St Andrews students who fulfilled drunken bet to row Indian Ocean (without a support boat) become surprise film stars in the US following success of documentary

  • James Adair and Ben Stenning, both 32, made drunken bet as students
  • Agreed to row across Indian Ocean - despite never having rowed before
  • 3,500-mile voyage took them 116 days and saw them break world record
  • But it was not without danger - they nearly died when boat was capsized
  • Forced to spend five hours in shark-infested water before being rescued
  • Their heroics were later turned into amateur documentary by Ben Finney
  • Film was broadcast at several sold-out viewings in the US - and was a hit
  • 'The success is amazing to say it started as a drunken bet,' Mr Adair said

They had never rowed a boat before.

But a drunken bet saw university students and best friends James Adair and Ben Stenning, now both aged 32, agree to row a staggering 3,500 miles across the Indian Ocean.

Using their £15,000 ($22,800) life savings, they bought an ocean rowing boat and took to the water. Incredibly, they became the first ever pair in history to row the stretch without a support boat in tow.

However, their efforts did not come without danger - they were nearly killed several times, including when a 50ft wave upended their boat and they had to spend five hours in shark-infested waters.

Now, Mr Adair and Mr Stenning have become unlikely films stars in the U.S. after their 116-day trip was transformed into an amateur documentary - and screened at The New York Wild Film Festival.

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Drunken bet: They had never rowed a boat before. But a drunken bet saw best friends James Adair and Ben Stenning agree to row 3,500 miles across the Indian Ocean. Above, Mr Stenning (left) and Mr Adair (right) are pictured as students at St Andrews University in Scotland, which is when they made the life-changing pact

Drunken bet: They had never rowed a boat before. But a drunken bet saw best friends James Adair and Ben Stenning agree to row 3,500 miles across the Indian Ocean. Above, Mr Stenning (left) and Mr Adair (right) are pictured as students at St Andrews University in Scotland, which is when they made the life-changing pact

We've made it!  Incredibly, the pair became the first ever pair in history to row the stretch without a support boat in tow. Above, Mr Adair (left) and Mr Stenning (right) with bushy beards on the day they finally reached Mauritius

We've made it! Using their £15,000 ($22,800) life savings, the pair bought an ocean rowing boat and took to the water in Geraldton. They became the first ever pair in history to row the stretch of ocean without a support boat in tow. Above, Mr Adair (left) and Mr Stenning (right) with bushy beards on the day they reached Mauritius

Mr Adair is seen today (above0 with his son Ben, whom he named after his rowing partner and friend, Ben
Mr Adair is seen today with his son Ben, whom he named after his rowing partner and friend, Ben (pictured)

Best friends: The pair's efforts did not come without danger - they were nearly killed several times. Above, Mr Adair is seen today (left) with his son Ben, whom he named after his rowing partner and friend, Ben (right)

The viewing of the film, titled 'And Then We Swam', caused a sold-out crowd to burst into laughter, gasp in horror and call the pair 'crazy' at the festival at Manhattan's Explorers Club Headquarters.

Tickets to the documentary also sold out at Banff Mountain Film Festival at the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC, where it caused a similar reaction among captivated viewers.

And Mr Adair and Mr Stenning, joined by filmmaker Ben Finney, now plan to tour Europe with the International Ocean Film Tour. Last year, they saw their film aired for the first time in England.

Speaking to DailyMail.com about the documentary's success three-and-a-half years after their row from Australia to Mauritius in August 2011, Mr Adair said he and Mr Stenning felt 'amazed'.

'The success of the film and the feedback we have had from viewers is truly amazing, especially since our idea to row the Indian Ocean stemmed from a drunken university bet!' he said.

'We feel very privileged that people are engaged and inspired by our little voyage.'

Ready to go: Mr Adair (right) and Mr Stenning, who have become unlikely film stars in the US after their heroics were broadcast in an amaetur documentary, are pictured at the airport before setting off on their adventure

Ready to go: Mr Adair (right) and Mr Stenning, who have become unlikely film stars in the US after their heroics were broadcast in an amaetur documentary, are pictured at the airport before setting off on their adventure

Remember Hemingway: After recalling Ernest Hemingway's famous words, 'always do sober what you said you'd do drunk,' the pair spent their combined savings on an ocean rowing vessel (pictured) to use for the trip

Remember Hemingway: After recalling Ernest Hemingway's famous words, 'always do sober what you said you'd do drunk,' the pair spent their combined savings on an ocean rowing vessel (pictured) to use for the trip

