“Bonkers!” says fellow Monmouth rower, Elaine Theaker, when I ask her how things are. “In fact the whole of the last year has been absolutely bonkers,” she adds. And small wonder, really. On 12th December she’s going to set off from La Gomera in the Canaries to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to Antigua in a tiny boat, with no support crew and no back-up to speak of – just the wind, the waves and two equally crazy middle-aged women for company (known, collectively, as the Atlantic Ladies). Yep, it’s undeniably, utterly, incontrovertibly bonkers, and the whole thing leaves me feeling slack-jawed with uncomprehending awe.
Elaine and her shipmates are fully aware of the craziness of the whole enterprise – the physical hardship (endless rowing, blisters, sores), the sleep deprivation (they row two hours on, two hours off), the dangers (sharks, 40′ waves, storms and no doubt other hazards I daren’t even think about), the separation from friends and family, the months of gruelling preparation. So why, seriously WHY, are they doing it? Most rowers (fairly weird by definition) can admit to the odd, fleeting moment where they think rowing the Atlantic would be pretty cool, before dismissing the idea as, well, bonkers and returning to important tasks like picking their callouses and contemplating the next erg test.
Elaine tells me that for her it was the spur she needed to do free herself completely, for a while, from the endless, relentless commitment of work. In an age where nobody’s more than a text or an email or an instant message away, it seems you really do have to launch yourself into the middle of the Atlantic to get away from it all, and I can see where she’s coming from. I did wonder if it was really just an elaborate ruse to get out of this season’s erg tests, which I know Elaine dreads as much as I do, and she didn’t entirely deny this, but officially I’m happy to go with the work reason.
Then there’s the prospect of the marine life and the beauty of the ocean and the sky. They got a taste of this on their practice row from Ibiza to Barcelona earlier in the year. Rowing in the dark with just the sound of the blades moving in and out of the water and occasional schools of dolphins swimming alongside was a profoundly moving experience, and that was just the Med. Just think what the vastness of the Atlantic will be like…
Finally there’s the motivation to inspire others. All three Atlantic Ladies genuinely hope to be an inspiration to older women, to encourage them to believe that 50 isn’t the beginning of the end, that it doesn’t herald slippers and sloth. “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably right,” says Elaine.
But none of that really explains it. To stick with the idea, to follow it up, to entertain it as anything other than a completely ludicrous notion… well, you have to be a certain type of person to do that. Even the most persuasive of reasons wouldn’t be enough for most of us. You have to be not just bonkers (though they are, obviously). You have to be something more. You have to be driven and determined and brave, with a core and nerves of steel – but even that’s not enough. In addition to all of that you have to be incredibly organised and prepared to devote months on end to fund-raising, preparations and more hours on the erg than you or I would think humanly possible. In short, you have to be the kind of person who will willingly turn your life upside down for a couple of years. And that’s what separates the Atlantic Ladies from the rest of us.
They range in age from 54 to 61 and when they finally reach dry land in the Caribbean will have broken a whole bunch of Guinness World Records. Elaine is a lawyer, with her own firm (which she’s just expanded – another act that she freely admits is crazy), Sharon is a midwife and Di is a retired nurse and businesswoman. They’re very different personalities and each brings something different to the crew. They did have a fourth crew member who had to retire for family reasons, but the trio courageously (and yes, there’s another word for it) decided not to let that stop them.
They’re fully aware that the adventure will put a huge strain on their relationship and understand that there will be times when they annoy the hell out of each other. Wisely, they have engaged life coaches Simply Changing (who also sponsor them) to help them work out their own and each other’s strengths and weaknesses as well as developing strategies to help them get along under pressure. Elaine, for example, describes herself as the “unfluffy one” but hopes to compensate with pragmatism and calm under pressure.
In additional to the mental preparation they’ve been working with personal trainers C-Fit Shrewsbury to prepare their bodies as much as they can for the rigours ahead, combining twice-weekly strength training with five long (10-15km) erg sessions every week.
The planning that has gone into the trip is awe-inspiring. They really have thought of everything, from their daily coffee morning, when they’ll take 10-15 minutes off from rowing to chat and mull things over, to the Christmas cake, tipple and “Christmas attire” they have planned for 25 December. Whatever the Atlantic can throw at them, you can be sure the Atlantic Ladies will have thought of it and made a plan.
So look, why not give them some support? You can start by following them on Facebook here and on their website, here. You can watch them once the race starts on the race tracker here. And there’s still time to sponsor them, either through their crowdfunding page here OR by making a direct payment to their campaign account: Atlantic Ladies, sort code 090129, a/c no.02928427. You won’t just be funding the Atlantic Ladies, you’ll be supporting their nominated charities, Relapsing Polychondritis UK, Motor Neurone Disease Association and the Alzheimer’s Society.
Go on – you’d be bonkers not to.