Four women take on the world’s toughest challenges: promoting women’s sport, protecting the environment, and rowing the Atlantic Ocean
When the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Rowing Challenge kicks off in December, four remarkable women will be bracing for the ocean ahead. After two years of training, preparation, and fundraising, There She Rows will face their final hurdle: crossing 3,000 miles of ocean in a rowing boat, protecting the ocean and inspiring other girls and women along the way.
The team will join a select legacy when they complete the challenge: more people have climbed Everest than rowed an ocean. But, beyond that, they will also join a growing number of women taking part in the Atlantic Challenge in recent years. Although the challenge has been running for over twenty-five years, most entrants have historically been men: in 2016, only four women entered the event.
There She Rows also has a unique backstory: the teammates began as strangers, three of whom had never rowed before, and each teammate has her own personal story of overcoming adversity through sport. The four women have now come together to encourage more girls and women worldwide to get active, and to join the growing movement of women taking part in ocean rowing challenges.
Making history: the growing movement of women in ocean rowing
Fewer than 300 women have ever rowed an ocean, compared with 1,522 men. The first men to ever row the Atlantic completed their attempt in 1896, but it wasn’t until 1981 that the first woman rowed the same ocean. 58 all-female crews have successfully rowed the Atlantic from east to west, compared to 471 all-male crews. The inequality persists: today, fewer than 20 per cent of all ocean rowers are women.
The first Atlantic Race was held in 1997, 101 years after Frank Samelson and George Harbo became the first people to ever row across an ocean. The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Rowing Challenge, held annually since 2015, is now widely regarded as the premier ocean rowing event. The route, which begins in La Gomera, Canary Islands, and ends in Antigua & Barbuda, covers 3,000 miles, and entrants row the route unassisted, encountering waves that reach up to 20ft.
Despite the historic inequality in ocean rowing, more and more women have been inspired to take part in the Atlantic challenge in recent years. In 2016, four women entered the event; in 2020, twenty took part; and in 2021, 24 entrants were women. Those taking part have often made headlines: Jasmine Harrison became the youngest woman to row the Atlantic solo in 2021; Miriam Payne set a new Atlantic challenge record in 2022; and an all-female trio broke a world record while raising money for cancer charities during their crossing last year. The tide has begun to turn in the past six years, but there is still a long way to go.
Nonetheless, this growing trend places There She Rows at the centre of a movement of women taking part in major rowing challenges. When the crew set off in December, they will join a growing number of all-female crews that have ever taken part in this historic race.
Building a team with a shared vision
Victoria Monk, the founder of There She Rows, first became aware of the race several years ago. She was drawn to the event by the sheer scale of the challenge. ‘It was just the most incredible, inspiring challenge I’d ever seen, to see normal people doing this extraordinary thing,’ she says. ‘From the first moment I saw it, I knew it was something I was going to do one day.’
Last year, she decided to make her dream of competing a reality. After securing a place in the race, she connected with Ana Žigić, Molly Green, and Ellie Reynolds after reaching out on social media. Building the right team was important. ‘I set out on the journey to find the right women to come on board and take on this challenge with me,’ Victoria says. Because the race is such a test of physical and mental endurance, strong team relationships are critical.
All four women have backgrounds in sport: in ultramarathon and ironwoman challenges, professional rugby, triathlon, and rowing. The teammates all share a love of sport and recognise its importance for physical, mental, and social wellbeing. They are also aware of continued gender imbalances: they note that girls drop out of sport at 1.5x the rate of boys, and more than half of all girls will have stopped playing sports altogether by age seventeen. From the beginning, promoting women and girls’ participation in sport has been the central message of their campaign.
Having benefitted from sport in their own lives, the team want to use the race to encourage participation more widely. ‘Sport has been a massive part of my development—it gave me the opportunity to get a degree and travel the world,’ says Molly. Sport has also been an important part of helping Ana, who has endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), to manage her illnesses. Over the next nine months, the team will be fundraising for Endometriosis UK, Women’s Sport Trust, and the Teenage Cancer Trust.
Preparing for the challenge
Once the team had formed, they began to prepare for the event ahead. Planning for such a demanding challenge takes almost four thousand hours of training and a large team of experts, including coaches, physiotherapists, and psychologists.
While all four women are active in sport, Ana was the only teammate with any rowing experience. So, to start, they all learned to row. This included learning to row on the river, spending plenty of time on the erg, and being coached in ocean rowing. Since January, the team have spent every evening and weekend on physical preparation and will keep on with this gruelling schedule until the race begins.
Mental preparation is equally important. ‘They say about 90% of it is mental,’ says Ellie. ‘We have a team of people that’s supporting and coaching us, and we’re also focusing on team bonding. Some of the situations we’ll be in will be life-or-death, so we really need to get to know each other.’ The team have been coached in crisis scenarios, as well as resilience training, including cold water dipping and stress training. All this preparation will be crucial once the team sets sail in December.
Forty days at sea: life on the Atlantic
Life on board the boat will be unlike anything the team have experienced before.
Once on board their 7-metre-long, 2-metre-wide boat, they will row in shifts of two hours, leaving two hours of off-time for sleeping, eating, cleaning, and maintaining the boat. The team are hoping to complete the challenge in forty days. In this time, they’ll burn up to 5,000 calories a day and complete an estimated 1.5 million oar strokes.
Careful maintenance will be crucial. ‘Life’s pretty simple on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic—eat, sleep, row, repeat,’ says Ana. ‘But you need to maintain your body and mind. You need to keep yourself clean to avoid salt injuries, and make sure you eat enough and stay hydrated. It’s about maintaining yourself every second of the day, because the second you let up, someone gets injured or hurt.’
