The mothers aiming to tame the Atlantic

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all” – Helen Keller, American author & humanitarian.

There is no point being queasy about this. Bottoms will be key when four Yorkshire women embark on a formidable challenge to race 3,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic in a rowing boat. It won’t be pretty. They remember the cadaver-resembling, beard-sporting, blister-bummed creature that was Olympian James Cracknell, who shambled ashore when he tried the same thing with Ben Fogle.

But these are no-nonsense women – they’re primed. “The whole hands and bottoms thing with blisters and weeping sores – we are expecting that,” said Niki Doeg, one of the extraordinary quartet. “We’re actually putting surgical spirit on our bottoms and hands to get ready. Our medical kit is humungous. Saying that, we’re women, we get on with it, we don’t moan as much.

“The whole thing is really glamorous. Actually, nothing about it is glamourous.”

Maybe not. But certainly incredible. The four are not elite athletes but rather working mums in their forties who only started rowing in 2012 at a try-out on the River Ouse in York.

Now Janette Benaddi, 50, Helen Butters, 45, Frances Davies, 47, and 44-year-old Doeg form the Yorkshire Rows, one of only two female crews among 25 taking on the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge from the Canary Islands to Antigua in December.

Niki Doeg, Helen Butters, Janette Benaddi, Frances Davies
Niki Doeg, Helen Butters, Janette Benaddi, Frances Davies

They are not shy of addressing the hard questions. According to Niki they inquired about what would happen if someone died en route. “Apparently, you have to take the body back,” said Niki cheerfully. “You have to take it back for an autopsy. So we thought we’d just say we’d dragged it along behind us but the fish had eaten it. We’ve had a lot of discussions. I think we’ve covered every angle.”

Helen says: “I think it’s important to us that we are four very ordinary mums doing this. I did a school assembly this week and I was very clear I wasn’t the captain of the netball team. And I am not an athlete because a lot of people in this race are calling themselves athletes – well, they are. We’re saying we are not. That is the difference, so hopefully people can relate to us.”

It was Frances who first suggested the idea over a glass of wine or two at a dinner in January 2013. The seed had been sown by the story of Debra Searle (then Veal) who completed the crossing of the Atlantic single-handedly in 2002 after her then husband bailed out after 14 days. “It made me think how great it must be to do,” explains Frances, who has undertaken numerous endurance challenges.

That was that until the following May when Frances, a solicitor, again pushed the idea and Janette immediately jumped on board. However, for Helen and Niki, their husbands Richard and Gareth had to be convinced.

Niki is mum to Corby, 12, and nine-year-old Aiden (who is refusing to hug his mother at the finish line on the grounds she is very likely to smell bad) and also runs a financial consultancy with her husband. She candidly admits he was the last one to accept their plan.

“For him a big part was the business, but another but was he couldn’t understand why I would want to leave him and the kids for such a long period. For him he wouldn’t do that.

“He did come round eventually. He can see the benefits and it has changed our business fundamentally and how it is going to operate when I get back. He has had to see the benefit of it to really buy into it.

“I can remember being in the Lake District in October 2013 and going for long walks with him, having very, very serious conversations, not pleasant several of them, because he just wasn’t there at all. It took a little while, but we got there. He quite happily admits to that – he talks about it, he is aware of it. He knows now but he just doesn’t like change.”

Similarly Helen had to sell the wider benefits to her partner, who was also concerned by the fact she will be unpaid during her three months away from her job as a communications expert in the NHS.

“Yes, I might be losing quite a lot of money in those three months, but I can see it might open lots of different doors. There could be lots of things to come out of it that will benefit us all and then he said, ‘Oh yeah’, and then he was all right about it.”

The quartet have eight children between them, aged from nine to 18.

Helen is mother to Lucy – who will turn 16 during the crossing – and Henry, 12, who was so inspired that he undertook a number of fun-runs and wrote off for sponsors as well as pledging to undertake the challenge when he is 18.

“For my kids it has had a positive impact so I am really glad I have done it in relation to that. It is good for them to see Mum doing something other than working and cleaning!”

While business in the United States has regularly taken Janette away from husband Ben and children James, 18, and 14-year-old Safiya for up to 10 days, none of the four have had an extended separation from their families.

All will be in La Gomera to see them off and there is some relief the children will have the distraction of Christmas and the school holidays. They will be able to draw on Janette’s experience of being the one holding the fort last year when Ben sailed across the Atlantic.

