Captain Jon Armstrong and Lance Corporal Jordan Beecher risked everything when they took part in the world’s toughest rowing challenge, to cross the Atlantic Ocean
Fraught with danger, crossing the 3,000 miles of treacherous Atlantic Ocean between La Gomera in the Canary Islands and Antigua, takes a special kind of individual. Crossing it in a seven-metre rowing boat, albeit a state-of-the-art model, leads you to perhaps question the sanity of said individual.
When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, the great adventurer George Mallory, who would die on his third attempt to scale the world’s tallest mountain, famously replied, “Because it’s there.” It’s that pioneering spirit that runs through the veins of Captain Jon Armstrong and Lance Corporal Jordan Beecher, who set a new world record as the fastest pair to row across the Atlantic – fewer people have rowed that ocean than have climbed Everest, fact fans.
Armstrong, 31, joined the Parachute Regiment Reserve in 2004, before then commissioning into the Royal Gurkha Rifles after training at Sandhurst. He first met Beecher, 28, in 2007 when they deployed to Afghanistan together with the Parachute Regiment and they formed an instant bond. Unfortunately, Beecher stepped on a IED (improvised explosive device) during his third tour of the country, which left him without part of his left leg. As part of his recovery, Beecher discovered rowing. Never having stepped into a boat before, he had nothing with which to compare his post-injury performance and ability.
“Like many military personnel do when given a new purpose, I threw myself into the sport with everything I had from the earliest stages of my recovery process,” he says. Beecher was hugely successful in his new pursuit, scooping four golds and a silver medal across the London and Florida Invictus Games, before leaving the Army to become a professional athlete with the GB Rowing Team. The “amazing man” as Armstrong describes him, would then become the first amputee to row at Henley Regatta in an able-bodied boat; the trans-Atlantic crossing was his idea.
“It was Jordan, to be honest with you,” says Armstrong, who had just returned from a 1,000-mile trek in the Arctic Circle, when his friend pitched his plan to him. “He was transitioning out of professional sport to take up civilian employment so this was his last hurrah, his last adventure before he fully entered the civilian world.
“He wanted me to accompany him. We’ve been best friends for 10 years, but I’d never actually rowed before except in the gym. I made this clear to him but he didn’t seem to mind. Since then he probably regretted it on more than one occasion!”
“I don’t think either of us understood the size of the task we were setting ourselves when we took up the challenge,” said Beecher, ahead of the trip. “It has been the source of much discussion and some sleepless nights as we have considered the scale of the task at hand.”
When the start of the crossing coincided with the worst weather of the trip, it’s fair to say there were second thoughts.
“We never thought it was a bad idea,” says Armstrong of the six-metre, monster waves they faced. “But we weren’t really experienced enough to know how to deal with the weather. We’d never rowed an ocean before.
“The first couple of weeks was the worst. We capsized once, which wasn’t too pleasant, but when bad things happen, you’ve just got to pick yourself up and get going.”
Fortunately, the two men’s extensive Army training also meant that there was no catastrophic loss of food or water supplies or any other problems that could come from the boat flipping over in stormy seas mid-Atlantic.
“We were very disciplined. We’d made sure that everything was tied down and nothing was loose in the cabin and all our hatches were closed all the time,” said Armstrong, of the Row2Recovery boat.
“If you leave your hatches open and the water gets in, the boat won’t self-right. That actually happened to one of the other teams – it didn’t self-right and they spent 12 hours in the water waiting to get rescued.”
The unlucky crew was the O2 team of Omar Samra and Omar Nour, who were aiming to become the first Egyptians to row across the Atlantic. Their emergency position-indicating radio beacon was activated after communication with them was lost for 11 hours. Their capsize had filled the cabin and they had to seek refuge in their life raft, where they waited until a rescue plane spotted them, and a cargo ship heading for Spain eventually picked them up.
“You can never underestimate rowing an ocean because the second you do that, or you don’t pay it enough respect, it’s going to kill you,” says Armstrong. “And that’s the honest truth, people die out in the middle of the ocean. You’ve got to be respectful of the water and you’ve got to understand if you get it wrong, you’re going to die. We didn’t appreciate how hard it was going to be, but we always respected what we were doing and the environment.”
A seasoned adventurer, Armstrong, in addition to the Arctic trek, has also completed a 3,000-mile cycle across America, so he had plenty of experience to call upon when the going got tough.
“Having done a few of these adventures before, it’s really important that you choose the person you’re going with – you need to know what they’ve been through and they need know what you’ve been through,” he said of his rowing partner. “Jordan is obviously very physically capable, an amazing man in terms of his recovery from injury, but what I brought to the party was this knowledge of endurance and prolonged physical and mental hardship, which he found quite useful to tap into.
