Lockdown Podcast: Hugo Mitchell-Heggs, Submariner & Atlantic Rower

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs, Submariner & Atlantic Rower

Series 2, Episode 5

“Flying fish are a nightmare… they fire off the water like missiles.” Why would this bother a submariner, you might ask? 

For Hugo, life beneath the waves was swapped for life on the waves when he roped his three shipmates… can you call submariners shipmates? Anyway, when they all embarked upon the adventure of competing in a rowing race across the Atlantic Ocean…

“If they get caught by a gust of wind, we’re talking thirty to forty knots of wind out there; they hammer across the sky, whistling past you and it’s not uncommon for sailors and navigators to get concussed at sea by these things…” Yes, we’re still talking about flying fish here, “We had a few splatter into the boat and hit us in the middle of the night.” 

As if this wasn’t enough, they had to contend with missing home, sleep deprivation, salt sores, sea sicknesses, forty-foot waves and then capsizing.

So, why is Hugo doing it all again?

Here’s what everyone said…..

Boris Johnson  00:02

You must, stay at home. Stay at home.

Rachel Owen  00:09

Hello and welcome to ‘Lockdown’! Hosted by Steve Bomford with Mike Davis-Marks. Our Armed Forces operate in challenging environments. Week-by-week, we’ll explore what we can learn from their experiences.

Mike Davis-Marks  00:23

Hi, Steve. Good to be on another podcast with you and I hear you’ve got another rower to interview this time?

Steve Bomford  00:33

Not just a rower. He’s also a submariner, still Serving and involved in a project you’re involved with, which will come as a surprise to our listeners. So this has to do with a submariners’ memorial. Am I right?

Mike Davis-Marks  00:47

The Submariners’ Memorial Appeal, yes. And we’re talking about God’s chosen people, submariners now.

Steve Bomford  00:53

Who are obviously very modest (laughs).

Mike Davis-Marks  00:57

(laughs) Well, let’s get on with it, then.

Steve Bomford  00:59

Yeah, let’s keep you quiet and let’s have a listen to what Hugo’s got to say as I’m sure it’ll be far more interesting (laughs).

Mike Davis-Marks  01:04

(laughs) Concur. 

Steve Bomford  01:08

Hugo, first of all, I would like to say, thank you very much for coming on the podcast.

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  01:14

It’s my pleasure. Really, really happy to be here. Thanks, Steve.

Steve Bomford  01:17

Brilliant. So, I don’t really know where to quite start this. But your current role within the Royal Navy onboard submarines is nuclear engineer. Which I think sounds quite cool anyway. But how did you go from that to rowing the Atlantic? What’s the story there?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  01:33

I suppose it started 10 years ago. It was really nice to go through the whole training process as an officer and working out how nuclear reactors work and working with teams of technicians that look after the kits. And then just randomly one day I came across this thing that oceans were things that could be rowed, not just crossed in ships and submarines. And it just festered in my brain as an idea that I wanted to have a team of submariners do this. And for me, it was about showcasing that, you know, our environment, we’re used to working closely together, we’re used to, you know, the shift patterns, to sleep deprivation, to aggressive environments. So it just felt like the right thing to do to get people from beneath the waves and get them above the waves. So yeah, that’s kind of where it all started and the idea turned into a wonderful reality.

Steve Bomford  02:32

So, how did you recruit your crew? How did you persuade people that this was a great idea because it doesn’t on paper to me look like a great idea at all (laughs).

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  02:41

It’s one of those things. Now I approached some really great guys who, who I knew had the personality that would fit it well. Had the can do, ready to try something new, and I think that’s most of our community. People join the submarine service for various reasons, but many, it’s to you know work with cutting-edge kit and be in a team and all that kind of good stuff. So no, it helped that they were big, strong, resilient individuals, who could row, that was always going to be helpful. But no, it was, for me, it was about picking people who I knew would have the right personality to fit that team, who would have a smile on their face, no matter how dark and miserable things got, even if they had a flying fish hit them in the face at three o’clock in the morning, and they could laugh it off. That was generally a good sign that I’d picked the right person. 

Steve Bomford  03:36

Did that happen? 

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  03:37

Ah (sighs), flying fish are a nightmare! They fire off the water like missiles, you know, they evade their prey, they’re about six to twelve inches long and they jump out of the water to survive whatever’s hunting them. But if they get caught by a gust of wind,  we’re talking like thirty to forty knots of wind out there, they hammer across the sky, whistling past you. And it’s not uncommon that sailors and navigators get concussed at sea by these things. But yeah, we had a few. We had a few splatter into the boats and hit us in the middle of the night. It was pretty, pretty sobering.

