Earlier this week, an exhausted Lee Spencer rowed his specially-constructed boat to a dock in Cayenne, French Guiana, becoming the first disabled person to row from east to west across the Atlantic Ocean from mainland Europe to mainland South America, solo and unsupported. The 49-year-old former Royal Marine also smashed the overall record by a stunning 36 days, making the crossing in less than two months.
The BBC reports that Spencer served three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, but his life-changing injury came off the battlefield. In 2014, Spencer stopped along a highway to help pull people out of a car crash when another vehicle smashed into the wreckage and debris from the impact severed Spencer's right leg below the knee, according to Matthew S. Schwartz at NPR.
While recovering in the hospital, he met another injured military veteran who introduced him to an amputee rowing team. That led the former Marine to a 2016 crossing of the Atlantic as part of the first amputee team to complete the feat. After that, he decided he wanted to beat the waves again—this time solo.
Spencer, who calls himself “The Rowing Marine,” set out on January 9. Over the course of the journey he had to make a pit stop in the Canary Islands to fix a buggy navigation system and faced swells of 40-foot waves. He even suffered two stretches of gastroenteritis. But he was determined to continue on, sleeping just two hours at a stretch. Moving around on the tiny, unstable rowboat with just one leg was also a challenge. But Spencer was up for the difficulties.
“I have done 24 years as a Royal Marine so I am quite used to hardship,” he tells the BBC.
Beating the world record was no fluke either. Spencer was gunning for the title of fastest across the Atlantic and only packed 90 days worth of food for the trip when he set off from Portugal to begin the 3,800-mile journey from Europe to South America. The feat was the culmination of two and a half years of Spencer’s life, he tells Chris Robertson at Sky News.
“I’m so glad to have got it...it’s just beginning to sink in that I've got the record,” he says. “The thing that kept me going has been proving that no one should be defined by disability and no one should be defined by something they’re not good at.”
Spencer’s accomplishment is notable, not only because of his disability and speed, but because of the route he chose to row. According to statistics compiled by The Ocean Rowing Society, only 499 people have completed ocean rows of any sort, including team rows. In most cases, rowers take shorter routes across the sea, like traveling from the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa to Barbados. But only three people, including Spencer, have completed a solo, non-stop journey from the mainland of Europe to the mainland of South America. The last to do so was Stein Hoff of Norway, who rowed from Lisbon, Portugal, to Georgetown, Guyana, in about 96 and a half days in 2002.
Spencer isn’t the only person to recently smash a trans-Atlantic record. In August 2018, Cincinnati school teacher Bryce Carlson set a new record for rowing a shorter route in the opposite direction, paddling 2,300 nautical miles from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to the Scilly Isles off the coast of England in 53 days and 8 hours.