3,000 miles in 40 days, eight hours and 26 minutes. Otherwise known as four women breaking records in the face of 40ft waves, too many bum sores to count and a bucket to wee in.
Olivia Bolesworth, 27, Bella Collins, 23, Lauren Morton, 26, and Georgina Purdy, also 23, are Row Like a Girl (RLAG), who – having beaten 24 teams to come second in the 2016 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge – became the youngest and fastest all-woman crew to row the Atlantic unaided.
It’s a feat so huge it’s difficult to comprehend. The reality is 40 days without setting foot on land, alternating sleep and rowing in two-hour blocks, enduring crashing waves the size of houses and fixing all problems themselves, knowing any emergency help is two or three days away.
That’s travelling 3,000 miles on pure arm power and a boat little more than seven metres long. While naked (more on that later).
Just as the numbers are almost too much to grasp, when I speak to team captain Morton just a couple of days after they jubilantly powered to the finish line for their chosen charity Plan UK, she’s fairly overwhelmed herself.
“It just feels very surreal, like it didn’t happen,” she explains on the phone from Antigua, where they finally landed. “It feels like we were at the start line yesterday, then at the end, and I can’t really remember what happened in between.”
Lucky for her, Morton’s got night-time hallucinations and a leg fracture to remind her – not to mention a painfully scarred arse.
26 teams set off from La Gomera in the Canary Islands on 20th December (RLAG one of only two all-female crews) after a year in the planning and months of training.
Setting ground rules
While Morton and Bolesworth lived and rowed together at university, “so we knew we could spend a lot of time together and not get on each other’s nerves”, little could truly prepare anyone for such close quarters.
“You don’t have a lot of personal space, to put it mildly,” says Morton. “I sat everyone down the night before we were leaving and went through some simple ground rules.
“To be kind to each other always and never ever badmouth anybody else in the team because that’s when problems start.
“And to realise that no matter how shit or low you’re feeling, someone else has felt the same way. We stuck to the rules and were incredibly strong the whole way across.”
Low points weren’t too thin on the ground either: Morton and Purdy in particular had to cope with crippling seasickness for the first few days.
“I threw up every 20 minutes for the first 72 hours. I couldn’t drink anything – I’d have a sip of water and it would come straight back up. Me and Gee had no food for the first four and a half days.
“We got to the point where we had nothing in our stomachs but were still heaving and convulsing. We’d drink water because it felt better to throw that up than just have horrible painful retches.
“We couldn’t sleep. I remember just lying in the cabin in the foetal position, shaking, telling myself it would end at some point.”
“Any help was about three days away”
She also has a permanent reminder of just how out on a limb they were. The team had to fix all their own equipment, and boat maintenance meant regular cleaning of the hull – getting into the sea and removing barnacles to aid speed.
Well into the race, a rogue wave dragged Morton underneath the boat during a clean. “The whole thing came down with the rudder on top of my leg and I’ve got a big fat fracture now,” she recalls.
“The force of it hitting my femur split the fat and I now have a permanent indentation on my leg. A little gift from the ocean!
“That was seriously painful, I thought I’d broken it. I could still move it so I decided I probably hadn’t, but the problem would have been that any help was about three days away.
“We were very aware of that, so we were always tied to the boat. Gee did get chucked overboard – a wave hit us, she stumbled and just went over the edge in really fast weather. She was dragged with her legs parallel to the boat because we were moving at four knots an hour. A tiny little person alongside would have no chance not strapped on.”
They also had to row through the night, powering through strong side-on waves that during the day they could prepare for, but in the darkness were invisible. “It makes the boat very vulnerable.
“In the day you can spot it and brace the oar, tell the girls to stay in the cabin. But at night, bad timing might mean the doors are open and the wave just drenches everything. Then you’re coming off shift to sleep two hours in a soaking wet cabin.”
“We had no control and that scared me – being at the mercy of the sea”
While that was more frustrating than dangerous, Morton does say there were times she couldn’t quite believe what they were up against.
“One of the days we had very, very big seas. I’m talking 40ft waves bigger than houses, we were just getting smashed about in the boat, turning 360 in the water. We couldn’t steer, and I thought, ‘It is really stupid that we’re here doing this.’
“The waves were crashing over the top of us, the boat would go under then come back up. We really had no control and that scared me – being at the mercy of the sea.”
And then you have the everyday practicalities of four adults on a boat measuring 7.5m by 1.8m. Powdered food, limited rations. And that bucket.
Morton laughs, “We didn’t shower for 40 days or wash our hair, but we did have biodegradable wet wipes, so every few hours you had a mini body wash.
“Food-wise, we had about five freeze-dried high-calorie meals a day: each one was 1,000 calories but you‘re burning about 8,000 a day with the rowing.
