The objective was to break the world record for the fastest all-female crew to row across the Pacific Ocean from California to Hawaii. Along with five other boats, the crew was to participate in the Great Pacific Race starting in June 2018. In a boat measuring seven metres, the aim was to row in pairs, non-stop – 2 hours on, 2 hours off – for around 50 days, living onboard the boat throughout with no motor, no sail, and completely responsible for ourselves.
I was the sole military member of the crew; the other women came from varied backgrounds and had considerable flat water rowing experience. The founding member of the crew had heard of the race 18 months beforehand; I joined last, in December 2017, in response to an advert placed online when the fourth crew member became injured. Between December and the start of the race the following June, life consisted of fundraising, rowing training, and completing navigation and maritime courses.
The funds required to pay for the boat with all its safety equipment required a personal contribution of £20,000 per person. Individually, we sought sponsorship and fund raised as much as possible; there was little scope to do much fundraising together as we were geographically very spread out. Raising the funds was a huge challenge, especially given the compressed time-frame. To my dismay, I found that sporting and adventure companies were already saturated with requests for support (financial and in-kind) for far more adventurous challenges than ours. I lost count of the number of letters and emails that were ignored or gave a negative response to my request for cash or equipment in return for a post-event talk or advertising space on the boat.
In addition to wanting to break the world record, my 3 crew mates aimed to raise awareness of plastic pollution. My personal aspiration was to raise £20,000 to split between two charities, Ascend Athletics and the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre (DNRC).
Rowing training consisted of many long sessions on the rowing machine to build stamina, in addition to strength training to build muscle and put on weight that would likely be lost on the 2,400 mile voyage. In terms of mandatory ocean rowing training, each member of each crew was required to complete the following courses:
- RYA VHF radio course
- RYA First Aid
- RYA Sea Survival
- California Boat Safety course
- RYA Competent Crew practical and theory
- RYA Yachtmaster Offshore Skipper Theory
With the other crews, we gathered in Monterey, California, in mid-May to conduct two weeks of training and final preparations prior to the race start, scheduled for 3 June. It was during this period that major issues became apparent.
- We were obliged to change to a larger ocean rowing boat and had to rethink the configuration of the crew, as well as the row/rest routine.
- Two of the crew arrived in California without having completed their RYA Yachtmaster Offshore Skipper Theory. This caused many issues, not least because the 2 girls spent considerable periods of the final build-up period studying for a qualification that should have been completed months ago, when we really needed to be rehearsing and preparing as a full crew, on the water.
- We failed to prepare adequately for managing the basic human functions of eating, drinking, going to the toilet and sleeping. All of these simple tasks took on a new dimension when on a small boat, rolling around in the swell with waves breaking over our heads.
- There was a lack of transparency amongst the crew about media commitments. One crew member had arranged for us to feature in a documentary in return for her personal sponsorship but had failed to alert the rest of the crew to this in the months prior to the race.
One of the more predictable issues was that of crew dynamics and the fact that we did not know each other well before arriving in California. Having served in the British Army for the previous 15 years, I was very conscious of the need for us to forge strong bonds in the months prior to the race and how difficult this would be to achieve remotely, over Skype calls. Once in California, it was not surprising that the four of us had differences of opinion and I thought this was not only understandable, given our different backgrounds and nationalities, but a potential strength in that our crew had diverse views. However, the situation became potentially critical when it transpired we had different views on risk-taking. I was not prepared to take any unnecessary risks and this did not sit well with 2 of the crew who were highly competitive and who wanted to push the boat to the limits in order to break the world record.
In early June, after a fractious fortnight spent preparing the boat and as much time as possible actually rowing her, we eagerly awaited the start of the race. Strong onshore winds caused the Race Director to delay the start by one day, in order to give all the crews the best chance of making it off the Californian coast before invariably being blown South. This was fortunate for our crew as one of the girls had still not passed her navigation theory exam, and finally passed it 2 hours before the race started several days later.
The first few days blurred into one memory of almost non-stop rowing. The issues we had faced in the build-up phase had not been insurmountable but they had been a cause of major anxiety to me, especially when they all needed to be addressed in a short period of time. I had struggled to convey to the other girls the importance of getting the basics right. With hindsight, I would have made sure to join a crew of organised people who had some previous experience of living in austere environments. When we met in California for the first time, I was shocked to discover that these three competitive rowers were obsessed with showering and had never been camping; not ideal preparation for spending 50 days in a boat sharing very cramped confines with three other people.
We began the race with three people rowing, one resting, and rotated this every hour. Before long, we all found the 3 hours on, 1 hour off routine punishing but persisted with it as we’d been advised to get as far as possible off the coast to prevent getting blown back onshore. We also found the boat very hard to manoeuvre with only two people on the oars; the boat speed dropped considerably when one rower switched over and this led to the potential for dangerous broaching when the wind caught the surface area of the side of the boat. Again, with hindsight, I would insist on a more sustainable routine that allowed for more rest. 2 hours on – 2 hours off, was the routine recommended by many ocean rowers who had gone before us.
Predictably, the basics proved extremely difficult to maintain. We had not established a system of using our gas stove to heat water while the boat was in motion, as the stove was on a bracket next to a rowing position. Thus, for the first week we ate and drank only cold food and water, mostly cereal-type energy bars. Going to the toilet remained consistently precarious. We learned how to deploy the sea anchor and used this in anger twice, when it became too rough to row, and this helped to stabilise the boat and keep it pointing down the waves. When at anchor, we stayed in the cabins getting bashed around by the unrelenting sea, afraid to open the hatch and come on deck to have a wee for fear of being washed away before we could clip on deck. I believe we were poor at managing ourselves when confined to the cabins; we did not eat or drink enough which I believe was partly a psychological consequence of being afraid to go on deck. I should have ignored the girls’ squeamishness and established a means of going to the toilet in the cabins.
On the seventh night, I got on the oars at 0200hrs and remember struggling to move around on deck as I was shivering and felt very cold. The next thing I remember is being in the cabin with one of the crew trying to remove my wet foulies. I had apparently collapsed on the oars and the girls had deployed the sea anchor, dragged me into the cabin, and called the Race Doctor on the satellite phone. I was very cold and very dehydrated. After 12 hours of rest in the cabin, with my vital signs being communicated to the doctor every hour, I was well enough to come on deck and eat a hot meal. The swell was significant as we sat braced on deck, discussing the options. After much deliberation, I decided to withdraw from the race. It was a huge relief to know that a nearby yacht would be able to take me back to the California coast. The other girls deliberated over whether or not to continue; they gave serious consideration to rowing the boat as a crew of three before deciding that they, too, would withdraw from the race. Thus, within 72 hours we were back on dry land, with very mixed feelings about the whole venture. The other girls were initially supportive of my decision although two of them later became very angry – at the situation and no doubt at me; we did not part on good terms. I continued to experience the effects of dehydration and fatigue for several weeks, was diagnosed with a kidney infection, and felt extremely lucky to have ended the race when I did.
We were ultimately unsuccessful in achieving the aim of breaking the world record in the Great Pacific Race; however, one of the positive elements that I took away from the experience was raising over £1,600 in support of Ascend Athletics and the DNRC.