And they're off! Mr Adair and Mr Stenning spent three months practicing on the Thames, before heading to the city of Geraldton, north of Perth, Western Australia. Then, it was time for them to set off on their voyage
And they're off! Mr Adair and Mr Stenning spent three months practicing on the Thames, before heading to the city of Geraldton, north of Perth, Western Australia. Then, it was time for them to set off on their voyage

And they're off! Mr Adair and Mr Stenning spent three months practicing on the Thames, before heading to the city of Geraldton, north of Perth, Western Australia. Then, it was time for them to set off on their voyage

In good spirits: Surrounded by their emotional friends, girlfriends and relatives, the pair grinned and pulled faces (pictured) as they rowed out of the harbour, armed with food supplies, thick clothing and a GPS system

In good spirits: Surrounded by their emotional friends, girlfriends and relatives, the pair grinned and pulled faces (pictured) as they rowed out of the harbour, armed with food supplies, thick clothing and a GPS system

Referring to Ben Finney, who is now a firm friend of the pair, he added: 'It is a tribute to Ben that he has been able to create such a compelling film with such poor material and second rate 'stars'.'

Mr Adair and Mr Stenning, who captured their incredible journey with a hand-held video camera (the clips were later used by Mr Finney in the film) made their bet to row the Indian Ocean in 2004.

At the time, they were studying Russian Literature at prestigious St Andrews University in Scotland.

'We woke up the next day and made a pact that this would really happen and not just be another casual fantasy – but it took years to save up and psyche ourselves up,' Mr Adair said. 

'And during those years, there were various setbacks. But we had faith – in some ways, a naïve faith – that it would go ahead. And it did in the end.'

On camera: 'I was looking at the GPS and I was thinking "I don't really know how that works",' said Mr Adair, whose voyage with Mr Stenning was transformed into a film, 'And Then We Swam', by filmmaker Ben Finney

On camera: 'I was looking at the GPS and I was thinking "I don't really know how that works",' said Mr Adair, whose voyage with Mr Stenning was transformed into a film, 'And Then We Swam', by filmmaker Ben Finney

Beautiful: Mr Stenning smiles in front of the setting sun as he smiles for the camera after a hard day's rowing

Beautiful: Mr Stenning smiles in front of the setting sun as he smiles for the camera after a hard day's rowing

Strong waves: Despite their positive start, Mr Adair and Mr Stenning (pictured several weeks in) quickly realized that their row would be a 'relentless' battle between themselves, their vessel and the stormy ocean

Strong waves: Despite their positive start, Mr Adair and Mr Stenning (pictured several weeks in) quickly realized that their row would be a 'relentless' battle between themselves, their vessel and the stormy ocean

When asked how he felt about those who might deem the bet a 'stupid' idea, he added: 'I can see how people might think rowing over 3,000 miles across an ocean is crazy, stupid, pointless even.

'I respect that it isn't something some people want to do and I would never try to persuade someone to do it against their will – but I will always defend my right to exercise my freedom and take my life into my own hands and use it as I will.

The feedback we have had from viewers is truly amazing, especially since our idea to row the Indian Ocean stemmed from a drunken university bet!
James Adair 

'I wanted to try rowing across an ocean, not only to prove to myself and others that I could but also for the adventure and beauty that I suspected were out there (and they were).'

Despite their initial enthusiasm, Mr Adair and Mr Stenning quickly forgot about the bet, and spent years toiling in jobs they hated. 

That is, until 2010, when they got together and spoke about the bet, recalling Ernest Hemingway's famous phrase, 'always do sober what you said you'd do drunk.'

'It stemmed from not being happy with what we were doing,' Mr Stenning told DailyMail.com. 'We were living in an awful, mouse-infested flat.

'I was a fully integrated accounting software salesman and hadn't sold anything in the six months I had been there. James was doing a law course he wasn't really interested in.

'An article about Jim Shekhdar, the first person to complete a solo unassisted non-stop crossing of the Pacific Ocean, had just come out and over red wine on a wintery Sunday evening, just as they pay-as-you-go electricity was about to run out, we decided to give it a go.'

