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Team Essence embarks on audacious attempt to row nonstop across Atlantic Ocean

The five amateurs plan to row 24 hours a day in what they hope will become a record-setting 52-day journey with no backup engine or life raft.
Team Essence practices off the coast of Portugal. (Photo by Tobi Corney/courtesy of NBC)
Team Essence practices off the coast of Portugal. 

More people have made it to outer space than accomplished this crew's mission: rowing 3,807 miles, nonstop, across the Atlantic Ocean.

"In fact, more people have actually been to the moon than have rowed from mainland Europe to mainland South America," expedition captain Mathew Bennett says with a broad smile.

Bennett's team of five amateurs plans to row 24 hours a day, rotating through two-hour shifts, in what they hope will become a record setting 52-day journey to the shores of Venezuela to raise money for charity.

Their attempt has inspired awe and even encouragement from the International Space Station. As hundreds gathered to watch Bennett and his British crew depart from the coast of Portugal on Sunday, British astronaut Tim Peake delivered a message from the final frontier above.

"Good luck to the boys in the boat below," he tweeted. "The biggest test of your lives starts today."

What's at stake

The stakes are enormously high. Their tiny carbon fiber rowboat has neither a back-up engine nor life raft. There is no support team trailing behind to rescue them if things go wrong. All they have is each other: five fit forms packing a combined 1,000 pounds of muscle, will and humor to power themselves from one continent to another in the dead of winter.

Bennett and his men will be battling through frigid temperatures in the air and sea, tethered to their deck to face waves up to 40 feet high and winds of up to 40 mph. The prospect of sharks and crossing paths with container ships also pose potential risks for the crew.

The audacious record attempt — and all the danger that comes with it — is the culmination of a seven-year dream for Bennett, a 37-year old broker-turned-philanthropist who cooked up the adventure as an "early retirement party" when he left the finance world.

"I'd had a very good career and instead of rewarding myself with something material, I wanted to do something different," Bennett explained. "Cars come and go, houses come and go. You appreciate them for a short while, but then it fades... A memory like this is never going to fade. We'll take it to our graves."

His first step post-finance was to establish a network of children's care homes around the world — and this row is an extension of Bennett's dedication to helping vulnerable kids.

Who's involved

Bennett carefully curated his crew, casting characters he felt possessed both the physical and mental fortitude to endure the grueling adventure.

"It's the right time, the right place and the right bunch of guys," he said. "We're all turning 40, and I wanted to do it while we still could."

Bennett admits it took a "little bit of persuasion and a lot of beer," but over the course of several years "Team Essence" was formed.

Despite disparate professional and educational backgrounds, the self-proclaimed "Rogues of Rowing" share a maverick mentality and good-humored nature. They also had another thing in common: no previous rowing experience.

That meant they trained intensively for the journey, humoring themselves with the hashtag #ihaterowing on social media as they prepared for the attempt.

Four of the five men have served in the British military, so the group decided to adopt the Royal Marine Commando ethos for this adventure.

"Courage, determination, unselfishness and cheerfulness under adversity," says Aldo Kane. "Anyone can be like that on a good day, but it's on the bad days when it really counts."

Kane previously served as one of the British military's youngest snipers and now provides rigging and safety for TV and film in extreme environments.

"We're actually completely comfortable in the complete uncomfortableness of it all," he mused.

The strain of the journey

"Uncomfortable" may turn out to be an understatement given the extreme physical demands of their row.

"I expect my body to be completely broken by the end of this," says team member Ross Johnson. Johnson — who also served as a young sniper in the Royal Marines and now owns a gym — expects to burn off at least 10 to 20 percent of his body weight at sea despite a planned diet of 5,000 calories a day.

The men have packed a total of 1.6 million calories worth of military-style rations, but have accepted that "physical destruction" is an inevitable consequence of the row, regardless of how much they eat.

There's another dangerous element at play for a journey of this kind.

As Johnson put it, "90 percent of this is a mental battle."

That's an element that the crew's Jason "Foxy" Fox is uniquely well-versed in. After 20 years of military service — including an intense decade of combat in the British Special Forces — he was medically discharged due to PTSD, a condition which he now considers to be an advantage.

"Part of getting over PTSD is acknowledging that it is actually a good thing, not a bad thing," he says. Now a motivational speaker, he underscores the value of emotional intelligence and psychological resilience.

"A strong person acknowledges their weaknesses," Fox explains.

He hopes his participation in this row with serve as an inspiration to those facing difficulties in their own lives.

"Whether it's someone having a sticky time with his confidence or someone that's actually suffering from PTSD, if they can see me as someone that's gone down that same path and came out on the other end then rowed across the Atlantic and is cracking on with life, that's the target," Fox adds.

Why they're doing it

While Team Essence is keenly aware of the disconnect they'll face — for most of their journey they'll be physically closer to Peake and the International Space Station than anyone on the Atlantic shores — Oliver Bailey is looking forward to the solitude.

The 39-year-old former philosophy major plans to focus on his "progression as a human" and hopes the row will be a "cathartic" break from his day-to-day pressures of investment banking.

"Just sleeping and rowing — there's a strange calmness to that," Bailey said. "I'm more interested in those quiet, reflective moments when you're a thousand, 1,500, 2,000 miles away from land and you're looking up at the enormity of the heavens and the universe and you've got absolute clarity of the Milky Way and you think about things, about why are we here, what are we doing."

Bennett is excited about the lives the row might change: already, they have raised over $175,000 in donations for a U.K.-based charity for vulnerable kids. He hopes to raise double that by the time they reach Venezuela's shores.

There's also a more immediate and deeply personal motivation that will be pushing Bennett onward. After his father's diagnosis with terminal emphysema, Bennett wanted to express gratitude to his parents for raising him to believe in life's endless possibilities.

"They taught me to go for these things, that you can do whatever you want to do when you put your mind to it," Bennett told NBC News. "Ever since I've been a child, my dad said the only regret you really have in life, generally, is the things you don't do. Not things you do do."

After years of buildup and a final push training on the North Sea and off Portugal, he and his rogue crew set out on Sunday, armed with good-luck trinkets and letters from their girlfriends to be read at the halfway point.

They also brought a copy of "Invictus" to read when the going gets tough. To the "Rogues of Rowing, " the classic poem's closing lines already have served as inspiration.

"I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

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