On 6 February 2021, after 56 days alone at sea, Founder of Manchester Cabins and YPO member Frank Rothwell became the oldest man to row across the Atlantic solo and unassisted, raising USD1.55 million for Alzheimer’s Research UK, with the support of Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation. Arriving more than a week ahead of schedule, the 70-year-old grandfather from Oldham, England, completed the 3,000 mile journey from the Canary Islands as part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge — reaching Antigua and coming fourth out of the eight solo participants.

As the extreme endurance sport continues to grow, it continues to be the ultimate challenge in physical and mental strength. Since 1896, there have been about 900 attempts to row an ocean, with only two-thirds of rowers succeeding. By comparison, 955 people attempted to summit Mount Everest in 2019 alone.

An adventurer at heart

Rothwell is no stranger to adventure. He is an experienced sailor (only the 10th person to ever circumnavigate North and South America) and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at age 66. “I am always looking for a challenge, and when I heard about an annual event to row across the Atlantic, an obsession was born,” Rothwell says.

He wanted to partner with a charity and chose carefully. “We are now living longer lives, and while dementia is not a natural part of aging, age is the biggest risk factor. With dementia becoming more prevalent, I researched charities looking to find a cure and found Alzheimer’s Research UK., the U.K.’s leading dementia research charity,” says Rothwell.

Fellow YPO member Sir Malcolm Walker agreed that the Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation would match-fund the first half a million pounds, which is how Rothwell was able to raise more than a million.

Rothwell trained for 18 months and had to pass stringent endurance requirements before qualifying, including spending at least 120 hours on a boat, 24 of them in darkness. He says, “I actually enjoyed the training in Scotland. But at the end of the day, I am still 70 years old, so I thought I would probably come in last place. But it did not matter to me, as long as I made it to the finish line.”

Even with all the experience and training, compared to his other challenges, this one was by far the most grueling. “First, it was new, being in such a small boat in a big ocean with big waves was also scary. After going over one big wave, I would think it was not so bad, then a bigger wave would come,” he says. “Nobody is holding your hand or guiding you like when you’re climbing Mount Everest. It is more dangerous to cross the ocean. If you fall in the water with no harness, you’re dead.”

Rothwell adds that the adventure was also very solitary. He says, “support boats can only get to you within 10 days. There are plenty of ships crossing the Atlantic within 100 miles, but you can’t see the ships or the support boats because of the size of the waves.”

At 70, former CEO turned adventurer, Frank Rothwell's solo trip across the Atlantic yielded many lessons on life and business.

Business and life lessons

Rowing across 3,000 miles of ocean for 56 days demands a particular kind of resilience and determination that Rothwell, a YPO member since 1993, compares to starting a business. After building his first cabin on the drive of his family home in 1979, he grew a sustainable portable building manufacturing and renting business, Manchester Cabins, that his son now leads.

“I started with no money,” Rothwell says. “We were actually in debt. The business has reached £12 million (USD16,890 million) in turnover from nothing.”

Drawing a parallel with his entrepreneurship journey, he shares key insights that helped him navigate business and an ocean.

  • Plan meticulously and be prepared for the worst scenarios. Rothwell contemplated every worst possible scenario before launch. He secured an additional hand-operated watermaker in case he needed to make water and medications for possible illnesses and infections. “In business, as with rowing, think of every possible problem. It is all in the planning and looking at what can go wrong.”
  • Carry on. Rather than giving up, Rothwell never stopped rowing, one big wave at a time. “Eventually, you become more confident with the bigger waves and winds up to 30 miles per hour,” he explains. “In business, with experience, you also learn how to deal with the falls and cope with the next wave of uncertainty.”
  • Enjoy the adventure. On five occasions, Rothwell had to jump in the sea, attached by a rope, to scrape off the barnacles and clean up the bottom of the boat. But, he says, “The good news is that it is warm to go in the water. As in business, try to turn the negatives into positives, and make them part of the adventure.”
  • Find a higher purpose. Rothwell did not initially sign up to the challenge with the charity in mind, but it became a major motivator. While rowing, his brother-in-law, who had Down syndrome and dementia, passed away. “They told him it was unlikely he would live past 16,” he says. “He lived until 62. He was my inspiration and motivation.” With business as well, Rothwell believes finding a higher purpose can act as a great motivator.
  • Don’t blame others if anything goes wrong. “In business and in rowing, it is all down to you. You need to find your own solution and put in all the effort in the planning,” Rothwell says.
  • Share your adventure with loved ones. While crossing the ocean in a small boat was a solitary journey, Rothwell looked forward to the daily calls to his wife of 50 years, Judith. “She is my wife and best friend, and I would speak to her at least the start and end of each day,” he says. “I was looking forward to reach home to celebrate Valentine’s Day with her, and I did.” Similarly, in business and life, find a partner to share the journey with.
  • Focus on the task at hand. Rothwell cites the importance of focus in rowing and in business. “At times, when you are tired, carry on a little longer until you hit your daily target. I focused on one day at a time,” he says. “Similarly, in business, when doing something big, break it into simple tasks and think: What do I have to do today?”

For Rothwell, his biggest recommendation is to continue to look for new adventures. He says, “I want to put into practice my experience, so there will be a next time. I will take less weight, a slightly smaller boat and, assuming I am reasonably fit, plan to do it all over again in 2023.”

Since completing his challenge, Rothwell is continuing to raise funds for Alzheimer’s Research U.K. You can show your support here: www.justgiving.com/frankrothwell