It takes two very special characters to decide to take on what is essentially the world’s toughest row, unsupported, across the Atlantic Ocean, with no prior rowing experience whatsoever.
Some would even call them crazy.
And if you spend just a little time with Omar Samra and Omar Nour you’ll swiftly realise they’re both extremely special with just the right amount of crazy.
The UAE-based Egyptian duo have announced on Wednesday that they will be attempting to row 5,000 nautical kilometres across the Atlantic, from San Sebastian de la Gomera in the Canary Islands, to Nelson’s Dockyard English Harbour in Antigua.
Samra, an experienced adventurer, mountaineer, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, future astronaut and U.N Goodwill Ambassador, and Nour, a professional triathlete and businessman, will embark on this gruelling journey starting December 12, 2017, along with other participants in a race dubbed The Atlantic Challenge.
The pair – who have now partnered up to create Team O2 – met in 2013 in Dubai and struck up a friendship, united by a passion for sports and adventure, and an affinity to grow an impressive afro.
Samra, who is the first Egyptian to climb Everest, the Seven Summits (the highest mountain on each of the seven continents) and ski to both the North and South Poles – a feat called the ‘Explorer’s Grand Slam’ completed by less than 40 people in history – approached Nour with the idea of rowing across the Atlantic. Nour did not need much convincing.
They signed up for the race two hours later.
“Less people have rowed an ocean than have gone to space, or climbed Mount Everest. So just doing that would be pretty impressive,” the 38-year-old Samra told Sport360°.
“I’ve never rowed before, even until this day, I haven’t actually sat in a rowing boat and rowed for like 15, 20 minutes.
“But nine months from now I’ll be rowing for a couple of months in probably what is the toughest rowing challenge in the world. That really excites me, the idea to throw myself very deep into something, to learn so much, and to put ourselves at the edge of human possibility.
“To really, really push ourselves, really challenge ourselves. Because I think that’s how we grow, through challenge. We want to really prove to people that anything can be done.”
No outside assistance is permitted throughout the crossing – once O2 leave the safety of the harbour they’ll be alone, completely unsupported in the vast ocean and at the mercy of the elements.
The world record for pairs completing this row is 40 days, 4 hours and 3 minutes. Nour, the fastest Arabic-speaking triathlete on the planet, naturally wants to beat that mark.
He turns 39 just three days before their journey starts and while, like Samra, he has no rowing experience, he has a knack for proving people wrong.
Nour’s fat-to-fit story has inspired scores around the world and he only became a professional triathlete at the age of 31, with the main target of making it to the Olympics. His Rio dreams were hampered by a serious back injury last summer but he is far from done with the sport.
“I love things that most people think are not doable. When I was 29 I discovered triathlon. I said I was going to turn professional and people were laughing, at age 31,” says Nour.
“And I had a good run at the Games. When people were like ‘ah no way, he’s not going to even come close’. I like that. I like doing something that is completely out of the comfort zone.
“We are going to do something completely ridiculous, we don’t know anything about rowing, we don’t know anything about the ocean, about navigation – there’s nothing about our expertise that qualifies us, or even suggests that we should be able to cross an ocean, and that’s why I’m doing it. And we will do it.
“You sign up, you dedicate, you push, you stay on course, and maybe motivate a few people in our process.”
The first successful Atlantic Ocean crossing was completed by Sir Chay Blyth and John Ridgeway in 1966 – a 92-day battle against hurricanes, 50 foot waves and near starvation.
The boats have come a long way since that inaugural crossing – O2’s vessel is approximately 7.5m long x 1.8m wide, and built of wood, fibre glass, carbon fibre and Kevlar.
It is equipped with a water-maker to change the sea water into drinking water, solar panels to power GPS and other vital electrical equipment – Nour insists a sound system will be essential – 90 days’ worth of food rations, first-aid kits, tracking beacons, an ‘AIS’ allowing them to communicate with passing vessels, a satellite telephone and specially-designed laptop called a ‘tough book’ to allow them to communicate with the outside world, even when they’re 2,500 km from dry land.
The boat has a small cabin, which is the only protection O2 will have against the might of the ocean. When the weather proves too much for the boat and it capsizes, it is able to self-right.
