Ridding the oceans of plastic is our aim

Caroline Wilson, Susan Ronaldson and Jess Rego love a challenge. They also care passionately about the environment and particularly the potential harm being caused by the increasing amount of plastic waste being found in our oceans. To help raise awareness of the issue the trio have enlisted in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, a race which promotes itself as the world’s toughest row. It will take the Status Row crew way outside their comfort zones, which fits neatly into The Mixed Zone’s She Who Dares initiative. Even so, we ask Caroline Wilson the questions: why, why and thrice why?




Following the awful news that a dear colleague Duncan had lost his battle against the Big C, I came to appreciate that life is short. I met Vikki, who, after years of working in a call centre quit, got her HGV licence and is now taking tourists to some of the most amazing places on the planet. I was inspired by her ‘seize the moment’ approach to life. “You have to do what makes you happy, go for it, and above all, take risks.”


Back in January 2011, my travels around the world were unexpectedly cut short when I suddenly couldn’t move or feel my arms and upper body. I was taken to hospital in Thailand, where I was diagnosed with acute transverse myelitis (TM) and was in hospital for weeks. Recovery took a further nine months back in the UK just to regain full range of movement in my arms. To me, this challenge represents the combination of mental and physical strength that we all need to overcome our individual everyday challenges, whatever these daily challenges may be (albeit an extreme representation!). Like our everyday, this isn’t a challenge you can’t just stop or give up on.


I thought the other two were crazy when they came up with the idea, and still wasn’t 100 per cent committed until I learnt about the charitable aspect of it. I want to make sure we leave this world better than we found it. I want to make a contribution that will continue to have an impact long after I’m gone.

So, three rowing novices – one web designer, one auditor and one marketing executive – are planning to compete in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge in 2018 to try and help save the oceans. It sounds mad. Can you explain the urge?

For us it’s a huge sense of excitement! We’d been looking for a new challenge for some time, but nothing had really ticked the boxes for all of us. And then we discovered the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge – a 3,000-mile rowing race from the Canaries to Antigua – and from that moment Susan and Caroline knew they’d found what they were looking for. Jess took a while longer to be convinced. She definitely thought we’d lost our minds. However, after spending a long night of research (in an attempt to prove we were insane), she too caught the bug and was especially keen on the charity focus of the race. Status Row was born.

We’d never rowed a day in our lives before committing to become one of the first all-female trios to take on the challenge. Aiming to complete the row in under 50 days, we’re hoping to set a world record. We’ll need to carry with us all of our food, supplies and a desalinator (to make ocean water drinkable). We’ll be up against 40-foot waves, salt sores, sleep deprivation, sharks, and constant rowing. As a team, we’ll be rowing 24 hours a day, in two-hour shifts, sleeping no more than an hour and a half at a time. It’s going to be incredibly tough (especially for Susan with her ‘uneven buttocks’) and we’ll need to have great mental strength to make it across. And still be friends when we get to the other side!

One thing we all agreed on was that we wanted the challenge to have a purpose. One of the biggest draws of the Talisker race is the huge global coverage which will enable us to spread our message about plastic pollution. The Marine Conservation Society was an obvious choice for us to support as they’re making incredible impact at a governmental level with their initiatives, particularly in pushing through the ban on microbeads.

You met rock climbing. Surely that was enough of a challenge?

Ha! Rock climbing is certainly challenging. We met at Mile End Climbing Wall on a beginners’ course. Each of us had our different reasons for turning up that day, but we were all united by a desire to try something new and push ourselves physically and mentally. We love bouldering and have been going for more than two years – but still take the easier routes. Needless to say, our rock-climbing skills haven’t improved as fast as our ambitions.

You considered ultra-triathlons at first, then decided you knew too much about running and cycling and swimming to even want to give it a go. Better, you reasoned, to pick something you knew nothing about. So rowing. Supposing it turns out to be worse?

