Mathew Bennett, Team Essence Team Captain – Final Blog.
2 weeks ago today, powered by adrenaline and passion, 5 spindly, worn out carcasses rowed into the record books to become the first team EVER to row from Europe to South America. Our blogs throughout the journey played a huge morale boost to the team and followers alike. Since finishing, I knew I had the daunting role of penning the final blog and so here I am, back in UK reflecting on what has been the biggest adventure of my life. Some people said I should strike whilst the iron is hot and get the final blog done within a few days of finishing but I’m glad I’ve given it sometime, let it sink in and put it into perspective. Each of the guys wrote remarkable final blogs, between them covering pretty much everything that needed to be, or could have been discussed, so mine will inevitable overlap some of the conclusions they drew. So here are the lessons that I’ve taken away from this whole experience
The beginning – The Dream
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” -Harriet Tubman
As with any project, it’s often unknown to outsiders what has actually gone into making it happen. The Team Essence that followers so passionately followed really was the tip of the iceberg. My dream turned out to be a 7 year roller coaster ride for me which pushed and tested every fibre in me. So even getting to the row itself for me was the battle half won. I blew budgets on multiple occasions and felt like I was spinning a sea of plates struggling to keep the momentum. Some would call it drive others would call it stubbornness, but I decided back in the summer of 2014, when life was looking less like a sea of plates spinning and more like a greek restaurant celebration, that whatever life threw at me the row would go ahead and we would raise 6 figures for charity. And ahead it went. We suffered a huge let down by major corporation promising so much in Sept 2015, after nearly a year of verbal guarantees. This just made me more determined. By October we had managed to change things around and sponsors flowed in. Donations on our Virgin Giving page went crazy (without doubt, a lot due to Foxy’s new found stardom).
Setting off on the 7th Feb 2016 was one of biggest achievements of my life. I remember as we cast off from the shadows of Lazy Jacks bar in Lagos marina, waving goodbye to family, friends and new supporters, I was thinking ‘We did it’. You see, there is never the perfect time and place to do something like this, you have to create the perfect time and place. It’s easy to become comfortable with life and let opportunities drift away. I’ve done it many times, but unless you do things beyond those you have mastered, those things that take you out of your comfort zone, you’re never going to grow as a person. Today, as I watched the news, I saw a piece on Verdun Hayes who celebrated his 100th Birthday with a tandem sky dive. What an inspiration to us all to go out there and give it a go. I’ll finish this section with the following quote hopefully a reminder us that we have to take risks.
“Our wisdom comes from our experience, and our experience comes from our foolishness.”- Sacha Guitry”
Crossing the small pond
50 days 10 hours and 36 mins, in a boat with 4 other guys and what seemed to be a very limited playlist by the time we finished. Much of the row was covered by the blogs so there is no need for me to recap on the specifics. Before leaving, I reminded myself that the row would be over in no time at all and what I needed to do was to enjoy the journey. I’ve met world champions in sports and ultra high net worth businessmen who have all said the same. Sometimes you set a goal, but when get there, there’s a sense of emptiness. People are too focused on the end game so they miss the amazing things that are happening around us. I haven’t had chance to chat to the guys recently, but I remember the days dragging at the time. Now I have been back in the UK a week it seems like the 50 days flew by. Ross wrote an amazing blog where he summed up how we would all be looking back on the row through rose tinted glasses.
What hindsight does, is put things into perspective. At the time we all suffered pain that we really struggled with, but it’s this pain that makes up our drive. Embracing that pain and accepting pain as a part of the process, a part of the journey, helps you drive through things. The good things in life are often the hardest… after all, if it were easy everyone would be rowing the Atlantic.
The row provided me with a hidden gift, one that I didn’t see coming…Time to think. I know that may sound silly to people as we all knew that there was going to be a lot of free time on the boat. But I genuinely didn’t realise how much clarity it would bring me. We often dart around in this world with so many things going on, that we rarely have time to think, to dream, to conspire. The system of shifts, especially night time, allowed me to drift off into my mind. Looking at various aspects of my life I was able to assess where I’m going, what I’m doing and importantly what else do I want to do!
The End – “From the end springs new beginnings – Pliny the Elder”
The days that followed the row had me running around like a mad man. To make things worse, upon landing my lower back went into agonising spasms which lasted 3 days. I was up early each morning doing various interviews with people back in the UK, and the rest of the day was spent organising the logistics of shipping Ellida back. In between I did find time to eat my bodyweight in pancakes, ribs and locally sourced fish – washing it all down with gallons of pina coladas and rose! Before I knew it, it was time to fly back to the UK and conduct my final interview with Aldo on Good Morning Britain. Since then, I’ve have time to sit back and look at things that actually slipped my notice. To look at what I’ve learnt from the experience as a whole, and where to go from here.
