That was the challenge that Anna and Cameron McLean set themselves by taking part in what is known as “the toughest paddle in the world.” When they crossed the finish line in Antigua, they set two Guinness World Records: the first brother and sister to row across an ocean, and the fastest mixed-sex pair to row across the Atlantic.
His day, at the beginning of this year, was full of ups and downs in a literal sense. They battled forty-foot-high waves in total darkness, sharks, disease, exhaustion, blisters, and arguments that threatened to tear their family apart.
But one thing kept his relationship (and his ship) going: technology.
In the mid-Atlantic, the closest people to them were astronauts on the International Space Station that orbits the planet miles above them. The collaboration tool Microsoft Teams allowed the couple to speak to their family in the UK and to their team on the ground, to provide crucial support, information and encouragement.
While at sea, Anna used a portable broadband device to connect her mobile phone to a satellite, so that she could use the app in Teams. This allowed him to chat, call, and even stream video from the Atlantic.
“Microsoft Teams helped us communicate with Earth, and that was important because although there are risks and challenges, the biggest risk for us was to separate our family and break that relationship between my brother and me,” said Anna, 25. “Having Teams helped us talk to Mom and Dad when we really needed them. We didn’t see anyone else for a month and a half, but having that voice on the other end of the phone, which sounded so close on Teams, was comforting. ”
“That motivation that came from home gave us strength,” added Anna. “It helped us compete rather than just survive. The information we received through Teams allowed us to know where we were in the Atlantic, how many more miles we had to paddle, as well as navigate. ”
Cameron, who trains to be a pilot, commented: “There is power in information, and the information that came from Teams gave us a competitive advantage.”
The journey that led Anna and Cameron to enter the Talisker Whiskey Challenge, a 3,000-mile annual paddle from the Canary Islands to Antigua, began many years before they lined up with around 35 other teams at the start in the Canary Islands.
Cameron, seven years older than Anna, practised rowing at the university, while his sister watched him from a bench and ate bacon sandwiches. She always followed in her brother’s footsteps and also practised this sport when she entered higher education. “I loved rowing. I always wanted to be in the water and improve. It allowed me to have clarity of mind,” said Anna.
At Christmas 2012 they gave him a book by Roz Savage, entitled Rowing the Atlantic, “which I marked and highlighted. I remember thinking it was one thing I needed to do in my life. “
He asked Anna to be his crewmate in 2017 after he swam down the English Channel, “I thought, ‘Well, he must love the water!’”, And then started two years of gruelling training regimes, courses and preparation.
However, nothing prepared them for the brutal conditions of the race. They rowed and slept in two-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, in all weather conditions, eating packages of pasta or lyophilised noodles to which they added cold water and left them on deck for the sun to warm them up; boiling water was very risky due to the movement of the boat, and injury could limit his ability to row and hinder his attempt.
To put their challenge in context, more people have climbed Everest than those who have paddled across an ocean.
Anna and Cameron chose to embark on what is known as an unsupported crossing. This meant that they had to carry with them everything they needed to survive, including food (each burned 8,000 calories a day), water (rationed to 50 millilitres a day), clothing, first aid equipment, and emergency flares. Everything inside her 24-foot boat, called Lily, had to be there for a reason, otherwise it was left on shore because the extra weight would slow the boat down. But that also meant that there would be no one around to help them if they had problems.
“The first time we paddled the boat in that state was when we left the Canary Islands behind and began our 3,000 mile journey,” said Cameron. “We were in unknown territory, direct to complicated seas. There was a three-meter swell in the first four hours and we clung to life. When people think of waves, they usually think of going to the beach and only the only movement of the wave that hits the shore. But it is not like that at sea. You have a primary swell and a secondary swell, and they are often different sizes. Then they come together and amplify. Then you have these huge random waves that break. So it comes to you from all directions. It is as if you were on a roller coaster, and that movement does not stop until you get to land. ”
They also had mechanical problems. The ship’s automatic steering feature failed shortly after they left the Canary Islands, forcing them to try to steer the ship with their feet while paddling. Their water pump also broke, potentially leaving them without vital fluids. Luckily, they were able to repair both systems.
Even in the harsh conditions of the Atlantic Ocean, technology did its job, and those messages of support through Teams were most needed when a part broke or disease struck. Anna developed seasickness, which “disabled” her for three days, and members of her family assured her it would happen. “They were with us on this journey,” said Anna. “That is what kept us afloat.”
Support at home was unwavering. Her father Andrew McLean said it was vital that they could pass that feeling on to their children.
“Being able to talk to them and send them messages by Teams was incredible for us,” he said. “Anna and Cameron said those calls kept them going, but they also did it for us. We were concerned about them, and Teams brought us closer to what was happening. That allowed us to help them and we feel calm in being able to do it.”
