Former York forward Craig Forsyth’s incredible attempt to row the Atlantic to raise money for Rob Burrow and MND

Published: 12 December, 2020 - 11:30 am

By Aaron Bower for ThirteenRugby.com, reproduced with kind permission.

When Kevin Sinfield crossed the finish line of his seventh marathon in seven days earlier this week, it felt like the end of an incredible fundraising mission to support Rob Burrow. But in truth, those fundraising efforts are only just beginning – and they are continuing this weekend with the start of a truly incredible test of endurance taken on by a former professional rugby league player.

Craig Forsyth is no stranger to taking his body to the limit. Since retiring in 2006, the York City Knights icon has tackled the London Marathon, cycled from John O’Groats to Lands End and has participated in numerous yachting and sailing races. But on Saturday, Forsyth will depart the Canary Islands in a rowing boat and attempt to cross the Atlantic: and he will do it alone.

The Talisker Atlantic Challenge is one of the world’s toughest races, with participants – either solo, in pairs of teams of four – attempting to row the Atlantic without any mechanical assistance and reach Antigua in the fastest time possible. Forsyth had initially wanted to do it to raise money for Sporting Chance: now, he has launched a separate mission to raise money for the Motor Neurone Disease Association.

So why Burrow and MND? “Every time you see him, no matter what he is going through, he’s smiling,” Forsyth tells Thirteen. “He’s so positive, and it’s absolutely inspiring. I’ve heard him speak before and he’s so humble, and he’s a brilliant human being. Why wouldn’t you want to help someone like that, and try support him?

“I was away sailing when I heard the news about Rob’s diagnosis, but instantly I began to think about what I could do to help. I’ve got some playing memorabilia, but I didn’t think that would raise much for him or for MND. So in the end, the Atlantic challenge felt perfect: it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while and it will hopefully raise some money for Rob.”

The physical and mental lengths Forsyth will take his body to are staggering. He estimates the challenge could take him as long as ten weeks, during which time he will have no contact with anyone, except for two land-based officers who will be in contact with the participants should they need support at any time.

Forsyth will have not seen his family for two weeks prior to the challenge beginning on Saturday due to Covid regulations: he will be away throughout Christmas and New Year without them, spending the festive period in the middle of the Atlantic with nothing but a mountain of rehydrated food, water and his own thoughts.

“You can never really prepare for how you’re going to be out there mentally,” he admits. “You can make an educated guess, and can prepare for the physical side of it, but I’m hoping I become a better person because of it. I’m doing it all in isolation and it’s going to be very tough. It’ll be very hard, being away from my family, but that’s part of the challenge.”

Then there are the physical demands of trying to navigate the Atlantic Ocean in nothing more than a rowing boat. “I’ll plan to be awake just after 5am, I’ll be on the oars for 5:30am and then row for three hours,” he explains, as he sets out what a typical day will look like. “Then I’ll boil my water for my food for the day, and it’s back on for another three hours.

“At around 12pm, I’ll break for lunch for 15 minutes and get back on the oars until 4:30pm. That’s a food break, another 15 minutes, then another few hours after that. My aim is to be rowing for 16 hours a day, and sleeping at around 11pm at night before starting again the next day. I’ve a device fitted to the boat which links you to GPS and pinpoints your exact location and the plotted route, but I’m going to deviate – it’s pointless fighting against the ocean.”

There is also the significant challenge of fuelling such an incredible physical exertion: and it is far from exciting. “It’s mostly rehydrated food,” Forsyth laughs. “I’ve got a device on board which turns seawater into freshwater, and then I chuck bags of rehydrated food into the water. They’re about 1,000 calories each, but I’ll need more than that.

“I had a lot of testing done, and it was worked out that I need around 6,000 calories a day just to be able to do all the work – I’ll still be in a calorie deficit. I’ve got some treats too – every Sunday I’ll have a big bar of chocolate. That’s about as exciting as it’s going to get.”

Such an incredible challenge was only devised was Forsyth tackled the rowing machine in the gym. “I started rowing on the machine in January 2019, doing 1,000 metres a day,” he explains. “Then it went up to 2,000 in February, 3,000 a day in March and by the end of the year it had got a bit crazy.

“Covid meant I had to put everything on ice, but after the first lockdown, I’d disappear into the North Sea for three or four days at a time to see how I felt out there on my own. I’d row out from Hartlepool and just see where I got. I’d heard about the race, and thought it was the next challenge I needed.”

Forsyth initially hoped to raise £1,500 for the MND Association and Burrow. That’s already been more than doubled – with a new target of £7,000 next on the horizon. “We sailed through that, pun completely intended,” he says.

“If people can just give even a little bit, it’s going to make such a huge difference. We threw a ton of money at Covid and created a vaccine quickly, didn’t we – well let’s take the same attitude here. If we can just make a start, even if it just slows the aggression of MND down, that would be something. It’s worth everything I’m going to experience – the loneliness, the pain, the exhaustion – just to try and do that.”

To donate to Rob Burrow and the MND Association on behalf of Craig’s epic trip, please click: bit.ly/RowCraigRow

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