Steve Bomford  04:16

So as if rowing across the Atlantic isn’t hard enough, being attacked… it’s just a little bit more, you know, a bit more of a challenge. Okay, so could you tell me about the journey, you know, and what actually happened, please? 

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  04:31

Well, actually, before the actual row, there was this journey to the start line. It was you know… a lot goes into rowing an ocean, the actual row is just the tip of the iceberg. We started out two years before and all this work that went into success mapping, getting there, you know, making sure that we had not just the kit and all the stores and knowing how the boat worked, but making sure that we were physically, you know, ready to do this, to row two hours on, two hours off all day, every day, for over a month. But also that our, we had enough… nothing in the locker in mentally. So that when we were in those deep dark places, you know, those deep dark holes with a bit of sleep deprivation and seasickness and missing home and things are starting to hurt; that we could take care of our minds as well. So actually, that was a big part of the journey… was just getting to the start line and making sure that we were ready in every way we could be. But, you know, the crossing itself was, you know, something else. Yeah, 37 days of two hours on, two hours off… and they warn you that you’re going to experience waves over twenty feet high. You know, and we saw that on the first night. Forty foot waves. It was like living on a log flume in a water park for two weeks. You know, it was just something else, you know, ten years in the Navy and I’ve never seen anything like it. It was incredible. 

Steve Bomford  06:01

Well that’s probably because you’ve spent your time under the waves? It’s a bit easier down there, I guess, in that sense (laughs)? So the journey itself, did you have any tricky moments?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  06:12

Yeah, um, you know, we went through the full highs and lows of the physical battle with our own bodies, you know, developing salt sores and blisters and that was challenging in its own right. It’s how you manage your own mind dealing with repetitive movements over things that really hurt. But, and then you know, there was obviously the mental elements. It was a race that we took part in, so there was a competitive element and stress that came into it from that invisible enemy, I suppose in a way. But definitely the trickiest moment was capsizing. We capsized about five hundred miles from Antigua,  with a three thousand mile crossing and we’re sort of on the home straight, feeling good and weather was big and huge waves and the wind was moving us in the right direction. So we were really on a high. And, you know, for me, I was asleep in the back cabin of our boat. We’ve a cabin at the front end and at the back end of the boat. And I just remember flipping upside down and all the kit in the cabin coming loose and falling on me, water pouring in through the air vent. It was like being in a human-sized washing machine for a moment but it was yeah… that moment of challenge, of you know, how do we overcome this? This is gonna be adversity. This is that life or death moment and putting my trust completely in the hands of the two guys on deck, you know, who, you know, actually were suffering, the full brunt of the force of the waves. One of the guys got sent out into the sea, but luckily was tethered to the boat. So, you know, between the two of them, they had to get themselves back sorted and get the boat safe because you can’t open the hatch when you’re, when you’re capsizing because you risk flooding the cabin and making it worse. So for me it was an absolute lesson of trust and, you know, empowering my team to make decisions under pressure and get the job done to keep us safe, you know and that for me, will, will stay with me forever that we got through that dark night. You know, but it brought us closer as a team and actually, I think one of those things that’s really common is actually being grateful for things when they happen and laughing at things when they pass, you know, having that humour. And the first thing we did when we got ourselves safe was realised that my trainers had floated out into the middle of the Atlantic, which was hilarious. You know, if anyone’s listening to this and happens to be in the Atlantic and sees a pair of size 11 Reebok Nanos floating around, you know, please do keep an eye on them for me. I’m still looking for them.

Steve Bomford  08:55

Did your Mum write your name in them, so we know they’re yours? (laughs)

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  08:57

(laughs) Yeah, something like that.

Steve Bomford  09:01

So am I right, in just imagining, visualising what you’ve just described there. So there’s two of you sleeping your bunks as it were, one at each end?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  09:08


Steve Bomford  09:09

You’ve got two guys rowing. It flips over. And then you just have to stay in there and wait it out basically until the other two guys can sort it all out for you?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  09:17

Yeah, exactly. Complete trust.