“All our skin is scarred. I had the worst bottom out of everybody! Huge pustules, sores, pressure marks, chafing, and nothing can heal out there – you’re wet 24 hours a day, salt’s in there. It’s not an environment to heal.”
Hot naked Tetris
And the toilet? “So, the toilet was a bucket. A black bucket with a bit of water in it – there’s no dignity involved whatsoever!
“I’m not going to lie, the first couple of days we would awkwardly not meet each other’s eyes. When someone’s going to the toilet in front of you, you look the other way. But soon you’re just chatting away normally.
“We also rowed naked because you’re just so chafed you don’t want anything on your skin adding more rubbing – when you’re naked by day three, you’ve lost your inhibitions!”
Sleeping in a coffin-sized space with another person (two always rowing, two in the cabin) provided little relief either.
Purdy described one particular attempted nap – during an enforced break in rowing thanks to Hurricane Alex – as “hot naked Tetris” (they had to keep the door closed against the elements), and Morton says if they accidentally touched skin it felt “like a blowtorch”.
“We were followed by a pod of 60 dolphins for two days”
But for all the horrors I insisted she expand upon, the team also experienced moments few others on the planet have or ever will.
“They far outweigh the bad times,” she says. “Once we had four or five whales swimming round the boat for about six hours during the day: up and around and surfacing next to us, going underneath.
“It was slightly daunting at first, wondering if they were friendly because they could easily flip the boat if they wanted to, but they were just zooming around and surfacing with spouts of water, it was magical.
“We were also followed by a pod of 60 dolphins for a couple of days. They were diving out of the water and jumping, surfing the waves. They make the most lovely sounds: these squeaky happy noises. Other times when the sun was setting or rising, it would be calmer and peaceful, and I’d just think ‘My God, we’re so privileged to be doing this’.”
The dramatic, film-worthy highs and lows aside, one of the biggest challenges was the sheer monotony of gruelling, non-stop rowing, which the team alleviated with in-depth conversations.
“Me and Bella nicknamed them ‘Life Chats’,” says Morton. “We’d listen to music and audiobooks too, but we’d chat to each other about our parents, our childhoods, how we met our boyfriends.
“I think Gee planned her entire wedding from start to finish: she knows exactly what she’s wearing, what food’s being served, the house she wants to buy, the cushions she’d have!
“We’d cover our lives, career paths, adventures, achievements, everything. Also our team name – what Row Like a Girl meant.
“We wanted to show we could do amazing things, and when we found ourselves in second position, that was hugely motivating – we knew we’d got a massive opportunity to show that girls can go ahead and almost win it.
“Coming second out of 26 teams, 24 of which were all-male – I’ll take that.”
Even among fellow adventurers, Morton says the team experienced sexism from the outset – scepticism and open amusement over their judgement and planning. The very same judgement and planning that saw them shoot into second place.
“We took a very separate route to everyone else at the start. We looked at the weather and went more south because we knew there was a storm coming on day five, and the people who took a more northern route would get held up.
“Everybody thought we were doing the wrong thing. Everybody was laughing at us, saying, ‘What are you girls doing? They don’t know where they’re going! They’re heading to Africa!’ They just thought it was a joke – until the storm hit. Everybody else had to stop for days and we carried on rowing, and that’s how we got into second position.
“We’d been getting messages to the sat phone saying ‘Girls, change your route’ – even from family members, which was quite hard to deal with.
“Then we were seeing we were fourth, third, second, then people’s comments turned from laughing at us to being like ‘How have you girls done this?!’ Well, we planned it.”
Did that definitely feel like it stemmed from sexism? “It was the fact we’re girls. Even now, the questions we get asked in interviews are all ‘Four girls, were you tearing each other’s hair out?’ No-one would ever ask a team of four guys, ‘Oh my God, four boys together, were you tearing each other’s hair out?!’”
No-one can claim they haven’t proved exactly what rowing like a girl can achieve, and it was especially significant for Morton after having to abandon the same challenge in 2013 – that time, a disaster-strewn three months ending with a rescue by a passing container ship. It was a “demon” she set out to exorcise by skippering this trip, and raise money for Plan UK’s Because I am a Girl campaign for women's rights.
“I’ve got a real opportunity to show that women are very tough”
They’ve raised just shy of £20,000 of their £50,000 target so far and the donations are still rolling in. Now Morton, a qualified nurse, laughs that a return to normal life is “not plausible” and the next adventure beckons.
“I just can’t go back to working 9-5. The amount of emails we got from young girls at primary school, the local Antiguan women at the finish line saying ‘Thank you for achieving this for girls’. No girls have ever finished top five before and we’ve smashed the record by days.
“I think I’ve got a real opportunity to show that women are very tough, that the adventure world is not just a male thing.
“I’m sick of seeing Bruce Parry, Bear Grylls, Ray Mears, all these men doing it and no-one showing that women can do that too.”
Images: Ben Duffy for Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge / instagram.com/row_likeagirl