An oarsome crew

It was when the hand pump broke that Neil Heritage concluded he was jinxed. He had been put in charge of technical equipment on a rowing boat crossing the Atlantic, and already the automatic helm and the desalinator had broken. Then the emergency manual pump, a backup for making fresh water, broke as well.

That is bad news when you are 1,000 miles from land. Amid all the waves, thirst now looms.

Heritage is one of six British servicemen rowing across the Atlantic to raise money for charity. Four have serious injuries: rowing itself might be considered quite an achievement. But now they are doing it on minimum rations of drinking water as their supplies dwindle. Yesterday they were waiting for a boat to arrive with fresh supplies.

The rationing has affected the intake of food because much of what they have on board is desiccated. “We’ve not been cooking for the last week or so,” said Heritage, speaking to The Sunday Times on the boat’s satellite phone. “We were eating around 6,000 calories a day when we had the desalinator and now we are down to about 2,000.”

His team, Row2Recovery (R2R), was the brainchild of three British servicemen, Alex Mackenzie, Ed Janvrin and Tony Harris. While Mackenzie and Janvrin are able-bodied, Harris lost his left leg when a roadside bomb detonated under his vehicle near Sangin in Afghanistan in May 2009.

They decided to enter the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge to demonstrate the extraordinary things people with disabilities can achieve, and inspire others with life- altering injuries to realise their potential. After a call from the charity Help for Heroes, four injured servicemen volunteered to join them.

Will Dixon sustained injuries while on duty that resulted in a below-knee amputation; Carl Anstey walks with a leg brace; Rory Mackenzie lost his right leg almost up to the hip in a bomb blast; and Heritage had both legs amputated above the knee. Despite such injuries, all members of the crew observe the gruelling routine of rowing for three hours before taking three hours’ rest.

The nature of their wounds brings unusual problems. Mackenzie had fragments of shrapnel still lodged in his body and they began to work their way out.

“On Christmas Day I dosed myself up on some pretty hardcore painkillers and spent ages gazing in the mirror at my behind — not recommended — and picking away with a pair of tweezers to pull out the offending shrapnel.” Gradually he removed five small pieces of copper. “The process was not pleasant, but the fact they are now gone means I feel like a different person.”

By comparison, Heritage’s difficulties were always going to be more obvious: he left his prosthetic legs at home, deciding there was no point taking them on a boat where there is little room to walk around. Instead he shuffles across the rough surfaces. As a result, his shorts are now ripped to shreds.

This is not a team that needed the added difficulty of water shortages. Nausea, clamminess, excessive sweating, headaches and irritability are all potential signs of dehydration: everybody is now on the lookout for them.

“Without wanting to put you off your tea,” Janvrin confided in one entry on the team blog, “my urine is basically the colour of treacle most of the time. However, I do seem able to muster one ‘clear’ wee each day, which is a good indication that I’m getting enough water on board to clear out the majority of toxins.”

The race was inspired by Captain John Ridgway and Sergeant Chay Blyth’s open-boat row across the Atlantic in 1966. They took 92 days. The current challenge, which started on December 5, covers 2,900 miles from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Barbados, and should last nearer to 60 days.

Nevertheless, more people have been into space than have rowed across the Atlantic, and it remains a formidable challenge. Already, six of the 17 teams that started the challenge have had to quit.

On R2R, the automatic helm failed within 48 hours. Having to steer manually increases the workload — and the likelihood of going off course, which means having to row further than necessary. They also had to ensure they kept clear of the Canary Island of El Hierro, where volcanic activity was bubbling up under the sea.

The desalinator started to go wrong on Christmas Day. “We managed to get it going again but it failed on Boxing Day,” said Heritage. Thanks to the satellite phone, they were able to get technical advice. “Which was great, but we were out of our depth. So we went on to the hand-pump system, which would mean far less water and having to manually pump it. But that too failed after about 12 hours. It just fell to pieces.”

A support vessel is on its way to them; it is expected to arrive with fresh supplies before they run out of water. “When that happens we can increase our food intake and row harder.”

Although any assistance will mean disqualification from the race, the crew remain determined to carry on. “Our real goal is to raise awareness and raise money.” They have already raised more than £640,000 for injured service personnel and their families.

The team’s achievement is highlighted by the tribulations experienced by other, able-bodied crews. Team Tom, comprising two 23-year-olds, Tom Fancett, a Londoner, and his Dutch friend Tom Sauer, was in second place when a wave capsized them 500 miles from land, as night was falling. For 40 minutes, they struggled in cold seas to get into their life raft and send out a distress call.

“I was aware that if we didn’t get the life raft, we’d be in serious, serious trouble,” Sauer says. “I told myself, ‘I’m not bloody dying; we’re doing this until we get the life raft.’ ”

They were eventually picked up by a passing cruise ship.

Other teams still in the race include four West Country men, three in their mid-fifties and a 66-year-old, rowing as the Corinthians; a pair of firefighters from Cardiff; an all-women boat raising funds to end human trafficking; and Tiger Team, comprising Helena and Richard Smalman-Smith, who were happily married, at least when the race began. After 32 days at sea, they still have about 1,400 miles to go.

There is also an actor, Bertie Portal, rowing with his personal trainer, James Cash. Portal, who can be seen in The Iron Lady, the new film about Margaret Thatcher, was a close friend of the late Martin Kelly, who co-founded Facing the World, a charity for people with facial disfigurement. Determined to raise funds for the charity, Portal enlisted Cash to join him on the boat.

Nearly a week ago they lost all their oars and could do nothing but drift. Unable to steer the boat and susceptible to any large wave, they had to stay in their cabin with the door shut. Only then was the boat watertight and capable of righting itself if it capsized. The trouble is, temperatures in an airtight cabin can reach 40C.

On Friday, Portal and Cash took delivery of replacement oars from a support boat. But in rough seas, the support ship inadvertently broke their rudder. They improvised a repair, but whether it will hold together for another month’s rowing is unclear.

1229 words. First published 8 January 2012. © Times Newspapers Ltd