“Those first couple of weeks, the weather was really, really poor so that was quite difficult. Rowing at night, there’s no light, there’s no nothing, psychologically it’s hard. I struggled initially with that but Jordan was absolutely my rock and I depended on him.
“Likewise towards the end, Jordan physically broke down and found it difficult with his injury, it was all swollen up, it was blistered, it was covered in spots that were getting infected, so he relied on me.”
Both men were able to steer clear of injury but were afflicted with the inevitable problems that come with sustained physical effort over a period of 37 days, eight hours and eight minutes, performed in a sweltering, wet, salty environment.
“We never got any injuries, we got some really, really bad boils and chafing on our arses – that was really unpleasant,” said Armstrong. “But that was part and parcel of the whole thing. At the end of the day you’ve got to accept that you’re going to be in pain and that you’re going to be miserable. But you know it won’t last forever and it’s having that mental strength to be able to keep going.”
FUEL FOR THOUGHT
Another challenge was to keep the body fuelled for the gruelling journey. While they could burn up to 10,000 calories a day, the body struggles to digest that many calories, so the rowers would only take on about 6,000 calories in the form of freeze-dried Army rations. Over the course of the trip the pair lose 20 per cent of their body weight.
“We took loads of chocolate but our bodies didn’t want it in the end,” admitted Armstrong. “We just wanted quite a lot of savoury stuff, that’s what we really craved. But unfortunately we’d taken a load of chocolate and we were pretty sick of that. We were forcing it down, just trying to get calories in but it wasn’t what we really wanted.”
What goes up must come down and the logistics of bodily functions were something else the rowers had to face, literally: “Going to the toilet, we had a bucket and threw it overboard. Good experience – sh**ting in front of your friend, looking him in the eyes; pretty mentally scarring!”
If anything might force a wedge between close friends, that might have been it but the choice of partner for the trip was spot-on for both members of the team.
“Without a shadow of a doubt. We’d been on tour together, we’d been to Afghanistan, we knew that we could rely on each other. We also knew there was going to be a point where one of us would be in the pits of despair and we supported each other and got each other through it.
“Nobody believes us when we say this but we never had an argument about anything. If I said we had ‘discussions’, even that would be over-egging it. We went into it with the attitude that we’ve been mates for 10 years and we’re not willing to throw away a 10-year friendship for five weeks of rowing. I’m happy to report that Jordan and I are still best mates, still see each other and hopefully we’ll have many more adventures together.”
As well as using banter, jokes and story-telling to keep each other going, Armstrong also found the surroundings helped to lift spirits during the periods when he was struggling.
“We saw loads of dolphins and flying fish. It’s a privilege,” he said. “You’ve got to understand that you’re in the middle of somewhere that not many people will ever have the opportunity to see or experience. There’s nothing around you for 1,000 miles and you can only see water. That helps you. When you’re in a lot of pain and all the rest of it, you think to yourself, ‘Just look at where you are’ and that brings everything back to reality. It’s really humbling.”
They landed at Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua, almost three days faster than the previous record, where they were met by their proud family and friends, including Armstrong’s wife, Issie, his sister and Beecher’s mother, Michelle. Being reunited with loved ones left the conclusion of their incredible journey a bit of a blur.
BACK TO LIFE
“I can’t really remember,” said Armstrong on his memories of disembarking. “It was all so emotional, I was just happy to be back really. I think I took a couple of steps and fell over and Jordan was the same.
“As soon as we landed, we got given a meal of burgers and chips, some really high-fat stuff. But for the first 24 hours you struggle to get used to being on solid ground, you’re wobbling around. Obviously you get your sea legs and you’re not used to having dry land that doesn’t move underneath you.”
After a few days of recuperation on the Caribbean island – “it’s a nice place, but a little too expensive for us so we didn’t spend that long there” – the pair returned home to their regular lives.
Having been to places like Kenya, Brunei, Singapore, Hong Kong, France and Norway with the Royal Gurkha Rifles, Armstrong already has designs on his next epic adventure, but where does that thirst for adventure come from?
“I think it was always there but the Army’s definitely cultivated that within me,” he says. “The opportunities the Army’s given me to go off and actually explore and have adventures has been great.”
So what is there left on the bucket list?
“I’m going to give cycling across Australia a go later in the year, maybe a Greenland expedition in the future but I’m sure the Army wants me to do some work for a bit so I might have to do the job that I get paid for!
“I’d love to head back to the Arctic or the Antarctic. Maybe do a South Pole expedition, that’d be quite cool. I’m open to ideas if any of your readers want to send in any suggestions?”
To follow the entrants, including Row2recovery’s Second Chance, in the 2018 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge visit taliskerwhiskyatlanticchallenge.com
photo: Ben Duffy Photography; @jordanbeecher
Words Colin Hubbuck