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Why I am crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a rowing boat.

Chris Ambler is rowing 3000 miles across the Atlantic in 2025. He and school friend Kip Wells are Team Force Horizon, rowing in support of charity JET. Here he explains why he wants to help kids with unnurtured potential.

"My journey starts in Lincoln, UK, with a military father and a troubled mother. When I was approaching two years old, my father was deployed to the Falklands; this was the start of what would become the darkest years of my life.

While he was away, my mother took all five children out the house and moved us 150 miles south, to the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. I can only imagine what my dad must’ve thought, when – in a time before emails and mobile phones – the letters stopped and he returned to a house that was empty and had been sold!

I can’t remember the first years of education; I don’t know if I attended or not. The memories start from when I was around five years old. I remember making the walk to school on my own. It must have been almost 3km, and I would stop at the off-license and buy myself a packet of Space Invader crisps and hopefully a chocolate mousse or a jelly pot. This would be my lunch. I spent break times in defense mode, determined not to let the other kids take my Space Invaders from me, so I would usually find a quiet spot as close to a teacher as possible – but far enough that they wouldn’t try and talk to me!

I was a very shy child. I was scared of most things, and had no confidence, with very little interest in school and learning. I was almost afraid to learn, and would try my hardest to avoid reading and writing. Being chosen to stand in front of the class would be the worst thing that could happen to me, and I’d pray for the ground to swallow me up!

I distinctly remember a large snake-shaped times tables display, which covered an entire wall in the classroom. Each week, we would have to stand up and say our times tables; a successful recital meant your name tag would move up to the next segment – starting at 2, then on to the 3’s, 4’s, 5’s, and so on. I remember the humiliation of not being able to get past the two times table, week after week. The snake was taken down before I reached the four times table.

While the walk to school was long, the walk home was even longer – mainly because I had no desire to go home. I had no desire to be in school either, so this was my peace time, kicking stones and swinging sticks. My mother was never awake when I got in, although usually one of my older sisters would be at home, probably skiving from ‘big school’. I also had a younger brother, although I have no recollection of how he was looked after.

I later learned my sisters were taking care of him instead of going to school - not just skiving! - they sacrificed their education to make sure we were cared for (as well as a teenager can care for a child). Dinner was whatever we could find – I have a strangely fond memory of pickled onions! I would climb onto the worktop, take out the giant jar of pickled onions, eat a couple and take a swig of the onion vinegar juice before popping it back. That was dinner done.

My mother ‘worked’ the karaoke scene, which meant getting paid in alcohol to entertain the punters. She would surface from her fusty room and rush around, making sure the outfit was good enough and the perfume was strong enough; a Can of Fosters and packet of Marlboro for ‘breakfast’, and off she’d go.

She would come home around 3am – the darkest hour – when all sorts of people would come piling into the house. Seared into my memory is one very intrusive, handsy man, who had a tendency for young boys. I don’t need to say any more on that; your imagination has done the work for me.

My life became a repetitive cycle: wake up, hide at school, eat pickled onions, hide at home, the events of 3am, sleep, repeat.

The obvious question is where was Dad throughout all this? He was doing everything he could to get his boys back, as well as trying to adopt my three half-sisters. He was regularly stopped from seeing us, sometimes even after making the three-hour drive. All support payments landed in the pub before they made it to us – but he never gave up.

One pivotal day, I found £1.20 on the floor. I rushed to the shop and stared at the shelves piled high with sweets, but ultimately walked away with nothing. I decided that would be the day I invested this £1.20. I hatched my plan as I walked home. I remember seeing my mother in the hallway, looking coldly at her and bravely announcing: “I don’t love you anymore – I am getting my dad to come and get me.”

I gave her the £1.20 as if I was buying my freedom. I picked up the phone, dialled my dad’s number and asked him to come and pick me up. I heard the car engine start before I even hung up the phone. For the next three hours I was in the eye of the storm, the house full of screaming and shouting, crying and chaos. But for me it was deadly silent as I calmly packed my bag and waited for my dad to arrive.

