Glasgow University Boat Club members celebrate completing the Atlantic Challenge

Rowing for gold

By Sophie Lambert

Sitting on the banks of the Kelvin and with the famous River Clyde just a stone’s throw away, it is perhaps little wonder that the University of Glasgow has such a long and distinguished rowing history. Over the years, a whole host of record-breaking rowers have passed through the University, going on to face some of the most challenging rows in the world.

Miriam Payne (BSc 2021) discovered her love for the sport during her time at Glasgow. "I hadn’t rowed before I started university, but I joined the Glasgow University Boat Club (GUBC) in my first year and I was women's captain by my final year," she says. "It was tough fitting in all the training, racing and my studies, but I loved how hard it was."

Although Miriam loves a challenge, the idea of rowing the Atlantic did start as something of a joke. "In my second year of rowing I asked if anyone wanted to row the Atlantic, but I was met with deathly silence!" She forged ahead with the idea and signed up for the 2022 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, now known as the World’s Toughest Row. Departing in December 2022, Miriam describes her extraordinary crossing as 'brutally brilliant'. "I really loved it," she says.

"There were definitely challenges, such as unexpected bad weather, and the food was hard to deal with – I was craving buttery toast!

"One of the things you have to do is get in the water and clean the growth from the hull of the boat as it slows you down. It’s actually mildly terrifying – I was nearly 1,000 miles in by the time it was safe enough to get into the water. I was preparing myself for it mentally, was feeling quite nervous, then I heard a splashing and there was a shark beside the boat! It was actually quite a friendly shark, but I definitely left it a couple of hours before I got in to clean! 

Miriam Payne (BSc 2021) celebrates completing the Atlantic Challenge (credit: Atlantic Campaigns)

Miriam Payne arriving in Antigua after breaking the solo female race record in February 2023. (Photo: CreditAtlanticCampaigns_Penny Bird)

Despite weather setbacks, Miriam completed the 3,000-mile row in just 59 days, 16 hours and 39 minutes, setting a new race record for a solo female. "I think being part of GUBC helped me believe that I could take the first step towards a challenge like this," she says. "I’m now looking ahead to the next challenge. This time I’m going to be part of a team of three rowing around 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean – it’s a little bigger than the Atlantic!"

Play highlights of Miriam's epic Atlantic challenge above. (Video: Seas The Day)

Miriam is not the only former student to have taken on this monumental row with brothers Ewan (MEng 2015), Lachlan (MA 2022) and Jamie MacLean embarking on the challenge in 2019.

"We spent a lot of our childhoods mucking around on small boats and doing a bit of sailing,” says Lachlan. “However, it wasn’t until we decided to do the Atlantic Challenge that we started rowing.”

The trio trained tirelessly, but some aspects of the crossing were harder to prepare for. "The sleep deprivation was something we couldn’t really plan for," says Ewan. "However, when you start to find a routine, you start to thrive and you’re rewarded with amazing skies that go on forever and incredible wildlife."

Ewan (MEng 2015), Lachlan (MA 2022) and Jamie MacLean embarking on the challenge in 2019."One of the best things that came out of the row is that we want to do more together," says Lachlan. "Following through with something that seemed unrealistic made us realise that doing something that we love in service of other people was really something we wanted to build on. We’ve now set up our charity, the MacLean Foundation, and we’re working with our mum and dad to run our fundraising for clean water projects."

Lachlan, Ewan and Jamie completed the row in 35 days, 9 hours and 9 minutes and secured the record for the youngest and fastest three to take on the Atlantic Challenge.

Miriam and the MacLean brothers' Atlantic rows were supported by the Chancellor’s Fund, a UofG initiative that aims to help a wide range of projects to create a rich and rewarding experience at the University. "Before the row, we had to raise a huge amount of money to cover the operational costs," explains Miriam. "Having support from Glasgow showed other sponsors that the University was happy to support us and put their name to it."

Ewan (top), Lachlan and Jamie MacLean at the start of their Atlantic challenge. (Photo: World's Toughest Row)

"The support from the Chancellor’s Fund came at a critical time in our campaign," says Lachlan. "We had the belief that we could do the challenge, but other people’s belief in us is what facilitated our row, and that’s what Glasgow gave us."

Clyde Built

With roots stretching back to 1867, Glasgow University Boat Club is one of the oldest student clubs at the University. During its long history, GUBC has nurtured the careers of several world-class rowers including double World Championship winner Imogen Walsh, and silver medallist at the 2023 World Rowing Beach Sprint Finals Laura McKenzie.

GUBC’s current Captain of Boats, Fraser Innes, says that Glasgow’s long connection to the sport is partly a question of geography. "Scotland doesn’t have many great stretches of water to row on," he explains. "However, the Clyde is a stretch that has been rowed on for decades and its rules are exceptionally beneficial to rowers. For example, on most rivers you row on the right, but because of where the boathouses are on the Clyde, on the rowable stretches you stay to the left, because that’s better for the rowers."

Glasgow University Boat Club in training

The men's senior squad of Glasgow University Boat Club, out training on the River Clyde. (Photo: courtesy of GUBC)

With equipment to maintain and competitions to finance, fundraising is crucial to the Boat Club’s success and the team have undertaken some incredible sponsored challenges over the years. "In September 2021, we set up rowing machines in the cloisters and 75 past and present members of the club rowed non-stop for seven days to raise almost £4,500," says Fraser. "In spring 2023, we did a rowing event on the Clyde with members of the club rowing the distance to their hometowns. We rowed over 1,800km to raise money for a new coxed four."

GUBC is never far from the next competition but there are a few key dates in the calendar that the team have in their sights, including the Scottish Boat Race, which usually takes place in May. "The Scottish Boat Race, also known as the Edinburgh vs Glasgow Boat Race, is the third oldest varsity boat race in the world," explains Fraser. The first Edinburgh vs Glasgow race was in 1877 and was hosted on the Clyde.

"It’s been a while since Glasgow won one of those races but there is a desire to put us back where we belong! We’re building the club and progressing so that we can do right by the Glasgow legacy."

The MacLean Foundation
Seas The Day Ocean Rowing
The Chancellor's Fund
Glasgow University Boat Club

This article was first published January 2024.

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