“When I am out there on the sea I know not to ring him up and cry or anything like that because there is nothing he can do. We knew that anyway, but I know how important it is because when he rang me up I could tell from his voice he was having a tough time and there was nothing I could do about it.

“I did get to the point where I did have a good cry because it was something silly. But when you are doing everything all the time and the insurance company wouldn’t speak to me because the car was in his name and I wasn’t the designated driver. I needed to renew his insurance and I said to them, ‘There’s nothing you can do, you can’t call him, he is out in the middle of the ocean’, and they went, ‘That’s not our problem’.

“I just thought I can’t do this: I was at work, I was with the kids and I was on my own. It’s hard being on your own for a long time. I had a good half an hour’s cry but I got back on board.”

The four survived a successful crossing of the North Sea in May, – despite Helen suffering from sea-sickness – becoming the first women to do so, a week after an American pair had given up. The recce offered many lessons, among them the importance of routine, the effective use of  GPS and VHF radio, being in a boat for 24/7 and importantly, given they will need to ingest 5,500 calories per day, knowing they have to regularly take on board food and drink.

Navigation was another factor with the final few hours in the dark testing ones as they got lost. But, after refusing the coastguard’s offer of a boat to meet them, they made it.

20150525_071242Their experiences of negotiating choppy seas, and some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, resulted in them establishing some ocean rules. At any one time there will be two people rowing for two hours with two hours for sleeping, eating, ablutions and completing log entries. It became apparent the shift changes have to be slick, a minute or two over schedule can have a huge impact on those rowing. There will also be a special cap to wear to signal someone needs time and space.

They have worked with Catherine Baker’s sport profiling company to help understand individuals’ behaviour under stress when part of a team. Frances says: “It will encourage a discussion between us about how we can get the best out of each other and what the trigger points are.”

While admitting they will not put their lives at risk, if one member of the crew was to leave the crossing the remainder would continue.

Conversation will kept to a minimum while rowing so there will be a stereo with people able to donate a song to raise money. Not surprisingly their own tune of choice is Rock the Boat. They are also taking a library of books, among them The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and Pride and Prejudice.

Already the challenge has transformed lives. Helen’s husband Richard has changed jobs and is moving to the Isle of Man where the family will join him next year.

Niki’s business is expanding while Frances has already left a job in which she was not happy to become one of the founders of Progeny Private Law.

Janette, a clinical researcher, sold her compnay a couple of years ago and she is looking forward to enjoying the here and now.

“Mine will be more about the relaxing on the boat, the being away from material things that can be distracting. And just having that solitude and meditation when I am out there when it is peaceful seas. The feeling of all of that when I get back and the calmness of all of that will be a dramatic effect on me.

“Frances is calm and very relaxed and it will be fine and I’ve always been very go go go go, do do do do. And in some respects not really listening to folk, I’ve always been on the train and never got off.”

The women hope to raise £100,000 to split between the Yorkshire Air Ambulance and Maggie’s Centre in Leeds, each of their families having been directly affected by cancer.

With the clock ticking down to their departure, Frances admits her husband Mark will probably be glad when the challenge is over. She also knows her older son Jay – at 14 a year older than younger brother Jack – is a bit nervous.

“If I look out to sea and I think I am going over the horizon – that’s what gets it for me,” says Frances. They will soon be out there on the Atlantic Ocean, aiming to row 50 miles a day, as they face everything nature can throw at them.

“We are as prepared as we can be,” Janette says. “We completely recognise you can’t prepare yourself for something like this, but we’ve done more than enough. We’ll definitely get across – how quickly is anybody’s guess. But we’ll get across – that is a dead cert.”

Niki adds:  We’re thinking we might have a little pit-stop once we’ve crossed the finish line and before we meet the media. We’ve got some of that powder to touch up our grey roots. We’ll take a couple of razors because we will look like something from Gorillas in the Mist. But we’re not doing the full make-up. Two of the girls have actually had laser eye surgery, not for cosmetic reasons, but so they can see without glasses.

“We’ve had very long, successful careers, we’ve been working a long time, we’ve been married a long time, we’ve got kids, so we’ve dealt with a lot of different things in life.

“I think that life experience is really going to help us, so even though we are a bit older than the average crew members, that age will be a positive thing.”


After an early career in PR and marketing, Liz Byrnes 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. Read more of Liz’s articles.


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