A Gateshead submariner has completed the world's toughest row as part of a team of four in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.
Lieutenant Commander Tom Hutchinson, 31, of Ryton, was part of HMS Oardacious rowing 3,000 miles unsupported from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to English Harbour in Antigua. The team arrived at their final destination at 1:06am local time and in doing so became the fastest serving military team ever to row across the Atlantic with a time of 35 days, 17 hours and 19 minutes.
Originally undertaken by a team of Royal Navy submariners in 2019, it was intended as a one-off event to raise money for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity. However, after the Covid pandemic highlighted isolation and mental health challenges, a different team of four submariners will take part in the challenge each year, with the first all women's team due to row in 2024 - just 13 years after a ban on female submariners was lifted.
Read more: Sunderland soldier sets off on charity challenge in memory of dad walking 10 miles every day for 1,000 days
For the 2022 challenge, Tom and his teammates Lieutenant Commander Hugo Mitchell-Heggs, Lieutenant Commander Callum Fraser. and Chief Petty Officer Jon Norfolk; trained for around 18 months alongside their jobs on the Royal Navy's submarines with an extensive physical and mental training programme to see them through the race. Rowing in pairs, the team had two hours of rowing and two off for the entire trip, with each man having to eat, sleep, wash, fix anything broken on the boat, and do admin tasks in that two hours.
Tom spoke to ChronicleLive from Antigua after setting foot on dry land for the first time in more than a month, where he was met by his girlfriend Claudia, his parents David and Margaret, and his sister Rachel. And after such a gargantuan physical challenge, where he lost 15kg, he spoke of a "huge feeling of relief".
And the relief is no surprise, at one point in the challenge, his team were battling enormous waves in pitch darkness. He said: "Bad weather for us was flat calm weather, which we had a lot of over the last five days so we went really slowly.
"But in we had bad weather in terms of huge waves too, some were up to 40 foot. It's scary because in the night you go one way, you're in a trough between two waves and either side is just water.
"You're humbled by the sheer size of the wave and that you're very insignificant, if it wants to it can just crash down on the boat and throw you across the ocean and there's nothing you can do about it. We had that for the best part of a week at one point, the weather was like that all day and all night - and there were very strong winds."
The 31-year-old Lieutenant Commander can spend up to four months on submarines at a time, so he is used to spending time away from his family in the North East and Claudia, who he lives with in Cheltenham. But he admits that though he'd been expected the physical challenge, he'd underestimated just how tough the row would be mentally.
He said: "You become so tired and physically exhausted, it starts to take a toll on you, and being in such a close environment with three other people and knowing you've been at sea for 15, 16 days and that you're only halfway, that was hard. My worst day on board was probably Christmas Day, we'd had a couple of slow days and other teams caught up with us, and I just thought why am I here?
"I've still got so far to go. 13 days into a 35 day crossing, I thought it was never going to end and I was just sat there - the bit I underestimated is the biggest challenge, trying to compartmentalise the rowing and think it will end and you've got to keep going."
All that mental and physical toil paid off when the team arrived in English Harbour in Antigua. Tom was so tired that he says he "didn't feel that emotional" when the lights of Antigua started twinkling in the distance but that all changed when the team arrived on dry land to see their families for the first time in 2023.
He continued: "As soon as you turn the corner to enter English Harbour there's a fort on the headland where all family and friends gather, and you can just hear them all screaming as they see the lights of the boat. There's this overwhelming rush of emotion through your body thinking 'I am finally here'!"
Despite the rush of emotion, HMS Oardacious didn't know they'd crossed the finish line until the race safety officer lit a flare and sent it up. Tom added: "The flare goes up in the air and lights up the whole harbour and everyone on board just broke down because it's that huge feeling of relief that you've done it and you're going to step off onto dry land."
After such an intense physical and mental challenge, Tom is looking forward to spending a bit of time in Antigua and having a "bit of a holiday." He finished by talking about the support that the team have had, saying: "Myself and the team are very thankful for the support that we've had throughout and for me personally, the local support from Newcastle and Ryton where I was brought up has been huge and overwhelming.
"I was getting messages asking about how I was doing and that makes something like this a lot easier. It's challenging and obviously I'm very thankful that I had the opportunity to do it, even more thankful that I finished it safely."
So far, this year's row has raised more than £50,000 which will go to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity. To find out more and donate, visit the HMS Oardacious Just Giving page.
Whitley Bay prostate cancer survivor urges men to get checked - and thanks Bill Turnbull for saving his life
Great North Run 2023 - Charities which have places available and how much fundraising pledges are for race
RuPaul's Drag Race runner up to do 100km charity trek across Northumberland
Family and friends to run Great North Run in memory of man who died after he fell from South Shields roof
Sunderland mum who raised thousands for charity dies of ovarian cancer aged 45