It started as many good things do: with a conversation. Two sets of people creating altogether different products, but doing so in an incredibly like-minded way.
The more we spoke, the more we realised the stark parallels in our ethos and approach and so the swapping of stories soon transformed into mutual Roastery and brewery tours, the exchanging of ingredients and the beginnings of a collaboration.
Coming to us with various styles of porter made up of different types of hops, Brew By Numbers’ Cal and Bates worked with our Head of Quality, James Bailey, to find something that would balance well with our coffee. Unsurprisingly, a big part of the decision making process was which of our coffees we’d be using.
Looking for something bright and fruited to cut through the richness often found in a porter, we experimented with our Hunkute (Ethiopia), Los Altares (Guatemala) and Kagumoini (Kenya) roasts before finally deciding on Kamwangi (Kenya). Our chosen bean – which we’re due to release as an espresso in the coming weeks – was paired with a porter brewed using Willamette and Centennial hops to create Coffee Porter 10|06.
“We approached Workshop Coffee because they do what we consider the best coffee in London. We really appreciate their top to bottom approach, dealing with famers, processing the beans in their Roastery and roasting to a very high spec before getting the end result to cup via their coffeebars, retail sales and wholesale partners”
-- Bates, Head Brewer, BBNo.
Saturday 20th August saw the official launch of our collaboration, as throngs of thirsty beer lovers descended on the Brew By Numbers Brewery and Tap Room to enjoy a few weekend beers.
To celebrate and to complement the partnership, we braved the weekend winds to offer up two coffees from our filter range for visitors to enjoy alongside their porter. Serving Los Altares and Kagumoini throughout the afternoon, we were also able to enjoy BBNo.’s plethora of delicious beers as the day wore on.
The Brew By Numbers Coffee Porter is available to drink in and take home from our Clerkenwell Café.
Since we first began roasting our Cult of Done espresso five years ago, its only real constant has been change.
The moniker – taken from Bre Pettis’ Cult of Done Manifesto – was, and is, symbolic of an approach, an ethos and a way of working: everything is a draft, in a state of constant evolution in which we strive to revise, revisit, rework and improve.
It’s an ethos we’ve continually adhered to. Informing not just our beloved house espresso, but every coffee that has left our Roastery during our half-decade of existence, we’ve sought to continually refine our approach to sourcing, roasting and brewing the best coffee we possibly can.
We’ve learnt, we’ve pared back, we’ve simplified.
We’ve implemented additional processes, brought in new equipment -- all in the name of improving the cycle of quality andshowcasing unique, exciting and delicious coffees
Now it’s time for Cult of Done to evolve once more.
In offering coffee that’s clean, sweet and fresh (and therefore seasonal), we’ve always aimed to showcase the inherent characteristics and quality of the ingredients we source. For filter, that’s meant a single origin offering from the get-go and it’s increasingly been the case with our house espresso, too. Indeed, for eighteen months (or twelve versions), our house espresso has been single origin. From Hunkute to Serra Do Cigano, its contents have been from one lot produced by one farmer, cooperative or factory.
In the same way we defer praise to the producers for the quality in the cup in the rest of our range, we feel it’s time to do the same for our house espresso. It’s our most widely drunk and enjoyed offering and so the next iterative step in our espresso journey is to shine the light directly on those responsible for creating the potential deliciousness we’re charged with adequately tapping.
For us, it’s an exciting juncture. Removing the mental shortcut provided by a default option will no doubt bring with it a few immediate challenges. However, we also hope it starts a conversation and, as time goes on, that the reappearance of familiar names in the range – Duromina, Hunkute, La Parroquia, Gitesi – will help bolster the relationships we’ve been developing with farmers and producers over the years. In an effort to close the loop between sourcing and serving, we aim to bring those relationships ever closer to our customers and our wholesale partners.
So what changes?
Beyond the name, very little. Kicking things off by welcoming back Hunkute Espresso into our range, we’ll continue to offer between one and three espressos at any given time. They’ll always adhere to our three core tenets of ‘clean, sweet and fresh’ and each will be distinct. It’s just that now, more than ever before, it’ll be clearer why that’s the case.
There’s still more to learn and we’ll continue to tweak and tinker as we do. Here’s to the next phase.
Friends and long-time partners, The 5th Floor cycling team, have recently returned from their annual training camp. His legs having recovered, team captain Rudy summarises the trip and relives the short but sweet experience.