“Most people live all their lives just exploring a very narrow band of their true potential and what we want to do here is basically explore. We’re going to explore highs and lows. In order to be able to put ourselves in a situation where we can experience a euphoria, you’re going to actually also experience a lot of suffering,” explains Samra.
Nour quickly adds: “But that’s life. I don’t think anything that’s worth achieving or doing is easy. Nothing.”
For a twosome who share lots of ideals, Samra and Nour can often appear as polar opposites. The former is soft-spoken, calm and has spent countless days by himself trekking the poles or reaching the highest peaks on the planet. Nour has an infectious energy that has no bounds, can speak for days and loves company.
“The way we work, we complement each other really well. And just in our general energy, we complement each other. I’m pretty calm, I’m introverted, very very comfortable where I’m not going to speak to anybody for a couple of months. But at the same time I have another side of my personality – where I’m outgoing, where I’m silly, crazy, making a fool out of myself and Omar brings that side out of me,” is how Samra puts it.
Samra is used to living on the edge. His previous expeditions have taken him to remote places in extreme weather conditions. Still he knows the Atlantic Challenge might be his toughest test to date.
“I’ve done enough of these things to know that this, mentally, is going to be gruelling, I think more than anything I’ve ever done,” he admits.
“One because obviously the discomforts – it’s frightening because I’m not experienced but just in absolute terms it is very scary.
“Even on Everest where I spent 65 days, the scenery was changing, there’s people around you – not a lot of people – but there’s people around. You can move.
“The idea of being ‘trapped’ in a piece of real estate that’s like 1.8mx7m and not even have the luxury of ‘I’m just going to go stretch my legs’ that gets to you.
“We’ve been watching documentaries and we’ve seen a two-time Olympic gold medallist rower for Britain, he was doing a two-man row across the Atlantic and this is a guy who is just a monster and every day this guy was crying like a baby.
“I think anyone put in this situation will break down multiple times, but I’m excited about that. Because I think it’s going to bring something out of me that I’ve never seen before. Some of it is going to be shitty and Omar unfortunately will have to deal with it.”
Nour responds to his partner by saying: “I think it’s going to be fine. I don’t mind, I’ll carry you.”
As well as under-going high intensity physical training to morph their bodies into that of elite rowers, the duo will need to go through sufficient mental training together to be able to handle any situation the elements throw at them.
The duo will also have to complete multiple qualifications prior to the Atlantic crossing including a RYA Yacht-master Ocean Theory, First Aid at Sea, Sea Survival and a VHF Radio License.
Once the boat arrives to Dubai, Samra and Nour plan on completing 1,600km of training off the coast of the UAE in preparation for their December odyssey.
As a competitive athlete, Nour is gunning for that world record, but for Samra, just reaching Antigua will suffice.
“I think the fact that we just embarked on this is success in itself. It’s a big commitment, it’s a scary thing – even for us,” adds Samra.
“So to really lean into the discomfort and the fear and do it anyway, for me that means we’ve succeeded. The moment we get to the starting line and we do a couple of strokes and we’re away from the dock, in my mind we’ve already succeeded in doing something amazing.”
You can follow O2’s quest to get ready for this ultimate challenge on Sport360.com, @Sport360 on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as on Omar Samra and Omar Nour’s social media, over the next eight months.
The COEGA Sunwear/GO Sport Mina Mile Open Water Swim Series makes its final splash of the season next week and you can still join with registration still open.
On Saturday, April 15, hundreds will flock to Barasti Beach at Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort in Dubai as they take to waters across different distances.
The main event will be the one- mile (1,600 metres) swim, aimed for advanced and experienced swimmers. For those who feel that is out of reach, then the 400m and 800m categories are also on offer.
Alternatively, there are also kids races in the 200m, which is split into two categories – 8 years and under and 9 to 12s.
Participants looking to compete as a team can do exactly that with relay options available with each of the three athletes swimming 100m each.
There’s even more reason for families to compete considering they will be able to enter for a discounted fee.
“The event has evolved in to a real family affair with more and more families entering and for this year, if a family of three or more enter, we are offering them discounted entry fees off their total entry fee, so there is no excuse to get everyone in the water,” said race director, Warren van der Merwe from Super Sports Events, which is organising the swim.
“COEGA are a passionate brand when it comes to being out in the sun and in the water so we are very excited to be working with them on these races,” he added. “This swim series is now entering its 11th year on the Dubai swimming scene and will be the 20th race of this event.”
Entry costs Dh150 per adult and Dh100 per junior aged 18. All swimmers can enter as many races as they want with each participant receiving a medal, electronic chip timer and certificate. There will also be prizes for the top three finishers in each category and prizes from sponsors.
Managing director of COEGA, Maureen Hall, said: “Race One of the series saw many new faces and swim clubs so we are looking forward to seeing them all compete and having fun on the beach again.
“The number of competitors has increased every race and we will be displaying some of our COEGA products on race day for all to view with the lucky winners walking away with some of the products as prizes.”
WHAT: COEGA Sunwear / GO Sport Mina Mile Open Water Swim Series
WHERE: Barasti Beach, Dubai
WHEN: Saturday, April 15 from 06:30
CONTACT: For more information or to register ahead of Tuesday’s deadline, visit www.supersportsuae.com
Ferry Weertman might not be one of the most famous and recognisable swimmers just yet but he certainly is making a big splash in the open water competitions.
At just 24, the Dutchman has already been crowned European champion as well as winning silver at the World Championships in Russia two years ago.
But his best achievement came last August when he out-touched two-time world champion Spyridon Gianniotis in the 10km race to stand top of the podium with Olympic gold in Rio.
Not bad for someone who only made his international debut five years ago. We caught up with him after he won silver in the Abu Dhabi leg of the FINA 10km Marathon Swimming World Cup.
It’s been seven months since you won gold medal at the Rio Olympic Games. How do you look back at the competition and the achievement itself ?
To be honest winning in Rio was a dream come true. It was something that I was working on for the last four years as it was one of those goals that I wanted to achieve since I started swimming.
It was simply amazing and it was a great event to be part of and went back home with memories I’ll cherish.
How much has your life changed since then?
Obviously with the Olympic Games being so big, it has had a big effect on me. Now everyone is asking for photos and autographs which is very nice.
At first it was a little bit weird but it’s good to see that people are looking up to you as their idol, which is a bit strange as I was the one who was idolising somebody else.
The Abu Dhabi race was your first competitive duel in the water since your Rio heroics, how pleasing is it to begin the 2017 season strongly?
My performance was very encouraging and although I didn’t win, to come second in a competitive race was fantastic. It sets me well for the World Championships in Hungary and that is something I want to win.
I finished second in the previous edition but to get gold there is something I have my sights on for this season.
The Netherlands have a vast history of producing some outstanding swimmers with Pieter van den Hoogenband being one. In Rio, Sharon van Rouwendaal also claimed the women’s 10km gold for the country so how big is the sport in Holland?
Without doubt, football is the biggest sport in the country but swimming is quickly growing. The success we had in Brazil has only raised the profile of the sport in attracting more people to take up the sport.
Four years ago, there were only two long distance swimmers but now there’s a team of six competitive ones so it shows the sport is on the up. With more competition, that in itself gets the best out of me because I enjoy those types of challenges.
You’re still in your early 20s but is there anything you want to achieve before you retire?
My main target is to win the 10km gold at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. To become the first person to win two consecutive golds in Olympic Games over the same distance would be an extraordinary feeling but there’s still a long way to go.
How did you get into swimmer and what is your training regime?
My mum used to take me to baby swimming classes and that’s where I got the feeling to being in a pool from early on. In terms of my training, I train 10 sessions a week which is around 30 hours in total per week.
I usually swim around 75 to 90km a week which is normal.
Who was your favourite swimmer growing up?
It was Maarten Van Der Weijden. He won the 2008 Olympic Games and was diagnosed with leukemia. But once he got the all-clear he continued swimming and that was very inspiring for me.
You also got the chance to meet Michael Phelps last year…
Yes, he’s a great swimmer who has won so many Olympic medals. It certainly won’t be possible for me to achieve as much as he has since there is only one 10km event in Olympic Games.
It was great to meet him. I’ve seen him so many times on TV and to see him in real life was a dream.