Steve Bomford  09:18

Because that doesn’t feel like… I mean, I’m not trained to do any of this, but my reaction would be to try and do something about it. Which of course sounds like absolutely the wrong thing to do?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  09:28

Yeah, absolutely. No, that would be exactly. And we drilled it. We practised it. We simulated it for ourselves. We went to, long before we started, we even pushed off from the Canary Islands. We went to the kinetic Haslar tank, down in Gosport and we put the boats in this big, you know, artificial swimming pool type thing with a crane and we capsized it with us on it, just to see what would happen and you know, it’s putting the trust in the kit, but trusting the process as well. It creates that self-confidence and knowledge that you need to do certain things in a sequence for it to be safe. It’s exactly the same as being on a submarine. You know, we have emergency processes and EOPs in place and responses and ways we do things to make sure that we’re safe. You know, it’s drilled into us and the more repetition means that you, when it actually happens for real you know exactly how to behave in that fight or flight moment. You don’t need to think, it’s just instinct. So yeah, trust and instinct saved our lives that night. Definitely. And it was at night, just to make it a little bit easier…(laughs) (laughs) Yeah, just for a tease, but it would have been boring otherwise wouldn’t it? To make things a little bit more interesting. Yeah, I was having a really lovely sleep until that point as well so it was, it was a bit disappointing that it happened in my off watch. But no, for me, it’s, you know, jokes aside, it was, it just goes to show that there’s no… you’ve got to train for the most challenging environments and things happen when you least expect them. So, you know, being prepared for that was was invaluable. Definitely.

Steve Bomford  11:22

Fascinating. So, before we had this conversation, you sent me a link to a rather fantastic video. So, if you’re like me, who’s got no interest in rowing whatsoever, it did look pretty cool, the video… so I guess that captures the key moments throughout the training, the journey, the arriving… But what does all this mean to you? What does HMS Oardacious mean to you?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  11:48

The wonderful thing about it was it was so much more than just the row. The row was the narrative. But we, you know, we raised over 110,000 pounds for charity. We worked with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity, who are now working with us to develop a new submarine community charity, which is going to provide mental health, wellbeing and welfare support to our whole community, not just Serving submariners, but our families who spend hundreds of days separated from us, you know. Like you think lockdown’s challenging? With a pandemic? Add having your spouse deployed with zero comms, you know, adds a whole new element, that is our world, you know. And then likewise, our Veterans, you know, who’ve been through it all as well, who are trying to make their way in their new industries or in retirement, or just to get through… We’ve created a charity that’s going to support us all. So it’s, it’s, you know, it’s been so much more than just a row. It’s, it’s that holistic piece. And it has been a real pleasure, we’ve been able to work with not just some amazing sponsors, who helped us get there and fund help fund the process; but reaching, working with sea cadets and schools and inspiring young people and inspiring all ages actually has been really rewarding. So yeah, there’s definitely more than just the row it’s being able to, to showcase that submariners aren’t just these strange little creatures that disappear below the waves you know, doing the unknown, we’re a community and we have some pretty special people in there as well. So yeah, that’s what it means to me. 

Steve Bomford  13:34

As a civilian who’s met quite a few submariners, now, including yourself and Mike, “strange little people” might be about the right description (laughs) that you’ve just used… the idea of going underwater in a metal tube… it’s not for me! 

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  13:47

Completely, yeah!

Steve Bomford  13:49

(laughs) It’s a certain kind of person that enjoys doing that sort of thing. You’ve mentioned a few times, mental health. And I believe you have a role which is around mental health champions supporting your colleagues. Could you tell me a little bit about that, please?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  14:01

Definitely. No, it’s all kind of grown over the last few years, I’m really proud to be the mental health champion for the submarine service. And actually, the submarine community. I’m definitely looking, not just at Serving submariners but that wider community I mentioned a moment ago. It’s just recognising that there’s so much, so much is happening we’re in a great space at the moment where the world is recognising that taking care of one’s mental health is so important. You know, we talk about performance in life and living, living and performing well in our day to day lives and being happy, motivated, resilient individuals, whether you’re, you know, a deploying Submariner, commanding officer, or, you know, retired or a family member, whatever. We all want to be the best versions of ourselves and we understand that being physically well is a big part of that. We understand that being able to perform technically in our professions is important, but we often, the most overlooked element is our own mental health, our mental fitness, our mental wellbeing. So I’m just here to unlock that, you know, make sure that we’re providing the tools to our people, to make them, you know, be able to achieve their potential and be happy, resilient, you know, motivated individuals who enjoy life. That’s the ultimate aim. And it’s been a really exciting couple years, you know working with the charities, working with the Navy, we’re in a great place where we’re really making some ground on this. So I’m very proud to be doing what I’m doing.

