By Harry Takla
The life story of Chris Martin OH (1999) is one that Hampton is rightly proud of. An international rower who competed at World Championships. An ocean rower whose feats of endurance are so extraordinary that they are, at times, difficult to comprehend. Martin could justifiably pat himself on the back and settle for being a rowing colossus but, instead, he has chosen to channel his talent and energy into a business that has recently started providing support to armed forces veterans who have faced life changing challenges.
Martin began rowing at Hampton because he didn’t really like rugby. He told me: “I was OK at rugby but I didn’t like standing around cold and wet on a field. I was looking for the opportunity to do something that was so completely different.” From the first time he got in a boat he was hooked. “I capsized more times that anyone else but it didn’t matter. I absolutely loved it.” Martin became a key component in a successful Hampton eight and went on to be part of the British Junior Squad.
Rowing for Molesey Rowing Club and with the support of National Lottery funding, Martin was able to focus on training while undertaking a University Degree. While at Brunel, Martin would start his day at 5.30am with a 45 minute bike ride to the boat house. After a gruelling training session he biked back to University for lectures before returning to the boat house for evening training. “It was just utterly exhausting but it was the best way to get super fit.” His hard work led to a call up to the British Under 23 squad which meant training with the crew every weekend. Success at multiple World Junior Championships catapulted Martin into the Senior World Rowing Championship where he won a bronze medal in 2001. By his own admission, his form and results then took a dip. After his funding was cut it became increasingly difficult to maintain a professional rower’s training regime.
After a period of soul searching, Martin decided that he would turn his oar to ocean rowing. His achievements are the stuff of legend. In 2005 he set out to row the Atlantic Ocean solo, the 31st person in history to complete the challenge. A route of a mere 4,700km. Initially his aim was to break the world record but he soon realised that external elements such as the wind and weather influenced what was achievable in any given rowing expedition. This also led to the realisation that world records are always there to be broken. You might hold a record today but there’s always someone out there looking to take it away from you. However, being the first person to overcome a challenge is etched in history for eternity. Having crossed the Atlantic in 68 days he set out to find his personal, historical challenge.
Martin soon met former Royal Marine Mick Dawson who invited him to row the North Pacific with him as a pair. Unlike the Atlantic, this was a route that had rarely been attempted let alone completed. After three years of training, in May 2009, Martin and Dawson began their journey from Choshi in Japan with an ultimate target destination of San Francisco. 189 days, 10 hours and 55 minutes later they rowed their boat underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The reception they received overwhelmed the pair. The Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, (who is now the Governor of California) greeted them. The crowd was so large that the pontoon sank. In 2010 they were awarded A Guinness World Record for being the first team to achieve the feat of rowing across the North Pacific Ocean. Martin proudly told me: “No one can take that away from me. It’s quite special.”
Having written his name in history Martin then considered what life had in store for him next. The reception they received in San Francisco played a major role in his next adventure. “The impact our little row had had on other people was unbelievable. I decided that I wanted to help people have those incredible experiences on the ocean.” In 2011 Martin founded New Ocean Wave and, to date, he has helped around 170 people row an ocean.
Most recently Martin has been working with armed forces veterans who wanted to take on the challenge of ocean rowing. Some of the veterans had been wounded while serving and still carry the mental scars of their battle experiences with them. Referring to the positive impacts on mental health and wellbeing that sport can provide Martin told me: “You never regret going for a run. You always feel better after a run. It’s the same with rowing. Even a bad row is a good row as you’ve definitely made the boat move faster than it would have done had you not been in it!” Looking back at his A-Levels and GCSEs, Martin recalls that his Dad was concerned that all his training would have a negative impact on his schoolwork. Martin says: “Completely the opposite was true. Training helped me get out of my exam headspace for a while so I wasn’t thinking about coursework and grades. If anything that time out training helped me get better grades.”
Martin believes that ocean rowing is an ideal challenge for the armed forces veterans he’s working with. Teaming up once again with Mick Dawson, the initiative has been dubbed Mission Atlantic. “Some of these guys have struggled for meaning and purpose since they left the Marines. Having a target and a goal brings them back to life again. They are used to discipline, training, learning new skills and working as part of a team.” In 2020 two former Royal Marines and two currently serving Marines rowed the Atlantic. Two further teams took on the challenge in 2021.
During my conversation with Martin, I was struck by how casually he refers to his almost superhuman achievements. What sounds like the impossible is just part of his CV. Today he invests his time in helping other people achieve the impossible. If any Hamptonians want to row the Atlantic then I’m certain that Martin is the right person to talk to!