Four friends have become the fastest Northern Irishmen in history to row across the Atlantic – despite being plagued by 40-foot waves, bizarre hallucinations and dental trouble.
The quartet of George McAlpin, 57, Alistair Cooper, 41, Luke Baker, 37, and Gareth Barton, 31 completed the 3,000-mile Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge in 31 days.
The Northern Irish team landed at the Caribbean island of Antigua to a heroes’ welcome, having spent over four weeks battling fatigue and the worst weather mother nature could hurl at their seven-metre long fibreglass vessel.
The team, named Home To Portrush in honour of the coastal town where they are based, sported deep, all-over tans as they took their first steps on land since leaving La Gomera harbour in the Canary Islands on December 14.
The overall winners – British team the Four Oarsmen – finished two days ahead of them.
Mr McAlpin said: “It was nothing like we expected, we knew there would be big waves and strong winds but nothing like we could have imagined.
“There were some scary moments out in the Atlantic, but being able to speak to our families back home, especially, for me, my daughter, really motivated us to keep going.
“We had some odd hallucinations as a result of sleep deprivation, where Gareth had an entire conversation with a life jacket, and I struggled with some dental issues, but we pulled together as a team to overcome all struggles and everything the Atlantic could throw at us.”
The team – linked by their love of the north coast and of the sea – took on the challenge, dubbed the world’s toughest rowing race, to raise money for the RNLI Portrush Lifeboat, Willie’s Orphan Fund, the Northern Ireland Children to Lapland Trust and Rowing for Ross.
Anthony Chambers, a mechanic and crew member at Portrush lifeboat station, said he was “gobsmacked” to learn how quickly they had crossed the Atlantic.
He said: “I never saw that coming. I knew they would do it, they’re that sort of people, but to do it in that speed has shocked me.”
Mr Chambers added: “They’d never been in a boat until March. They’re complete amateurs. It just shows you what can be done if you put your mind to it.
“The last I heard from them was when they rang me from mid Atlantic on New Year’s Eve to wish me a happy birthday.”
Willie Gregg from Willie’s Orphan Fund, one of the charity beneficiaries, said of the crew: “These are true local heroes – they are amateurs performing like athletes.”
The challenge took the rowers more than 3,000 miles west from San Sebastian in La Gomera, Canary Islands to Nelson’s Dockyard English Harbour in Antigua and Barbuda.
The four men’s aim in undertaking the challenge is to raise £25,000 for their chosen charities.
At the time of writing they needed less than £5,000 to meet that target.
Despite their amateur status, the crew made remarkable progress and having got into fifth position in the international field, remained there until they arrived in Antigua on Sunday.
Their vessel measures seven metres long and just under two metres wide with only a small cabin for protection against storms.
In a Facebook post in December the crew talked about the hazards of the open sea.
“While the winds are good and behind us it does make for some big following waves. Our boat rides them well and we are always strapped in with our harnesses. At night it is obviously more difficult as we can’t see the waves coming and we have all had our fair share of soakings from rogue waves.
“We haven’t saw any other ships in days and while we tried our luck with some hand line fishing the fish that took the hook was that big that it jerked the boat and broke the line so fishing during this trip is over.
“All good fishermen have their stories of the one that got away and this is ours!”