Steve Bomford  15:35

It’s good to hear that it’s being recognised now, especially in the Services, which haven’t necessarily, in the past had the greatest reputation around looking after the mental health of the members of the armed forces. But it’s great to hear such progress is being made, isn’t it?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  15:48

It’s, yeah, I think it’s, you know, we’re trying to understand how we can do better by our people. I think we’re very aware now, you know, we’ve come a long way in the past, you know, ten, twenty years, we’ve come a long way at recognising that, you know, psychological, performance psychology isn’t just reserved to professional athletes, you know, who are expected to perform. You need a mental stimulus to perform at their best day to day in their sport. Why professional athletes? You know, it should be everyone, everyone in the world should be able to access their best selves and have coping strategies and be able to sleep well and be their best versions of themselves. So, yeah, I think that’s really important. Definitely.

Steve Bomford  16:37

I couldn’t agree more. And I believe also that a lot of the learning from the military universe is perhaps going to be applied with blue light services, particularly with the NHS, given everything that’s going on in the world. Are you involved in any of that sort of thing?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  16:51

No, not massively. We do we do interact with other elements of our, other government authorities, obviously, there’s been a huge amount of overlap this year with military supplementing and supporting the government’s reaction to, to this. But no, at the end of the day, we’re all people, whether you’re NHS, Police, Armed Forces, we’re all people, we all have a brain and a body. You know, we all challenge with stress and stimulus, day in day out different variations of it. So we all need, we all need tools to be able to, to cope and be happy, happy people who can get through each day and each year and you know, be the best versions of ourselves. So, you know, we actually do use a lot of very similar tools to what the NHS used, and other organisations. So it’s been interesting to see how those different organisations behave with all of this. But now we’re all learning from each other. It’s all a very new field. So it’s exciting to be a part of definitely.

Steve Bomford  17:59

Well keep up the good work. Certainly at Company of Makers, we firmly believe it’s essential for everybody to look after their mental health without a doubt. So, as if all of that isn’t enough, you’ve got another project or you’re involved in another project, which is the new Subma… Submariner Memorial?  – too many M’s in that for me – the Submariner Memorial. I’ve seen the design recently that’s been posted on lots of social media channels. Could you tell me about your involvement in that and what’s the plan?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  18:30

Yeah, I’ve been very, very kindly, just over a year ago, I was, a year ago, I was invited to be a trustee of this, this fantastic project. We wanted to have, or the submarine community has wanted to have a national memorial to submariners and their families. I think that’s the key bit is not just the submariners who lost their lives in Service, but it’s recognising the sacrifice of their families. And it’s, it’s gone about it in a really special way. We don’t really have a proper Memorial at the National Arboretum that recognises this sacrifice.

Steve Bomford  19:09

Am I right in thinking it was just a plaque?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  19:12

It’s a, they call them ‘rabbit hutches’? It’s basically a brick box with a plaque on it. Yeah, that’s what we’ve had since, for the past however many decades.

Steve Bomford  19:21

That’s quite underwhelming considering the role submarines have played in the Royal Navy isn’t it, over the years?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  19:26

Since World War One, pre World War One, the loss and the role that we… absolutely, so it’s really, a real privilege to represent the younger Serving community, that’s my role in this and that’s my involvement in it. But to see it go from you know, we went through a year ago we ran it as a competition. So we put a public competition for everyone and anyone age groups to submit designs of what they wanted from a memorial for the submarine community for this this Memorial appeal, and we had hundreds of them. From schools, sea cadets, from military families, from industry; it was completely overwhelming the interest and support that came for this memorial. And eventually, we had the Board of Trustees voted on some really exciting designs and they’ve gone on to inspire the professional designer that got selected recently, only a few weeks ago, Paul Day; and as you say, it’s going to be something really exciting. I think it’s really important to recognise that it transcends generations, you know, the submariners of a hundred years ago were very different to the ones of today, you know, the boats, the kit, the people. The culture and the ethos is very much the same. But you look at the equipment, from then to now, you know, there’s been a huge, you know, Space Age leap in technology. I mean, the modern day submarine, nuclear submarine is the most advanced bit of engineering design on the planet. No, it’s, it’s, it’s unbelievable, the work that goes into creating these incredible bits of kit. So it’s, you know, I think having a memorial that transcends those generations that brings us all together, whether you’re a Veteran from the wars to today; you know, it recognises everyone, you know, it’s really special. So yeah, now we’re on that fantastic journey, as you’re well aware, we’ve got to raise some money to build it and maintain it. But no, it’s really cool. We’ve got the Duke of Cambridge as our Patron backing it as well, which is really special; and Colin Firth, as you’ll have seen in the papers, with his involvement previously from the ‘Kursk’ film, his new awareness of our community. So yeah, it’s very exciting project to be a part of.