We at The 5th Floor try to get away as a team at least once a year and this year was no exception.
Heading to Mallorca, we treated the trip as a cycling camp – an opportunity to get in some mid-year training and miles – but also as a cycling holiday. The distances matter, but the latter was most important to us; an opportunity to go away with friends, have a good time and enjoy the rides.
Mallorca is the Disneyland of cycling. It’s a bit of cliché, with vast numbers of riders making the yearly pilgrimage there, but it’s a cliché for a reason. Just a couple of hours on a plane from London, its roads are smooth, its climbs iconic and its scenery close to unparalleled. We enjoyed coastal views, mountain passes and winding Spanish lanes both on and off our bikes.
The distance we covered wasn't huge, it was the vertical metres of climbing that were tough. 361 horizontal kilometres were covered, but within that was 6,783 metres of climbing in just four days – the equivalent of heading to the top of Mont Blanc one and a half times.
One of the best part of the trips was hanging out and spending time with friends. Dropping back and helping each other out if anyone wasn’t feeling particularly strong; making each other breakfast; preparing lunch – everyone had different duties, helping and contributing where and how they could.
My duty most days was to make our morning coffee. I took a large V60 dripper with me and would brew up a couple of 1-litre batches for the six of us to enjoy as we went about our pre-ride preparation and rituals before finally rolling out.
Grinding coffee for six people with a hand grinder was challenging, but fun – all a part of what became a morning ritual and allowing us to appreciate our morning filter event more.
To read more about The 5th Floor’s trip to Mallorca, and to keep up-to-date on their latest races, news and updates, you can visit their website.
Rudy and The 5th Floor team were brewing our Los Altares filter coffee using our ceramic Porlex Hand Grinder and a V60 drip filter. You can purchase some of the last bags of Los Altares here and find everything you need to brew the same way at home in our hardware section.
The final instalment of The Tempest Two's guest posts comes at an apt time. Firstly, they've recently released the trailer to their feature-length film, which will chart their journey across the Atlantic using on-board footage captured by the two. It's scheduled to premier later this summer.
Secondly, Tom and James have had itchy feet ever since they found themselves back on solid ground earlier this year and began planning their next challenge almost immediately. Later this month, they're off to tackle their latest adventure and we're happy to say we'll be continuing to support them.
Before they leave once again, though, here's how they made it to the finish despite the best intentions of the weather and the ocean.
Having been given the good news of a clear run into Barbados, predictably our hopes were raised and expectations were set on a finish date. If we were to carry on at a good pace, we'd be sipping on cocktails on the 9th February, reunited with our loved ones, and sleeping in a soft, clean bed.
Optimism, however, is probably the most dangerous feeling one can allow on the sea. Around two weeks out, our weather window was shut firmly in our faces and we were faced with a heavy storm coming down from North America. Picking up pace and strength, its course, it seemed, was focused directly on our 7 meter boat.
There was no avoiding it.
By the time it had reached us, the storm had gained a name: Hurricane Alex, the first hurricane to form in the Atlantic for over half-a-century. Good timing.
We tied down all of our precious items, stored things away, and locked ourselves in the cabin, waiting for the brunt of the storm. We spent 72 hours in a cabin the size of a single bed, being hit by 60 knot winds and 50 foot waves, our modest boat straining and moaning at the force of the elements around it. Those days seemed to drag on forever, as sleeping was near enough impossible given the washing machine-like conditions.
When it eventually passed over us, and the sun reappeared, we dusted ourselves off and carried on as normal, relieved to be back on the oars and in one piece. Safe to say a Kasigwa aeropress was well out of the question during these 3 days, although hugely enjoyed after the forced break.
The frustration of the three-day delay gave us a huge boost and our minds were focused on one thing: pushing ourselves harder to get to Barbados faster. Over the next two weeks, we rowed together more, sometimes for up to 10 hours with no break, and every stroke of the oars had an extra 10% behind it. We averaged well over 60 nautical miles per day, and ticked off miles, hours and eventually days from our departure ETA. Again, optimism began to climb and, with the finish line a mere 500 miles away our hopes were dashed by the weather once again.
Two enormous pressure systems that weren't visible on any weather charts loomed over us, huge black clouds bringing with them their own weather patterns that stopped us dead in our tracks, and began pushing us South at a rate of knots.
