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Sea king

How Max Thorpe overcame disaster in the Atlantic Ocean to claim a World Record in the toughest row on Earth.
Connect Features Sea king

The Atlantic Challenge. A 3,000-mile ocean rowing race from La Gomera to Antigua across the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Nicknamed “the world’s toughest row”. Isolated, exposed, intense. And Max Thorpe (Politics, 2016) took it on twice.  

Words: Faye Haslam (History, 2012)

His first attempt almost ended in tragedy with a near-death experience following one of the most perilous sequences of events in the race’s history. After a dramatic rescue in the middle of a storm, Max survived the treacherous seas. But he had unfinished business with the race. Returning to the start line just two years later, Max went on not only to claim the pairs victory but a new World Record in the process. It’s a comeback story straight out of a Hollywood movie. But like any good story, we should start at the beginning. What convinced Max to sign up for the ultimate row?

“I’ve always been a competitor,” explains Max. “During my childhood I competed in five different sports to a pretty high level and I have no doubt that sport was one of the most influential factors in helping me grow and develop into who I am. However, in my late teens and early twenties my sporting commitment declined and it took a few years for me to face up to the fact that I’d lost track of those things which made me, me. In response, I made a drastic lifestyle change and started seeking a challenge that would really enable me to test my limits. In my search, nothing came close to the row.”

Challenge accepted. But how do you begin to prepare yourself, physically and mentally, for an experience unlike any other?

“It’s extremely tough. It’s like launching a start-up whilst training like an Olympian and doing it all alongside a full-time job. The first big hurdle is fundraising over £100k through partnerships and sponsors. These funds are used to procure hundreds of pieces of vital equipment required to survive at sea – including, of course, a specially built ocean rowing boat. Next is the technical learning that demands you pull yourself from novice to expert as efficiently as possible through a range of essential seamanship, navigation and safety qualifications. Then there is the gruelling physical and mental training: two hours a day of punishing workouts pushing the body to the limit. Put it all together and the investment is huge. It takes everything just to get to the start line. Trust me – I’ve done it twice.”

Following a rigorous two-year period of preparations, on 14 December 2017 Max and his rowing partner Chris Williams crossed the start line and embarked on what would become the most extreme experience of their lives. The first eight days went as well as the pair could have hoped, taking the leading pairs position and sitting comfortably ahead of the World Record pace. Then disaster struck. On the ninth day, a huge rogue wave picked up the boat and capsized it, slamming it upside down into the water. It was a dangerous moment but crisis was initially averted after the boat self-righted and the vital pieces of equipment on deck were recovered, including the emergency beacon (EPIRB), which is the most important piece of lifesaving kit on board. Max and Chris were safe, ready to pick up the oars and start rowing again. That is, until Max opened the cabin hatch and discovered the capsize had ignited a fire, causing irreparable damage to all of the essential navigation and communication equipment and made the team’s safe space completely uninhabitable. It was a perilous situation – and then the conditions took a dramatic turn for the worse.

“It became an incredibly life-threatening situation. We were seeing these extraordinary waves and mountainous walls of water up to 15 metres high. I made the decision that we needed assistance so the emergency calls were made, we managed to activate the beacon and an international search and rescue effort was initiated.

“There was this brutal realisation that our crossing was over and everything that we’d invested over that two-year period had fallen apart in front of our eyes. But the real challenge was just beginning. From leading the toughest row on Earth to suddenly being in a race to stay alive – this pivot required a rapid adaptation to a new goal. It was no longer about getting to Antigua, it was about survival. The ocean wasn’t going to wait for us to be ready.

“The instinctive human reaction when things start going wrong is to narrow our perspective. As pressure builds around you in an extreme environment, it often causes a tunnel vision with space only for panic. Countering this, we specifically focused on broadening our mentality horizon, enabling us to analyse our environment and gain clarity on what we could control and influence. It isn’t easy to achieve but you can start by focusing on communicating as clearly and concisely as possible. Describe what’s happening. Describe where you are. Describe what’s in front of you. Over-communication delivers results in a crisis.”

After eight or nine hours battling the relentless assault of the waves on deck, and a torturous night locked in the storage cabin awaiting any sign of rescue, as morning approached the pair made the risky but pivotal decision to shine a laser flare around the horizon. And a light appeared. As the vessel approached, it soon became apparent what Max and Chris were facing – a 250-metre, 110,000-ton oil tanker powering towards them at seven knots.

“Its approach was breathtaking. It came at us head on and struck us on the front of the boat. The crew threw down a rope and a rope ladder but we couldn’t get hold of them in the conditions. Everything was happening very fast and suddenly we realised that we were starting to slide underneath the tanker and it was now slamming down on top of our ocean rowing boat. We were seconds away from being crushed. Although having been trained to never detach from our boat, we had to make a decision. With what felt like seconds remaining, Chris grabbed hold of the rope and managed to clip onto a buoy. I only had one option, to grab the bottom level of the ladder, so I swung off as well.”

Hanging on to the side of the tanker for excruciating minutes, Max struggled to keep his grip and with nothing attaching him to the boat, he fell from the ladder and plunged into the ocean below. It’s an unimaginable scenario, faced with a life or death moment.