Steve Bomford  21:52

Wow. So when are you anticipating it will be finished? Do you have a timeline on any of that?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  21:58

I think it’s still a work in progress, I think there’s a lot of information on the website, the project manager is probably gonna be able to give you a better update on the build process. But I think over the next… we’re certainly looking at the build, fundraising and building over the next, you know, 18 months or so. But I’m hoping, I think we’re looking at I can’t remember if it’s next, end of next year, or, or early twenty three, but it’s definitely, you know, it’s a short term project. It’s going to, hopefully bring the whole community together. And you know, not just the military community, but the industry partners, the charities, the youth organisations, it’s going to be something really lovely that we can all get behind. So I’m very happy about that. Yeah.

Steve Bomford  22:40

Yeah, I think the design is very impressive. We’ll pop a link in as well below in the podcast, the text, so people can have a look at that, and they’ll be able to see some of the images as well. You’ve also alluded to earlier that you’re setting up your own charity and I was going to ask you what’s next for Hugo? So, what is this new charity? Is there information about this and can you tell me what your plans are? Because I think you might be thinking of getting your oars out again, is that right?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  23:07

Yeah, well, you know, enjoy it that much last time, minus the blisters and boils on my backside. It was a pretty…

Steve Bomford  23:17

…and the flying fish, don’t forget the flying fish.

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  23:21

(laughs) Flying fish! The charity is, we’re partnered up with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity, our Services charity, and they’re working closely with us to develop the submarine family. So it’s happening at the moment, we’re working week in week out to to make this happen with the right people behind it and bringing in the wider Submariner charities to be involved as well, the Submariners Association, We Remember Submariners and a whole load of other ones as well. And you know, all the family support organisations. So it’s going to be really cool. But obviously a new charity needs, for me and what I know, certainly in a fundraising perspective is having a narrative around that where we can champion mental health and resilience and wellbeing through adventure, has led us to this really cool stage of Oardacious’ continuation. So HMS Oardacious was the name of our campaign last time with the row across the Atlantic and we’re already committed to doing it again in 2022. So I’ve got a twelve month, a twelve to eighteen month break now to recover still from the last Atlantic crossing, and I’ll be back on the oars to, to, you know, do it all again. Our plan, our vision, actually, is to have submariners row the Atlantic every year, from next year. So we’ll keep the boat in there. We’ll keep the team in there, but have new submariners coming through and doing amazing things and working with charities and schools and being really positive ambassadors for, for a really great cause. So I’m very excited to be here to continue leading that challenge. It’s really cool. 

Steve Bomford  25:14

Excellent. So how can our listeners get involved? Because I know we have a lot of submariners, listen to this. How can they get involved? What do they need to know?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  25:23

Well, there’s, obviously we’ve got a website, hmsoardacious.com and we are looking to work with, we certainly want to reach into our Veteran community and our Serving community, you know, there’s, if you want to be involved and help out, if your company wants to sponsor us, or if you want to run a fundraiser with us, or, or do your own challenge, if you feel like you want to do your own challenge, you know, get in touch. We really want to engage our whole community, not just those who’ve Served, but the families and friends and whoever wants just to get involved in this kind of cool stuff.  We’d love to hear from you. So we’ve got a website, hmsoardacious.com and we’re on social media, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, you can contact us through any of those channels. Or we’ve gotten an email account admin@hmsoardacious.com, you can touch base, tell us you’re interested, and we’d love to hear from you, you know, you can, you can really add value in ways you might not know yet. So feel free to, feel free to get stuck in, it’d be great to hear from you. 

Steve Bomford  26:24

And it doesn’t have to involve rowing the Atlantic to be clear?

