Liz Byrnes revisits the story of the Yorkshire mothers who planned to row across the Atlantic Ocean, as previewed by The Mixed Zone back in October. Well, the quartet lived the dream and completed the course. Now, in the first of a two-part review, they describe how they are coping in the wake of their record-breaking odyssey
They were the four Yorkshire mothers who followed their star and rowed across the Atlantic Ocean. All three thousand nautical miles of it. But here is Helen Butters at the other end of a telephone line ruminating on how unsettled she has felt since stepping on to dry land in Antigua at the end of their record-breaking voyage.
“It’s a little bit strange,” she says, two months on. “I didn’t prepare for that strangeness.” It is a sentiment echoed in varying degrees by fellow crew members Jeanette Benaddi, Niki Doeg and Frances Davies.
For three years, the four working mums from York and Selby, with two children apiece, had a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve. There were obstacles along the way – partners to convince and money to raise while maintaining families and careers – but on December 20, 2015, they set off from La Gomera in their trusty boat Rose.
Once on the water they had to contend with all that nature could throw at them – literally in the form of flying fish as well as storms, house-sized waves and whales – while bottoms were blistered and seasickness battled. There were man-made problems, too, as equipment broke down delaying their crossing. But most of all there was separation from their families.
After 67 days, five hours and two minutes they reached the finish line to be greeted by family, friends, supporters and media. Their ambitions had been realised and a world record attained: the oldest women to row across any ocean.
Pictures show four sun-kissed, slim-line women, but for Jeanette and Frances arrival into the marina was one that was keenly felt. Jeanette says: “We let off some flares, but unfortunately the instructions were in Spanish and we held them the wrong way. Frances and I burned our hands quite badly. It was the only injury and came right at the end – a schoolgirl error.”
The following days were a whirlwind. The four tried to balance media appearances with catching up with their families. Everyone wanting to know every last detail. So what do you talk about with someone who has just rowed across the Atlantic? Something generic and simple like, “What was it like?” doesn’t really cut it.
Niki, mum to Corby, 13, and nine-year-old Aiden, admits: “It was a bit weird because I didn’t really want to talk about the journey. I wanted to talk about home and what they had been doing. They had lived through that and they weren’t so keen to tell me about it. They were more interested in the journey because that is what they classified as more exciting.
“It was funny: it was probably for a couple of weeks I didn’t want to talk about the journey, I wanted to be with them and hear about them. That changed and you got excited about it again. It was such an end.”
But then it was back to normal life – whatever that may be – something all four have had to contend with. “It was overwhelming re-entering life. You thought your head was going to explode because we had been isolated,” continues Niki. “It’s hard re-entering life, all the information and stimuli, it’s almost like an overload, it’s hard to deal with. We underestimated that completely, all we thought about was getting to the finish line and we’d not thought beyond that.”
Helen concurs. “I think it’s called an adrenalin hangover which is quite apt. I think it’s because we were at sea for nine weeks in complete isolation, just the four of us doing very simple things, just rowing and eating and sleeping. We didn’t have to think about much apart from problem-solving.
“Then when you come back you appreciate everything so much more. So I love doing the school run and I love doing the washing and all those things I didn’t like doing before. I appreciate everything now much more. That is good but I suppose it is just we all felt a bit odd when we got back and didn’t know why. I don’t think I prepared enough for that.”
There is a sense of wonder at all they achieved; surreal is a word used more than once as they look back and absorb. Frances says: “We’ve got a chart of the Atlantic on the wall at home which my husband and children were looking at as we went across, and I see every morning just how far it is from the Canaries over to Antigua – I just think how on earth did we do that in a little rowing boat?”
Returning to her job as a solicitor within a week of reaching shore, and the assimilation back into everyday life, has had its trials for Frances after the simplicity of life on the ocean waves. “We had all that time and we were just alone with our minds. We talked a lot on the boat, but we also had long spells of silence when we were just each individually thinking. I miss that bit of time.
“It feels like life back on land moves at 100 miles an hour. We were going so slowly out on the ocean, everything was simple, felt simple, out on the ocean. Now it all feels very complicated, the levels of decisions we have to make.”
For Jeanette, getting back into a routine was a shock as has been returning to her job as a clinical researcher. Still a little restless, there are more challenges on the horizon, but for now it is time for family for them all. “I’d love to go back out to sea, I did love it. I’d love to do another adventure. But the hardest thing was missing my husband and my children. That was really, really tough while we were out there, so I don’t want to go off and leave them again.
“Not this year, anyway.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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