On 18th January 2018 ‘The Rowing Marine’, Lee ‘Frank’ Spencer, will set off on an unsupported solo rowing attempt 3,500 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. Starting from Gibraltar and ending in Venezuela, the feat will raise money for the Royal Marines Charity and the Endeavour Fund. An extraordinary story made more extraordinary by the fact that Lee is an amputee.
Lee served for 24 years in the Royal Marines and survived three operational tours of Afghanistan unscathed, but his life changed forever when, off duty, he pulled over to help a motorist in the central reservation of the UK’s M3. “On the night of 5th January 2014 shortly after setting off to drive back to base after Christmas leave I got a flat tyre. I pulled over to change it and quickly took a photo of my van jacked up that I uploaded to Facebook with the comment ‘Well this journey can’t get any worse’. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Quite a few miles later and around midnight on the M3 I came across a vehicle that had crashed into the central reservation. I immediately pulled over and was in the process of helping the three occupants of the crashed car when another vehicle crashed into it with such force, it flung its engine and gearbox out along the road about 70 metres, hitting me on the way. The impact flung me over the metal barrier at the side of the hard shoulder, totally dislocated my left knee and took my right leg off below the knee.” Although his right leg was severed in the impact, the serviceman’s training kicked in and he was able to instruct bystanders on how to tie a tourniquet and so helped paramedics to save his life. “I knew I had between 7 and 12 minutes to stop the loss of blood before I bled to death. Vital minutes passed without anyone helping me and I could feel all the classic symptoms of shock coming on. I knew that I was very close to dying and I briefly considered calling my wife Claire to say goodbye, but I knew that if I did that, it would feel that I was giving up the fight to stay alive. It was at that point that a Rastafarian from Hackney called Frank came along. I told him that I needed to get a tourniquet on my right leg and when that didn’t work, I got his daughter Zanele to stand on my femoral artery to stop the flow of blood. So with Frank’s belt tied around what was left of my right leg and Zanele standing on my groin, we waited for the ambulance.”
Then followed five weeks in hospital and a long stay in rehabilitation, while recovering from his injuries Lee began planning his future. “I woke up the next morning in St Georges Hospital Tooting a disabled man. I thought that the person I was the night before had gone and that I would have to redefine who I was in terms of disability and not physicality. My accident generated a lot of interest in the media and had an idea that I thought would turn a negative situation into a positive one. So within a week of being injured I set myself the goal of raising £10,000 for the Royal Marines Charity using the interest in my accident,” he explains. Lee was no newcomer to charitable causes and describes another incident, four years earlier, as the one that ignited his fund-raising passion. “I suppose my story started with a puppy in Afghanistan,” he recalls.
A Puppy Named Hannah
“In the summer of 2008 I was serving in my 1st tour of Afghanistan when a colleague noticed a tiny puppy stuck in between two wire fences on the perimeter of the camp we were based. I instinctively rushed out when no one was around and prized the wire apart, reached in and grabbed it. We adopted the puppy and named her Hannah and I contacted all my family and friends to ask them to start sending out dog food in parcels. My cousin told me about a charity that he had heard of called Nowzad that brought dogs and cats that had been adopted by soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq back to the UK.
“I contacted Penny Farthing, a fellow Royal Marine who started the charity, and he arranged for Hannah to come home and asked me if I would consider doing some fundraising. At the end of my tour I signed up for a cycling event and set about getting sponsorship. I had never thought about charity events before but I enjoyed it so much I started signing up for more and then organising my own events.
“I organised a marathon across Dartmoor for the Royal Marines Charity which led to a double marathon in June 2013 to help fund an exoskeleton for a former Royal Marine who was paralysed in an accident in Norway. With the help of a group of like-minded former and serving soldiers in my village, I ran 52 miles across the rugged terrain of Dartmoor and we raised over £12,000 with the Royal Marines Charity giving the other £77,000 needed. Finding Hannah set me on a path of doing daft things to raise money and an association with the Royal Marines Charity.”
