Four men, three legs, 3,000 miles: Why four amputees are rowing the Atlantic

Story highlights

  • Amputees rowing against able-bodied crews
  • Atlantic race will take up to 60 days
  • Amputee team from British army
  • Captain says sport helps his recovery

(CNN)It sounds like a modern version of Jerome K. Jerome's classic novel "Three Men in a Boat." Except there are four of them. Oh, and they only have three legs between them.

And rather than messing about on the genteel River Thames, these serving and ex-British army soldiers are battling the fiercest of elements as they attempt to row -- unsupported -- across the Atlantic Ocean.
That's 3,000 nautical miles of choppy water, burning heat and sore, sore muscles.
    While mixed teams of able-bodied and amputee rowers have tackled the crossing before, this is the first time an all-amputee crew has attempted the challenge, known as "the world's toughest rowing race." Any contact with the support yacht and they will be immediately disqualified. The other 28 competing crews are able-bodied.
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    Double amputee

    The team's captain Cayle Royce lost both his legs and several fingers in an explosion while serving in Afghanistan's Helmand province in 2012. The bomb blast also broke his neck in three places, bruised his lungs and punctured his heart, putting him in a coma for over a month.
    "When you see the state of yourself you think, 'Wow, this is a huge change'," Royce, a keen sailor, tells CNN. "You feel like nobody's going to want you around."
    A good friend visited him in hospital. "He said, 'Don't worry, we'll get you sailing again.' I thought it would be a 100-foot (30-meter) Swan (yacht) with gin and tonics and pretty girls," he laughs.
    Instead Royce, who still serves in the British Army as a Light Dragoon Lance Corporal, was invited to take part in the 2013-14 Atlantic Row as part of a mixed crew of two amputee and two able-bodied soldiers.
    Just 18 months after his life-changing injury, his team came third, beating 13 able-bodied crews.

    Miserable environment

    That experience puts Royce in an ideal position to steer his men through the grueling conditions ahead. Leaving from the Canary Islands, they will row two on, two off, nonstop in two-hour shifts for 40-60 days until they reach Caribbean shores in Antigua.
    In their two-hour "break," the rowers need to feed themselves, clean themselves -- with baby wipes to save water -- repair the boat, navigate and blog, using solar-charged waterproof laptops.
    Their 7.5-meter (25-foot) fiberglass boat, aptly named "Legless," has specially adapted metal slots which the crew can hook into and push against to row.
    But the physical aspect isn't their only worry -- the narrow cabins at front and back of the vessel are only just big enough to lie down in.
    "It's very tight and sweaty -- conditions are really hot," says Royce. "Every time you rotate, everything gets soaked. Condensation rains down on you the whole time. Salt water's hugely corrosive, so you get lots of sores and boils. It's a pretty miserable environment."
    They will burn 8,000 calories a day, but the boat can only carry 5,000 calories worth of daily food -- leading to a 20% loss of body weight. A desalinator will make the team's drinking water, while they will eat wet and dry army rations with a few morale-boosting luxuries -- "fruit pastilles, beef jerky and peanuts."

    Row to recovery

    It sounds like hell on water, so what persuaded them to take part?
    "I was told rather that I volunteered!" jokes Royce. "My rehabilitation absolutely rocketed after I was asked to participate in the last one."
    This is why former Royal Marine Commander Lee Spencer has also taken up the adventure, which is supported by funding from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry's charity, The Royal Foundation.
    Emerging unscathed after three military tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, Spencer lost his leg after being hit by flying debris while helping a driver who had crashed on a motorway in Surrey, England. He'll spend the two-year anniversary of the accident out on the water.
    "A lot of people see the irony of it, but the way I see it is: Life just happened to me. It was my military experience that helped me deal with it," says the 46-year-old, who used his training to instruct a man to make a lifesaving tourniquet around his leg.
    "I've always defined myself by my physicality, being able to cope with any physical situation. I'm no longer that person. This process will enable me to redefine myself and move on to a different phase in my life -- equally as positive but different."

    Team work

    The crew is completed by Nigel Rogoff -- injured in a RAF skydiving accident in 1998 -- and former Irish Guardsman Paddy Gallagher, whose leg was blown off in Afghanistan in 2009.
    What unites the quartet is their thirst for team work and an indefatigable drive to achieve the extraordinary.
    Luckily they're all blessed with good humor, as for weeks they will have only each other's company, audiobooks and occasional sightings of birds, dolphins and sharks to entertain them under the starry nights and sweltering sun.
    "If you can get through rowing an ocean, chances are you can walk down the shop for a pint of milk," laughs Gallagher. "It's the simple things you wouldn't think about.
    "Outdoor pursuits give you the confidence to reintegrate into society and just feel normal about yourself. I only feel disabled when I take my leg off at night."