These were the hardest two days, as we were forced to succumb to a sense of total deflation and helplessness. We tried everything we could, rowing together for hours and hours, but gaining no ground. We were being pushed in the opposite direction from our destination. Torrential rain kept us wet and cold and our morale dropped to an all-time low, acutely aware that our families had booked their flights and we were looking at a real chance of missing them completely at the finish line.
We fought through the dark days one more and came out the other side stronger, pushing ourselves as hard as physically possible. Fuelled by the thoughts of our family and several cups of Kasigwa (albeit a little saltier than usual), that was all the power we needed. It wasn't until this point that we realised the ridiculousness of many of our daily habits, including brewing coffee. Usually enjoying our Workshop fix in the warmth of the Clerkenwell Cafe or at home in our kitchen, we couldn't be further from those familiar surroundings, as we continually prepared it in the most isolated of environments. Despite the juxtaposition of context and surroundings, in this simple process was a consistent reminder of home and its comforts. A total of 62 cups of aeropress (and four coffee related accidents) showed our subconscious intent to re-create what we knew.
Over the next week, we gained back the two days we'd lost and, after an extremely close call with a cargo ship, which was a mere 100-metres away from crushing us completely, we were within 20 miles of land, pushing through a night-shift that would be our last if all went well.
The sunrise on the 10th February was like no other we'd seen since setting off. The sun illuminated the horizon and allowed us to see a rich, green island before us -- the first land for the first time in over 50 days. We rounded the northern tip of the island and prepared for the notorious entrance into Port St. Charles, a six-hour slog against strong winds, currents and the risk of shallow reefs.
The Atlantic wasn’t going to make things easy, and those 6 hours were the hardest rowing of the entire trip. We applied back-breaking strokes but could only muster an average speed of less than 1 knot with both of us on the oars.
But it didn’t matter. We were met a few miles from the port by a boat full of our nearest and dearest whose cheers gave us the energy to finish the mammoth trip with everything we had.
We pulled into Port St. Charles Yacht Club at 3pm on 10th February. We were exhausted, skinny, impossibly tanned, but ecstatic.
We'd completed what many thought was impossible.
We'd conquered a challenge widely regarded as the toughest on Earth, with no experience, and stronger friends than when we had left.
Our first steps on land were wobbly, but triumphant and we gingerly stumbled to the bar to enjoy the first sip of the coldest, most glorious beer of our lives. The days that followed were some of the best, bringing with them unparalleled feelings of relief and happiness.
After settling and allowing the enormity of our achievements to begin to sink in, we let ourselves consider: what next?
The last six months have been an absolute whirlwind.
Moving the production department into a purpose built space in Bethnal Green has seen much more than just an address change. We’ve installed and commissioned a brand new P25 Probat roaster with their much improved burner technology and implemented a whole host of new quality control equipment: a Sinar BeanPro moisture meter, a ColorTrack colour analyser, an Ikawa sample roaster and a temperature controlled green coffee room fitted with a UV light to help us better identify and sort defects.
Getting to grips with the new roaster and profile of our coffees has been a huge learning experience. Previously, roasting on the P12 Probat in our Clerkenwell Cafe, we were turning 8 kilo batches for filter roasts to ensure adequate development and to drop them in our desired timeframe. Meanwhile, the maximum batch size we could roast for espresso while still thoroughly enjoying the results was 11 kilos.
When familiarising ourselves with the new roaster and attempting to profile our coffees, it felt like we’d traded in our old, reliable Volvo for a turbo-charged Porsche; we needed to learn how to drive again given the incredible amount of acceleration and braking at our disposal. The sheer power from the new burner dictated we revise and establish very different in-between batch protocols compared to the former P12, whilst starting gas percentages, and charge temperatures in particular, changed quite dramatically to ensure we created roast recipes that produced properly developed roasts and thus delicious cups of coffee.
We never expected to put 25 kilos into the beast. Instead we started with trial batches of a very conservative 16 kilos. Having to really slam the brakes on to avoid roasts reaching their ideal drop temperatures in 9 minutes or less led us to incrementally up the batch size. Trialling 18 and 20 kilos offered greater control, but again these sizes had a tendency to fly through the roasting process if not monitored carefully. After numerous stages of trial and error, 22 kilo batches brought us to a position where we had the ability to manipulate and control the batch with delicacy, but without the feeling equivalent to aquaplaning that we felt with the smaller batches.
