Six women test their mettle as they row across the Pacific Ocean—breaking records and preconceptions along the way.
Out in the middle of the vast and unpredictable Pacific Ocean, wonders abound. For the U.K. women who would spend nine months rowing across the ocean in the 29-foot carnation-pink carbon fiber boat they’d named Doris, those wonders were a balm to extreme sleep deprivation, seasickness, constant pain from pressure wounds and a few too many meals of freeze-dried beef curry.
Dolphins, sea turtles, breaching whales and a friendly shark the crew dubbed “Eduardo” swam within an oar’s distance of Doris. Surrounded by an ever-changing seascape and a 360-degree horizon, “it was effortless to stay in the moment,” says crew member Natalia Cohen. “Sometimes at night the water was so still and at that the stars were reflected perfectly and we felt like we were rowing through the galaxy.”
The Coxless Crew
The team hadn’t known each other before this epic journey. It all began with Laura Penhaul, 32, a physiotherapist for the British Paralympics who is also a marathoner and triathlete. She had been planning to join an all-female crew that was rowing the 2,500 miles of the Indian Ocean. When that fell apart, she widened her ambitions to crossing the Pacific. Laura wanted, she says, to “find my own abilities and to challenge myself to get a glimpse of what it is you draw on when the odds are against you.”
Natalia, 40, had been managing a safari lodge in Tanzania when she saw the listing Laura had placed on a website called Escape the City. It asked, “Are you woman enough to row the Pacific?” Though Natalia had no rowing experience, she loved the ocean and was a diehard adventurer. “I’ve always chosen to follow opportunities outside my comfort zone,” she says, “because I believe that’s where you have the deepest experiences and can explore the power of your mind and the human spirit.”
Emma Mitchell, 30, who manages a global expedition program for schoolchildren, was the third crew member to row the entire crossing. She’d once spent four months in the jungles of Belize, studying wilderness medicine and learning how to survive with only a machete. “When the opportunity to do the row came up, it was something that I couldn’t turn down,” she says. “I have always liked to challenge myself, and I love the sense of achievement gained from doing something that scares me.” (Three other crew members each rowed one leg of the journey: Isabel Burnham, 30, is a London lawyer and ultramarathoner; Lizanne van Vuuren, 26, is an osteopath, cyclist and triathlete; and Meg Dyos, 25, works for a London real-estate office and led an expedition that climbed Kilimanjaro.)
They called themselves the Coxless Crew, because they’d be rowing without a coxswain and, not incidentally, without a support boat. On April 25, 2015, they set off from San Francisco, only to have to turn back 10 days later for repairs when huge seas flooded their battery hatch, setting off a fire. They would then spend the next 257 days at sea—some three months longer than they had calculated—stopping only twice, in Honolulu and in Samoa, to stock up on provisions.
Preparing for the journey of a lifetime
While the six women of the Coxless Crew achieved something no one had before in rowing across the world’s largest ocean, in some ways they saw their journey as unexceptional. “Everyone has their own Pacific to cross,” they like to say. As part of their mission to help women facing especially challenging crossings, the team made their expedition a fundraiser for two U.K. charities, Breast Cancer Care and, to support service women injured in action, Walking With The Wounded. So far, they’ve raised more than $75,000.
Getting to the start line of the row was nearly as challenging as the journey itself. It took almost four years before all the logistics, including finding sponsors, developing a marketing plan and dealing with legal issues, were in place. “I was really naïve about the enormity of it all,” says crew leader Laura Penhaul. “It was like setting up a small business.”
There were months of grueling training, including one exercise where the women rowed for 48 hours straight to test their stamina. They also worked with a sports psychologist, Keith Goddard, who trained the women in mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy so they could maintain strong mental and emotional health throughout the row and function well as a team. Keith guided the crew to come up with team values. (They settled on “Spirit,” an acronym for strength, perseverance, integrity, resilience, inspiration and trust.)
Testing their mettle
During the journey, the Pacific was true to its reputation as the world’s most difficult ocean crossing. Doris was pummeled by four-story high waves and relentless rain while the women, who were always leashed to the boat, rowed on.
Temperatures rose to 110 degrees on deck. One day Laura was hit so hard in the head by a flying fish she was nearly knocked unconscious. When the team reached the equator and the area that’s known by sailors as the doldrums, the currents were against them, and for days they found themselves moving backward.
If Mother Nature provided challenges, so did the living conditions. The team rowed in pairs for two hours at a stretch in round-the-clock shifts and slept only 90 minutes at a time. For bathroom functions, the women relied on the technique they describe as “bucket and chuck it.”
They slept in the boat’s two cramped cabins, each no bigger than a two-person tent. Privacy was impossible. Tempers sometimes flared, including one especially pitched argument over a packet of instant noodles. Small wonder this is a journey few choose to make. When the team arrived at the finish line at the Marlin Marina in Cairns, Australia, on January 25, 2016, after 8,446 miles on often rocky seas, they had achieved two world records. They were the first team of six and the first all-female team to cross the Pacific.
Even more important than those records, the Coxless Crew had fulfilled their personal goals of testing themselves and stretching their boundaries. For Laura, this meant learning to value the full range of her feelings. “I used to think if you’re a leader you have to be really stoic,” she says. But the first 10 days of the trip she was too violently seasick to hide her distress. “The whole journey has highlighted the strength in showing your emotions,” she says. “Being vulnerable within your team brings you closer and allows other people to support you just as much as you’re supporting them.”
Despite illnesses and exhaustion, no one missed a single rowing shift during the entire journey. “We drew strength from one another,” Laura says, “cared for each other when someone was down, drew on humor to keep us going and allowed emotions to be shared and free flowing.” When it was painful to row because of sores on hands and buttocks or it was difficult to stay awake during a middle-of-the-night shift, the team members would distract each other with songs or quizzes, by retelling their favorite novels or movies, or sharing their life stories. “You rarely have the time and the opportunity to fully listen to people,” Natalia says, “but on the ocean, we were really able to listen and be heard.”
Documenting the journey
Amid all the rigors of the voyage, the women were blogging regularly and keeping video journals for Sarah Moshman, an Emmy-winning filmmaker whose credits include The Empowerment Project: Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things. Sarah, who had equipped the women with cameras and hard drives, is making a documentary about the journey, called Losing Sight of Shore. The title is taken from a quote by Christopher Columbus and became an anthem for the women: “You can never cross an ocean until you lose sight of shore.”
Ten days before the crew completed their journey, shore was almost within sight. Emma had finally drifted off to sleep in an “unbearably hot” cabin when Natalia opened the hatch to call her up for a row. “The salt sores on my bum hurt, the salt in my clothes is making me itchy and I can’t find a comfortable way to sit,” Emma wrote in a blog post. “However, the sun is setting in a glow of orange behind us and the sky in front of us glows pink with grey clouds. The beauty still takes my breath away and all of a sudden I’m not in such a rush to get to land.”
To learn more about The Coxless Crew and their continuing efforts to raise money and awareness for women’s causes, got to coxlesscrew.com.
Shelley Levitt is an editor at large for Live Happy magazine.