The idea seemed outlandish at first: three rugby players who started out with little to no background in sailing, will row for 5,000 kilometres across continents for more than a month, defy waves of up to 20 feet high, and possibly even face extreme weather conditions. But for Robert Lennox, Matt Bell, and Martin Muller of Hong Kong’s Valley Rugby Football Club, no idea is too wild if you’re determined and if you worked hard for it.

Known as the East Rows West team, Rob, Matt, and Martin are competing for the epic Atlantic Challenge. Before the race started, the trio chatted with ChildFund Rugby, shared details on their training for the “world’s toughest row,” and told us why they are dedicating their epic journey to ChildFund Rugby as their chosen charity. 

Can you walk us through what led you to taking on the Atlantic Challenge? 

All of us, whether we were fully aware of it or not, were looking for something to test us and push us. We are rugby players with regular jobs, and we wanted a massive challenge outside our day to day lives. So, when the idea of the Atlantic Challenge came up in a conversation, we all leapt at the chance!

What were some of your initial concerns before entering this challenge? How did you overcome these? 

Initially the biggest concerns were from a physical standpoint. Our biggest question was “can three battered rugby players manage to do this!?” This is why we are being trained by the specialists at Joint Dynamics. Whilst most people’s first thought is that they’re training us for endurance and fitness, they’re focusing on mitigating injury. It’s less sexy to say we are training to ensure we don’t get injured but this is a majorly important factor. There is no space for injury on this race. 

Separately, we looked at things from a logistics standpoint. As a team with partners and careers, we had to ask ourselves if we could make this happen with work. Most teams are based in the UK, we are the only team from Hong Kong. Finally, we had to ensure we could raise enough money. 

So far, what are the things you’ve been learning as you train for the Atlantic Challenge?  

We have had to do a bunch of courses on topics such as sea survival, first aid, navigation, and VHF radio. Having never really done any sailing, almost all of these were new concepts and have been something we have had to learn on the job. Since the boat arrived in July, we have had to row in some challenging conditions which gives one a newfound respect for the sea!

Honestly, what’s amazing about this race is that it can be taken on by anyone. Yes, you need to train and dedicate enormous time, energy, and resource but you can be a participant even with zero rowing experience. We are embracing the learning and challenges as we go along. 

What do you think are some of the strengths you think your team has? 

We are very good friends and incredibly supportive of one another. In addition, we are stubbornly strong-willed and thrive on pushing ourselves through those dark places that we all have had to face with this challenge.

We are also  all physically strong and good rowers (although still improving!). Our skill sets complement each other well; we have experience in the military, professional sports and boating spread across the three teammates.

We are so grateful for the support of our sponsors, WOI, Joint Dynamics, Gavekal, DX, Lister Petter and Enhanced Investment Products (EIP). We have also built a loyal and engaged following on Instagram which has been great for morale!

It’s not going to be easy, but we can 100% complete this challenge and we have the skills to do so. 

What do you believe to be one of your team’s weaknesses and what are you doing to improve it? 

Prior to this challenge, none of us had rowed before so there was a lot to learn.  However, we have partnered up with the best in the business to help get us up to scratch. We are all strong-willed, disciplined, and determined, which is a good start. We are also learning to make the team dynamics as positive as possible – supporting each other to ensure the best outcome for the team. 

Why did you choose ChildFund Rugby as your charity? 

The three of us met playing rugby in Hong Kong and felt that it is an important part of who we are. We wanted to give back to the sport that had given us so much. The charity itself is excellently run and has done wonderful work and changed the lives of thousands of children in the region. With us now being based in Asia, it seemed a complete no-brainer to support a charity focused on the region. Knowing we are rowing for a cause bigger than ourselves keeps us motivated. 

When you were still growing up, did you have any role models who made you want to be good at sports? 

We all grew up playing a multitude of sports, particularly rugby so there were plenty of sporting heroes! For Matt and Martin, a few South Africans spring to mind: Bob Skinstad, Ernie Els, Jonty Rhodes and Joost Van der Westhuisen.   While for Rob, Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio were standouts!

Why do you think children should get into sports? 

It is a fantastic tool for learning intangible skills that are hard to teach in a classroom such as teamwork, discipline, dedication, leadership.  Whilst maintaining a fit and healthy lifestyle born in younger years means that one learns to love being active and pursuing goals. For all of us, sport gave us opportunities to travel, make friends, gain confidence, and for Martin, it gave him a career. Without sport, we wouldn’t be doing this challenge!

How do you think sports can lift children from marginalised communities? 

As evidenced by research and in the work that ChildFund Rugby do, sport has an enormous contribution to self-esteem thus creating hope and a belief that one can achieve. With hope and confidence, children strive for betterment and uplift themselves. 

Lao Khang (listed in 2019’s Forbes 30 under 30 Asia Entertainment and Sports) says it best:

“As a girl I was always very shy. Now I am a brave and confident young woman. Before I began playing rugby, I only knew people in my small village. Now I have friends all around the world.”

As a role model yourself, what would you tell young people who want to follow their sports dreams? 

My advice would be to stay flexible in your approach. Give your chosen sport your all but understand that setbacks do happen, and you need to have other parts of your life functioning when those setbacks arise. Maintaining balance is key! 

Also don’t take things too seriously too early. Enjoy sport, all sport, and you will gravitate naturally toward the one you most enjoy and/or have the most talent in. And don’t forget hard work and perseverance.  There is also a lot of luck involved in a sporting career, but the harder you work and the more you persevere, the more opportunities  you will have to be lucky.

Following a sporting dream just like anything else requires hard work and dedication. The people you see who make it have years of graft and struggle behind them. If you decide to go for it, you must give 100% because anything less and you won’t make it.

Learn more about the East Rows West Team at

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