THE day the crew spent rowing towards Antigua will remain with Claire Hughes for the rest of her life.

Mind you, pretty much every day of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge will probably remain with the members of Team Tyne Innovation, particularly as they rowed their way into the record books.

“42 days, 10 hours, 26 minutes!” Claire laughed. “We beat the standing world record for a mixed-fours crossing of the Atlantic by a full 14 days.

“We’re really hoping that will stand for some time to come.”

It’s incredible to think Claire only actually took up rowing six years ago. She was out cycling with her best mate one dark, winter night when they heard a mysterious rhythmic sound as they passed the Tyne Amateur Rowing Club’s HQ, on the banks of the river at Newburn.

“We could see lights coming out of the dark on the river which is when I realised it was a couple of rowing eights,” she said.

“I thought ‘that looks brilliant’.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. She joined the club, learned to row and from there, well, “it spiralled out of control” when she did something as seemingly innocuous as go to a club barbecue.

The membership of a four-man team that had entered the Atlantic Challenge was faltering. People were dropping out and before she knew it, Claire was dropping hints to team leader Phil Kite that, actually, she was free in December 2018.

“They (the remaining team members) were there telling people what they were up to and everybody else was saying ‘why would you want to do that? You’re all crazy’!

“But I just had a lightbulb moment. I dropped them an email with some heavy hints and eventually they caved in and asked me to join.”

‘They’ were Phil, chief executive of Newcastle-based Reece Group, fireman Allan Huntly and former detective inspector Steve Sidaway. Claire, who lives in Wylam, is a project manager for the Turner and Townsend project management consultancy in Newcastle.

On top of the six training sessions she already did each week, she stepped it up to join her new crew mates in doing core strength training in the gym and Royal Yachting Association courses in navigation and VHS radio use. The Atlantic Challenge organisers have made the latter mandatory.

They had to log at least 96 hours’ rowing in as many different conditions as possible, out at sea and on lakes and canals.

She said: “A lot of it was learning how to use all the equipment properly, such as the radio and the auto-tiller, and how to fix things.

“Knowing your boat inside out was important, because once you were out there on the Atlantic, you had to be able to remedy problems yourself.

“Mind you, nothing really replicates what you experience rowing across an ocean – you just have to do your best to prepare.”

What lay ahead of them was 3,000 miles and the world’s toughest row.

Day one, on December 12, was as memorable as Day 42, of course. From 10am onwards, the boats set off at five minute intervals from La Gomera in the Canary Islands. Team Tyne Innovation left at 11.30am.

That was the last they saw of any of the other boats for the duration. They sharp spread out and high, choppy waves were as effective as any barrier.

“I was nervous and excited at the same time,” said Claire. “It was a whole host of emotions. You have no idea, really, what you are going to face.”

They rowed in shifts, two on, two off, although sleep was in precious short supply in the down times. A bunk would have been a luxury, she said. Lying on the floor in a tiny cabin had to suffice.

They were lucky if they got one-and-a-half hours’ sleep at a stretch, which had its repercussions. “Yes, the sleep deprivation took its toll,” she said. “There was a lot of feeling confused, which was quite funny at times.

“There were a few hallucinations too. I kept seeing electricity pylons everywhere, and one of my crew mates thought he was a footballer coming out of the tunnel when he stepped out the cabin.

“During one or two shifts, I was talking complete gibberish, making no sense at all.”

Safety was all-important, so they were always firmly clipped on to the jackstay, the canvas cord that runs around the boat.

But one of Claire’s favourite days was Christmas Eve, when the four of them took turns going for a swim. “We were a thousand miles from land, it was a beautiful day and it seemed unreal.

“We just jumped out into the sea. There was two miles of ocean below us, but it was just crystal clear. The adrenalin rush!”

They were still clipped to the jackstay, but this time at the end of a 30m rope. One person always remained on the boat. “You needed a hand to get back in, as much as anything,” she said.

Christmas Day could only be an anti-climax after that, but they did do a Secret Santa. Phil’s gift was the tiniest pair of underpants, covered with the logos of their sponsors.

The energy they expended was phenomenal, around 8,000 calories a day, so trying to eat enough was difficult. Dehydrated food packs, pork scratchings and chocolate bars were the staples.

All of which led to the next, must-ask question. What did they do for a loo? “Oh, that was a lovely yellow bucket which lived in the bow,” she said. “Nothing was private.

“It became known as the ‘stunt bucket’, because if it was wavy out, it would capsize.

“You had to be careful about wind direction too when you threw the contents overboard.”

She hadn’t really been cowed by the size of the waves, even on the choppiest days, not as long as they’d got their trajectory right going over them. The huge waves had sometimes helped them reach their goal.

“That’s where you can pick up some speed,” she said. “The average was 2.9 knots, but we achieved 13 knots crashing down one wave.”

The welcome they and, indeed, all the teams received as they finally rowed into English Harbour in Antigua was tremendously warm and joyful.

Family and friends of all the crews lined the harbour, among them Claire’s partner James. He took the photographs that captured the moment Team Tyne Innovation were told they’d set a world record.

l The team has used the trip to raise funds for three charities close to their hearts – Daft as a Brush, the Stroke Association and St Oswald’s Hospice, in Newcastle. Anybody who would like to make a donation can still do so via: