We can all spot the signs of a raging midlife crisis. Perhaps the purchase of a very fast car. Or a brand new, age-inappropriate wardrobe and a dash of cosmetic surgery. Or maybe even a wildly expensive bike coupled with lashings of Lycra.
But as 48-year-old Andrew Bedwell’s big birthday marches towards him, he has decided to go a step further. ‘I want to complete a real challenge before I’m 50. A proper physical challenge. I know I have to do it — something real and important and big.’
Which is why he has spent large chunks of the past three years designing and building a comically small — just 1.4 metres long — bright orange boat called the Big C.
It is made out of fibreglass and foam, weighs 600kg, can travel up to 2.9mph — ‘you could walk quicker than that, it’s very slow’ — and looks like a cross between a shopping trolley, a wheelie bin and a Henry vacuum cleaner.
Oh, and he plans to sail it across the Atlantic Ocean next May, to smash the record for the smallest vessel crewed singlehandedly — as if you could even squeeze a mouse in with him.
Andrew Bedwell, 48, has spent large chunks of the past three years designing a comically small, 1.4m long boat called the Big C to sail him across the Atlantic Ocean next May ahead of his 50th birthday
‘I’ve carved half a metre off the current record holder and I really don’t think it’s possible to go any smaller,’ he says. ‘So I’m doing it for the challenge, and for the excitement. And why not?’ I can think of a raft of reasons. And it seems his wife Tracy can, too.
‘There are huge risks!’ Tracy, 52, says when we chat later over the phone. ‘I don’t want his health to suffer, I don’t want his safety to suffer. It’s hard when you’ve got a dog, a child and a full-time business to run on your own. And I don’t want to tell our nine-year-old daughter that her father is not coming home. I can’t say I’m happy about it.’
Andrew, however, is brilliantly upbeat about it all.
‘Oh, it’ll be fine. She’ll be fine. It’ll all be fine,’ he chirps.
But it does all seem like total madness, even before I lurch aboard and see just how teeny weeny it is. I am only 5ft 2in and it is horribly claustrophobic for me.
Yet Andrew is 6ft — at least in an actual wheelie bin he’d be able to stretch his legs.
It’s also wildly wibbly-wobbly. We’re not even at sea, just in the balmy waters of the Southport Marine Lake courtesy of Southport Watersports and I’m bobbing about like a drunken cork.
The thought of being hurled about by giant waves in the middle of the Atlantic is horrifying.
Even Red Bull, sponsor of some of the craziest challenges, has turned down the chance to support him. ‘They said that it was “inspirational, but mad”,’ says Andrew. ‘I was really surprised.’
Andrew, meanwhile, reckons it’s all completely doable. By his calculations — if he’s not foiled by gigantic storm waves, mown down by a tanker or runs into an unfriendly whale or two — it should take him between two-and-a-half to three months to cross from Newfoundland to The Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall, and, hopefully, win the record back from 90-year-old American Hugo Vihlen, who has held it for the past 30 years.
Challenge: Jane Fryer tries out the boat for size. Setting off in May 2023 from St Johns, Newfoundland the perilous 1,900 mile journey should conclude at Lizard Point, Cornwall
‘I can’t think of a better way to spend my 50th than at the National Maritime Museum as Hugo hands the title over to me,’ he says. ‘I really want it.’
Which is a good thing, because the discomfort will be off the charts. For starters, he can’t straighten his legs, or lie down properly to sleep.
Not that he’ll be slumbering much — instead, he’ll nap every other 20 minutes for the entire journey. There are no creature comforts, either.
No shower, bed, pillow, loo — or loo roll, for that matter. ‘I’ll just go over the side of the boat!’ Any soap? ‘Nah, I don’t think I’ll bother, though I might try and squeeze a toothbrush in,’ he says.
No tasty snacks. No reading material. No music. ‘I like the noise of the sea, the wind, the waves,’ he tells me. He’ll take just one set of clothes — ‘I’ll wear them all the time and stink to high heaven after three months.’ His single, luxury item will be a flannel on a long piece of string that he will rinse in the sea and use for everything.
But right now, as the Big C is being prepped for sea trials, the only item actually on board is a spice jar containing some ashes of a chap called Tom McNally. Tom held the record before Hugo and is a hero of Andrew’s.
‘An amazing person. I never met him, but I’ve promised his daughter Lorraine I’ll scatter his ashes at sea,’ he says.
The competitive ‘smallest vessel to cross the Atlantic’ title might sound rather niche, but it has been hard-fought over by extraordinary eccentrics in ever-shrinking boats.
It all started in 1964 with a Lancastrian called John Riding, though compared to today’s sizes, his boat — a whopping 12ft — would feel like a cruise liner. Next came American sailor Hugo Vihlen, who crossed in his 5ft 11in boat April Fool (he set off on April 1) in 1968. Finally, in May 1993, the record came back home courtesy of McNally.
Andrew Bedwell is pictured with his daughter, Poppy, and his wife Tracy, 52. The 6ft tall 48-year-old will be eating 1,000-calorie sachets a day of high protein mush that his wife Tracy will make and will be packed into the walls of the boat
Another local Lancastrian hero, he built his boat — the 5ft 4.5in Vera Hugh — out of an eclectic range of materials, including a bit of old wardrobe and a washing machine door and sailed it from Lisbon, Portugal to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, via Puerto Rico, despite a cracked hull and having run out of water and food.
He had just four months of glory before Vihlen snatched it back in the 5ft 4in Father’s Day, sailing from Newfoundland to Cornwall in 105 days and losing a kidney in the process after running out of both food and water.
Despite fevered efforts, McNally never won it back, and in 2017 he passed away from kidney cancer, possibly caused through drinking seawater when he too ran out of supplies.
Last week, Andrew had an email exchange with Vihlen, now 90 and living in Florida.
‘He wished me good luck and said he’d never expected to have the record for so long.’
The Big C, meanwhile, is an adaptation of McNally’s boat, which was also called The Big C. Andrew named it in his honour and is using the challenge to raise money for cancer research. In the bottom is a five-litre water tank and on board is a hand-pumped desalination unit so he can drink the seawater.
His food will be 1,000-calorie sachets (one a day) of high protein mush that his wife Tracy will make and will be packed into the walls of the boat.
Though she sounded a bit surprised when I asked her about it.
‘Yes, I’ve been told I am!’ she says. ‘There’s never much discussion about it.’
‘So I sort of eat the boat!’ continues Andrew. ‘I’ll start from the outside storage units and the last bits I’ll eat are the bits supporting my seat. I’m hoping my daughter Poppy hides a few sweeties in there somewhere, too.’
Although it all sounds a bit, well, Heath Robinson, Andrew is a very experienced sailor — he has completed several Atlantic crossings, albeit in rather bigger boats — and insists he has thought of everything to make the journey as safe as possible.
All the marine requirements: VHF radio, chart plotter, an AIS transponder that pings to other vessels to let them know he’s there. A rolling compass. Two rudders, so there’s a spare. Two sails. Two of everything.
He even has a padded hat to stop himself being knocked out and there are little shelves to slot his arms into so he can brace himself in high seas.
Also, he tells me cheerily, when the canopy is sealed shut he has 40 minutes’ worth of air inside before he suffocates. Speaking of which, is there a first aid kit? ‘Space is very limited,’ he says.
‘Maybe some paracetamol wrapped in Cling Film and some ibuprofen gel for my back.’ It goes without saying Andrew has never been quite like the rest of us.
By Andrew’s calculations — if he’s not foiled by gigantic storm waves, mown down by a tanker or runs into an unfriendly whale or two — it should take him between two-and-a-half to three months to cross from Newfoundland to The Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall, and, hopefully, win the record back from 90-year-old American Hugo Vihlen, who has held it for the past 30 years
As an only child growing up in Sevenoaks, Kent, in a boat-mad family, he was roaring about on power boats at six months old, had his own 15HP inflatable motorboat when he was just six — ‘it could go up to 30mph!’ — and was camping and hiking alone in woodland owned by his parents from the age of seven. ‘I’ve never had that many friends — more acquaintances,’ he says. ‘I like my own company. I like to rely on myself.’
Over the years, he has delivered yachts, run a kite-surfing company, taken punters out on thrill-seeking inflatable rides, but always loved boats (he currently has three) and motorbikes (‘I have 27, but not if my wife is listening’).
He met Tracy 14 years ago on dating website Match.com.
‘She was dressed as a bumblebee and I knew she was the perfect match for me.’ She, meanwhile, took a bit more convincing. ‘To be honest I wasn’t very bothered at all to start with, but he kept driving up to see me,’ she says.
Andrew clearly grew on her because, nine months later, they were married. Tracy had her eyes wide open. ‘I knew he was different and that he needed to go and do challenges. Whereas I’m more practical and focused, though I’m not boring,’ she says.
‘So we’ve always given each other total freedom and it worked very well because we’ve never, ever had an argument in 14 years.’
Her patience is particularly impressive given she hates boats.
‘She’s been out on one boat, was violently ill and won’t come out again,’ says Andrew. She also loathes motorbikes. Perhaps not surprisingly, as not that long ago Andrew accidentally turned over the bike with their daughter on it and broke her leg.
But time and again, she has stood by, holding the fort, as he has gone on adventure after adventure, including a solo trip up into the Arctic and around Iceland on a 6.5m racing yacht — ‘I knocked a hole in my head on the boat on that one’ — and another solo trip around the UK.
‘At least that was a proper boat though,’ says Tracy. ‘Not like this thing!’ For all his experience, this adventure is something else. Not just because this challenge is the biggest, maddest and longest one yet, but also by far the most dangerous.
Does he ever think that this could all be a little bit selfish?
‘A little bit. Yes. I’m not trying to be selfish, but I do have a young daughter and my dad won’t discuss it with me at all,’ he says.
‘But on the other hand, I’ve got to live my life, haven’t I?’
And what about Tracy, does she ever say, ‘That’s enough!’
‘No, she’s amazing. When I was on the Iceland trip, it took her a week to reply to one of my messages because she was so busy!’ he tells me.
‘Though this morning she did say, “I can’t wait for it to be over so you can do some housework!” ’ She sounds like a total saint to me.
Not least because only a fool would believe that this would be his final challenge.
‘Yes, I have a funny feeling there’ll be something else,’ he admits.
Back out on the water, I have one last look about my wobbly launch. I don’t think I could spend a day in it.
Certainly not a dark, choppy night, let alone three, hard months crashing about in the Atlantic with just Tom McNally’s ashes and a single flannel attached to a string for company.