Hard work: 'The sea took on a whole personality of its own,' Mr Adair said, explaining how each of them would row for three hours while the other one slept, before they switched places. Above, Mr Stenning rowing

Hard work: 'The sea took on a whole personality of its own,' Mr Adair said, explaining how each of them would row for three hours while the other one slept, before they switched places. Above, Mr Stenning rowing

Strong arms: Mr Adair at the hand-pump. It took an hour to make a litre of fresh water. And a minute to drink

Strong arms: Mr Adair at the hand-pump. It took an hour to make a litre of fresh water. And a minute to drink

Success: The pair were thrown from their vessel into shark-infested waters after a large wave crashed into the boat, smashing it to pieces. However, after five hours in the sea, they managed to swim to a reef. Amazingly, they were later discovered by members of a local yacht club. Above, the men are brought back to land

Success: The pair were thrown from their vessel into shark-infested waters after a large wave crashed into the boat, smashing it to pieces. However, after five hours in the sea, they managed to swim to a reef. Amazingly, they were later discovered by members of a local yacht club. Above, the men are brought back to land

Journey: Mr Adair and Mr Stenning's record-breaking row saw them travel from Geraldton to Mauritius

Journey: Mr Adair and Mr Stenning's record-breaking row saw them travel from Geraldton to Mauritius

The pair – neither of whom had any rowing experience – spent their combined life savings on an ocean rowing vessel, before working out how much water, food and other items they would need.

They also revealed their plans to their family and friends – to divided opinion.

'There were mixed reactions from families, partners and friends. Some people "got it" and were very enthusiastic, while others were baffled and thought we would fail or die,' said Mr Adair.

'Some thought we'd be bored out of our minds. Those who were negative about the trip still had our best interests in mind, they just saw things in a different way and we mostly respected this.

Book: Following the  row, Mr Adair decided to turn his and Mr Stenning's awe-inspiring experience into a book, Rowing After The White Whale  (pictured)

Book: Following the row, Mr Adair decided to turn his and Mr Stenning's awe-inspiring experience into a book, Rowing After The White Whale  (pictured)

'But by the time we'd bought the boat and our plane tickets to Australia, pretty much everyone could see we were going to try and they gave us their amazing support.'

In the documentary, Mr Steening added: 'I'd never done any rowing in my life, and neither had James. People thought there was no way we could do it.'

Mr Adair and Mr Stenning, who were both 'really impractical' when they first decided to row the distance, spent three months practicing on the Thames, before heading to the city of Geraldton, north of Perth, Western Australia. Then, it was time for them to set off on their treacherous row.

Surrounded by their emotional friends, girlfriends and relatives, the pair grinned as they rowed out of the harbour at 7am, armed with food supplies, thick clothing and a GPS system.

'I was looking at the GPS and I was thinking "I don't really know how that works",' Mr Adair said.

Despite their positive start, Mr Adair and Mr Stenning quickly realized that their row would be a 'relentless' battle between themselves and their vessel and the stormy ocean.

'The sea took on a whole personality of its own,' Mr Adair said, explaining how each of them would row for three hours while the other one slept, before they switched places.

Mr Stenning said they were both 'constantly wet' and eventually developed painful sores on their backsides. When they slept, all they could hear was the 'deafening sound of waves', he said.

However, at other times, the pair were treated with a spectacular view of an orange sunset over the expansive ocean, something they both described as magical and priceless.

During the voyage, they each lost about three stone. But they survived on a diet of freeze-dried food, rationed cigarettes, whisky - and a sense of humour.

With just five miles to go until they reached Mauritius, the end was in sight. But then, amid particularly stormy conditions, a 50ft wave suddenly crashed into the boat and upended it.

Mr Adair and Mr Stenning were thrown from the vessel into shark-infested waters. When they came up to the surface, they quickly realized their boat had been 'smashed to pieces' by the wave.

Using humor to survive: During the journey, the pair made a number of tweets, including the one above

Using humor to survive: During the journey, the pair made a number of tweets, including the one above

At sea: This tweet saw the men quote the famous phrase: 'Water, water all around and not a drop to drink'

At sea: This tweet saw the men quote the famous phrase: 'Water, water all around and not a drop to drink'

Reunited: Mr Adair is pictured with his wife Tory who had flown out to greet him. She brought with her Boost chocolate bars, something he had craved while at sea. Prior to setting off she had given him a packet of letters for the journey. He opened one every two weeks - something that kept him going when things got tough

Reunited: Mr Adair is pictured with his wife Tory who had flown out to greet him. She brought with her Boost chocolate bars, something he had craved while at sea. Prior to setting off she had given him a packet of letters for the journey. He opened one every two weeks - something that kept him going when things got tough

Rescuers: Mr Adair and Mr Stenning are pictured with the men and their sons who decided to join the search party and who carried on looking for them even when the helicopter turned back, saving the pair's lives

Rescuers: Mr Adair and Mr Stenning are pictured with the men and their sons who decided to join the search party and who carried on looking for them even when the helicopter turned back, saving the pair's lives

The vessel had also been thrust in the opposite direction – and was being carried away even further by the sea by the second – so the pair had nothing to climb onto.