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  26:27

No, no, not not quite, no. But it’s what you want to put into it. And I think with charity, it’s just about getting people involved and in creating that community behind a great project. That’s what’s been really, really special about this is, our values, and our aims have really aligned with people from all stretches of the imagination, you know, who wanted to, to help out, you know, whether it’s sharing social media posts, or adding or making a donation or doing a charity walk or printing some t-shirts, or making a cake, whatever it is, it’s all contributed, and it’s all helping, it’s all going towards helping people and doing better by our people. So, you know, it’s a great thing to be a part of. And, yeah, no, I think it’d be, it’d be really nice to have more of you involved, so, yeah.

Steve Bomford  27:24

Sounds very, very exciting. So that is most definitely a call to action for our listeners who have some sort of relationship perhaps with the Submarine Service, or a family member does. So please do get in touch with Hugo at all the details he’s just provided; and Hugo, I’d just like to say thank you very much. That’s been fascinating and I wish you every success with your endeavours.

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  27:46

No, thank you very much for having me, Steve. It’s been a pleasure and I just want to say to everyone, you know, I think what we’re going through at the moment is a little bit like an ocean crossing… rowing across the Atlantic, there’s a start line, there’s a finish line insights, you know, it’s somewhere in the future, you know, we can’t obsess over. We can’t obsess over the finish line, when we just started. So look after each other day to day, week to week. You know, I think it’s back to, what we’re going through now is going to define, you know, our… how we reflect and look at ourselves in years to come. So yeah, look after each other and stay safe.

Steve Bomford  28:24

Absolutely. One stroke at a time, I think. 

Hugo Mitchell-Heggs  28:27

Exactly. Well said.

Steve Bomford  28:31

Well, Mike, I think that’s another fascinating guest isn’t it… the whole waking-up upside down, in the middle of the Atlantic. I’m struck… I struggled when he told me that and I still am. I sort of shut my eyes and think about it and think ‘just no’. What did you think? 

Mike Davis-Marks  28:47

Well, I think I had the same reaction to you, except I’m still slightly smarting over the phrase, ‘strange little people’, that you repeated several times, ‘strange little people’. You know, referring to submariners, of course; but, notwithstanding that, actually, you know, I’ve known Hugo as you know, for about a year, all virtually, through this Submarine Memorial Appeal, that we spoke about briefly beforehand. And it was only through that, that I realised that he just rowed the Atlantic. And so we got another rower, but this time, a blue water rower rather than an Olympic rower. So, fascinating stuff.

Steve Bomford  29:29

I think ‘strange little people’s’ a fairly accurate description from what I know of submariners. 

Mike Davis-Marks  29:35

See what you’ve done there again, you’ve just repeated it, you’re just rubbing it in. I mean, I took my hat off to Hugo because he’s not just a submariner. He’s a marine engineering submariner, so a nuclear engineer. And the lengths of training that these guys have to go through to become a qualified nuclear engineer is extraordinary. And you know, it takes a lot of commitment and determination and skill and knowledge just to become qualified in order to manage these nuclear power plants on our submarines. So, you know, he’s already just by being a nuclear submariner, a pretty special breed apart anyway. But what was really interesting was that he suddenly, a thought popped into his head one day, when he said, “Well, wouldn’t it be fun to run across the Atlantic, you know, and take all those that serve beneath the sea with me. So I’ll find some people to do it with me”  and HMS Oardacious project was born.

Steve Bomford  30:39

Indeed, it was. I just want to go back to the nuclear engineering bit as someone who’s watched ‘Das Boot’ and I’m pretty sure I’ve referenced this in a previous podcast. So, I guess with a nuclear power plant, you don’t have a little wooden stick that you hold against it and an oily rag to make sure it’s working properly?

Mike Davis-Marks  30:56

Yeah, Das Boot was about a World War two diesel electric submarine. Had no nuclear energy anywhere. In fact, nuclear energy wasn’t invented then. But you’re right. But I mean, even modern nuclear submarines, they require a certain amount of innovation to stay at sea, because they are, as Hugo described, they’re one of the most complex, advanced bits of scientific kit on the planet. And you know, when they go to sea, they are autonomous. They’re not, you know, they’re not… we don’t have a service station that we can just pull into readily if something goes wrong. We have to generally fix it ourselves. So that brings that breed of people that can keep these machines at sea. You need need to be really innovative as well. 

Steve Bomford  31:44

Yes, I’m sure there’s some pretty interesting stories there. But I bet we’re not allowed to talk about those.

Mike Davis-Marks  31:49

Well, we might be able to. I understand you’ve got another project in the pipeline called ‘Dits ‘n’ Pics’, so maybe that will be something we can raise then.

