Wounded British veterans conquer Atlantic in open boat
Rowers and former soldiers Scott Blaney (L), who lost his leg to an IED in 2007, stands with Cayle Royce(C) on January 22, 2014 in English Harbour, Antigua - by Adele Smith
They're tougher-looking, perhaps, or fitter, or there's something in the easy way they coil a rope. They're different.
But never along these historic docks, or in any other harbor for that matter, are you likely to find the likes of Cayle Royce and Scott Blaney.
Their beards are the classic uniform of long-distance mariners, but their missing legs mark them as almost superhuman.
They were part of a four-man crew of British soldiers that arrived in Antigua this week after a 48-day Atlantic crossing in an open row boat, one of 16 teams taking on the challenge for various charities.
Only a year and a half ago, Lance Corporal Royce, 27, lay close to dying in Helmand, Afghanistan after losing both legs in an IED explosion.
The mine was buried in a place that appeared utterly innocent, hidden by mud from a recent, rare rain.
"Two other guys had already walked right over the place," he remembered.
A keen sailor originally from South Africa, Royce thought the blast had forever robbed him of what he cherished most – a lifelong pursuit of outdoor adventure.
"When I woke up in hospital, I thought this level of adventure sport would be impossible, that I wouldn’t be invited," he told AFP, alongside his now resting rowboat.
In fact, he’d only just started struggling to master sophisticated prosthetic legs when just such an invitation came.
An army comrade suggested they enter the approximately 3,000-mile (4,800-kilometre) Talisker Whisky Challenge rowing race to raise money for the wounded veterans' charity Help for Heroes.
After minimal training on rowing machines, the crew of Row2Recovery joined the competition on their low-slung, narrow boat – open to the waves except for a tiny compartment at each end.
Royce's shipmate Blaney, who lost his right leg to an IED blast in 2007, was a complete sailing novice.
"Before this there'd been a dinghy on holiday," Blaney, also 27, said. "But that's the longest I've ever been at sea."
Royce knew the sea well, yet with his massive and more recent injuries, he’d need every ounce of heart merely to embark – let alone survive and keep going.
Leaving his prosthetics behind, Royce was attached by a strap to the rowing seat. He also lost much of his left hand in the Afghan explosion, so he wore a hook-type prosthetic able to grip an oar.
"Realistically, you can't really prepare," he said. "You're just thrown into the deep end."
That became more than a catchphrase when a huge swell half way across the ocean capsized the 29-foot craft (nearly nine metres) – and pitched Royce and the other man on watch at the time into the ocean.
"Luckily we were wearing tethers, or it would have been all over," he said. "This enormous, monster wave tore me out of that seat in a flash."
After days of being almost constantly drenched, they rowed in to a riotous welcome in English Harbour, onetime headquarters of British naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Celebratory flares poured orange smoke into the tropical night.
Anchored superyachts – those ultimate symbols of ease at sea – blasted horns in the rowers' honor.
There were even ceremonial cannons in action for the four sailor-soldiers as they rowed up to the quay in Nelson’s Dockyard.
Quiet and thoughtful, Royce said he wasn’t out to "prove" anything. But he and Blaney want to inspire those who’ve been injured – then can’t believe they’ll recover.
"You’ve lost the legs, you haven’t lost the rest of your life," he said. "Don’t quit."
On arrival, relatives handed him and Blaney their replacement legs. Wheelchairs were also waiting.
But Royce, who no longer properly fits his prosthetics, because he has lost so much weight during the row, prefers trying to stand anyway.
He eyed the wheelchair.
"I hate that thing."