24 Hours Rowing for Mental Health – Yeah, we get the Irony!
The team was in violent agreement – the idea sounded awesome! The iconic North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club, DJ’s spinning bangers, peak summer holidays, engaging competitions from the crowd, bulk funds raised for an incredible cause. The only spanner in the works was that we had to row for 24 hours straight…
When we set about planning our first ‘event’ over a couple beers at Gracey’s pad, we started by asking ourselves what we wanted to get out of it. Some of the key objectives were things like public visibility, max charity dollars for Black Dog, rowing-related, and most importantly something fun. The 24 hour rowing machine challenge felt like the perfect way to tick those boxes, as well as being a good hit out physically and mentally. Finally, we were after something that would build a foundational pillar for ourselves and potential sponsors that we were admittedly fairly low on… credibility.
Similar to many other elements of the overarching campaign to row across the Atlantic, it turns out that seemingly straightforward concepts can be surprisingly difficult to execute. Using several square metres amidst the vast swathes of public land for a charitable cause to benefit society is not as much of a no-brainer as your average punter may suspect. After getting roadblocks at every juncture, we turned to North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club. As the small area out the front of the club was privately owned, we could present our case to the club without governmental bureaucracy interfering. Fortunately they were more than welcoming, providing all the support required to host the event at no cost to us.
Our next challenge was the event timing. The only weekend available at the surf club was Jan 5-6, as it was bang in the middle of the New Year holiday period. Whilst perfectly aligned for maximum exposure and summer vibes, it was also at the culmination of silly season, a time when bodies aren’t exactly in peak physical condition. Most of the team would also be strewn around the globe in the lead up on various pre-booked holidays. To keep us at least semi-accountable, we spent the several weeks leading up to the event on a grueling new training regime designed by our new ocean-rowing specific personal trainer Gus Barton. As you could imagine, the program was torturous but effective. We’ve recommended him for a role in the next ‘Saw’ movie. Whilst Fletch was sending through his erg splits from the idyllic wellness mecca of Byron Bay, Sarge was at home in the UK sending pics of his gym to the team WhatsApp thread that looked like a combination of an insane asylum and Azkaban, only bleeker.
Somehow everything seemed to come together ahead of the big day, with Cam squeezing in three physio sessions in the preceding week after a neck strain at the gym. The rest of the boys agreed it was a fitting punishment for his high-horsing, after being the only person to actually follow the full training program. Gracey and Fletch had spent the better part of the day ferrying the rowing machines over from the UTS Haberfield club, buying the ridiculous amount of food and drinks required to sustain the calorie deficit and getting the set up sorted. Severely jet-lagged after returning from his trip to the motherland, Sarge had spent majority of the 48 hours leading up to the row in a trance-like state of creative flow. He arrived to the club with giant hand-made posters, an artistic ‘Rowed Less Travelled’ sign using pallets and fairy lights, a surfboard to use for the 500m members of the public challenge and even taped the dimensions of our actual ocean rowing boat to the ground with interesting facts pasted inside.
In the couple of hours before kick-off we got the Black Dog marquee set up with the help of some of their amazing staff, spearheaded by the incredible Anne Casey, tested our obnoxiously loud DJ sound system and posed awkwardly for a photo shoot with the Wentworth Courier. No matter how many times we get requested to look at each other and laugh candidly, it just always feels wrong on so many levels. By the time 6:00pm rolled around on the digital clock atop of the surf club, we had a decent crowd of friends and intrigued spectators to see us take the first strokes. The plan was to row in the same format as we would on the Atlantic crossing, in pairs doing 2 hours on/ 2 hours off. It was Cam and Fletch to get things rolling, although we decided to row the first and last 10 minutes of the 24 hours as a four for solidarity. At this point, it’s worth highlighting that ‘2 hours off’ is in fact 2 hours of eating, stretching, hydrating and, if we’re lucky, sleeping.
With a classic mid-summer balmy evening, the beach and promenade was still packed for the first couple hours. With the DJ cranking tunes and a small crowd surrounding us, punters continued to pop by and investigate the commotion. With friends and Black Dog volunteers manning the tent, there was a steady stream of people willing to donate the minimum $10 to have a crack at pulling their quickest 500m time on the 2 spare ergs. RLT ‘Head of Vibes’ Eddie Kiel, along with a strong crew of our closest mates were doing their best to drum up as much atmosphere and support as possible. Ex-rugby playing legends Jarrod Saffy and Jason Nightingale set a blistering pace early in a head-to-head race which had the masses cheering. With the festivities in full swing, Cam and Fletch cruised through the first 2 hour block. The vibe was still going strong as Gracey and Sarge took over the helm, with Icebergs glimmering before the sun dipped below the buildings perched up at South Bondi.
