A challenge to support UnLtd and break a world record

Guy Rigby shares how he committed himself to an adventurous challenge to raise funds for UnLtd, who finds, funds, and support social entrepreneurs.

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Cherry Reynard
Published: 03 Feb 2022 Updated: 13 Jun 2022
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We are proud to announce that Guy and David successfully completed this challenge in 53 days becoming the oldest pair ever to row any ocean. Guy even made it back in time for his wedding anniversary! The following interview was conducted prior to Guy and David setting off in December 2021.

Until recently, Guy Rigby was Smith & Williamson’s Head of Entrepreneurial Services, advising business owners on the ambitious and often perilous journey to success.

Having stepped back to Chairman, he handed his role to the next generation, and decided to embark on his own hazardous journey – a two-man, 3,000-mile row from the Canaries to Antigua, as part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

During his time at Smith & Williamson, Guy recognised the power of entrepreneurship, which creates jobs and wealth, often supporting local communities and enabling philanthropy. He therefore decided this challenge would raise money for UnLtd, a charity that funds and supports social entrepreneurs, often in deprived areas.

What gave you the idea to row across the Atlantic?
In 2019, at 66, I’d gone past normal retirement age and, although I loved my work, I was starting to realise I couldn’t carry on forever. I needed to hand over to the next generation. At the same time, I was keen to give something back. That’s when I found UnLtd, our chosen charity, who help people who would otherwise never have a chance to start a business.

Also, having sat behind a desk for most of my career, I wanted to do something real. I had a fisherman friend who regularly braved the high seas and I’d always felt a little jealous! I knew I couldn’t climb a mountain – I’d be too terrified - and I couldn’t run 40 marathons back-to-back. However, having started training at Marlow Rowing Club in 2014, I could row a bit and I thought that might be a possibility.

I started looking around and the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge swam into view.

That was a real catalyst. Back then, it all seemed like a great idea and not at all scary. As time has passed, however, the enormity of the challenge has now fully sunk in!

Have you always enjoyed the water?
I’ve always liked mucking about in boats, but mostly little sailing boats and yachts. I did a Royal Yachting Association (RYA) skipper course and I’ve chartered small yachts in the Greek Islands, Turkey and Croatia. In the 1990s, I was lucky enough to be asked to chair a conference in Australia, so I took advantage of that and explored the Whitsundays. However, I would say I was more focused on floating about on a yacht than making any serious passage.

How are you preparing for the trip?
We are learning as we go. We got the boat in March and have been out in some reasonably inhospitable conditions. In the UK, we’ve had to deal with tides, winds and chop, but we haven’t yet been out in any big, messy seas, where it’s impossible to row and you’re being thrown about. We can only imagine what it must be like to experience 40 foot waves. On the approach to Antigua, the depth of the water shelves from five miles to almost nothing. Although the end may be in sight, it’s possible we will experience the worst conditions then.

How did you meet your rowing partner?
As I mentioned earlier, I was partly inspired to do this by my fisherman friend. His name was Richard Murray. For many years, we raced a Salcombe Yawl together and enjoyed plenty of other adventures. He was 11 years my senior and died of pancreatic cancer in 2017 after a brave fight. My rowing partner is his son, David, who is 11 years younger than me. He’s well-versed in extreme sports, having completed six Ironman events. The ‘in’ joke is that I’ll do the cooking and he can do the rowing.

Originally, I planned to do this as a quad. This would have meant a circa 40-45 day crossing. I made a list of all the dead certs that I ‘knew’ would like to do it with me and contacted them. Needless to say they all thought I was mad and ran as fast as they possibly could in the opposite direction.

David, by contrast, was a breath of fresh air. After we’d teamed up, we discovered that, if we went as a pair, we would be the oldest duo ever to row any ocean. We worked out that this would add 15-20 days to our voyage, which is considerable. However, the prospect of a world record was too enticing and our fate was sealed.

Which elements are you most nervous about?
It would be foolish not to be nervous – this is an enormous physical and mental challenge and we need to be alert to the dangers. The first week to ten days will be particularly challenging as we learn to live on the ocean.

I’m particularly worried about the impact of seasickness, which could mean that we’re unable to eat or drink enough, leading to disorientation and hallucinations. Rapid weight loss can be a problem, with most people arriving in Antigua some 10 kgs lighter.

The biggest dangers, however, are falling overboard and our general health, along with equipment failure.

Assuming we get through those, there are likely to be mental health issues. We will only sleep for two hours at a time for 60 days and this can do strange things to your brain. We have been getting some coaching from a professional, who is teaching us about how the emotional brain works and how to control it. We hope this will add to our resilience.

Last but not least, we will need to be conscious of the local wildlife. While sharks have been known to bite an oar in half, the real danger can be marlin. In last year’s challenge, four out of the twenty boats were holed, one with a 30 cm spike coming through the hull between a sleeping rower’s legs. He was very lucky!

Why did you pick UnLtd as your Charity?
I wanted to focus on entrepreneurship. I feel very strongly about the benefits entrepreneurs bring to communities in terms of wealth, employment and social cohesion. Initially, I wasn’t able to find anything that made a difference, but eventually I found UnLtd, which is a charity whose aim is to develop a generation of social leaders with enduring impact.

Most of the people they help are women. Women don’t tend to get as big a share of the investment pie as men, so this is important. In addition, nearly 50% of its beneficiaries are Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME). They help these entrepreneurs turn their expertise, talent and ideas into thriving businesses. This is vital to support social mobility and the levelling-up agenda.

We currently have over £500,000 realised or pledged. We still have at least four months of fundraising time left, so we’re hoping for a big total!

Our strategy is to try and make our story go viral. We have accumulated around 40 sponsors and support networks, including Crowdcube, which is pushing it out to its 300,000 or so investors.

Do you see parallels with entrepreneurship?
Of course, it’s all about starting from scratch, preparing a business plan and raising money, all of which are far harder and take much longer than one might imagine.

Finally, what did your family make of it all?
To be honest, my wife was pretty horrified. She’s more accepting of it now as she sees how seriously we’re taking our preparation and safety. We hope to communicate by satellite phone, though that’s not always very effective. In addition, there’s a race tracker and, assuming our boat is visible, it’s an indication that we’re OK. I’m aiming to get to Antigua in time for our 45th wedding anniversary on 19 February 2022. It should be possible, given that we’re leaving on the 12 December, but there are no guarantees!

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This article was previously published on Smith & Williamson prior to the launch of Evelyn Partners.