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Commando Joe was a four-strong team of ex-Army and serving personnel whose objective was to become the first four-man team to win a trans-Atlantic rowing race. In rowing the Atlantic, the team would also raise money for the Meningitis Trust in memory of Gareth Rowlands, the sixteen-year-old son of a team member, who tragically died from the disease in May 2003.
When that race, originally planned for June 2005, was postponed until 2006 a yawning chasm opened up in front of one member of the team, Charlie Martell. For him, 2006 was too long to have to wait for an extreme challenge – and too long to have to wait to start raising money for the Meningitis Trust.
Thus came into being Commando Joe’s “Challenging the Extreme” strapline. Commando Joe, as a team, would undertake three challenges, in three years, in three extreme environments – all in aid of the Meningitis Trust. Each challenge would include at least one of the original team of four.
Arctic, Atlantic and Sahara – harsh environments at the best of times, harsher still once an element of competition is introduced.
Military training and thinking would underpin Commando Joe’s attitude to these challenges. Team members had passed the exacting and gruelling challenge that is the Royal Marines Commando Course. To put it bluntly, they were tough. Tough men for tough challenges.
The Scott-Dunn Polar Challenge 2005
This was a competitive, team race to the 1996 location of the Magnetic North Pole, located at 78º35.7’N 104º11.9’W. Led by polar experts, the race was organised by a group of experienced adventurers and team specialists. Each team member had to haul a 90kg sledge, containing their food and equipment, over the 320 miles of the race course.
The North Pole is one of the planet’s most inaccessible regions. In fact, it might as well be on another planet, for its alien landscape and inhospitable nature make it an unfamiliar and highly challenging environment for humans. And it’s a harsh environment. The average air temperature during the race will be between -20 and -35 Celsius. With wind chill it can drop to -65. Adequate preparation before the race, and competence and confidence during it, would prove central to the team’s success.
But it was precisely the sort of environment that Commando Joe – the team set up by Charlie in 2004 – sought out for its challenges. Back in 2005, when the team undertook the challenge, they joined a select group of just 30 people who had raced to a Pole. Commando Joe started its epic Arctic quest on April 23rd, 2005, and completed it 9 days, 17 hours and 39 minutes later.
Charlie was accompanied by Steve Clewley and Gary Bullen:
In competitive situations, it’s good to have an edge on your rivals. Steve Clewley has just that: as with Charlie, the Arctic is familiar territory for him having trained there several times in his twenty year career with the Army.
“I’ve always had the determination to improve myself,” Steve explains, “and physical challenges in particular hold a certain appeal.
“Sometimes finding the motivation and courage to keep going can be difficult, especially in this line of work. I’ve been witness to some appalling incidents over the years and they take their toll on a person’s psyche.”
Steve was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery after an horrific accident in Afghanistan in March 2002, when a missile blew up as it was being prepared for disposal. Five soldiers were killed and another eight seriously injured yet Steve, who was standing just 15 metres away, miraculously escaped injury.
His work in Afghanistan also earned him the MBE for his work on ‘light role’ bomb disposal: this means carrying everything on one’s back and still being able to carry out safe, effective ordnance disposal.
“Those kinds of situations are tough, but if they’re in your line of work, then you have to get used to them. You have to take a professional approach, remain reliable and, most importantly of all, continue to act as part of a team.
“It’ll be the same when we’re on the ice – there’s no room for individual egos here. The team is king.”
Steve thinks one of the hardest things when he’s on the ice will be the lack of communication with his family. Married with three children, one of his reasons for taking part in the 2005 Scott Dunn Polar Challenge is the assistance provided by the Meningitis Trust when his son Jordan, now seven years old, contracted the disease at the age of two. He spent two weeks in intensive care.
“The support provided by the Meningitis Trust was incredible,” says Steve, “because they understood, more than anyone else, what was going through our minds and how we were feeling. I promised myself that when the opportunity arose, I would do something for them in return.
“I’ll feel proud to tell Jordan and my other two kids that I went to the North Pole because of him!”
A Falmouth resident, Gary had just completed 22 years in the Royal Marines specialising as a Physical Training Instructor. In the past he’d been a keen runner and skier, but in the last five years had pursued adventure racing.
The year before taking part in the Polar Challenge, he was the UK representative at the “Fulda Extreme Arctic Challenge” in Canada and Alaska and finished fifth in the men’s event.
Gary had his wish to see a Polar Bear granted – although it probably got a little closer than he’d wanted – and described the experience as ‘awesome’.