In the documentary, Mr Stenning explained: 'Out of nowhere, this huge wave crashed into us. I took a deep breath and the wave demolished us.'

Mr Adair added: 'I came back up and the saw the boat had been smashed to pieces.'

Unbelievably, Mr Adair then set off a flare to attract the attention of marine personnel – but accidentally sent it into his friend's leg, causing blood to start 'pouring' down the limb.

 Spending all that time rowing the ocean with Ben, I was able to learn all of his flaws as well as hear all of his jokes, so I'm more or less the only person who can put up with him
Mr Adair 

The pair clung together, trying desperately to stay afloat, while coming to terms with the increasing likelihood that they would die at sea. After a while a helicopter flew directly over them and they started shouting and waving their arms. However, it failed to see them.

At that point, Mr Adair and Mr Stenning decided their only chance of survival was to attempt to swim to shore. Five hours after they were thrown overboard, they reached a reef and climbed onto it.

As they sat on the reef, both 'very tired and cold', Mr Stenning started displaying signs of hypothermia. 'I was staring at the moon and thought I could feel it emitting warmth,' he said.

But just as all hope seemed to be lost, the pair saw what they later described as an 'extraordinary' sight: several members of a local yacht club pulling up at the remote location in a boat.

As it later transpired, the rescuers had spotted Mr Adair and Mr Stenning's oars washed up on the beach in Geraldton and had taken to the water to investigate .

The yacht club members then helped the men onto the boat and took them to Mauritius, where they were met by their family and friends in an emotional reunion that involved a lot of tears and beer.

Reflecting: Having recuperated and feasted on the food and drink they had dreamed about while out at sea, the pair pose by the boat from which they had become separated right at the very end of their epic 3,500-mile trip

Reflecting: Having recuperated and feasted on the food and drink they had dreamed about while out at sea, the pair pose by the boat from which they had become separated right at the very end of their epic 3,500-mile trip

Following the record-breaking row, Mr Adair decided to turn his and Mr Stenning's awe-inspiring experience into a book, Rowing After The White Whale, published by Polygon in April 2013. 

What made the feat even more impressive is that Mr Adair, at 14, contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a debilitating illness which affects the peripheral nervous system and left him in a coma for a month, totally paralyzed but conscious.

His recovery took over a year and left him with paralyzed feet. 

'We will row again': Mr Adair, pictured with his son Ben, has vowed to take back to the water one day

'We will row again': Mr Adair, pictured with his son Ben, has vowed to take back to the water one day

In the wake of their success, the pair also married the girlfriends they were dating during their voyage. Mr Adair married his partner Tory, while Mr Stenning wed his girlfriend Carole.

And despite spending 116 days with only each other for company, the men have remained best friends. 'My relationship with Ben is as strong as ever,' Mr Adair told DailyMail.com.

'Spending all that time rowing the ocean with him, I was able to learn all of his flaws as well as hear all of his jokes, so I'm more or less the only person who can put up with him for any amount of time.

'Except for his wife, mother and colleagues, of course, who have little choice.'

Mr Adair was asked to be best man at Mr Stenning's wedding. And he has since had a son with Tori whom the couple named Ben, after his rowing partner and best friend.

'Ben was named after my friend, but I hope he turns out to be a better rower!' Mr Adair, who is expecting a second child with his wife in May, joked.

Although the men live in separate countries (Mr Adair lived in Ghana and Barcelona with Tori before moving back to England, while Mr Stenning and his wife currently live in Paris), they still see each other on a regular basis.

And despite their near-death experience, they are planning to row again.

'We are planning another row, but at this point in time we are still at the unrealistic dreaming stage,' Mr Adair said. 'We think it unlikely we'll attempt another one before 2016.

'That, is unless we win the lottery or our wives get really sick of us! But we will row again!'

He added that these days, he never feels properly wet – even in torrential rain. 'I can never feel wet on land, not when I know I'll be dry again within the day,' he said. 

New York Wild Festival, which ran from January 29 to 31, attracted hundreds of film fans.

A second edition of Rowing After The White Whale has just been published. To buy it, click here.

 

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