Two Boys in a Boat become youngest rowers to cross the Atlantic

On a dark vast ocean under a sky strewn with stars two boys in a boat sat and gazed upward.

Beneath them lay endless miles of darkness. Between them lay a friendship tested only by the weight of the great Atlantic’s waves.

Thousands of miles from home, their skin weathered by the salt in the air, each boy’s life depended on the other.

“Your thoughts go anywhere and everywhere,” said Luke. “I had fantasies and daydreams about being captain of the England football team, or wondered at length about what I’d do with a billion pounds.

“The more tired I got, the weirder my dreams became.”

With wild blonde hair and eyes as blue as the water around them, Luke Birch and Jamie Sparks could be brothers.

Together, the 21-year-old best friends have spent the last two months travelling 3000 nautical miles to becoming the youngest pair in history to row the Atlantic.

“The idea came from Jamie,” explains Luke, a student at Edinburgh University. “He’s always been a bit of a dreamer, but he came to me with this idea and I said yes straight away.

“I’d already swam the English Channel so I was looking for my next big challenge.”

Friends since the day they met in school at the age of five, the boys have a long tradition of competition in hairstyles, girls, who had the shinier football boots and who could win at arm wrestling.

But now they pulled their competitive natures together to begin an arduous training mission to prepare for the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, billed worldwide as the toughest race on earth.

More people have been into space or climbed Everest than have rowed the Atlantic. Faced with blisters, salt rash, sharks and sleep deprivation, many who have tried have also come up against hurricanes and 50ft waves.

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For both Luke and Jamie though, the dangers were nothing compared to the joint motivation and purpose they came to share.

“It was my mum,” explains Luke. “Halfway through our training my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. We received help from people at a charity called Breast Cancer Care and we liked them as soon as we met them.”

The boys threw themselves into fundraising as well as training while Luke’s mother, Claire, did what she could to help raise awareness of the mission her son and his best friend were undertaking, not just for themselves any more – but for her.

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“My mother’s own mother had died from breast cancer so it meant something to her on many levels,” said Luke. “My mum was a big big part of it.”

Setting off in early December from La Gomera, an island off the coast of Spain, Luke and Jamie were in a small rowing boat called The Maple Leaf, rechristened by the boys as ‘Tracy’.

What followed was 54 days of non-stop rowing to reach the finish line in Antigua, battling treacherously huge waves, bitter temperatures and both physical and emotional strain.

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“We survived on rations and powdered carbo shakes,” said Luke. “But I found the hardest part was my relationship with Jamie. It gets very intense when it’s just you two out there.

“Luckily we’re good mates, and had enough positive memories of each other to keep going.”

Despite the strain, their challenge also brought them into contact with a part of nature few people have the chance to see.

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“At night you had stars and the moon,” said Luke. “You had moments of great beauty.”

As Luke noted in his boat blog:

“I heard a loud pffff as the water broke to my left. I wasn’t sure if it was a wave or a whale…the clouds were blocking the moonlight. These pfffss continued all around the boat periodically…The clouds finally parted and to my left only about two meters from the boat I saw the animal’s whole body, glinting black in the shiny sea.”

The whales accompanied the small boat for the next half hour of their journey, leaving both boys with a memory that will last forever.

“It was an incredible experience,” said Luke. “And when I was really tired, I listened to some drum and base music to keep me going.

“Other times I tuned into classical music, particularly the instrumental from the theme from the Titanic. I really did get into that track ‘My Heart will go on’,” said Jamie with a laugh. “I really felt it.”

Eventually, after an arduous journey, Luke and Jamie rowed into Antigua and over the finish line this week to a second spot victory in the race.

As well as having both their families there to meet them, including Luke’s mother Claire, they also had the opportunity to hear that their efforts had led to them becoming Breast Cancer Care’s biggest ever individual fundraisers, raising over £300,000 pounds for the charity.

“I’ve struggled to come to terms with having done it. It feels so surreal,” said Luke. “It has gone better than we could ever imagine and we’re both astounded and humbled by how much people have given.”

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Jamie and Luke have now spent the week sleeping and recovering from exhaustion after taking a beating on the ocean, before they arrive back in Britain on Monday.

“It feels weird sleeping in a bed again but it’s back to uni for me,” confirms Luke. “I just want to go out with mates and stuff and study for a while on land. I’ve not got another adventure planned just yet.”

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Both boys’ parents are grateful for their safe return and proud too of what they have managed to achieve.

As Luke’s mother Claire said: “To know that your son is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is very difficult for a parent. We are delighted to get our son back on dry land and tell him how very proud of him we all are. Both Luke and Jamie have done incredibly well, and I am in awe of them both.”

Story published on STV online on February 1, 2014


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