Published on November 11, 2013 | by Cyp Roy


Atlantic test for bold boatmen

Sparks and Birch

Sparks (left) and Birch enjoy some down time before preparations for the race [Ekaterina Ancheveskaya]

On December 2, a pair of 21-year-old students will set out to complete what is perhaps the toughest race on Earth: the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

Leaving from the Canary Islands, Luke Birch along with his rowing partner – and lifelong friend – Jamie Sparks will embark on an endeavour that will see them row across the ocean to Antigua.

The race, which benefits a charity of the racers’ choice, strives to push the limits of the human body and mind. If Birch and Sparks are successful, they will be the youngest pair to row across the Atlantic.

The Motive

Sparks came up with the idea in August 2012, before the pair had the chance to even think about the charity aspect. “It was favourable timing in the sense that we decided to choose Breast Cancer Care, because it coincided with Luke’s mother’s diagnosis. She’s now had the all clear, so that’s brilliant.”

Birch also added his own grandmother’s passing from breast cancer as another motive: “We feel like it’s a great charity and a pretty important cause,” he said.

Signing up for the race was only the beginning of a long journey. Training, race certification, campaigning for sponsors, fundraising for the charity, the list is endless.

The £45,000 boat, bought in May, is made of carbon fibre and foam and is specifically built for ocean rowing. “The boat has a self-righting ability so when we capsize, which we probably will, it’ll be able to self-correct, as long as we keep the hatches shut at both ends,” explained Sparks.

When asked why they chose this race and not a climb up Everest, the answer came simply: “It’s the hardest.” One simply cannot quit while in the middle of the ocean, unlike a marathon or any similar race on land.

Sparks said: “We quite enjoy, whether it’s right or wrong, jumping in the deep end and seeing how we cope. I wanted an adventure, and that’s what I see about this race.

There was Everest, Antarctica, and the Poles, which were interesting, and then this one. “I didn’t even think about the record. I thought that there probably weren’t many people our age that had done it, and I did a little research and found out that we will hopefully be the youngest pair to row the Atlantic.”

Birch is no stranger to testing his body’s limits. When he was 18, he swam across the English Channel in under 15 hours. He has a video online that documents his feat that Sparks helped to film.

“I was on the support boat for that, it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, sitting there for 15 hours. I remember asking Luke what he thought about swimming for 15 hours, and his answer pretty much reassured me that I was gonna have to do this row with him. He just said ‘nothing’, so I know that he’s a little mad, which is the reason that I went straight to him with the idea,” said Sparks.

Messing about in boat is about to get serious for Sparks and Birch [Ekaterina Ancheveskaya]


Meeting with potential sponsors was a valuable experience in itself. Pitching their challenge, they used their potential record to differentiate themselves from the others.

Sparks seems surprised that several companies donated to their cause. “We look like absolute idiots compared to other teams, I mean everyone turns up looking presentable, there’s a few army-looking types. We take it completely seriously, but also with a pinch of youth.”

A website called donated £10,000, making itself the headline sponsor. Other donations have ranged from £500 to several thousand pounds.

Training for the pair started eight months ago, with Birch primarily working out on a rowing machine and Sparks pumping iron to bulk up his biceps.

To compete with the other 20 teams,which range from solo boats to five-man crews, the pair, dubbed ‘2 Boys in a Boat’, will take turns rowing two hours on, two hours off. Sparks explains their tactic quite simply: “We hope to do 12 hours each a day, perhaps even more, and maybe during the day we’ll try to row together for a few hours to increase our speed.”

The race is undeniably a physical feat, but a mental one too. Birch, a natural clown in his demeanour, has had to make a few adjustments in regards to his maturity. “If you’ve got a boat with one 16-year-old and two 35-year-olds, the younger of the three has no responsibility, so he just sits and rows, whereas we have to look after ourselves. I think that’s where the maturity comes in, keeping the routines disciplined, learning how to navigate, and being mentally strong.”

The lack of support also plays a big part in how the race is run; if a team requires help, an extra oar for example, it is eliminated on the spot. However, the team can continue the challenge as a pledge to its chosen charity. “We’re completely unsupported, there are no islands or stop points on the way, there’s one boat which monitors all boats because it’s a race, but he’ll sit around the back of the pack, so if we’re where we want to be, which is the front, chances are we won’t see him for two to three weeks,” says Sparks.


In regards to life on the boat, the boys will be eating about 6,000 calories a day, while losing half a kilogram in the same amount of time. Birch emphasised how boring and bland the food is, as it comes in dehydrated form and requires water (supplied by their on-board desalinator) to turn it into dinner.

They will have 90 days-worth of food, and expect to complete the race in anywhere from eight to nine weeks.

Mentioning monotony on board makes Birch cringe: “That’s another thing that makes it pretty hard, settling into something you’d never usually do, everyday you’ve got to have this monotony.”

When in bad weather, “Jamie will be strapped on deck, I’ll be in the cabin watching a DVD,” he jokes. The boat has solar panels attached on top of the minuscule cabin, which allows for a multitude of appliances and safety devices to work when needed.

Needless to say, the boys have one hell of a challenge ahead of them. The worst part, Birch says, is having to go back to the University of Edinburgh only a few days after completing the race. “They gave me the time off but apparently I have to revise while I’m rowing and sit the exams when I get back.”

The pair are still hoping to raise more money for Breast Cancer Care. For more information on their cause, log on to their website and check out their Facebook page


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