Five years ago, Victoria Monk heard about the Atlantic Challenge and became obsessed with the idea of rowing across the ocean. The unassisted 3,000-mile race, from the Canary Islands to Antigua, is considered one of the toughest physical and mental endurance challenges on Earth.
All Monk needed was a crew to make her dream come true. So, she chose three perfect strangers, dotted around the country. “It was like speed dating,” Monk, 31, says, laughing at the memory. “I thought, ‘I know there are women out there who are just as crazy as I am – I’ve just got to find them’.”
She works in sports marketing and used her network to get the word out that she was looking for a crew, and after speaking to more than 100 potential candidates, she settled on the final three: sports marketer Ana Zigic (28), Ellie Reynolds (25), who works in diversity and inclusion for Tennis Wales, and personal trainer Abbey Platten (26).
The quartet make up There She Rows, who start the challenge on Dec 12 and have hopes of inspiring women and girls everywhere along the way. Only one of them, Zigic, had experience of rowing on water, so they had to start from the very basics to prepare for the two-hours on, two-hours off rota they will be following for the duration of the journey.
“This is a ginormous challenge, and the reason I wanted to do it is to use it as a vehicle to inspire girls and women to get into sport because I believe that it’s one of the most powerful ways to support and empower women in society,” Monk says. “We want to say, if we can cross the ocean in this tiny rowing boat, then hopefully girls can feel inspired to take on their own Atlantic Challenge – whatever that looks like for them.”
The crew are planning to carry that message across the Atlantic. They did an open call to their social media followers to send in stories about barriers they have faced as women in sport. The team have faced their own, too: Zigic had to quit rowing at university for two years because of debilitating endometriosis symptoms, while both Reynolds and Platten struggled with eating disorders during their late teens. Platten says finding sport during her recovery “pretty much saved my life”.
Their words, as well as those of the women who contacted them, form the wrap of their 9.6 metre-long rowing boat which they have named Sarabi. “We wanted to name her after the Lionesses England football team in some way,” Zigic says. “We couldn’t just choose one Lioness, and Sarabi is the mother lioness in The Lion King. So, it’s our homage to the Lionesses for inspiring young girls and women everywhere.”
That motivation will drive them so far, but the physical and mental preparations have been arduous over the past two years. They openly admit to having given up their social lives to commit totally to this challenge.
Their training has included four sessions a week on the rowing erg, two or three lifting sessions in the gym and one day of cross training. They have clocked up more than 400 hours on the water with Sarabi, too, including a five-day row from Falmouth to Lymington via the Isle of Wight. “We learnt loads of things went wrong,” Reynolds says. “And the boat is very tippy.”
While nothing can prepare them for 30-foot waves washing over them or the complete darkness they will experience at nighttime in the middle of the ocean, the team have tried their best to cover every other base with expert coaches and training.
The challenge has cost in the region of £160,000, most of which has been covered by sponsors, and they are aiming to raise money for four charities: Endometriosis UK, the Teenage Cancer Trust, Eating Matters and the Women’s Sport Trust.
Some of the coaching was provided free of charge, including from Manchester City head psychologist David Young, who helped them work on personality tests and team dynamics. “You can be the fittest crew in the whole world, but if you have a big bust-up in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, then you’re in serious bother,” Monk says.
Alongside the serious planning and work – which included Monk drafting up a contract for each member to sign as proof of their commitment – the team can also see the lighter side to the immense challenge ahead.
They have playlists prepared for their waterproof speakers to help with morale, a couple of Diet Coke cans reserved as “luxury items” and Christmas chocolates to get them through the holiday season.
They have also nicknamed their toilet bucket “Terrence” and are candid about the lack of privacy on board the boat, which has only two small cabins for sleeping. “So many people have said to me, ‘How can you have only known some people for a few months and be so close already,’” Platten says. “Well, if you pee, poo, shower and change your Mooncup in front of three people, you’re going to become close.”
That practical approach is as strong as their determination to do the best they can in the race, as they hope to finish in the front pack.
Their biggest fears are mostly the weather and capsizing. Although Monk says she “secretly” does hope they experience a capsize, as she wants to go through every possible scenario during this once-in-a-lifetime experience, and she will take the good – mind-blowing sunrises and spotting orcas – with the bad.
“My biggest fear is the scale of it,” Reynolds adds. “The closer it gets the more I think, it’s a long time and it’s a long way. But it’s the kind of fear that excites me and makes me feel alive.”