At one with nature – and two sharks for company

Liz Byrnes tells the epic tale of the Coxless Crew’s adventures in an open rowing boat crossing the Pacific Ocean, which earnt them a nomination for the BT Sport Action Women award for January

When a quartet of female adventurers rowed out under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge last April, they pointed their boat in the direction of Australia on a mission to become the first all-woman crew to sail the Pacific Ocean.

After 257 days at sea, they guided their 29-foot boat ‘Doris’ over the finish line at Cairns, Queensland, to be greeted by family and friends. On the way – rowing naked when the sea was clear of prying cargo ships, and the sky devoid of helicopters – they encountered monstrous waves, monumental seasickness and circling sharks they nicknamed Fernando and Eduardo. They were probably the only vessel at sea on December 25 celebrating with Christmas pudding, party poppers and fairy lights.

Thanks to the tough conditions they landed three months later than expected in Australia. Not only were they the first all-female crew to complete the Pacific expedition but also the first team of four to do so.

However, getting to dry land was all a bit overwhelming. After all, the ocean had become their home for nine months and they were just a tiny speck in the enormity of nature. There was, said team member Natalia Cohen, a maelstrom of feelings and emotions as the finish came ever closer.

“I think there was a lot of mixed emotions as we drew to the end of the journey,” she said. “For some people it had been such an incredible experience out there leading the simple life and being immersed in nature. There is something quite magical about being surrounded by a 360-degree ever-changing horizon. I think a few of us really didn’t want to get off the ocean, and a few of us really wanted to step back on to land, so the boat was definitely filled with mixed emotion.”

Rewind four years and Laura Penhaul – now the team leader – was the first to become involved. She was followed by Emma Mitchell and Cohen, who made up the permanent members of the team, with Isabel Burnham, Lizanne van Vuuren and Meg Dyos each rowing a leg. There were others who had to drop out, some due to opposition from those close to them, fears over-riding all else despite the extensive safety measures that would be taken.

For those who took part it was a different story, the fears of their loved ones assuaged as the project gathered pace. Penhaul said: “I am very fortunate that my family, although they have been extremely worried and scared about it, have also been extremely supportive. They had their concerns, but once the project started getting going they could see how much planning and preparation had been put in place.”

Not only was a bond forged between the crew, but also among those on dry land. Cohen explained: “What was incredible to see was that all the parents came together and became their own support network, which was really wonderful for us to know. Because we did a daily blog all the families felt very much connected and very much part of our journey. That also helped with them not being as concerned as they may have been otherwise.”

The women had an 8,446-mile journey ahead of them when they set sail in their pink boat. Also awaiting were heavy storms, waves the size of houses and seasickness. As part of their preparations they all took part in a number of endurance events, particularly marathons and triathlons.

Facing nature at its most unpredictable – some people would say scary, others magnificent – was expected to be a challenge that needed to be faced head on. Instead, nature provided many moments that were awe-inspiring in their power and magnitude. When asked to describe the enormous sky, there was a collective intake of breath. “Amazing,” and “incredible”, they chorused. Individually, they recalled the stand-out moments:

“The 360 degree view that surrounds you is just epic. When you see a sunrise and a sunset and you see the opposite sky to the sunrise and sunset … Even a wall of rain heading towards you.”

“The ever-changing sea state: huge waves and then an utterly still, glass-like sea – you would never expect the ocean to go still and silent – that is a highlight.”

“Nights that were so calm, silent, moon and stars reflecting on the water; nights when you had waves crashing next to you but you couldn’t see them coming.”

“One night we heard whales – unbelievable.”

At times they also had the two sharks for company. But their presence did nothing to help Meg overcome her fear; she was still terrified of them.

They rowed two hours on, two hours off, often naked, although with tasks that had to be completed, and food eaten, their average rest period would be reduced to just 90 minutes.

There were, of course, down days and on these they drew from each other. Cohen said: “I think the beauty of our team is we are such different personalities. When one person felt down the others would pick them up. So we worked unbelievably well together.

“We had done quite a lot of work before we got on the boat with our personality types – understanding each other, what works, how to bring out the best in each other, what our hot buttons are. That means what things to look out for or what brings out the worst in each other. We were just really honest and open all the time and I think that was key to our success. So if we had to confront each other, or there was any conflict, we would move on really quickly and let things go.”

While they were on the boat, Mitchell turned 30 and Burnham became an aunt for the first time. Unexpectedly, they also marked Christmas and New Year at sea. “It took nine months instead of the anticipated six, so it was quite a shock and an emotional challenge to get our heads round,” said Penhaul. “Families sent out presents and things we could enjoy on the boat to Samoa, so it was a really enjoyable experience in the end.”

A few weeks into the New Year and the expedition was coming to an end. “The last couple of days were really hard work,” said Mitchell. “We had really strong currents to row against coming across the Great Barrier Reef. We didn’t really have much time to think that it was all coming to an end till we actually reached dry land.”

As for what lies ahead, Penhaul will go to the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro as lead physiotherapist for the British athletics team.

For Cohen, the expedition has reaffirmed the love she has for her way of life which has seen her lead adventure tours in more than 15 countries. “I’ve lived an incredibly transient lifestyle – living and working in different destinations, having different eras and giving 100 per cent to each era,” she said. “So I think I am going to continue doing that and see which way the wind blows me now.”


Liz Byrnes. After an early career in PR and marketing, Liz changed her focus to what she had always really wanted and re-trained as a journalist in Sheffield. She spent 12 years at PA where she covered football, athletics and swimming before going freelance in January 2014. She now works for a number of organisations including The Guardian, BBC, Sheffield Star, Wardles, SwimVortex, AFP and Arena. Liz’s latest articles

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