Sep 13, 2023

Non-rower to row the Atlantic – Henry Cheape’s extraordinary challenge

‘Never rowed before’, and ‘Not an athlete’ are two comments that you don’t expect to be followed by the statement: ‘About to row, single-handed and unsupported across the Atlantic’.

But Henry Cheape is not an ordinary man. Or rather, he IS an ordinary man – he’s just not the typical person who takes on extraordinary challenges like this. The vast majority of people who go to such extremes have usually been doing such things all their lives. An extreme mindset is often what sets those adventurers apart from the rest of us. It’s what enables an ex-Olympian, for example, to cycle thousands of miles, or an ex-Marine take part in a marathon on the Antarctic. And there are people who have been doing those sort of things for most of their lives – serial adventurers and expeditioners, who thrive in the most exposed, high risk situations.

Then there are the occasional outliers. The ones who get to a point in their lives where they think – why not test my resilience? Why not prove that an ordinary bloke can do an extraordinary thing?

Henry Cheape is married with three children. He’s an entrepreneur whose career has been inventive and creative, and whose life choices have led him to set up a business renting out wheelchairs for short-term use – whether in palliative care or for recovery from injury or surgery. He runs a farm with his veterinarian wife, and to get actively involved in environmental and sustainability issues. He’s passionate about making positive changes in our society – as much as he’s passionate about being true to himself.

It was a knee injury and subsequent surgery that formed one of the triggers to make Henry challenge himself. Ten years ago, when he was in his 30s, he was suffering from serious knee pain, along with swelling and occasional locking of his knee. It was making life difficult – with an active lifestyle on the farm and three young children, something had to be done. After two meniscal repairs at home in Scotland, his knee was no better. It was only when he approached orthopaedic surgeon Simon Moyes that the meniscus tear was finally successfully resolved.

After several months of concerted rehab, Henry’s knee was as good as it ever was – pain-free, strong and mobile. So, what does he decide to do? Row thousands of miles across the Atlantic.

For the uninitiated, the meniscus is a rubbery piece of cartilage that provides shock absorption in the knee joint. The knee has two of these half-moon shaped pads that sit in between the thigh bone and the shin bone. Menisci can get damaged and torn through impact or severe twisting. Made up of many filaments of cartilage, a tear can be minor and cause little impact to the functioning of the joint, or it can be more extreme, resulting in frayed and jagged edges that catch between the other structures of the joint – causing pain and swelling. Eventually, a damaged meniscus can lead to arthritis, as the reduced cushioning effect results in the articular cartilage (thin smooth layer on the bones) wearing away, and the bone beneath degenerating.

The problem with meniscus damage is that it doesn’t usually heal well. For anything in the body to heal, it needs a good blood supply to bring vital oxygen and the healing elements within blood plasma. Only the outer section of a meniscus has a good blood supply, so any meniscal tears that cross the inner sections won’t heal on their own.

Simon Moyes has been carrying out arthroscopic (keyhole) meniscal surgery for decades, with a very high success rate. As much as possible, he and the Capital Orthopaedic team try to avoid the need for surgery, providing patients with expert physiotherapy, steroid injections and electro magnetic therapy to stimulate healing. A meniscal repair is generally the most beneficial type of surgery, as it is designed to keep the shock absorbing meniscus in place, although in some cases, the tear is so bad that part or all of the meniscus needs to be removed (meniscectomy).

In Henry’s case, his previous failed meniscal repairs were repaired in turn by Mr Moyes, with life-changing results.

Now, feeling positively bionic, Henry has decided on this giant challenge to push himself to the limit. He’s not a fan of the gym or ‘training’ of any sort, believing that functional activity is far more beneficial than targeted regimes. So, in order to prepare himself for his mammoth task in December 2023, he bought himself a rowing boat and launches from the harbour in his local town of Fife – whatever the weather. Fife, he admits, isn’t the Atlantic – on the east coast of Scotland, it rarely gets the howling gales and big swells to be found on the West side. But the weather is definitely unpredictable, and the currents, winds and swells still provide an ample training ground for the Big Row.

There’s another ‘functional by-product’ element to Henry’s training. Some months ago, he and his young son were doing an impromptu beach clean when they came across some abandoned lobster pots. They took them home, repaired them and decided to have a go at catching some lobsters – with immediate success. Suddenly, this luxurious delicacy was regularly on the family dinner menu – and Henry discovered a great purpose for his ‘training’. Every day, he rows out to the pots to bait them, and rows back to check the catch. And every day, he takes the pots just a little bit further out. It’s a rudimental version of ‘pyramid training’, but better. Henry feels motivated by the thought of tasty dinner, and each day, he is getting stronger and fitter, as he yanks on the oars against the current, the wind or the lashing rain.

With no small amount of luck and serendipity (a suitable boat that has already successfully done one Atlantic crossing became available at the exact moment Henry started seriously looking for one; a space suddenly appeared on the Atlantic Campaigns group, which normally has a three-year waiting list), the plan came together quickly and Henry and his family set their sights on the December departure date. The children and his wife Louisa are all supportive – although, as Christmas approaches, Henry thinks his three children might waver a little…as may he.

Henry’s confident that his knee will hold up, but the major unknown is whether the rest of him can handle it. As he says, he won’t know until he tries. He’s planning to do the row in ‘normal clothes’, which for him means wearing a collared shirt and comfortable slacks. He wants to avoid commercially produced, freeze dried and highly packaged food, too, pointing out that ‘Shackleton did his expedition to the Antarctic on oat cakes and seal meat.’ Using whole foods may make the boat heavier, but Henry has a point to make about real, organic and locally sourced food (as demonstrated in his fundraising for Sustain – see below).

As a man with a strong social conscience, Henry decided to raise money for three different charities – each with an ethos that is close to his heart.

Global Canopy is dedicated to preventing deforestation of the world’s rainforests through data collection and analysis. Without honest, clear and locally sourced information, it is easy for deforestation to happen ‘under the radar’. Global Canopy is dedicated to collecting and analysing raw data about what is really happening in the remote rainforests of the world – holding loggers and developers to account and providing information for investors and corporations to keep them in line with the law and their ERG commitments.

Sustain is an alliance of organisations and communities working together for a better system of food, farming and fishing. For Henry, who lives and works on a farm, this is a subject close to his heart. Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, enrich society and culture and promote equity.

Nomad Conservation Fund Nomad Safari company based in Tanzania has committed to providing opportunities for local people, including offering training camps for careers, supporting local suppliers, using their camps for medical outreach and funding free school meals – all aimed at creating a positive cycle of empowerment and opportunity.

Wheelfreedom Henry’s wheelchair company is co-sponsoring the Atlantic row, as well as providing the cushions on which he will be sitting, day-in, day-out for the entire journey across the Atlantic.

To find out more and to donate to these charities, visit Henry’s website here:


31. January 2024 Update: 

Congratulations Henry! Team PollyAnne’s Henry Cheape completed the World’s Toughest Row in 49 days, 12 hours, and 11 minutes, arriving 26th overall and 5th in the solo category. Crossing the finish line against the backdrop of a stunning Antiguan sunset, Henry expresses gratitude for the challenging but ultimately rewarding experience, highlighting the struggle with solitude and missing his family. The finish was marked by a warm welcome, with superyacht sirens and applause echoing in the dockyard.

Watch more here:

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