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Meet the All-Women Crew Rowing 3,000 miles Across the Atlantic
Kate Crittenden interviews the One Ocean crew about their upcoming expedition
On the 12th of December, Jen Cullom, Emily Woodason, Janette “JP” Potgieter and Erin Bastian, will row 3000 miles (4828 km) from La Gomera in the Canary Islands, to Antigua in the Caribbean, as the One Ocean crew. Part of the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, known as the “world’s toughest row”, these adventurous women face a gruelling 40+ day race where rowers from all over the world compete to be the first across the ocean.
Rowing 2 hours on, 2 hours off, 24 hours a day until they finish, the crew will face salt sores, exhaustion and near-constant exposure to the elements. With a bucket for a toilet, plenty of freeze-dried dinners and 8.5 metres of space, it isn't that surprising that more people have climbed Everest than rowed across an ocean. Yet the One Ocean crew pumped and prepped to undertake the adventure of a lifetime.
I spoke with three of the crew - Emily, JP and Erin - about getting started in ocean rowing, dealing with mental hardship and the advantages of an all-women team.
How did you get started?
Emily: It’s a bit of a strange one: none of us actually knew each other before we started. All of us wanted to row across the Atlantic, but no one we knew wanted to do it with us. I just happened to come across an online advert by Jen, our skipper, and she was looking to form a crew.
This was during the COVID lockdown so we met on Zoom. Eventually, after a lot of discussion, we met up in person and we got on great. From that point on we thought we’d like to do this as a four. So we put out an advert on social media saying we were looking for two other crew members and at that point, Erin and JP responded.
What makes you want to row across an ocean?
JP: I guess it’s doing what not a lot of people have done. A lot of people dream about it but they never get to do it. Then all of a sudden, you’ve got all of this ambition, this challenge, and three other crazy girls that would do it with you in the same boat. It's a recipe for success if you ask me.
Emily: Once you get out there in the middle of the ocean and you’re so far from land on either side and from the seabed below, you’re completely immersed in nature. That’s something you don’t get to see very often, especially as I live in London. It’s an extraordinary feeling and I just can’t wait to be there again.
New to Ocean Rowing?
Kate: Three of you weren’t rowers before signing up for the challenge. What was that like, not coming from a background in ocean rowing, to say “I’m just going to give this a go”?
Erin: I think I was a bit blasé since I do kayaking for my job. I was like, "it’s on the water, it’s in a small boat, how hard can it be?”. Then I got into a rowing boat and I’m tripping over the oars, and I’m not going anywhere. I didn’t have a clue, so I just jumped in the deep end, and then seeing the entire journey has been so satisfying.
Emily: I’ve always grown up doing water sports but I didn’t row because I’m pretty short - I’m 5’ 2”. All you hear about rowing is you need to be tall. But with ocean rowing, it seemed that the hardest part of the challenge wasn’t the row itself but more the mental capacity, the fundraising, and the sponsorship. They were all things that I’ve experienced before. I thought ok if I’ve got that, then learning to row would be the missing piece of the puzzle.
JP: I am very much the person who sees a challenge and I ask myself, can I do it? If I say yes, then I just want to do it. It doesn’t matter what you have to learn, everything requires a skill. You just find people like these guys and then it becomes easy.
Was having an all-women team a deliberate decision?
Emily: Absolutely. Ocean rowing is still male-dominated. I think only about 20% of all people who row on oceans are female. We wanted to find a female crew to demonstrate that women are completely capable of doing this and we wanted to take that opportunity to inspire and push ourselves to see what we could achieve.
Do you think there are advantages to having an all-women team?
JP: I mean we can generalise, and it really depends on the individuals, but let's be honest here, when women stand together, nothing gets in their way. We are so determined, we are so supportive and we have this endurance built into us that with just a bit of guidance we can go a long way.
Erin: When I’m on the boat with the girls, I always feel like an equal and I find that pretty empowering.
What is mental training like for something like this?
JP: You can get in your boat and row and you can prepare your body for it, but you can never really prepare your mind for it. It’s two hours on, two hours off, you don’t really rest, you eat when you should eat. But for the four of us, we focused on getting to know each other. It's a lot of honesty and it's a lot of sharing of emotions, but if we don’t do it now, it's going to come out on that ocean. The more we share now, the better our success will be.
Do you have a set number of miles or kilometres for each day, if you’re trying to compete?
Erin: It completely depends on the conditions. If we’ve got the wind and the waves with us, we should be clocking five, six, maybe touching seven knots [8 mph/13 kmph] if we are surfing. If we get a headwind we just need to be crawling forward. It's more of a game of chess than it is, “every two hours we need to row this distance”. It's all about tactics over the long term.
How do you deal with pre-trip jitters?
Erin: I’m so nervous now that the boat has gone to La Gomera. Every day this week I’ve said to my boyfriend, “[gasps], I’m rowing across an ocean soon!”. The nerves are building up, but the hours that we spend rowing make me feel pretty confident in my body. It's been such a long journey to get to this point, I think once we hit the water all the nerves and stress are going to disappear.
What do your mums think?
JP: My mum is just glad that I’ve finally told her what I’m doing next! There will be a race tracker for the entire trip, 24/7, so she’s very grateful that she’ll at least know where I am!
Emily: My mum took a bit of persuading to come round. At first, she thought it was dangerous so she was really worried. Then we had a day where we took a couple of our parents out on the boat for a row. They got to meet everyone and realise that actually, we are well prepared. That gave them a whole load of reassurance that we weren't just jumping in completely blind. Now they are coming out to the start and they’re super excited to be part of the journey as well.
And you’re also raising money for charity?
Emily: Yes, the Sea Rangers Service - they’re a fantastic social enterprise. They work with navy veterans to train unemployed young people to become sea rangers. Then they undertake research at sea, supporting things like plastic reduction and increasing seagrass.
Part of our mission is to raise awareness of the importance of our ocean, and how it is vital for all life on earth. That’s a key part of our story that we want to tell.
What is your advice for anyone interested in starting ocean rowing?
Erin: When I decided to do it, my local rowing club was super friendly and they had a women’s evening that I could go to. I’d definitely say it's not as intimidating as the actual task makes it sound.
JP: Start talking to people. I bet you before you know it, you’ll have signed up for either the Atlantic or the Pacific or who knows where the next row will be. Just be curious, ask questions.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All images provided by One Ocean Crew.
Kate is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Sydney, Australia. When not at her desk, you’ll find her on the side of a mountain somewhere, chocolate bar in one hand, camera in the other.
You can see more from Kate on Instagram @slowly.north
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