Given increased power, and greater control via the new touchpad interface, we felt confident turning batches of filter and espresso roasts with the same green weight. An added benefit of keeping the batch size the same for both styles of roasting is in making it easier to compare and contrast the two styles of roasting (not to mention more thermal stability and predictability between batches).
With greater ease, we’re better able to compare the approach to roasting a filter and an espresso batch and subsequently pin down exactly where we can achieve the following for an espresso:
As unfashionable as it is to say, our espresso roasts won’t create an optimally agreeable cup when brewed to 1.3-1.5% TDS. However, in a vastly greater concentration of 8-10% TDS, the traits we aim for with our espresso roasts do go a long way to improving the balance of the cup.
Espresso is brewed with much less water, the solvent to dissolve flavour, as well as being vastly less clarified than paper-filtered, brewed coffee. This concentration of goodies dissolved in the cup (along with the oft-forgotten undissolved solids - suspended oils, lipids and particulates that worm their way through holes in your VST basket, some getting emulsified along the way) creates a uniquely textured beverage. We still want to strike a balance between sweetness, acidity and bitterness, all with a clarity of flavour, and, thanks to a lot of experimenting in our dedicated espresso QC lab, we've been able to amend our house espresso recipes.
Recently dropping our basket size down and altering the dose of coffee accordingly has allowed us to reduce the machine temperature, making for more uniform and stable brewing conditions within the portafilter basket. This, coupled with a slightly reduced pump pressure and fractionally more open brew ratio, has led to espresso shots with superb sweetness, great clarity and a much more velvety mouthfeel.
A caveat: when designing your espresso recipe and brewing specs you first need to understand what drinks you will be serving and how many of them you need to brew in a given amount of time. A very different brew recipe would be required for a cafe serving 1,000 12oz lattes a day versus a curated coffee service serving exclusively espresso at a low volume event.
17g LM Basket / 18g VST Basket
9 bar pressure
94.0C water (at ~100ppm)
Mazzer Robur / Mythos Clima-Pro
15g VST Basket
7.5 bar pressure
92.0C water (at ~100ppm)
With a greater understanding of the green coffee entering the building and more control over it before it gets near the roaster, as well as a multitude of new ways to predict, control and adapt our roasting approach, we are happier than ever with the results.
Six months on in Bethnal Green and we’ve come a long way, but there’s still so much more to be done.
On Tuesday, we sent out 52 bags of practice coffee to the each of the national and regional finalists that will be descending on Dublin in three weeks time.
As competitors have been frantically plunging away across countries and continents in a bid to secure a place in the final on June 23rd, we've not only been busy organising the English Championship, but readying ourselves for our involvement as roasting partners in the World Aeropress Championship.
It all started towards the beginning of the year, when we began speaking with Café Imports, long-time collaborators of the WACs and even longer-time friends and partners of our own. Together we started to work towards selecting a competition coffee, with our aim from beginning to end being to ensure whatever was chosen was well-produced, interesting and, of course, delicious.
On an unusually sunny Tuesday afternoon, we convened in our Bethnal Green Roastery to gather round the cupping table together and sample potential options. Laid out before us were a veritable smorgasbord of fresh crop coffees all vying for a place in the brewing chamber on the day of the competition. The water was boiled and poured over the fresh grounds, the cupping bowls were broken and skimmed, and cupping spoons were poised between thumb and forefinger.
Several clockwise rotations of the table followed before a lengthy discussion on taste, freshness and available quantities. By the end of the afternoon, we had made a decision.
This stemmed from a multitude of factors. First and foremost was taste: sandwiched between delightful and comforting sweet, mellow caramels and a vanilla finish were bright, citrusy lemon balm, candied lime, alongside a white peach acidity. Combined, these made for a clear, complex and satisfying cup. As interesting as the tasting notes was the story of the coffee itself. Usually choosing to source, roast and brew coffees from individual farmers when working in Colombia, Río Negro presented an opportunity to showcase equally exceptional work, but in a different way; the lot is communally produced by ten farmers in and around the village of Río Negro.