Anna added: “We could be in very bad shape. We could be exhausted, sleep deprived, really feel very, very bad, especially when conditions were difficult. Then we received a message from our group in Teams, which contained 70 of our colleagues, friends and family, and we thought, ‘We have it, we can do it. We will do it for those people there who support us’.”
However, family and friends can only do their part when they are thousands of miles away. One day while paddling, Cameron developed what became a serious injury. A small scratch on his knee became infected, leaving him lying on his shared bed and unable to row. While her brother was taking antibiotics and trying to get rid of the infection in his body, Anna was forced to row for 36 hours without a break.
“I was asking Anna to fill my water bottle, to feed me, to help me get the infection out of my body, and to remind me to take my antibiotics because I was just trying to sleep to recover,” said Cameron. “I wanted to get on the oars to help her, but physically I couldn’t do it.”
“When antibiotics started working and I felt a little better, we had a conversation about each other’s perspectives and realised that out there, in the middle of nowhere, we needed each other. We were a team again, and it was that teamwork that drove us to race and compete and make the boat go faster. ”
“Teamwork makes the dream work,” was the couple’s mantra. One task they both had to do was clean barnacles in the bottom of the boat every three days, to reduce drag. Despite seeing sharks they estimate to be around 14 feet long (“we saw a fin coming towards us, then it disappeared underwater, and reappeared on the other side of our boat, Anna said), they had to dive into the sea and scrape the hull manually. Although the salt was a nice relief from the blazing sun, the salt made their skin sore, their blisters burn, and the task took away even more of that precious energy.
Incredibly, as they both recovered as best they could from illness, exhaustion, or blows from the oars hitting their legs, the couple gave themselves an even bigger challenge. They set a goal to overtake a specific team whom Anna called “a group of northern boys,” who were 108 nautical miles ahead of them. But reaching and passing another ship at sea is not easy; It is not like on a race track where you can make up time for the next corner or turn. Winds and waves can help one boat but harm another.
They were going to require sheer determination and hard work. But what else could they do? They were paddling all day in two-hour shifts.
We received a message from our group in Teams, which contained 70 of our colleagues, friends and family, and we thought, ‘We have it, we can do it.’
Cameron commented: “Anna went into the cabin to think, came back 15 minutes later and said, ‘Ok, I know what to do. We need to paddle together as long as possible to catch up.’ And that was what we did.”
They ignored blisters, muscle pain, and lack of sleep, and Anna and Cameron paddled together to catch up to their new rivals. The couple’s ground crew used Teams to keep them up to date on how far behind they were. A 108 mile gap turned into 100 miles, then 80, then 40, then 10. Eventually, they were alongside their rivals, before passing them.
“This is the best show!” The couple sang loudly in celebration. Singing songs from the movie The Greatest Showman, in addition to creating his own television shows and doing imitations, helped lighten the spirits and focus their minds during the race.
They landed in Antigua a day and a half ahead of “the northern boys”, and recorded a total time of 43 days, 15 hours and 22 minutes. That was enough to get 18th place in the overall ranking. The winners, a British four-man team, completed the crossing in 32 days.
Now back in the UK, Cameron said everyone asks them the same thing: Why did they do it?
“First of all, I would say that I like adventure,” he said. “This is the ultimate challenge, it is like the Everest of rowing. It is physical, it is mental, it is very technical. But I think the real reason is that he wanted to understand why no brother and sister had ever tried it before. Now I realise that there is absolute strength in diverse teams. We pulled the fortresses out of each other, found common ground, and created a fast ship. ”
Her mother, Susan, could not be more proud. “People ask me how I could let my two children go to that great and incredible ocean,” she commented, “But how could I not let them go?”
Anna and Cam McLean hug each other at the finish after paddling across the Atlantic.
“We are here for a short time and we have to adopt these moments. They had a vision, they worked very hard to get there and we are very proud that they finished it. The fact that they did it together makes it even more special for us as a family. ”
Less than a month after Anna and Cameron returned to the UK, the government established the shutdown, focused on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. Anna still works for AlfaPeople from home, and uses Teams for meetings (“in one day I can talk to people in six different countries”) and for a pending update meeting with her colleagues.
Philip Rawlinson, chief director of AlfaPeople, agreed. “The first time I met Anna, I was inspired by her passion and commitment to advance and go further, so I was not surprised that she had the aspirations of rowing the Atlantic. I was really worried but I also knew that she could lean on Microsoft Teams during the crossing,” he said.
Anna and Cam have now spent more time in isolation at the family home in Gloucestershire than at sea. However, Anna uses some of the techniques she learned during her trip to stay positive.