27th April 2020
This fantastic challenge was conceived in March 2017 by Rory Gullan who wanted to raise £10,000 for Cancer Research UK in memory of his mother Sheila, who sadly passed away from this insidious disease.
Rory wanted a test of both mental and physical endurance but his original plan, of rowing across the channel, was scuppered by French regulations regarding ‘unorthodox crossings’. So instead The Solo Sea to City Row was born: the first solo scull along the Thames from Southend Pier, at the limit of the North Sea, to Tower Bridge, in the the City of London, a total distance of 70km.
Rory rowed in the Men’s Heavyweight 8 at McGill University, Montreal in 2003. However, he was essentially a novice single sculler in March 2017 when he finally decided on this challenge, which would take 6-7 hours of almost continuous sculling. The date set was 28th August leaving barely six months, not just to get fit but to also find a boat and learn to scull!
After contacting numerous London-based clubs, Ben Askin contacted Rory to offer use of his own boat; a 2003 Carl Douglas Black Walnut Special. Not only did Ben lend Rory his boat but he and his wife, also accompanied Rory on training sessions, generously offering coaching, advice and motivation.
It turned-out to be a very good choice of boat as we will find out. Conditions at the end of the row certainly lived up to the word ‘challenge ‘ and proved an extreme test of both boat and sculler. The only adaptation to Ben’s CD Special was a change of seat: CDRS made and donated a custom seat, shaped specifically for his anatomy and which Rory later described as a 'life saver'!
So for six months Rory set about training and learning to scull. At the peak of this training he was on the water, on the erg, or in the gym every single day. Throughout there were a huge physical demand but as he started to reach the longer distances, he began to realise the mental strain that comes with such a challenge. Training solo on the water is, by definition, solitary. It was extremely solitary. Crews would come and go for their training sessions, and four hours later Rory would be the only one left on the water.
However, only so much can be prepared for and only the final row itself would tell how things would turn-out...
Sure enough, on the morning of the row an unexpected heavy mist delayed the launch time and Rory was dangerously close to missing the crucial tide. Finally there was no choice but to cautiously row out to the end of Southend Pier but just in time the mist started to clear revealing conditions that could be described as nothing other than perfect. It left Rory sitting in the North Sea in a boat just 30cm wide and 14kg in weight, on a day chosen months earlier, and floating on water like glass under clear blue skies. Perhaps fortune really does favour the brave.
Aside from a couple of testing moments due to passing commercial ships, these fantastic conditions allowed a good pace to be maintained averaging 10km every hour with just couple of 1–2 minute pauses for food and water. The heat in particular was exhausting but his gruelling training regime had prepared Rory well. The anticipated ‘wall’ was hit about 40km in – somewhere near the Dartford Crossing – but once the London City skyline appeared on the horizon, the pace picked back up for the home stretch.
But there was to be a sting in the tail: reaching Thames Barrier and with only 15km to go, the increasing river traffic drastically slowed the pace as Rory fought to stay upright and keep the boat moving. It was at this point he began to think that those who had warned him against the row may have known what they were talking about after all! After coming in all the way from the North Sea, sculling for six straight hours straight, there was serious doubt the final hour as to whether the challenge could be completed at all.
The water was horrific and the boat was almost entirely submerged. But thanks to its inherent strength and build quality his CD remained afloat and scull-able and the final thirty minutes became a test of Rory’s ability to remain upright in the dirtiest water he’d ever encountered.
Tower Bridge very slowly came into view, the waters calmed enough for him to pull through and cross under the finish, seven hours after setting off that morning. Relieved and emotional, it was only on crossing the finish line that he learned that he had smashed his fundraising target.
“In the short time since setting myself this challenge, I’ve met the most amazing and generous people, I’ve pushed myself harder than ever before, I’ve felt aches and pains in areas I didn’t even know possible, and I’ve hopefully managed to maintain some level of humour over it all. I’ve also rediscovered my love for rowing, and I know that will stay with me”.
Here is the video of Rory's epic adventure and if you want to see more, including the training video, The Sea to City website can be found at sea2city.org. Any further donations to Rory's fundraising would be much appreciated and can be made via the sea2city website.