Four mums. One vast ocean. Challenges don’t come any more epic than this

14 Dec 2015 @ 7.23 pm
| Charity, News

In the next few days four York mums will do something extraordinary. They will climb into a boat in the Canary Islands – and set out to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic.

Words like ‘epic’ and ‘awesome’ are used all the time now. But they are the only way to describe a challenge which will see four women aged from 44 to 51 attempt to conquer the world’s second largest ocean in a rowing boat.

Collectively known as the Yorkshire Rows, they are one of 26 teams taking part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

An epic adventure

The world’s toughest row

Row 3,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic ocean

In Rose, a boat measuring 7.5m by 1.8m for c50 days

Once they leave the harbour they’ll be on their own on the vast ocean and at the mercy of the elements

They will set a world record as the oldest four-man team to take part in the race

More people have been into space than have rowed the Atlantic

Raising money for two charities, the Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres and Yorkshire Air Ambulance

Meet the team

The team at York Marina. Photograph: Heather Corbett
The team at York Marina. Photograph: Heather Corbett

It was a rainy Monday morning when I got to meet the Yorkshire Rows in the quaint café of the York Marina.

They are Janette Benaddi, 51, from Burn, near Selby, Helen Butters, 45, from Cawood, Niki Doeg, 44, from Hessay, near York, and Frances Davies, 47, from York.

I was initially met by 43-year-old communications expert Helen, who had her two teenage children in tow. The others soon followed, all fresh off the set of BBC Breakfast.

It was obvious that these women were dedicated; they had all been up since the early hours, appeared on television, and had to do all this between busy home life and heading off to work for the afternoon.

How it all began

A cold day on Hornsea Mere
A cold day on Hornsea Mere

The women had been rowing together once a week for a couple of years as part of the Guy Fawkes Boat Club at St Peter’s School in York.

It was solicitor Frances who first suggested turning this leisurely hobby into something altogether bigger.

Why? “It was a little bit of age creeping up,” she said, “and a little bit of ‘there’s got to be more to this, before we get too old’.”

Frances also took inspiration from a book she had read no less than ten years before starting this journey – Debra Searle’s Rowing It Alone, the story of a woman who had to finish a transatlantic row alone when her husband abandoned ship.

“You look at her and you don’t think she’s an ocean rower at all. I guess it sowed a seed.”

Persuading their families

Olympic gold medallist rower James Cracknell paid them a surprise visit as they prepared to fly out from Manchester Airport
Olympic gold medallist rower James Cracknell paid them a surprise visit as they prepared to fly out from Manchester Airport

The women recounted how difficult it was to convince their loved ones that they should go ahead with their plans.

It sees them thousands of miles away for Christmas, and for Helen it even meant missing her daughter’s 16th birthday.

Janette said their husbands had been particularly difficult to persuade: “You can imagine it’s a shock for your husband when you say you’re going to row across the Atlantic!”

Despite the initial shock, all of their families eventually got on board, and the women began their intensive training.

Preparations begin

Niki and Helen try out their bedroom on the boat
Niki and Helen try out their bedroom on the boat

One thing that I was particularly surprised to learn about the team’s gruelling preparations was how little the physical training mattered in the overall picture.

Niki filled me in on what it really takes to become a master rower.

Everyone who’s done it already always says that a lot of people over train and under-prepare, so the physical training is just one tiny part of it.

We’ve all had to take our ocean theory, first aid at sea, survival at sea, VHF radio, all these different courses and exams, some of them which take quite a lot of time and effort.

There’s also a lot of technical stuff on the boat, and we’ve got to be able to fix it.

The women have already completed an incredible feat by becoming the first ever women to row across the North Sea.

The journey took them 45 hours, and they were competing against two other teams, both of which comprised of young male contestants.

Here the women were surrounded by other vessels. On the Atlantic they are likely to pass no more than one other boat every six days, which highlighted for them the extent to which they must be self-sufficient.

As Niki noted, the team’s first outing showed them that despite their two years of preparation, there were some things that they could only know through practice.

“Helen was really sick on the North Sea as well, but that was really really good because it showed us that there were things that we needed to go away and look at. People have been ringing in with ideas!”

Facing sharks and raising money

Ready for anything: Yorkshire Rows
Ready for anything: Yorkshire Rows

All four women admit they are nervous about the trip. Helen says they all have different worries before they set off.

The one thing that scares Niki the most is something breaking on the boat that we can’t fix that could then prevent us from getting to Antigua.

It’s sharks for Janette and for Frances it is my music for two months! And also she does like “me time” and it will be difficult for that.

For me I think it is capsizing and being stuck under the boat – we will capsize at least once so that will be extremely scary.

Despite these fears, the cost – around £120,000 – and all the time, effort, and training, the women made it clear to me that it was completely worth it.

They have chosen two local charities to support – Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, which is raising money to build a new cancer treatment centre at St. James’ Hospital, and the Yorkshire Air Ambulance.

‘Everyone can achieve more’

Planning a safe passage at La Gomera in the Canary Islands
Planning a safe passage at La Gomera in the Canary Islands

As well as raising money for these charities, the women also hope to inspire others in the community, and plan to release education packs for local schools.

Niki said:

A big part of why we’re doing this is that we want to show not only other mums and other women but also children, we want them to just realise that actually they can stretch themselves a little bit, and that everyone can achieve more than they think they can achieve.

If you look at the film of last year’s race, it’s all men, they’re all in their twenties…

So it’s quite unusual to have women, and it’s quite unusual to have mums competing, but there’s no reason why we can’t.

Helen also explained the positive effects that the women had already noticed in their own lives.

It’s also given us more confidence. In all our personal lives massive things have happened with jobs, with opportunities, all sorts of things.

And I think if we hadn’t been doing this project, those things wouldn’t have happened.

For example, her husband was bored of his job. “And before I would have said ‘look, you’re just going to have to stick with it until the kids have finished school and our outgoings go down’.

“But this time I said no, just do it, just change your mind. I actually said to him ‘you can do anything’, just change it.

“And he did, within 10 minutes, he’d done it. New job, new life.”

Frances, meanwhile, has started her own law firm. “It’s just made us so much more confident to take those risks,” says Helen.

Ready for the off

The race was due to start on Tuesday (December 15). But it has been postponed due to bad weather, and they now look set to leave on Sunday (December 20).

Rowers will then head west from San Sebastian in La Gomera to Nelson’s Dockyard English Harbour, Antigua.

That's a fair old distance… the Atlantic Challenge route
That’s a fair old distance… the Atlantic Challenge route

I left our meeting feeling utterly inspired. The women seemed more excited than apprehensive; despite the prospect of being alone on a small boat on the Atlantic Ocean, they seemed confident that they would be able to work together to pull through.

These four brave women want to show everyone that gender and age have no bearing on what you can achieve. And there is no doubt in my mind that they can, and will, succeed.