Lee Spencer, the Rowing Marine, confessed yesterday that his epic attempt to become the first physically-disabled person to row solo and unsupported across the Atlantic Ocean had taken its toll. In a conversation with the Chronicle over satellite phone, he said he was “mentally, physically and emotionally” exhausted.
But Mr Spencer was also determined. After 58 days at sea, he is just 250 nautical miles from the coast of French Guiana, where he hopes to make landfall by early next week.
If he succeeds, Mr Spencer will not just smash all existing records, he will obliterate them.
Mr Spencer, who set off from Gibraltar last January after months of preparation here, aimed to beat the able-bodied record of 96 days, 12 hours and 45 minutes for a voyage from mainland Europe to South America.
He had set himself a challenge of completing the 3,800-mile trip in less than 70 days. Yesterday, he was quietly optimistic he would meet that target, helping to underline his message that no one should be defined by their disability.
But in a frank conversation, he also left little doubt as to the magnitude of the challenge ahead.
As he spoke, he was battling an unexpected current that was pushing him further north than where he wanted to be.
“It’s like when you hear of marathon runners hitting a wall,” he said.
“Well, I hit that wall last week.”
“I’m dragging myself to do it.”
Although he now acknowledges that he can see the home stretch, he is “not taking anything for granted”, adding “things can still go wrong”.
Mr Spencer had rowed the Atlantic Ocean before but as part of a four-man team. This time, he admitted the challenge was proving harder than he had expected, especially the feeling of isolation.
The night time is the worst part of the day, he disclosed.
In the dark out at sea, it is just him and the waves lapping around his boat, with nothing to see but the stars above.
The exhausting part of the challenge is not just the physical rowing but also having to be ready to “react instantly to something going wrong”.
He described that constant tension as “draining”.
When he has encountered trouble he has “called Sheppards [chandlery in Ocean Village] and they have been so helpful, they drop everything to help me sort something out.”
“I am so grateful to them,” he said.
And even in the solitude of the vast Atlantic Ocean, there are moments that break the monotony of the endless expanse of water.
Some of them are depressing. In the middle of nowhere, for example, he saw items of plastic floating by.
But he recalls precious moments too. Once, two sperm whales, a mother and her calf, swam up close to exam him before swimming under his boat.
“They were so close I could feel their breath coming out of the blow hole,” he said.
On another occasion, a Mahi Mahi (Dorado) “in the most vivid green I had ever seen, jumped out of the water about five meters high”, he said, recalling his awe at the colour and acrobatic performance.
Sharks have also “followed” Mr Spencer on his journey.
Their presence near his boat have prevented him from making the best of a lull in the wind or the tide that would have otherwise allowed him a chance to get into the water to scrape barnacles from the hull of his boat.
These barnacles are slowing him down, he admits, but that is better than risking a shark attack.
As this newspaper spoke to Mr Spencer, his wife Claire and son Billy and other support crew members would have been flying overhead on their way to Cayenne to prepare for his arrival.
He cannot wait to see his family. Although he has been able to speak to Claire regularly via satellite phone, it will be nothing in comparison to speaking in person.
Once on dry land, he is also very much looking forward to a “cold beer and relaxing and forgetting about everything”.
Mr Spencer said he has been blown away by the support he is receiving.
Aside from the people in Gibraltar, including the Governor, sending their support Mr Spencer has received support from a host of well know personalities including boxer Johnny Nelson; Vice Chief of Defence Staff and the senior serving Royal Marine, General Sir Gordon Messenger; reality TV star Joey Essex; former marine, Invictus medalist and TV presenter JJ Chalmers; heptathlete, Olympian and presenter of The Big Fish Off, Dean Macey; Andy Grant the fastest single leg amputee in the world over 10k; sports presenter Jeff Stelling; Glastonbury founder, Micheal Eavis; two-time world heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon; and actor and adventurer Ross Kemp.
“Thank you everyone who is following me, you are inspiring me and I have a genuinely massive thank you for you all,” he said.
He adds that the support means so much more now “when having a hard time” than ever.
Mr Spencer served 24 years as a Royal Marine commando and completed three operational tours of Afghanistan, returning to the UK unscathed only to lose a leg after being hit by flying debris while helping a motorway crash victim.
But he is not just completing this challenge to be the world’s first physically disabled person to row solo and unsupported from continental Europe to continental America.
He is primarily doing it to raise both awareness and money for the Royal Marines Charity and the Endeavour Fund (part of the Royal Foundation).
His target is £100,000 and at present, he has nearly reached £45,000.
Donations can be made via https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/LeeJSpencer