrating, but we were hugely lucky as it could have been much worse.


Q. "We are still in high spirits here despite our lack of sleep and no progress, we hope everyone at home is loving life. “ At this point of your journey, was thinking about all of your friends and family a major influence on your progression?  

A.  James - It was interesting being away from family and friends for that long, but the support we received from them all during our crossing, whether donations to the charity or kind words over Facebook or email motivated us 10X more than I expected. At this point, I think we had come to the realisation that we were in the middle of the Atlantic, where no one could help us but us, and I genuinely wished well to our family and friends. Although the struggles at the time were real, I felt really content with our adventure at this point and our mindset was great. I’m not sure how long that lasted but its safe to say family and friends made a huge difference in influencing us positively on a daily basis.

 Tom - It seems like a long time to be away from the ones you care about, but to be honest they were a driving factor in everything we did. We knew that everyone was watching our progress, and the feeling of putting in a big shift was really satisfying. Every 4 hours our tracking device would flash (it was attached to the mast on top of our cabin), when this occurred our position would be released on our website, and we knew people would be checking in. That small light acted as a link between us and home, and it was something we loved to see.


“…we would look forward to it everyday.”


Q. Learning about your scrambled egg breakfasts and Haribo sweets really made us at incentivesmart HQ giggle. It’s stuff like this that we try and tell business owners about - the little things that make a BIG difference! Were there any other snacks that reminded you of home or really got you excited during the voyage?

A.  James - We looked forward to the chocolate we had packed. It all melted and never really did a job of giving us much more energy than a quick spike. But it did lift us mentally and we would look forward to it every day. We spent a serious amount of time talking about food from home and what we missed. For me the main thing was a cold drink (very simple). All our filtered water was warm and the thought of a cold fizzy drink with some ice cubes was incredible. Ever since arriving in Barbados, I have been on a mission to tick all the food boxes we spoke about in our blog. With 8.5kgs to put back on that I lost, I have been going crazy. 

 Tom - Red Doritos and a cold Fanta were the things I craved the most, which is bizarre! All our food lacked that crunchy texture, and we longed for savoury tastes. If I were to go again, I would pack chilli flakes, nuts and some crisps, 100%.


Q. When you were almost (but thankfully, not!) killed by the Cargo ship - I imagine that may have put a few things into perspective. Did you begin to question yourselves on what on Earth you were doing or why you even thought to do this in the first place? What kept you from calling it a day at that point? 

A.  James - our initial reaction was just pure disbelief, our hands on heads and thanking the stars that we were just out of the way. We had been moaning about our slow pace over the previous 24 hours and felt that all the luck of the ocean was against us. We were very wrong and it made us realise that our luck could have been a whole lot worse. This experience definitely put some perspective on it for us and we both said how we should stop whinging about the petty things and agreed that we would get there when we got there. We spoke about the alternative of the ship crashing into us, and at best, leaving us bobbing around the ocean until we couldn’t tread water anymore. 

 Tom - It was a moment of pure clarity, and of just how small we really are. That collision would have been fatal, so having that near miss actually motivated us to enjoy every moment, no matter how bad the weather is. At any second the trip could be turned on its head, so we just enjoyed it.


“…see the obstacles as a new chance to grow…”


Q. “…embrace the obstacles rather than fearing them”. Would you say this is a fair summary of your time on Roberta? 

A.  James - Yes I definitely think so. Every single day brought new challenges, sometimes smaller and more frustrating, and other times they were life threatening. Either way, we learnt that we had better embrace the obstacles or they would break us. I wrote on the inside of the cabin early on “The Obstacle is the way” and it really became a mantra for us on Roberta. The challenges themselves all need a solution, so once they happen, there is no point worrying about it. We decided to see the obstacles as a new chance to grow into the voyage and learn more about ourselves. Looking back, each obstacle made the trip what it was and I wouldn’t change it at all.


“back yourself beyond the opinion of others”


Q. Finally, is there any advice you would offer to anyone reading this, who is considering of achieving the unthinkable? 

A.  James - My main advice would be to back yourself beyond the opinion of others. We were told over and over that we wouldn’t be able to do it and that we were mental, crazy, asking for death etc, etc. The challenges started from the moment we agreed to take the challenge on, but the belief that Tom and I had never wavered. The sheer stubbornness of us both meant we were not going to be defeated by other people telling us we couldn’t do it.

 Tom - To mirror James’ comment, belief and commitment are all you need. You can learn new skills, and pick up knowledge along the way, but you need to have the will and grit to get out there and do so. Many big dreams stumble at the first hurdle, and it’s easy to make an excuse. Once you have passed that initial stage, you are half-way there!

As businesses, what we can take from these brave men’s journey, is how not to lose sight of our goals. Sometimes, (infact, almost ALWAYS!) the workplace can throw us an unexpected blow that can make us feel like giving up or not bothering to keep striving to do our best.

We must remember to believe in ourselves, believe in our employees and continually pull together. Remind each other how great we’re doing in the grand scheme of things. Little rewards along the way such as a well-earned sweet treat can keep momentum alive - it could even just be a polite pat on the back and a smile. Appreciation goes a long way to keep employees and teammates in high spirits.

incentivesmart programmes remind your workforce to regularly give thanks to their fellow colleagues as well as offer an easy and fun way to spend earned reward points. This can have incredibly positive effects on your workplace morale as well as individuals and their motivation.

To read more about James and Tom's incredible adventure, visit their dedicated website The Tempest Two

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