Not that strange an occurrence in itself, what sets it apart from other community lots is that the coffee is a single, less frequently found variety - Yellow Bourbon. With Roya decimating older varieties such as Bourbon and Typica in Colombia over the years, forcing farmers to plant more leaf-rust resistant trees like Colombia and Castillo, for an area to maintain production of Yellow Bourbon is testament to the hard work of the following farmers in managing their land and keeping Roya at bay:
As all the farmers also grow other varieties, the Yellow Bourbon cherries were isolated before being processed and dried separately. Dry fermented between 18 and 24 hours before washing, they were then carefully dried under parabolic canopies for between 12 and 18 days. The result is a coffee with real elegance, presenting a refined sweetness and unique character that we liked so much, we bought some for our own use too.
Primarily we knew we wanted to tap the sweetness in. However, our experience with roasting Yellow Bourbon was generally limited to naturally processed, lower-altitude Brazils. We therefore had to rely more on information about the coffee’s moisture and density to begin profiling. Turning test batch one with a huge amount of initial gas, and a very high charge temperature, the coffee thankfully showed no signs of tipping, but did taste pretty green and prickly, even while registering at a reasonable colour.
Deciding to slightly reduce the charge temperature and use a more modest gas setting to kick us off ensured the initial portion of the roast was adequately stretched out, allowing more time in the roast to degrade the bitter acids and bring out the natural sweetness we knew was there. The result -- increased caramels with ripe peach notes and a much more rounded acidity -- was closer to what we wanted, but we still found there to be a slight nutty character in the occasional bowl. This led us to stretch out the final portion of the roast and reach the development we required before going into production.
A new evolution in our roasting now sees us scanning coffee under a blacklight before it enters the drum. The UV light screening highlights beans that fluoresce, which we now pick out before roasting a batch. The reasons behind this could be moisture damage, chipped beans, mould, or other factors hardly noticeable to the human eye under normal light, but this extra step goes a long way to quality and the result is a much more consistent coffee, cup to cup.
During the roast, we aimed to get the environmental temperature probe to read 220oc before stabilising it at 217-218oc for the final portion of development. Dropping the batch at 10 minutes 30 seconds,the bean temperature probe RoR still read healthily, climbing at 1oc every 15 seconds to the soundtrack of one or two isolated pops in the cooling tray.
As the coffee cooled, we scanned the batches for quakers -- un-ripened coffee, which does not fare well in the roasting process -- and pulled out everything we could find. From there, samples were ground and placed in our ColorTrack for analysis. With readings of around 49.5 when ground quite fine and groomed flat with minimal chaff in the sample, the green coffee initially contained around 11.1% moisture with the weight loss of each batch around netting out at 13.2%.
Quality control checkpoints performed and having cleanly jumped through the numerous hoops we continually set ourselves, we were satisfied.
With the dispatch of the coffee comes the excitement and anticipation of the judging process: an opportunity to descend on Dublin’s WigWam to taste the coffee afresh, as dictated by the palate of the finalists, and experience the breadth and depth of the ingredient (for better and for worse). This year, that responsibility and honour falls to our Head Roaster, Dan Boobier.
There’s also, of course, the opportunity to enjoy the beer, the soundtrack and the company present. It’s the WACs -- as important as the brewing of delicious coffee is the involvement in the always exuberant atmosphere.
We're looking forward to being there.
For the past two years we’ve shared a roasting sponsorship deal for the UK AeroPress Championship with Square Mile Coffee Roasters, our close neighbours in London’s East End. As the union has fractured (for the better in our eyes as it means more exposure to great coffee from the simple plastic brewer), with Scotland and Wales now holding their own comps, last weekend we played host to the 2016 AeroPress Championship of England, opening the doors to the public for the first time at our new Vyner Street roastery in the process.
Each year that goes by the posters for regional and national AeroPress champs become more impressive, more iconic and, in many cases, more coveted. As a sideshow to the main event, the poster creation provides an opportunity for artists, illustrators and designers to get creative and showcase a range and depth of skill.
This year, we worked with London-based Dan Mather. An independent silkscreen printer and graphic designer, Dan created a striking series of prints. Set-off by their unapologetically bold colours, the three colour-ways were distributed to and displayed around cafes all over England in the run-up to the event, with the imagery also forming the base for the one-off bag labels.