Recovering a Sense of Self
Following his accident on the M3, Lee continuously challenged himself, walking his first mile with the Royal Marines 1664 challenge, racing Henry Cavill up the Rock of Gibraltar and organised various other charity events, eventually raising over £12,000. Raising money for the Royal Marines Charity had given him a focus, but more importantly it had given him a sense of worth. “Because of a small puppy in Afghanistan that had started my association with the Royal Marines charity, and doing charity events, I felt that I could be proud of the person I had become again.
“As my first year as an amputee came to a close and I was beginning to think what was I going to do next, I received an email asking for volunteers to put together the world’s first all amputee crew of four to row across the Atlantic. I found my focus for the coming year, answered the email and set about getting a place on that rowing boat.” On 20th December 2015 Lee set-off to row the 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean with the Row-to-Recovery team, a team of four injured veterans had just three legs between them. In February 2016, some 46 days, 6 hours and 49 minutes later the team rowed into land as the first British military all amputee team of four to row an ocean. “Rowing across the Atlantic had changed my life as significantly as losing my leg, but the difference is that it was totally positive. About half way across I had an almost epiphany moment when I realised that I was the same person that set off to drive back to work just over two years before, the only thing that had changed was that there was a little bit less of me now. I can’t explain how important regaining that sense of self was, knowing who you are is the most fundamental thing you can know and in trying to redefine who I was in terms of disability, I had lost that.
“In January I’m rowing again, this time I will be rowing solo and unsupported from Gibraltar to Venezuela. I’m attempting to be the world’s first physically disabled [it seems contradictory to describe him as such] person to row solo and unsupported from continental Europe to continental America – a Guinness World Record, proving there is life beyond injury and that being disabled doesn’t mean that you cannot do amazing things.” Not satisfied with achieving this accolade alone, Lee will also attempt to beat the current able-bodied record set by Stein Hoff in 2002. The first solo ocean rower to row across the Atlantic East to West from mainland Europe (Portugal) to mainland South America (Guyana) in a time of 96 days, 12hr and 45 minutes. (The first record set for a physically disabled solo ocean rower was in 2004 when Stuart Boreham left from the Canary Island of La Gomera and 109 days, 12hr and 9 minutes later arrived in the Caribbean island Barbados.)
During Lee’s feat of extraordinary physical and mental endurance beginning in Gibraltar this month, Lee will battle 30 foot waves, sleep deprivation, extreme fatigue, fear and solitude. “I don’t believe anyone should be defined by something they can’t do or their limitations,” he says. “It’s about rediscovering who you are, not redefining who you are and being labelled. I feel passionately about raising awareness of this and challenging these preconceptions. Disabilities vary and they aren’t just physical either, I hope I am able to inspire all those who seek to rediscover themselves and raise awareness and funds for two very worthy charities who have supported and inspired me ”.
Follow @therowingmarine for photos, videos and daily updates. To donate please go to uk.virginmoneygiving.com/LeeJSpencer
The Endeavour Fund is a programme managed by The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. It supports wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans using sport and adventurous challenges as part of their recovery and rehabilitation. The fund plays an important role in ensuring more servicemen and women have the opportunity to rediscover their self-belief and fighting spirit through physical challenges. AIG, the global insurance company, signed up in 2015 as the lead corporate partner of the Endeavour Fund for three years. More information can be found at www.endeavourfund.co.uk.
THE ROYAL MARINES’ CHARITY. Today’s Royal Marines and their families are fighting battles they cannot win alone. The Royal Marines’ own charity is uniquely placed to understand, respond and react, enabling Marines and their families to overcome their challenges including life changing injury, life limiting illness, mental disability, transition to civilian life and even poverty. The charity ensures no one is left behind with a mission to raise resources and provide the best possible charitable support for Royal Marines, veterans and their families. More information can be found at www.theroyalmarinescharity.org.uk.
BY ANDREA FORDE