Ocean rower who escaped from corporate life and is now finding out what life has in store if you're prepared to take that step out of your comfort zone.
Rachel escaped from a marketing job in corporate banking and now runs her own company called Big Blue Projects. She has rowed the Atlantic Ocean, done some long distance kayaking and raced Dragon Boats for Great Britain! She's also a member of Cheshire Search and Rescue Team.
My book 'Antigua or Bust' is available on Amazon and has lots of hint and tips for anyone considering something similar.
I spent 16 years as a Marketing Manager for Bank of Scotland, but opted to take voluntary redundancy and after being turned down twice, eventually finished there at the end of 2009.
I then moved to a new job as Marketing Communications Manager for the UK Hydrographic Office, working for the Admiralty brand. It involved marketing the Admiralty products (including charts like the ones we used for our ocean row) to end users.
A year later I moved to an agency for a few months, working on accounts for names like Aviva, Goldman Sachs, Oracle and Harley Davidson. When that contract finished, I did what all normal people do... and went sailing to complete my Coastal Skipper qualification.
When I got back from the Atlantic in 2008, I was asked to do a bit more motivational speaking, which I enjoy. This unexpectedly led to some freelance marketing work and I was also asked to become the ocean rowing correspondent for on online boating community.
With the threat of redundancy looming, I decided to improve my options and set up Big Blue Projects (www.bigblueprojects.com) to help manage and develop my speaking, writing, marketing and anything else!
At the moment I spend a few days a week working for a training company, delivering programs for The Prince's Trust. I trained as a first aid instructor and thoroughly enjoy introducing people to skill that could save a life. I also completed a Coach Mentor Practitioner Diploma earlier this year. Plus I take on ad hoc projects such as copywriting, working at boat shows, etc.
I also joined Cheshire Search and Rescue Team - so now I'm on call 24/7 and we can get called out at any time. We work with Cheshire Police and the majority of our call outs are for missing people across the county and surrounding areas. It's an amazing team to be part of and incredibly challenging in terms of the training (both medical training and search training) and during live searches when you never know what to expect.
I spent 16 years as a Marketing Manager for Bank of Scotland, looking after their Corporate and Asset Finance product areas, including Marine Finance and Shipping.
During this time, I competed in the sport of Dragon Boat Racing and raced for Great Britain for 10 years.
Managing this alongside full time work was often quite stressful as we would train anything up to 12 times a week. Team training for the women was in London, which meant travelling from the North West every weekend for a couple of months prior to the big championships. The sport is largely self-funded too – even though Great Britain (and particularly the women’s team) performs consistently well on the world stage.
In the 10 years that I raced for GB, I won 25 World and European medals, and hold 2 World records. The best result in the Women’s team was Gold, Silver and Bronze at the 2003 World Championships in Poznan, Poland.
Dragon boat racing has been a huge influence on my life and outlook. It is a unique team sport that requires 22 individuals to work together, in complete unison, to get the boat from A to B as fast as possible.
Managing the training around working full time, raising the money to pay for international trips, working with a large team (not all of whom are ‘friends’), coping with disappointment and winning, managing crippling nerves, preparing for the big events – all taught me a lot and would stand me in good stead for the future.
One of our GB dragon boat team mates in the 1990’s was Debra Searle (then Veal), who set off to row the Atlantic in 2001 with her husband. He had to be taken off the boat in the early days, but Debra famously carried on alone, finishing in 111 days.
Both Lin (my rowing partner) and I kept in touch with Debra and every time we caught up, Debra would encourage us to do the row.
She thought we were the right sort of people and would enjoy the experience. To be honest, it was the financial side that really put us off. However, we’d also had a dream to do something big to raise money for a Breast Cancer charity as we’ve both lost relatives to breast cancer.
Over time, the two ideas started to come together as we identified a way to raise a huge amount of money and complete an awesome adventure.
In 2004 I was having a rough time at work and had missed out on a promotion – which led to some serious thinking about the future. I always had the feeling that there was more out there than marketing, and I doubted my future with the company right then.
I felt I had nothing to lose and a chance meeting with Debra simply confirmed my thoughts. A couple of weeks later I sat down with Lin to find out whether she was serious… and the Atlantic Rowing Challenge for Breast Cancer Care was born! We simply asked ourselves one powerful question 'What's stopping us?' The answer was the money - but by identifying that as an issue, it made it easier to focus on a solution.
It was completely terrifying and we didn’t tell anyone about it for a couple of months, then started to gradually break the news to family, which wasn’t much fun.
We always believed that we could complete the challenge of rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, but there were many times that we worried that things out of our control would prevent us from making the start line.
It took us 3 years of planning to make it to the start line of the 2007 Atlantic Rowing Race. We ran our campaign as a not-for-profit company and naturally fell into roles dictated by our strengths within that framework.
We split our preparations into 4 key areas (mental, physical, technical and fundraising & PR) and worked on the following principles:
Mental: We worked with a coach to address numerous issues or potential issues. From curing Lin’s phobia about being under water, and my concerns about how I’d react if I was truly frightened, to managing pain, avoiding and managing conflict, decision making and very practical things like living in such a confined space for so long.
Physical: We needed to be able to row steadily for 2 hour shifts which was very different to the short, sharp bursts needed for Dragon Boat racing – so devised routines of 8 x 15 mins or 6 x 20 mins with a break for water in between. It was really important that we made taking a regular drink part of our routine. We trained on rowing machines, and had Waterrowers at home so if we only had 20 minutes available, then at least we did 20 minutes.
