Elaine Hopley’s world-record row from Spain to Antigua was just the latest in a series of adventures she has undertaken, and the most satisfying for any number of reasons. Apart from the sense of personal achievement, she was particularly pleased to prove wrong those who said it couldn’t be done. Susan Egelstaff hears her story
Elaine Hopley reckons it would be almost impossible to describe to the uninitiated the last few months of her life. This is not entirely unsurprising: earlier this year, the 45 year old from Dunblane in Scotland completed an adventure that is almost beyond comprehension. The bare statistics show that Hopley rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean in fifty-nine days, nineteen hours and fourteen minutes. That in itself would be astonishing, but Hopley’s feat is even more remarkable: her time was a world record as she became only the fourteenth woman to row solo across an ocean.
However impressive the statistics may be though, it is the detail of Hopley’s Atlantic crossing that really takes one’s breath away. As part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge race, she rowed from Spain to Antigua in a 22-foot-long boat, battling 60-foot waves, tropical storms and the most horrendous weather conditions that nature can conjure up. She would reach up to 10 knots, yet on dark nights could not see beyond the end of her boat. At times she feared for her safety.
“There were loads of moments when I was really scared,” she says. “At night, when you’re on your own and you’re dealing with big winds and big swells, I’d be sitting there thinking that it was absolutely petrifying. Some nights it was pitch-black and I could only hear the rumble of the water that was coming towards me. The power of nature is fascinating and amazing, but you’re so vulnerable out there and you’re having to deal with these elements all on your own.”
Hopley is no stranger to adventure. She has cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats in just seven days, completed solo bike tours of Australia, New Zealand and Chile and competed in numerous 24-hour mountain-bike races. Despite completing these land-based challenges, though, she knew that she wanted to take on an ocean. Having been brought up on the west coast of Scotland, Hopley has always had a love of the water and this, coupled with her passion for adventure, meant that a solo Atlantic crossing was always on her bucket-list.
However, the physical examination that she faced during her row was monumentally thorough. And then there was the emotional and mental stress of spending 59 days at sea, alone. “It’s physically absolutely knackering because you’re on the oars for so long. I would top 18 or 19 hours of rowing in a day because when you stop, the boat goes in the wrong direction,” she explains. “I had about two weeks where almost every day the wind was pushing me in the wrong direction, so you’re creeping so, so slowly forward and that was very frustrating. But when you have a tough day, you don’t have any option other than to pull yourself out of it, and that’s where I know I’m pretty mentally strong. You have to keep hammering away because in the back of your mind, you know the weather will change.”
Despite days of almighty struggle, Hopley maintains that it was worth it. “Being in the middle of the Atlantic was just amazing. It was flat calm when I was there and you’re literally in the middle of nowhere. That was a real highlight for me,” she says. “It was so remote – there’s nothing out there apart from you and a massive ocean. But the ocean is such a crazy, hostile environment; the size of the waves that hit you, the squalls of wind that hit you and the lightning storms, everything is on such a huge scale that it’s very hard to explain it to people.”
Hopley admits that one of the most pleasing aspects of her successful crossing was proving her doubters wrong. As she prepared to depart last year, there was much scepticism about her challenge, the majority of it from men who doubted that a woman could complete such an epic journey. “I’d tell people what I was doing and I could tell they were thinking, ‘She’s not going to be able to do that’,” she recalls. “A lot of that doubt was because I’m a woman, people thinking, ‘She’s not mentally and physically strong enough to do this’.
“I went to a lot of events before the challenge and a lot of the guys I met were quite dismissive. I wouldn’t let it get to me, but I did think, ‘Eff you, mate, you don’t have a clue what I’ve achieved or what I’m capable of achieving’. So to go out there and actually do it was great. Now I’ve got so much respect from a lot of people who had thought I wouldn’t manage it. That’s been very satisfying.”
Hopley admits she is unlikely to fully satiate her appetite for adventure. Already, she has an eye on her next challenge, though, for now, she is keeping her cards close to her chest about specifics. She acknowledges there are few things that will match crossing the Atlantic, not that it will stop here.
“I’m always looking for the next thing,” she says. “I love pushing myself and that was part of this challenge. I went beyond where I’d been before and I think it’s going to be hard to match that other than by crossing another ocean. I don’t think I’ll ever feel that I’m finished doing these things. And, really, I don’t see why I’d ever stop because I absolutely love doing these challenges.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Egelstaff is an Olympic badminton player who competed at London 2012, as well as representing Scotland at three Commonwealth Games, winning two bronze medals. She retired in the aftermath of the London Games after a 12-year international career. Having written the occasional article for newspapers while still competing, she decided to try and make sports journalism a job. Susan is now a columnist and sports writer with The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The National and is a regular contributor on BBC Radio Scotland. Susan is also heavily involved with the Winning Scotland Foundation, a charity which helps children achieve their goals. Susan’s latest articles.