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A runner, climber and rower, Cal is currently preparing to take on his biggest personal challenge yet; later this year he will be one of a five-strong team attempting to row the Atlantic. The 58-year-old will be taking part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Rowing Challenge, an extreme endurance race which pits participants against Mother Nature.
“It's 3,000 miles powered completely by hand - a team last year was disqualified for hanging up washing that acted like a sail. It's pretty wild," says Cal, his excitement for what lies ahead evident as we chat in a cafe on Porty Prom.
Portobello has been home to Cal and his wife, actor Shauna MacDonald, since they moved there in 2007 to have a family.
He remembers, “Christmas 2002, I was filming Holby Blue, Shauna was pregnant with our eldest, and we'd had an offer on a house accepted. We were to move up from London in the June and home-birth our daughter, but delayed building work meant we didn't get in until Christmas 2007.”
Moving from the English Capital was, for an actor, “a seismic shift,” he admits.
“Having lived in London for 20 years you do think it's the centre of the universe but I have never regretted it. I've actually found it quite cosmopolitan here, sometimes it doesn't feel that much different from London in terms of the people I've met, but of course, here you go out every morning and see the sky and beach while doing the school walk. You can breathe here, not just physically, but metaphorically.”
No stranger to testing his physical limits, Cal has run the Ben Nevis race, completed three marathons and climbed the Old Man of Hoy, but it was in Portobello he first caught the rowing bug.
“I used to run a lot but now have dodgy knees - I've had three operations on them,” he explains. “So I don't run anymore, but rowing is low impact on your knees, so that’s what I do now.”
The actor, who has been rowing for four years, will take on the Atlantic challenge in the company of four pals from the local Eastern Amateur Coastal Rowing Club - Sean Watters, Matt Callis, Ed van der Ven and Alec Martin.
“They are all experienced rowers and we have a rowing coach who has rowed the Atlantic twice and coached several world record crews," Cal says, adding, "The Talisker challenge leaves from La Gomera in the Canaries every 12th of December, when a fleet of around 25 to 30 boats row to Antigua. Five In A Row, the team from North Berwick, are our great rivals and they just finished it in 36 days, an amazing time, so we are aiming to beat the North Berwick boys. We have to.”
A familiar face on television for three decades thanks to appearances in the likes of Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge and Vigil, the father of three is all too aware of the dangers he and his crew mates will face.
“Weather conditions for one,” he says, “they had it quite tough this year because of the number of doldrums they had, which made it like rowing through treacle, but the main fears are the massive waves and rowing at night when you can't see the waves coming. That's scary.
“You row two hours on, two hours off, 24 hours a day to keep the boat moving. In your two hours off you have to wash and moisturise your bum, looking after your bum is a really serious thing, then you have to eat your dried food and try to sleep. If sleep deprivation takes its toll, you start to hallucinate. You can also end up with sores and calluses and claw hands and, psychologically, you have to watch you don't let little niggling things destroy crew morale just because everyone is so exhausted.”
Benefiting from Cal and the crew's epic adventure will be Body & Soul, a charity working to transform the lives of people who have experienced childhood trauma.
Explaining the choice of charity, he says, “The people at Body & Soul told me a year ago that with Covid, they expected a tsunami of mental health problems, with young people being hugely affected. We are now seeing that play out, the level of attempted suicide among young people is incredible.
“They are experts in caring for people who have suffered that. Supporting them has made the Atlantic row more than just a personal challenge. We felt a connection with the people at Body & Soul so our crew name is, Atlantic Body & Soul.”
That is the name that will be emblazoned on their boat, for which they are currently seeking sponsors.
“We are looking for big sponsors as we have to pay £60,000 for the boat, which we will sell on at the end of the challenge, but anyone can sponsor us, there are lots of things you can do to support us,” says Cal.
The boat itself is only 23 ft long with two small cabins at either end, so crew safety is uppermost in the rules of the challenge.
“One of the worse things that can happen is that you catch the tail-end of a hurricane, then you have to lock up in the cabins. The boat is specially designed to right itself if it goes over and crew must be tied on to it at all times - if there's any video footage of crew not tied on or the cabin doors open unnecessarily, you get disqualified.”
And he admits, “Once a week you also have to get in the sea with the sharks to clean the hull - I don't fancy that.”
Sharks, tornadoes, massive waves and the risk of capsizing... all beg a simple one word question, 'Why?'
He laughs, before saying, “I haven't done a physical challenge for some time, although you could say being a parent in the biggest physical challenge of anyone's life, so when someone in the club suggested doing more adventure rowing we set out to row around the Forth.
“We got an amazing day for it, the Forth was like glass as we rowed across to Elie, up to Kinghorn and back to Porty. Going across for the first time, this dolphin appeared alongside us, but it wasn't a dolphin, it was a whale, there were also porpoises and seals. Because it was such a still day, everything sounded different, the whole landscape had changed, that gave me the taste for doing something bigger; if that was what the Forth was like, just imagine what the sea would be like.”
Seeing Scottish brothers Ewan, Jamie and Lachlan MacLean become the fastest team of three to row the Atlantic, further inspired Cal.
“In the same summer, the Ullapool crew rowed from Lewis to Ullapool an I thought, ‘Oh, I fancy a bit of that’ – Shauna's dad is from Lewis and we go there quite a lot. That gave me the taste for more adventure rowing and instead of the thought of rowing the Atlantic filling me with dread, it filled me with a sense of wonder and excitement again.
“There is so much wonder to be found in our world.”