One thing I have considered in more in depth, are the pro’s and cons of the powerful phenomenon that is social media. Starting with the pros: Back in October 2015 we were honoured to have Marketing Guru Jade Gandey come on board and take over our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Immediately she whipped up a frenzy on Twitter, piggy backing off of Foxy’s new found fame. Before long we had celebrity followers and support from the likes of Susanna Reid and Piers Morgan, to mention a few. Towards the final stages of the planning we reached out to our followers on Twitter and Facebook to see if they could help us secure the last few items needed for us to complete the row. The results were astounding. Followers personally contacted companies and individuals, and before long, my parents’ house looked like the local cash and carry! Since being back, I have been inundated with people contacting me to say how our row has inspired them to make a change. For some people it was weight loss, others it was competitive sports. One close friend got in touch to say that they had kept a recent dark period of depression a secret from me. Reading our blogs and the comments others shared had enabled them to find the motivation to pick themselves up and get back in the game. If the only outcome of our row was to inspire others then I can genuinely say I’d be a happy guy, but as we know there was another outcome. We raised a staggering £120,000 and that is before we look at a black tie event. I’m fully aware and appreciative that without social media the outcomes of this row would have been a lot different.
The cons however, posed questions that have been on my mind: ‘does social media make us more or less social?’ ‘Are we putting to much emphasis on validation from strangers?’ If we’re not careful I can see how people will spend too much time in the realms of social media and miss what is going on around us. Before I offend anyone, I want to say the team are guilty of this already and I’ll give you an example. Back in November we had a weekend training out in Burnham on Crouch in Essex. As we set off for a morning row in Ellida, Foxy captured a stunning photo on his phone of us gliding upon millpond waters through the early morning fog. When he shared it to our whatsapp group, every one of us was amazed by the beauty of the photo. So off we all tapped, uploading it to our personal Instagram accounts, tagging each other (again piggy backing off of Foxys new found fame) adding hash tags to gain more ‘likes’ (try adding #fitfam to any pic for added likes and validation by randoms!). A quick review of our posts quickly revealed that we had each added a filter to it….we had distorted the original picture in a bid to make it look perfect when it really didn’t need it. Marilyn Monroe nailed it on the head when she said
“Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.”
I won’t go on much more about social media but I will leave you with a thought. Giving a ‘like’ on someone’s picture or post is essentially giving a small compliment to that person. In years gone by people said good morning to each other and paid each other compliments. How about we actually become social animals again, in the flesh, and pay compliments to the people you meet? Just the thought of doing this in London would freak people out, but maybe, just maybe you’d connect in real life with a stranger…..just a thought!
So probably the final question that needs to be answered is what’s next for me? For inspiration I need to look no further than the diverse bunch that make up Team Essence. Aldo, our seasoned explorer has some amazing TV projects on the cards, which will see him venture into regions barely habitable by man. The team’s biggest celebrity, Jason ‘Foxy’ Fox will shortly start filming season 2 of the hit series ‘SAS: Who dares wins’. Having worked tirelessly in the unforgiving financial markets for the past 10 years, Oliver and his amazing girlfriend Francesca (who became a key member of our support team) are taking some well earned time out to travel central America. Finally the Machine that is Ross Johnson returns back to UK to start an extensive 4 year training regime, with the aim of qualifying for the Crossfit Regional Masters and no doubt beyond.
Surrounded by such drive, its hardly surprising that I’ve put together a few plans myself. First, and most important to me, is to drive on the expansion of Acorn Homes. 5 years ago I launched my dream to utilise sports science and activities to provide children and young people in care a place where they could achieve excellent outcomes. This has already grown into one of the South East’s leading care providers, gaining us acclaim from various experts in care and from government officials. It’s my aim over the next 2 years to expand our services out of the South East, and into Essex, the home counties and Sussex. Personally I kick off my first physical challenge on the 12thJuly where I will ride the L’Tape stage of the Tour de France with my brother Jamie. A 140km ride over 4 mountain peaks finishing at the top of the Morzine Ski resort (expect me to start the hashtag #ihatecycling soon!) Towards the summer, I’m looking to start a few courses in photography, editing and film making, so that I can document my future expeditions. On the cards are a 800mile trek across Thailand, an Arctic adventure and my ‘Advance Free Fall’ course.
So this isn’t a goodbye, it is a ‘until the next time’. I’d like to say a huge thanks to all involved in making this happen, with special thanks to: Rannoch Adventures for helping us making this a unique adventure; the master of navigation, Mr Silver Fox, who without his direction we’d still be paddling; friends; family; the guys partners for all the sleepless nights we put them through; and to the supporters who rallied around day and night. To the Team – what a ride boys – we all underestimated the challenge. But following the commando spirit of courage, determination, unselfishness and cheerfulness in the face of adversity, we got there in the end! You guys helped me make a dream come true for which I will be eternally grateful. My final thank you goes out to the NSPCC and all those who work so tirelessly in assisting vulnerable children. Without you, the lives of thousands of children would be a dark isolated place. Hopefully going forward I can continue to help raise funds with future projects so that you can continue this work. I’m going to leave you with one of my favourite quotes that has inspired me to continue striving forward and pushing myself.
“He is lucky who, in the full tide of life, has experienced a measure of the active environment he most desires. In these days of upheaval and violent change, when the basic values of to-day are the vain and shattered dreams of tomorrow, there is much to be said for a philosophy which aims at living a full life while the opportunity offers. There are few treasures of more lasting worth than the experience of a way of life that is in itself wholly satisfying. Such, after all, are the only possessions of which no fate, no cosmic catastrophe can deprive us; nothing can alter the fact if for one moment in eternity we have really lived.” Eric Shipton, in Upon That Mountain, 1943