Meet the Portsmouth cycle shop owner preparing to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic next Christmas

Until two years ago he had never rowed a stroke, but now Kevin Watkins is currently in training for one of the most gruelling events in the worldwide sporting calendar.

By Simon Carter
Sunday, 14th March 2021, 6:26 pm
The four Elijah's Star team members who are aiming to row across the Atlantic for charity - (from left) Kevin Watkins, Phil Bigland, Lee McCarthy and Dean Frost.
The four Elijah's Star team members who are aiming to row across the Atlantic for charity - (from left) Kevin Watkins, Phil Bigland, Lee McCarthy and Dean Frost.

The owner of the Southsea Cycles shop on Albert Road will be taking part in this December’s Talisker Whiskey Rowing Challenge - a punishing, brutal 3,000-mile plus odyssey starting in the Canary Islands and finishing (hopefully) in the Caribbean.

By then, he will have celebrated Christmas Day and New Year’s Day hundreds of miles from civilisation with just his three rowing colleagues for company.

Watkins, 51, will be joined in a 28-foot long by 5 foot wide boat by Dean Frost - who he first met shortly after starting his career in the Navy in the mid-1980s - Lee McCarthy and Phil Bigland.

The Elijah's Star team training

Based on previous Challenges, the quartet - rowing under the name of Elijah’s Star - will battle waves of up to 20 feet while rowing and sleeping continuously in two-hour blocks for what could be up to a month and a half away from dry land.

Watkins and co are fundraising for national charity Action Medical Research’s Born Too Soon campaign, which aims to highlight the impact premature birth has on babies and their families and to help fund research that can save lives.

The team have taken their name from baby Elijah, a baby who sadly lived for just over a month after being born prematurely to Jenny and James in Yorkshire at 25 weeks and three days. Elijah was born weighing just 823g and lived for 37 days.

Ten per cent of all births are premature and, globally, it’s the biggest killer of children under the age of five.

Kevin Watkins met a seal out training in Langstone Harbour recently.

The Elijah’s Star team have set themselves a daunting target of raising £200,000 for the charity, but have already raised around a fifth of that even though their row doesn’t begin for another nine months.

Watkins, who was a Royal Naval Marine Engineer for over 30 years, told The News how he became involved in a challenge that will test both his physical and mental strength to the limit.

‘Back in 2008 I was onboard the destroyer HMS Liverpool in South Georgia, and someone said they were thinking of rowing the Atlantic,’ Watkins recalled.

‘I thought ‘I’d quite like to do that.’

‘Years passed and the idea went nowhere, until I met up with Dean in Chippenham in November 2019.

‘We had a glass of wine and got talking, and he said he was thinking of rowing the Atlantic. I said I’d join him, and that was the start of the journey …

‘We decided we’d like to row for the Action Medical Research charity and were put in touch with Jenny and James, who said they would be very happy to use Elijah’s name to keep the memory of their baby alive.

The chosen charity is also very personal to Watkins, who in the early 70s lost a brother due to birth complications.

‘I’ve seen the impact premature births can have - and it can have an impact on families even if the baby survives.

‘I lost a brother and it had an impact on my mother right the way through to when she was on her deathbed, something that had happened 50 years previously.’

Due to the pandemic, Watkins - born in the north of England but who settled in Portsmouth after leaving the Navy - and his Elijah Star colleagues haven’t rowed together as much as they would have liked.

Watkins has joined the Tudor Sailing Club in Langstone Harbour and will be returning to Renegades Gym, on the Hilsea Industrial Estate, when lockdown restrictions allow. There he will be working with gym co-founder Dan Fallon, a strength and rehab coach.

Watkins also has regular yoga classes via Zoom with former Portsmouth resident Abi Mendonca, who now lives in Greece, as well as online pilates sessions.

Since beginning his training, he has shed 20 kilos - just over three stone.

The Elijah Star team have also enlisted the help of Guin Batten to help coach them into a team capable of rowing across the Atlantic in an event that was the brainchild of sailing legend Sir Chay Blyth and which was first held in 1997.

Batten won a silver medal in the quadruple scull class at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and three years later set the record for the fastest solo crossing of the English Channel in an Olympic class boat - 3 hours and 14 minutes (eight minutes faster than the men's record set by her friend Bob Gullett on the same trip).

With baby Elija firmly in their mind, the team aim to complete the Atlantic Challenge in 37 days.

That will be no mean feat - until the 2017/18 race the record for the fastest finish in the event’s history by a four-man crew was 34 days.

Watkins is realistic about what the Challenge entails.

‘Everyone says the first five days are just miserable,’ he said. ‘We have to get our heads around that.

‘People say it’s 20 per cent physical and 80 per cent mental.

‘You already know you’re going to fit enough and strong enough, but how do you prepare for the sleep deprivation?’

Spending Christmas hundreds of miles from dry land would not be everyone’s ideal festive experience, but Watkins said: ‘The reason the race is held at that time of the year is due to the weather conditions.

‘The hurricane season is over, and it’s a relatively stable weather belt.’

The four members of the team are preparing to meet up again next month to continue training together.

Watkins reckons by the time the Challenge starts, they will have rowed for around 270 hours together - compared to the 888 they will take if they complete the row in exactly 37 days!

To take part in the event, they need only to have rowed together for 120 hours.

The team are planning some training in the Irish Sea - ‘we have to face the demons of sea sickness!’ Watkins stated - once the boat emerges from its winter hibernation at Gosport’s HMS Sultan.

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