We also had to learn to row well enough that we wouldn’t injure ourselves. So both joined local rowing clubs and spent 2 years rowing and sculling in all kinds of boats. We did 24 hours on a rowing machine, recreating a day onboard the boat and limiting activity to things we would do onboard. We ate and drank what we planned to use, slept on the sofa in a sleeping bag, and alternated every 2 hours right through the night. Though we drew the line at using a bucket for the loo!
We recorded everything about what we did and how we felt and it proved to be a very valuable exercise. We also spent 48 hours out on the water in our ocean rowing boat – testing equipment, rowing on the sea, coping with rowing, cooking, eating, sleeping and personal hygiene onboard.
Technical: There were four mandatory courses that we had to complete in order to take part in the race: -RYA Shorebased Ocean Yachtmaster -Sea Survival - First Aid at Sea - a VHF (Marine Short Wave Radio) licence. The Yachtmaster qualification was particularly difficult and really tested us, but the others were mostly good fun. We also knew that out at sea there wouldn’t be anyone else to rely on – so we made sure that if any work was done on our boat, we either did it ourselves, or were there when it was done. We needed to know every inch of the boat and her systems and equipment. It took us well out of our comfort zone, but paid off big time out on the ocean.
Fundraising & PR: We put a huge amount of effort into this part of our project – quite simply we had no choice. As all of our income had to come from sponsorship we’d set ourselves a high target and while our charity link made that easier in some ways, it literally doubled the amount that we had to raise. Funding is always a big issue and as we had no money to invest, we knew we were going to have to work hard on this area.
We ran our campaign as a not-for-profit company and had a contract with our charity (Breast Cancer Care) to keep things on track. Quite simply, any cash donations that came in were split 60:40 in favour of the charity. The only exceptions being if someone donated money to buy a specific item or for a specific us – or if they requested all of their donation went to the charity. We were advised at the start that ‘time is money, money is time’.
The more time you put in, the more money you will make. And it was good advice. We literally worked our socks off, but in the end covered our £70k costs and made an additional £60k for Breast Cancer Care. In some ways linking with the charity made it harder because we effectively doubled the amount we needed to raise – and donated to them from day one.
But it also opened a huge number of doors for us and the feel good factor now makes it all worthwhile. We literally told everyone what we were doing – at work, friends and family, the person next to you on the bus! But you never know where the next major sponsor will come from and if you really want to do your challenge, you will put the effort in. At the start though, we were too scared to ask outright – desperation soon put paid to any sensitivities there though! We worked on the basis of ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’.
It took us a while to get over it when people said no, and the first time it happened to me I slunk back to my desk, nearly in tears, and didn’t dare ask anyone else for a couple of days. But we just told ourselves that we were no worse off if they did say no, we’d just say thank you and move on to the next person who may be able to help.
By the end of our campaign, we reckoned we could blag pretty much anything from anyone!
This project was without doubt the toughest thing I’ve ever done! Getting to the start line was incredibly difficult and despite incredible generosity from so many supporters, we were continually disappointed by being let down by other well meaning individuals.
We actually grew very sceptical about offers of help and stopped getting over excited by ‘brilliant’ ideas from some quarters. Working full time also made things very difficult – mainly because of the time required to make it happen. But it can be done! The row itself was unbelievable tough, but in a different way.
We were almost relived to get away from the madness of the preparations, but quickly learnt that the ocean is a very unforgiving place to be. In the course of just a few hours, emotions can go from sky high to rock bottom and it’s hard to handle that. After our capsize 300 miles from the finish line, we had the worst week ever. We were rowing in extreme conditions, worried about capsizing again and hadn’t told our families which put a huge strain on us in that final week. Every time we were hit by a bit wave and ended up at 90 degrees again, it shook us up.
That week we really showed our strength as a team and supported each other through it hour by hour and day by day. It made finishing all the sweeter! Rowing into English Harbour in Antigua on 16 Feb 2008 is by far the best thing I’ve ever done. After 76 days at sea in a 24-foot boat, stepping onto dry land for those long awaited hugs from family and friends was just awesome.
Life at sea was incredible and you see sights that make you feel very privileged. Amazing sunsets and sunrises, stars blanketing the entire sky, so many shooting stars you run out of wishes, dolphins, turtles and whales, shoals of fish following your boat. It’s also very simple out there; the focus being survival and the daily routine revolves around rowing, resting, eating and maintenance. It reminds you about what is really important in life!
The experience of running the project has stood us in good stead and will continue to do so – in both our personal and professional lives. It has opened up numerous new options and we both still get a kick out of the looks on peoples faces when you drop it into conversation!
The more time you put in, the more money you will make – this definitely proved to be true and I’ve seen other teams fail because they simply aren’t fully committed to giving everything to their campaign.
Bite-sized chunks – break it all down into bite-sized chunks. Set goals and smaller goals to tell you how well you’re doing. Make sure you know when you’ve achieved it and celebrate your success.
For example, our challenge was to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic. We knew where the finish was but kept the chart folded into small sections. We marked our position/progress once a day and celebrated things like 500 miles done, ¼ done, halfway, and the countdown to our arrival.
We never unfolded the whole chart – it would have overwhelmed us. We made sure we acknowledged the achievement of the goals with a treat.
Research it thoroughly and be realistic. You genuinely can follow your dreams and achieve so much more than you ever imagine – but planning and preparation are key to success. Once you’ve decided to do it, you must put in more than 100% effort and keep going whatever gets thrown at you.
Networking is crucial – 95% of our fundraising came from sources where there was a personal link of some kind. In your preparation, keep telling everyone what you are doing and leave no stone unturned.
I read plenty of books on ocean rowing and sailing, plus websites relevant to our interest.
We met up with as many previous rowers as we could (particularly female rowers) and followed forums on the subject.
We also went to a couple of seminars and events to get information and speak to rowers.