This year, aiming to provide something more considered for the 27 competitors to brew and serve to our panel of discerning judges, we invited our friends from Square Mile to cup in our new QC lab in the roastery. Cupping our entire range of filter coffees together with their full selection, sat alongside the potential components was a 50/50 blend of each Workshop and Square Mile coffee in every permutation possible to help us identify which would complement each other and produce a delicious and balanced cup.
In the line up was our Buena Vista from Astrid Medina in Colombia. This coffee always stands out on a table due to its very distinctive berry acidity and refreshing characteristics. Amongst the coffees Square Mile had brought was Mahembe from Rwanda, a coffee we know well, having also had the opportunity to roast and serve it in previous harvests. Possessing a unique character, with incredibly honeyed and potent aromatics complimenting a very refined sweetness, the decision was unanimous that Mahembe, combined with Buena Vista, created something complex and enjoyable.
The first batch we blended went out to the lucky competitors who managed to secure a ticket, giving them just under two weeks to get familiar with the coffee before competition day. They weren’t, however, informed what was in the coffee, having to rely purely on their tasting abilities to produce a recipe that would yield tasty results.
Then on Saturday 30th April, when competitors arrived with brewing gear in tow, they picked up a more recently roasted bag with the revealed coffees on the back label.
With a smattering of EK43 grinders and Fetco hot water towers dotted around the modular bar in the Vyner Street Training Space, the competitors had an hour to prepare their beans and brewers before we kicked off at 3:00pm.
Oli Bradshaw on the decks played a great mix of 90’s hip hop and Motown which went down fantastically as the smell of London’s finest hotdogs drifted in from the Big Apple Hotdogs grill outside. Stuart Ritson headed-up the bar serving Kernel Brewery Table Beer on the house, while Ross Brown kept everyone tickled or scratching their heads as he commentated the event.
A whiteboard with Polaroid shots of all competitors tracked progress through the rounds, their fate decided in groups of three by the pointing fingers of our own Head of Production, Richard Shannon, Anette Moldvaer, Director at Square Mile Coffee Roasters and Isabelle Legeron, Master of Wine and the brains behind London’s RAW Wine Fair.
The first nine rounds saw the 27 using sieves, double grinding and removing chaff, chilling their brews with iced flannels and brewing with customised water from temperature controlled gooseneck kettles. Precision was the name of the game as our competitors kept a steely nerve under the watchful eye of some 200 attendees.
After the knock-outs and the semis had reduced the field of 27 to a final 3, we were left with Gregory Boyce of Lanark Coffee, Liam Field of Macintyre Coffee and Matt Randell of Climpson & Sons brewing for glory. Cameras stretched out in hands, the crowd craned their necks to watch the three finalists spend 8 minutes brewing to the best of their abilities. Carrying the bowls over with an air of reverence, the three judges unanimously decided on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place:
1st - Matt Randell
2nd - Liam Field
3rd - Gregory Boyce
Congratulations Matt on brewing the best cup of the day and winning a Baratza grinder, a 12 month subscription from both Square Mile and Workshop and, of course, a place at the World AeroPress Championship in Dublin this June. Thanks also to everyone who helped make the event - competitors, sponsors and spectators. Without you all, we wouldn’t have had such a blast.
Today, England. Tomorrow, the world.
With the English Champion now crowned, our attention turns to the World AeroPress Championships in Dublin. As sole roasting partner for the event, we’ve worked with Cafe Imports (the WAC green coffee partner) to select the coffee to be brewed by the 52 regional and national finalists on the day. In keeping with the English Champs, we’ll be keeping coffee information close to our chests until the day itself. We will, however, be sending out practice coffee to all WAC competitors following upcoming trial roasting and QC, so if you happen to be a 2016 AeroPress national champion, it’ll be landing on your doorstep in the coming weeks.
The second in a three-part series of guests posts from James and Tom (AKA The Tempest Two), the two head out into the abyss.
The enormity of their endeavour becomes apparent, the dangers they face become all to real and their Aeropress brewing technique is somewhat compromised.
As the sun-dropped on Day 1, the enormity of what lay ahead finally dawned on us.
The departure was a surreal experience, no fireworks, start-guns or theatrics. Just the two of us, in a rowing boat, quietly rowing into the distance. The feeling is one that will stay with us forever, and an emotion we now crave since being back on land. As the sun finally disappeared, the first night-shifts began, which meant rowing alone on deck – in the dark – for the first time.