Steve Bomford  32:01

Yes, we are going to be talking about that at some point, but not in today’s episode, because we need to talk about Hugo but yes, let’s say ‘share some stories if you’re out there, we’re very interested in hearing some stories’.

Mike Davis-Marks  32:11

Okay, so let’s get back to Hugo and I mean, it was really interesting. He talked about the journey, but you know, how he described rowing across the Atlantic as “just the tip of the iceberg”. And actually the the two year journey getting there; the preparation, not just in material and kit and stores and the plan; but the physical preparation, obviously to be physically able to row across the Atlantic. And I don’t think even then they knew how hard it was going to be. And then also, and I think he really spoke about this well, the mental preparation, and how important that was because actually, when you’re being slapped across the chops with a flying fish from a forty mile an hour gust of wind; or being capsized and locked in either the fore or aft cabin and not being able to get out because that would just sink the, sink the boat. I mean that, the mental preparation to prepare you for that, the resilience for that, must be quite extraordinary.

Steve Bomford  33:07

Yes, I don’t know how you do that. But I’m also minded of stories that you hear obviously, of people being cast adrift at sea in conflict as well and how you actually survive scenarios like that when you don’t have the preparation. So, yes, some remarkable stories of being adrift at sea, or the potential of being adrift at sea.

Mike Davis-Marks  33:24

Yeah, I mean, the most famous, which is probably Captain Bligh, the Mutiny on the Bounty. And actually, a lot of people talk about his leadership style being, you know, poor, but I tell you, the leadership he put in that boat when they were set adrift by Fletcher Christian and the mutineers; to keep his team alive and survive, was extraordinary. I mean that, you know, so that was one of the most famous episodes in history.

Steve Bomford  33:49

So that’s a very good example, well done!

Mike Davis-Marks  33:51

(laughs) Is that the first ‘well done’ I’ve had this podcast series so far? I must milk that one, before you return to ‘strange little people’. Why don’t we talk about the mental health champion aspect of the talk, because not only is he a nuclear submariner, not only has he rowed across the Atlantic and in pretty adverse conditions; but he’s also emerged from that, to take on this role as champion, the mental health champion for the submarine community; and he’s very clear about describing the community as “More than just the Serving submariners and the Veterans, it’s their families as well”. And I think, you know, you’ve spoken about this quite a lot from a Company of Makers perspective, which is actually being aware of mental health issues, is actually one of the biggest challenges and making people not afraid to speak about mental health issues; and then providing them some tools with achieve it, is as big a stuff as actually the issue itself. Yeah, and I think his attitude and approach to it is fantastic to hear, in terms of it is something that we can talk about. And everybody struggles with their mental health at some point, for different lots of different reasons, and being able to talk about that is very, very important. Yeah. And he’s specifically looking at the submarine community and I think you’ve said to me on many occasions that you think we must be crazy to go underwater in a cigar tube full of men for months on end, with no communications, and you’re probably right. But, but even so, you know, members of the Armed Forces are traditionally quite stoic when it comes to these things. So breaking down that stoicism and allowing people to be, you know, wear their issues on their sleeves so that they can be addressed, is really important, isn’t it?

Steve Bomford  35:43

It’s essential. I don’t think it’s just important, it’s essential; because, you know, you’ve obviously got, you know, the physical wellbeing, but also mental health wellbeing, they can’t be separated, in my opinion anyway.

Mike Davis-Marks  35:54

And of course, that’s, that’s sewn into the fabric of the DNA of Company and Makers. See what I did there, ‘sewn in’ things. 

Steve Bomford  36:03

Oh, well done, well done. Two ‘well dones’ in one episode. I’ll obviously have to edit those out, don’t worry.

Mike Davis-Marks  36:08

I won’t expect to hear them in the final version. Can we just, just have a quick chat about the Submarine Memorial Appeal, because I’m, as you know, a trustee of that as well. And like Hugo, came on board just over about a year ago; and this was to, you know, design and install a fitting memorial for those submariners that have lost their lives in Service and their family, and to recognise the sacrifice of their families… and to replace this little brick box, “rabbit hatch”, I think he called it with a plaque on it; which is the only thing that exists in the National Arboretum at the moment, with something much more striking, thought provoking, and you know, and with a link.

Steve Bomford  36:52

Yes, I think the actual Memorial itself, the design is amazing. I was genuinely surprised by that. Are you still fundraising at this stage, Mike? Is that is that something we should be talking about?

