The Maclean Foundation: founded in the middle of the Atlantic
By Lachlan Maclean

Artwork by Sheila Maclean

Half-way through our 35 day rowing trip across the Atlantic Ocean, the final iPhone cable started to show signs of corrosion. The salty air was eating into the contacts, threatening to make the sixth - and final - iPhone cable defunct. 

The journey started on the 12th of December, 2019, two and half weeks prior, from La Gomera in the Canary Islands. If all went to plan, we’d make landfall a few weeks later on the Caribbean island of Antigua, approximately 1,700 miles from where we now bobbed. I, Lachlan Maclean, was 21 and my brothers, Jamie and Ewan, were 26 and 28 respectively. We were participants in an event called the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, a 3,000 mile, unsupported rowing race across the Atlantic. Eyeing up the competition at the startline, we were pretty certain we didn’t stand a chance. On the day before departure, others looked in horror as Ewan, all 68,000 grams of him, perched on top of our stern cabin and proceeded to drill a hole in it; we were neither the most organised nor the biggest physical specimens preparing to cast-off into the big blue. 

Our phones had two key functions on the boat. Primarily, they were used for capturing media of life at sea and sending it back to land using a satellite shooting device - called a B-GAN - to be edited and shared on social media by our friends. The purpose of sharing media was raising funds for two charities, Children 1st and Feedback Madagascar. The phones were also used for music and audiobooks. As we rowed, we waded through our childhood albums, ranging from Dylan’s dulcet sunset tones to upbeat contemporary Scottish trad to bring us out of the afternoon slumps. Audiobooks included Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ - a story that became more relevant towards the end of our trip.

This second phone use may sound more trivial - but it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. Our Wonderboom 2 speaker offered an opportunity to let our thoughts drift to far-off places, a great tonic to the more ‘type-two fun’ moments (i.e. experiences that are fun when viewed in the comfort of the past tense, but less so in the moment). Keeping morale high during these trips is one of the biggest challenges, and our two key objectives were to enjoy the experience and to not fall out. We had heard many stories of teams making landfall at the other side and never speaking to each other again. Being brothers, this wasn’t really an option - we were inconveniently bound by blood. 

The right thing to do dawned on us as we watched the pink glow of sunrise link hands with a starlit night sky: music and audiobooks would be rationed to one hour per day, and the final cable would be used sparingly to send photos and videos every few days. For the other 23 hours, we only had ourselves for entertainment.

The decision to ration our listening was a blessing in disguise. It forced us to embrace the peace and quiet one only finds in remote places like the middle of an ocean. In the mid-Atlantic silence, we found clarity that none of us had experienced before. Thoughts came and went like the flying fish that glided overhead, uninterrupted by the usual chatter and thought-probing of modern day life.

Our existence was noiseless and simple; all we had to do was keep fuelled and hydrated, sleep and row. We could have sent out a mayday and pulled the plug, but, ironically, one of the most treacherous procedures mid-ocean is being rescued. Our boat, SS2 (Silly Sausage the 2nd), was 28 feet in length and weighed about a tonne. She could be tossed upside down and would ‘self-right’ - return to the clog-like correct orientation (so long as the cabin doors were shut). The hull was made up of a number of sealed compartments so could be broken in half and still float (so we were told…). The most likely vessel to pick you up mid-ocean is a cargo ship,  100,000 tonnes and 1,000 feet in length, and rescues often take place in rough seas in the middle of the night. It would be like a blindfolded JCB driver scooping up a rubber duck in a wave machine - an unfavourable situation for both us and the JCB driver.

We turned to ourselves for entertainment, having long conversations spanning anything that came to mind. All social apprehension was cast overboard as our sliding seats became a philosopher’s armchair. Before long, conversations turned from the whats, wheres and whens to the whys; why were we here, closer to the astronauts floating overhead than another person on solid ground? Why had we gained so much fulfilment from this experience? 

We all shared a strong spirit of adventure, and enjoyed an array of different sports, but were - and still are - by no means athletes and certainly not rowers. Only one of us, Ewan, had stepped foot in a river rowing boat before the start of our campaign. Our childhoods had been grounded in the far Northwest of Scotland in a place called Assynt. Long summers without a TV or phone signal had driven us to find creative ways of entertaining ourselves, often involving small boats and getting lost in the hills. We were comfortable on water, but we were - in more than one sense - out of our depth.

It would be a lie to say that our primary motivation for embarking on this trip was selfless. We each had personal reasons for wanting to do it. It offered a huge adventure and the opportunity to push ourselves, physically and mentally. Some of the draw was undoubtedly egocentric. I think it’s rare that people embark on big challenges of this sort without wanting to be seen to be doing them. But, as the campaign gained momentum, our motivations gained more depth as the charitable roots took their hold. We learned more about where our donations would be going, transforming a paycheck into real-life impact in our minds. Children 1st would use funds to set-up Parentline, a phone line for children and families in Scotland who were going through turbulent times. We were well aware of how fortunate we were to even consider taking part in this race, and this was largely thanks to a supportive and stable foundation at home. 

Feedback Madagascar would turn funds into clean water boreholes in rural communities in the southeast of Madagascar. In Scotland, delicious, clean water is something we take entirely for granted. I was lucky enough to spend a month backpacking through Madagascar in 2018, experiencing first hand the beautiful landscapes and the delightful people that inhabit them. Upon my return, my travel companion, Lydia, was admitted to the infectious diseases clinic in Glasgow after 6 weeks of deteriorating health. After 3 days in hospital, she was treated for Giardia, a parasite most commonly picked up by drinking dirty water.

I was well aware that parasites and diarrhoeal disease were just part of life in Madagascar, a country in which only 14% of the rural population have access to a clean water source. Sadly I was also aware that treatment is unaffordable to Malagasy people. It was clear that clean water was a foundational building block to good health and bringing communities out of poverty. To be able to say with confidence that every £30 we raised for Feedback Madagascar would result in one person getting clean water for life was the ultimate motivator for those darker days in the row. Every £5,000 would enable the building of a borehole that would serve approximately 250 people for 70-80 years - equivalent to a person’s lifetime.

The sense of purpose we each got from this campaign was unparalleled by anything we had experienced up to this point. Although the crossing was arduous and difficult, it was enjoyable. All the time, we knew that our efforts were working towards a greater mission of creating positive change through our charities. There was something in this combination of doing something you love in service of others.

“What next?”

The first question you get asked after a trip like this is, “what next?” There is a pressure to be able to spout out the next perfectly formed idea that’s bigger and better. I can’t remember how we responded to this question when it was asked by the CEO of Atlantic Campaigns about 8 minutes after making our first wobbly steps on solid ground. I can only assume that it was - as is usually the case - an inaccurate prediction of what was to come.

The Maclean Foundation had been forming and gestating in the 35 days, 9 hours and 9 minutes prior to stepping foot on the pontoon in Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua. We wanted to continue working together to create more positive ripples in the world through compassion and the spirit of adventure. It wasn’t for many months and part of a global pandemic until the idea flowered into a charity that was registered with the Official Scottish Charity Regulator, OSCR. The charity’s focus is the provision of clean water, continuing the work that was put into motion on the island of Madagascar. 

We’re immensely grateful to the people that supported the Atlantic row. Without it, I’m fairly certain The Maclean Foundation wouldn’t exist, and so all of the impact we go on to have is in an indirect way thanks to those people. 

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