For the first couple of weeks, the night time represented a real fear; an innate dread of the unknown. Children are scared of the dark because of monsters under their bed. What we feared was more real.
It’s worth mentioning at this point, that, for the vast majority of our crossing, the moon was not present. The nights were therefore filled with an impenetrable darkness. Lights were useless and would only hinder our night-vision, so we were surrounded by black, praying that the breaking waves wouldn’t find us as we resorted to guessing our boats position on the wave, often resulting in the loud crack of the oars against our shins – waking both of us up.
On the 12th day, at 5:13AM, a breaker found its mark and turned our humble boat (Roberta) upside down. James was thrown from the seat and into the icy water. Under water, headphones still playing music into his ears (Rihanna if you are curious), the seconds seemed like hours as James tried to break the surface. Just managing to grasp the edge of the boat, which by this point had righted itself, he thanked his lucky stars.
Many who have not spent time at sea would envisage simply swimming back towards the boat and climbing aboard. Sadly, the process isn’t this simple. If you become separated from your boat, and have no life-line attaching you to safety, the odds are heavily stacked against you. Within seconds, you can be swept away by currents even an Olympic swimmer couldn’t overcome.
Aside from the obvious shock of the event, what amazed us about the capsize was the way an innate instinct of survival kicked in almost instantly. There was no panic or distress, instead approaching the situation methodically and calmly. When the shit hit the fan, auto-pilot took over and we dealt with it.
Every day that passed, we gained knowledge of the sea, adapting to our surroundings so that, within a couple of weeks, we had become accustomed to the sleep patterns and the physical demands of the gruelling 2 hours on, 2 hours off routine. It is truly incredible how the body and mind can evolve to cope with new challenges and environments. We became fitter, stronger and more savvy as every day passed. We learnt to read the sea and understand its warning signs, even beginning to predict when the waves would pick up depending on the positioning of the sun and moon, and at what times our bodies would crash if we didn’t eat enough.
Routine at sea played a huge part of our daily success, both mentally and physically. We cooked our freeze dried meals every 6 hours.
9am. 3pm. 9pm. 3am.
These were supplemented by our daily snack packs, which included Pip and Nut, Coconut Oil, a variety of chocolate, Bounce balls and – as often as the temperamental ocean would allow – Workshop Coffee.
Every other day (weather depending), we would boil an extra 600ml of water in the JetBoil during our 3pm feed and begin to prep the Aeropress. Although it seemed like a stretch, and after a relentless session of rowing, even a hassle, the coffee provided a real lift in both the process and the finished result.
As the water was boiling, James would pull the coffee, Porlex hand grinder, brewer and filter papers out of the dry bag and measure out the coffee before grinding and beginning to brew using the freshly JetBoiled water. Placing the plunger on its top, he’d begin his less-than-scientific mental timer (usually half a song on the iPod) before plunging straight into an enamel mug or into the Thermos for later.
The entire process was made all the more interesting by the pitching and tossing of our boat, Roberta, in the seas. Over the entirety of the trip, we only fumbled and subsequently lost two coffees. At the time, it was devastating, but in retrospect, we’ll take those odds.
Before leaving land, we split our trip into three zones. Zones One and Three were both 900 miles, whilst the middle section – Zone Two – was 1,200. Zone One was used to settle in, get comfortable and learn as much as we could. Zone Two was about establishing a steady and consistent pace, staying safe and being cautious, Zone Three was when we’d put the boosters on and the intention from there on in would be to up our speed and intensity as we approached the finish line.
Providing manageable targets, this removed the risk of us trying to tackle the enormous challenge in one go, allowing us to tick smaller progress points off as we went. One bad habit we failed to avoid picking up was constantly analyzing our average pace, distance travelled and the weather. We were constantly looking at these variables to try and predict when we’d arrive at the finish. With so much thinking time on the oars, it was almost impossible to stop yourself doing the maths. Over-analysis builds false hope and is a recipe for disaster, as fast-changing weather and storms soon crush optimism and ultimately your goals.
Our days at sea became a blur, and time became obsolete. Our digital watches simply remained on UK time, as the only reference we needed was when to call home. In our world we worked only in 2 hour blocks and by the sun and the moon. As we approached Zone Three, we were told that we had a weather window that would guide us into Barbados.
Strong following winds, nice steady swells; everything was looking good for a fast finish…