My life changed that day. In that moment, it was like a nuclear explosion, I had forged a confidence and stubbornness inside me that I have spent my entire adult life trying to keep under control!

Reflecting back, that £1.20 is easily the best investment I’ve ever made. Off the back of that one moment, I now had a family that cared for me, and was put into a school that supported me. I was flourishing, even in the subjects I’d previously tried so hard to avoid. My dad introduced me to rugby, boxing, motorbikes, dogs, space… I couldn’t get enough! I wanted to know more about everything!

In stark contrast to primary school, I enjoyed secondary school – and I did well! I had friends; most notably Kip Wells, who (spoilers) would become the man I decided to row an ocean with. I played rugby for the county, and made senior Victor Ludorum, winning the highest of awards for my sporting endeavours. I passed my driving test first time, found my dream job in the fire service - I felt invincible.

Now an adult, I carry a lot of these lessons forward. From my struggle, I learned perseverance. I learned to be comfortable on my own; that it was OK to ask for help; and that when you do, things get exponentially better! I quickly developed a disciplined approach to everything I did – not for an ego boost, but because I couldn’t bear to face the humiliation from the times tables snake again.

Processing my formative years was understandably an uphill battle. After the events of the dark 3am hours, I was left with some deeply ingrained prejudices. Moments would occur that I am certainly not proud of, although I am proud of how I stopped myself taking action. I’ve worked hard to developed self-control, patience, forgiveness and acceptance, and I’m glad that the actions of one man no longer form my basis for judgment over a whole group of people.

As I matured, and worked through my own ordeals, I began to see similar stories coming from the new generations. I could see it in a child’s eyes when they walked past, I could smell it in the smoke-filled cars waiting to pick up kids at school, and I could hear it in the silent screams of the lonely children in the playgrounds as I passed by.

I was now an unstoppable adult. I knew I had to help – but I for a long time, I didn’t know how best to do that.

I was introduced to the Jon Egging Trust (JET) by my best friend, Kip Wells. I met Kip on the first day of secondary school, still fostering my new-found confidence. In contrast, Kip was a shy boy who was battling with a childhood of being bullied. I quickly became fiercely protective of him – and from that day, we became each other’s rock.  

He told me about the Jon Egging Trust, both of us acknowledging that a programme like that could have been life-changing for us back in the day. Set up in 2011, JET works with schools to identify children just like me: unnurtured potential, getting lost in the schooling system, unable to build the resilience needed to thrive. They support them through various programmes, from leadership to survival courses, all designed to bring out that confidence to be inquisitive – just how my dad did for me. They help guide them through the hard times, open doors of opportunity, and really put them onto the path of success! When I heard this, it all clicked into place: this was my chance to give back, to clear the dark clouds over their heads, and lift some of that weight from their tiny shoulders.

As a pair, Kip and I knew we wanted to do something big, to raise as much money as possible for the JET students. So, over a curry and a beer, we signed up to row across the Atlantic Ocean. The World’s Toughest Row encompasses 3000 miles of 40ft waves. The row is entirely unaided - this means navigating the ocean ourselves, through intense weather conditions; filtering our own safe drinking water; repairing any damage, and dealing with any of the countless creatures we could encounter on the way. The journey takes an average of fifty days, before reaching land on the other side of the world – but what better way to prove that even the toughest upbringing shouldn’t stop you aiming for the most remarkable things.

I am a product of my story. Through the adversity, I learned lessons that would make me into the strong, kind, dedicated individual that I strive to be – and I am proud of me! In my case, this is all thanks to one man: my dad. Not every child has this same role model – but they do have JET.

The Atlantic row is just the beginning. For us. For them."

Chris Ambler

To follow Chris's journey visit www.forcehorizon.com.

Chris is training for the 2025 row while working in Tanzania on the EACOP pipeline project.

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