“It seems obvious to say but falling from the rope was the most profound moment I have ever experienced. It totals to just a few frantic seconds but my memory of it is clear and painfully slow. The moment I lost my grip, I was quickly trying to process the inevitable scenario that would face me once I hit the water. I was very much in survival mode, which spares little time for reflections on your emotions. It’s about using every ounce of energy to prioritise staying alive. As I emerged from beneath the surface and saw Chris and the tanker powering away from me, there was a split-second thought to the rapid unravelling of the rescue attempt and how on Earth this journey had come to this point – you could say I was considering my fate. Those sentiments had to be immediately put on hold in place of battling back and swimming after the tanker.”

It was no longer about getting to Antigua, it was about survival. The ocean wasn't going to wait for us to be ready.

Miraculously, Max spotted a spare rope trailing out the back of the tanker. With his last stroke, he grabbed hold and clawed himself back in, utilising the momentum of the waves once close enough to leap and pull himself back onto the rope ladder. Slowly, Max and Chris were pulled up and onboard. The ordeal was over. They had survived. But Max’s pursuit of the Atlantic Challenge was not yet finished.

“Initially when I came home, I was all over the place. I was managing thoughts and feelings I hadn’t had before and challenging memories I never thought I would have to deal with. I was overcome with feelings of disappointment and a bleak sense of failure having not achieved what I set out to do. Amongst all of it there remained an unshakeable determination to find a positive path forward. Rather than being defined by what happened to me, I wanted to be defined by how I reacted to it. This is what really pushed me forward to go back and take on the race again.”

Two years later Max was back at the start line with a new racing partner, Dave Spelman, and a new perspective, even better prepared for the unpredictable ocean environment. Through the highs – swimming with pods of whales on Christmas and New Year’s Eves – to the lows – the relentless soaking of salt water for days on end – to the inventive – fashioning a makeshift oar from the shards of the anchor after three had snapped in high seas – the pair propelled their way across the Atlantic. In a historic 14-hour sprint finish, they crossed the line on 18 January 2020 not only in first place but with a new World Record as the fastest pair to have rowed the Atlantic in 37 days, 7 hours and 54 minutes.

What makes Max so inspirational is not only the events he has lived through, but how he has translated the key components of his failures and successes so they can be absorbed by and benefit others. Amongst all that enabled him to bounce back from adversity, he attributes a large share of responsibility to something he calls the decision-causality loop.

“The decision-causality loop believes decisions impact decisions. It’s simple but so powerful. It’s about the role that big and small decisions have in people’s lives. A decision you make today will impact a decision you take tomorrow. Having found myself at a crossroads – to end my pursuit of rowing the Atlantic or go back and take it on again – I became acutely aware of how a single decision could benefit or hinder me moving forward.”

Max also points to another fundamental concept – that resilience is a way of thinking.

“The experience of a worst case scenario became my superpower. It changed my way of thinking about the race, the future, and how to better prepare for uncertain environments. I think that’s the first thing about resilience – you need to adapt your way of thinking about environments you operate in and challenges you might face. Opportunities and threats are commonplace, but in order to be truly prepared for both you need to stretch your imagination. Take my experience – no team had ever had a fire onboard their boat before we did. It is the same in business and in life – things that have never happened before, happen all the time. This is something I share a lot with teams I work with to trigger that shift in their mentality. More specifically, I believe resilience is determined by an individuals’ ability to 1) think clearly in the present, which is the ability to react, and 2) think critically about the future, which is your ability to plan. To achieve clarity in the present, focus on the controllables when your landscape is rapidly changing. Meanwhile, you can start building a criticality of the future by challenging your assumptions about how it might unfold.”

After crystallising his experiences into clear thought processes, the next challenge for Max was to create a vehicle that could deliver his lessons and theories to others. This led him to found his resilience consultancy Rogue Wave Scenarios, which specialises in scenario planning, providing a unique preparedness offer for businesses and teams operating in extreme environments.

“My experience is defined by extraordinary decisions and so naturally Rogue Wave Scenarios focuses on building resilience through optimising decision-making. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best scenario practitioners in the world to create the business. In short, we build a range of bespoke scenarios that provide clients with a safe environment – both physically and psychologically – to explore and test how they might plan or react. The scenarios they encounter are specifically designed to pull them to places they have never been before to experience challenges they have never faced – and encounter some uncomfortable truths about their own limitations. But, this broadening of their context eventually empowers them. These scenario experiences help them learn as they challenge their assumptions, identify blind-spots, confront conflicts and resolve dilemmas. It’s all part of building what we call a Storm Mentality®, which enables them to navigate uncertain environments, make better decisions under pressure and ultimately improve their resilience. Simply asking yourself ‘what if?’ is a good starting point when beginning this journey.”

Through challenge and adversity, achievement and triumph, Max’s comeback story has become the foundation to inspire and motivate others. So, what does the next chapter in this incredible story hold?

“The allure of the ultimate physical and mental tests will always be there. Looking forward, I know there will be things that I want to achieve on a similar scale to the Atlantic, but for now all my focus and commitment is being channelled into leading Rogue Wave Scenarios on our mission to improve resilience for as many people as possible, which in this global climate has never been more relevant or more important.”

Max shares his story in our Webinar series, along with other alumni speakers, to help you find inspiration. Find out more >