The team are thoughtful about the physical and mental challenges they might face. ‘Forty days of two hours rowing, two hours off, twenty-four hours a day, is going to be incredibly monotonous,’ says Victoria. ‘We’re going to have to find the mental grit and determination to keep going. To keep doing your best for your crewmates is going to be difficult, especially when you’re sleep-deprived, you’re blistered, you’re hungry, you’re seasick.’
But, despite the mammoth task ahead, the team are also looking forward to the once-in-a-lifetime experience of an unfiltered life out at sea. ‘What’s exciting is when we push off at La Gomera and the foghorns and flares are going, there’s nothing left to do except put our oars in the water,’ says Ana. The simplicity of life on the ocean, and connecting with nature, appeals to all the teammates. Sunsets, sunrises, and starry nights will set the scene, while dolphins, whales, marlins, and flying fish could all make an appearance. ‘I’m looking forward to just being out there and realising how very small we are in the world,’ Victoria says. ‘And, hopefully, building on that and saying, let’s make sure we have a positive impact on this world while we’re here.’
Preserving the ocean environment
The natural beauty of the ocean will serve as the backdrop to the challenge, but the significance of the ocean setting is not lost on the crewmates. Although their emphasis is on women’s empowerment, the team are critically aware of the need to protect the environment.
‘There She Rows leans quite heavily into the social pillar of sustainability, given our goals for gender parity in sport and business and empowerment in general, but there is of course a really strong element of environmental sustainability that we’re incredibly aware of,’ says Ana.
There is a growing awareness of the need to protect the oceans, preserve marine biodiversity, and reduce plastic pollution. Just last week an agreement was reached at the UN to help place 30% of the seas into protected areas by 2030. In previous years several crews have taken part in the Atlantic Challenge to raise awareness of ocean protection. There She Rows are keen to ensure that the importance of the environment does not go under the radar.
‘We’re four women who have met and are doing what we’re doing because we love being outdoors. If nothing’s done about climate change, these areas will become limited, they’ll be taken away from us,’ Ana says.
The team take a ‘leave no trace’ approach during their training in outdoor areas, and are applying this approach to the race itself. They are aiming to reach as close to ‘zero waste’ as possible while on board the boat, by sourcing food with the least amount of packaging and using eco-friendly hygiene, laundry, cleaning, and menstrual products.
The women are also aiming to use their platform to raise awareness of issues such as plastic waste and algae blooms, which they may encounter during their 3,000 mile journey. ‘Sadly we will see the dark side of it, and we’ll make an effort to record it to show what is the reality out there, and to show the importance of caring for our oceans,’ says Ana.
Their approach emphasises the intertwined relationship between the social and environmental pillars of sustainability. ‘Environmental sustainability is at the top of our mind in a lot of our planning,’ Ana says. ‘We want to make sure that at the end of the day we leave no trace on the Atlantic.’
Fundraising and raising awareness
The desire to make a positive impact has underscored the team’s journey from the outset, and as the race draws closer, the team are continuing to focus on raising awareness. Alongside their full-time jobs and heavy training schedule, they’ve also made room to reach out to children and young people, especially girls, to talk about what they’re doing. As one of few all-female crews to take part in the event, they’re well-placed to act as role models for young girls.
‘We’re starting to use our networks to go into schools, universities, and sports clubs to talk about the row,’ says Victoria. ‘We want to use to as a platform to hopefully inspire not just girls, but all children, and to say—look what sport has done for us, and look what it could potentially open up for you.’
The team will also be focusing on fundraising over the next few months. On Easter Weekend, the team will walk one hundred miles along the South Downs Way carrying a rowing boat to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust, and are also planning a charity gala ball in October. All the charitable donations they receive will go to their three chosen charities.
Finding commercial sponsorship is also an important part of their journey over the next nine months. Operational costs for such a complex, large-scale challenge are high: entrants have to pay for an entry fee, boat, equipment, food, mandatory courses, physio and psychology support, ocean comms technology, insurance, and training. The team are hoping to work with sponsors who will help drive their message of inspiring women and young girls in sport. ‘We’re looking to bring on board commercial partners and brands that share a value alignment with our mission,’ Victoria says. The team have a range of different sponsorship options available for commercial partners and are open to working with sponsors to develop bespoke packages.
Challenges ahead, but commitment remains
With preparation and fundraising gathering momentum, the realities of taking on the ocean row are becoming ever more apparent—but all four crewmembers are ready for the challenges ahead.
‘I think just getting to the start line will be a monumental feat,’ says Victoria. ‘It’s been a two-year commitment—there is no life outside of our jobs and the row, which is a huge sacrifice, and sometimes it’s difficult, it’s stressful. But I’m hugely passionate and want to use this row as a platform to inspire more girls and women.’
They know it won’t be easy, but the team are looking forward to challenging themselves. ‘This is something that will definitely push all of us further than we’ve ever been, and I’m excited for that,’ says Ellie.
By pushing themselves to such extremes, committing themselves to their goal, working together, and spreading their message, There She Rows have already demonstrated the power of sport. When the foghorns blare in La Gomera in December, they will join a growing number of women who have faced one of the world’s toughest endurance challenges.
As International Women’s Day 2023 encourages us to work towards a society free of gender bias, stereotypes, and discrimination, There She Rows are playing their part and leading by example, helping to inspire girls and women across the world to take up the biggest challenges, to drive gender equality through sport, and to ‘leave no trace’ on the Atlantic.
Find out more about There She Rows on their website or follow their journey on Instagram. There She Rows would love to hear from anyone interested in discussing sponsorship opportunities and the team can be reached by e-mail.
The team are supporting Endometriosis UK, Women’s Sport Trust, and the Teenage Cancer Trust.
Read moreBethany White