I think rowing the Atlantic was beyond our comprehension! We know how hard it is to run a 10km and so have a concept of how hard an ultra-marathon might be. Impossible in other words. Taking on a sport with no prior experience means we have no idea of how hard a 50-hour row would be, let alone a 50-day one, so somehow there is less fear. Plus the only way to really know what it’s like to row an ocean is to actually row one!

The idea of working as a team was also a big draw. As we’ve found with climbing, having others to support you and point you in the right direction is crucial to reaching the top. Conditions out in the open Atlantic will be tough – they don’t call it the world’s toughest row for nothing – and working together as a team to support each other through the highs and lows will be key to a successful crossing.

It will bring us closer as friends, too. There won’t be a lot of privacy or personal space on that boat so we’re going to get to know each other pretty well! Conditions aboard will be challenging. We’re leaving behind the luxuries of our everyday world, and Susan will need to overcome her fears of pooping in public if she’s to survive 50 days with ‘the bucket’!

How were you inspired by the Coxless Crew, the record-breaking women’s team who rowed across the Pacific?

The Coxless Crew are an incredible team of women who spent 257 days at sea back in 2015. The commendable mental and physical strength these women required to complete their mission was so inspirational and really showed that anything is possible if you want it enough.

Their row may have given us the idea to get involved in ocean rowing, but individually we’ve all got personal reasons for committing to this adventure.

How do you feel about fear?

We all need a bit of fear in our lives; it keeps things interesting. Right now, the only thing we’re afraid of is not raising the funds to make it to the start-line. We get told a lot that we’re ‘crazy’ to do this, but we don’t think that’s the case. Yes, there are risks associated with this challenge, but that’s why we’ve got a year to plan, prepare and to ensure we mitigate those risks as much as possible. Our parents would have a thing or two to say if we weren’t being as sensible as possible!

One question we get asked a lot is “what happens if you capsize?” Of course, there is a risk that may happen. Mitigating that risk, we’ll be rowing in an ocean rowing boat that’s designed to ‘self-right’ should that happen.

You were also inspired – and horrified to the point of tears – by the documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’. Your mission is to highlight the pollution of the seas by plastic. How close to your heart is this cause? What are you changing in your own lives? And, finally, what would you like to see the rest of society do to arrest the problem?

This documentary was really a starting point for us. We had all been aware that plastic was an issue, but hadn’t realised the extent and how we, as individuals, have been contributing to it. It’s heartbreaking to see the impact on marine wildlife and that alone should be enough to act – but the fact plastic is now entering our food chain and water supplies is truly shocking. Once you’ve had your eyes opened, it’s hard to close them again. From that point forward there was no question that our mission would be focused on raising awareness of this global plastic plague.

Since taking on this challenge the first thing we did was to find out what the biggest problems were in terms of plastic in our ocean. The big four are plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic straws and coffee cups. After learning this we headed out to buy a reusable water bottle! The average person uses 167 single-use bottles per year, so by switching to a reusable one we’re already making an instant positive impact. We’ve all made a conscious effort to carry a reusable bag with us when we head to the shops. And Susan can often be heard sternly telling the barman: “No, I don’t want a plastic straw in my G&T thanks!” We’ve also made the switch to reusable coffee cups after learning that only one per cent are recycled in the UK. Jess is leading the way when it comes to straws and has switched to the biodegradable variety – we’ve actually explained how easy it is to find alternatives to the single-use option on our blog.

We’ve also taken part in a number of beach and river clean-up events organised by the Marine Conservation Society and Thames21. These events already have good turnouts from volunteers in the local communities, but we’d love to see even more people taking part.

Our planet is the one thing that connects us all and the oceans are its lungs. We want to spread the message that we all need to make changes if we are to protect the Earth. We see the parallel with our row:  in the same way rowing the Atlantic is just the sum of millions of small actions, it takes just small changes to everyday habits, such as using a reusable water bottle, to collectively make a huge difference.

Any other thoughts?

We’re all learning as we go along, both about the row and plastic pollution. You don’t have to know everything about rowing to start, just like you don’t have to be an expert on plastic pollution to make an individual choice to change. Small steps make a huge difference when we make them together.


Article by Caroline Wilson. Caroline’s latest articles.

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