Mike Davis-Marks  37:03

We’ve only just started fundraising. So we’ve get up about 375,000 total, which includes some money set aside for long-term maintenance. And we’ve only just started. So 2021 is the year of fundraising for this. So, I’m sure we can share the details of how to donate and where to go and how to help. But yes, it’s a fantastic, It’s a fantastic appeal; and it’s really, really sort of deserving, because there isn’t one at the moment, so to speak.

Steve Bomford  37:38

Now, as I said in the interview, I was genuinely surprised at the “rabbit hatch” and that’s all it was. But yes, we absolutely will be able to post some links, as you know. So for those of you that are interested in finding out more or supporting appeal, the links will be below the podcast.

Mike Davis-Marks  37:53

Yeah, and they can see what the final design is going to look like. As Hugo said, we started off 2020, running a competition on this for all age groups, and there were three categories, those under twelve, twelve to eighteen 12, and then adults. And we sat down, there was a judging panel that sat down, and picked winners in each of the categories and then an overall winner; which then inspired the formal designs. And there were, there was a competition for that amongst three designers. So it’s been a lot of involvement from the general public, from the submarine community and from, you know, nationally recognised designers in getting this together. It’s brilliant, actually, it’s brilliant.

Steve Bomford  38:39

It is. Did you send in your design? Can I see that drawing?

Mike Davis-Marks  38:43

Now, we’ve spoken about this before. You know my abilities in drawing. You’ve put me on the naughty step for drawing before now and you know how poor I am. So my design didn’t even make it outside the front door, I’m afraid.

Steve Bomford  38:57

That’s a shame. I was looking forward to seeing that.

Mike Davis-Marks  38:59

Yeah, well, maybe one day if you’re a very well behaved podcast interviewer I might show you something, but not at the moment. There was, there was one action point I thought that he made, which was interesting, which was that he described the, some of the experience of going through COVID in the last twelve months, was a bit like rowing across the Atlantic. I thought it was a metaphor, a beautiful metaphor that he used to describe what, you know, a lot of people are going through the moment and he said, actually, you know, “You know you’ve started, you know that there will be an end, you just don’t know when it is; and you know you’ve got to, you know, gotta you know, keep on going” and I thought that was a really good, you know, way of describing how we need to tackle this. You know, we’ve got a very successful vaccination programme that’s now kicked-off and hopefully that will give us the light at the end of the tunnel for this, so that we can return to some form of normality, whatever that looks like. But I thought it was a nice judge of you know phrase and simile he used to describe the experience that all of us are going through.

Steve Bomford  40:08

Yes, I’d agree and it is challenging not knowing when you will reach the finish line but you know, we need to, we need to stay on course, don’t we? Otherwise, things are just going to take a massive step backwards again.

Mike Davis-Marks  40:18

And if we do get, if we do capsize and you’re asleep in your bunk, stay there, don’t open the door.

Steve Bomford  40:25

Hopefully COVID won’t make that happen, though… will it? 

Mike Davis-Marks  40:28

Well, we’ll know who to go to if we need to ask any advice though, don’t we?

Steve Bomford  40:32

Yes indeed, we do know who to talk to should we capsize as a result of COVID. Thanks again, Mike. That was fascinating as usual and I look forward to talking to you next time.

Rachel Owen  40:44

Thanks for listening. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity exists to support sailors, marines and their families, for life. If you, or someone you know, could do with some support, give them a call on: 023 93 87 15 68. Or drop them an email on:  support@rnrmc.org.uk. If you enjoyed this podcast and want to hear more, please subscribe.

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HMS Oardacious

In January 2020, four Serving Royal Navy Submariners became the fastest military team in history to row unsupported across the Atlantic Ocean; departing from the Canary Islands to reach Nelson’s Dockyard Antigua 37 days 6 hours and 40 minutes later.

The HMS Oardacious campaign has fundraised £110,000 to provide Mental Health and Wellbeing support to the Submarine community, collaborating with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity .

The Submariner Memorial Appeal

 “Of all the branches of men in the forces there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariner.” Winston Churchill

 To donate or get involved with the creation of a fitting monument which commemorates the sacrifice of all those who have died whilst in the submarine service and their families head to the Submariner Memorial website

RNRMC contact details:

The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity exists to support sailors, marines and their families, for life.

If you, or someone you know, could do with some support, give them a call on:

023 93 87 15 68

Or drop them an email on: 


If you enjoyed this podcast and want to hear more, please subscribe.