We semi-strategically selected the 6pm Friday evening start time with the view that we’d get the late crowd settling into the weekend ahead, knock over the potentially grim nighttime portion of the challenge early, and then bring it home strong on the back of a heaving Saturday in Bondi. The potentially daunting graveyard shifts however proved to be eerily calming and flew by. We also had some absolute legends that chose to hang out with us at ungodly hours just to keep us company. Friends Cherie and Salts were stalwarts, with Chez even knocking over an hour on the erg close to midnight barefoot after a few drinks at dinner! A number of inebriated but jolly locals stopped by for a chat, made some very generous donations they may have somewhat regretted in the morning, and even shared touching stories of their own experiences with mental health. Bondi Salties chairman and all round positive guy Henry Meagher even booked himself in for a volunteer shift from 4-8am before needing to leave in relation to commitments for his upcoming wedding.
All-in-all the time on the rowing machines through the night was oddly peaceful and serene. The temperature gauge flashing above the surf club never dropped below 25 degrees at any point, and conditions were otherwise amenable. The sleeping and eating side of things proved the more challenging element. With calories been torched at a rate of knots while rowing, Cam’s wife and team nutritionist Josie had us shoveling in the most calorically dense ‘foods’ available at every moment available. After gorging ourselves and getting in a few warm-down stretches as quickly as possible, we each tried to get some shut eye. With the heart rate jacked and metabolism in a state of overload and deep confusion, it wasn’t exactly ideal sleeping conditions. Add to that the hard floor and hum of the rowing machine and it’s no surprise we didn’t drop into a deep state of REM.
After a glorious sunrise over Ben Buckler, it became immediately obvious we were in for a stinking hot day. The beach was busier than usual, with the fitness crowd, dog walkers and baby strollers all out enjoying a perfect summer morning. The tunes ramped up and the donations and 500m challengers started flowing in. Our early bird supporter Henry threw down the challenge to recently retired Australian rugby 7’s captain Ed Jenkins for an erg-off. Whilst clocking a very impressive time himself, Henry was no match for the man who more closely resembles a champion thoroughbred racehorse than a member of the human species. Ed’s near world record time of 1:20 for the sprint saw his effort raised to the top of the leaderboard.
As the day limbered on, the mercury continued to skyrocket. The time on the rowing machine was becoming significantly more uncomfortable in the second hour of each set, with the draining heat and general discomfort beginning to mount. Each shift culminated in a Quasimodo-like character dragging himself from the rowing seat and shuffling down for a relieving dip in the cool ocean water. We tried our best to stay on top of the nutrition and hydration, with ice packs on our necks and slightly annoying children unloading super-soakers directly into our faces. The temperature continued to build, at its zenith reaching 37 degrees on the flashing surf club gauge. Fortunately conversations with the punters definitely helped to take our minds off the task at hand, with the clock on the rowing machine seeming to shift into slow motion if it was peered at too regularly. We received some incredibly generous donations and words of encouragement throughout.
As each pair pushed through our penultimate sets of 2 hours, we recognised this would likely be the most mentally challenging. It was deep into the 24 period and in sweltering heat, but there was the confronting knowledge that even at its conclusion there was still a full shift to get through. We were also acutely aware that the marquee, friends and family and world class beach would not be with us out on the ocean. So we had to suck it up and get on with things. As Fletch and Cam kicked off their final session on the ergs, a refreshing cool change was stirring and the boys were feeling fresh. Making the most of the second wind and with the finish line in sight they surged through the final 2 hours, even putting on a finishing burst.
The cooling breeze began to turn more blustering, and the ominous rain clouds on the horizon threatened to envelop the beach. Entering the final hour, it was somewhat miraculous that the looming storm had skirted around us on every side without the heavens opening. And then almost instantly, the deluge was upon us. The pouring rain immediately forced the beachgoers to run for cover, with our remaining close mates taking cover in the surf club or under the marquee. It was a dramatic climax, although not exactly in the way we’d anticipated! As we entered the final 10 minutes, all four of us assumed the position and built up to a solid stroke rate. The remaining crew all huddled in and around the rowing machines to give us a booming countdown for the final 10 seconds. We smashed out the final seconds with the kind of vigor that can only be mustered when you know people are filming you, and then gave ourselves a round of fist bumps and embraces. Four ice cold beers were then thrust into our hands, which we sipped with a deep sense of satisfaction. As we let the feeling sink in over the following day, that sense of achievement was only surpassed when Anne let us know we’d raised over $5k for Black Dog. It wasn’t always easy or fun, but it was definitely worth it.