Ocean Sheroes is an all-woman rowing crew racing 2,400 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean. Setting off from San Francisco and finishing at Hawaii’s Waikiki harbour, four waterwomen from the UK will set off on the gruelling, unsupported Great Pacific Race across the high seas. The aim? To set a new world record whilst raising £60,000 to help save our oceans from plastic pollution.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, Cornish waterwoman Emma Fraser-Bell caught up with the Sheroes crew to get the lowdown on a challenge that only 60 people have ever completed. For perspective, that’s more than 10 times fewer people than have been to space…
The Ocean Sheroes crew boasts a plethora of experience with regards to pushing their minds and bodies to the extreme. Bella Collins, an avid sailor and surfer who successfully rowed across the Atlantic in 2015-2016. Purusha Gordon, a mum of two who’s never attempted anything like this before but craves the challenge and is ready to prove you can do anything you put your mind to. Mary Sutherland, a sailor and all round waterwoman with three world records already under her belt. Lily Lower, a sailor who has already competed in three RORC Fastnet Races and a transatlantic race.
To beat the world record, the crew will have to complete the race in under 50 days, 8 hours and 14 minutes on their second-hand boat named Fenris. This means the four woman strong team will have to work on a rotation of 2 hours rowing, 2 hours resting, 24/7 for 50 days straight. The 2 hours of resting will entail cleaning the boat, fixing any necessary repairs, feeding themselves and then finally trying to sneak in some sleep before the next rowing shift begins. The crew will have to battle with strong ocean currents, sleep deprivation, excruciating sea sores, feeling both physically and mentally exhausted all the while navigating their journey across the Pacific, dealing with the repetitive nature of rowing 12 hours each, every day.
The Ocean Sheroes crew are embarking on this journey to advocate change by following their 3 ‘P’ philosophy ‘Positivity, People, Planet.’ ‘Positivity’ by inspiring change through their team values; they aim to encourage others to live with a more positive mindset, showcasing that you can do whatever you put your mind to. ‘People’ represents working closely with communities who truly care about each other and the environment. ‘Planet’ represents their goal to engage in honest conversations about plastic pollution, responsible purchases and operational footprint of this race. Ocean Sheroes have teamed up with Finisterre and other companies whose values place people, planet and environment at the forefront of their thoughts. The crew are reducing their carbon footprint and plastic consumption wherever possible, whether it’s by rowing in a second hand boat, or working with food companies who champion degradable or plastic free packaging and have sustainability and ethical supply chains at the heart of their businesses. By demonstrating to the extreme a reduction in plastic consumption in the everyday can be done, these women are setting the precedent for future races and lifestyles worldwide.
A leviathan of an ocean crossing, only 22 other teams worldwide have ever completed this race. The crew will be completely on their own. Departing on the 25th May 2021, there will be no support boat after the first 10 days of leaving San Francisco’s harbour. No extra water supplies, no extra food, no medical team at their side. Engulfed by the vastness of the Pacific, I wanted to gain a little more insight into how and why these four inspirational women have decided to take on this mammoth feat. How would they cope with the physical and mental challenges and when did their close relationship with bodies of water begin.
What is it that brought you altogether to embark on the Great Pacific Race in particular?
Lily: I've known teammates Bella and Mary since I was little as we grew up in Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex together, so when they called me up and asked if I wanted to row across the Pacific Ocean and try to set a new world record, I couldn’t say no! We all have our own motivations for this challenge, but a shared love of adventure and passion for the water definitely unites us as a team, as do our values of people, planet and positivity. We hope we can highlight the power of a growth mindset, and that challenges or things going wrong should be celebrated for the resilience they help us acquire, rather than being seen as a negative.
Purusha: The Great Pacific race is a relatively unknown race, it’s more of an adventure with only 60 people having crossed this stretch of water. It felt like an opportunity to do something to challenge ourselves. We all wanted to row an ocean so we formed a team with shared values and passions to come together.
What important lessons have your previous achievements in ocean crossings and experiences in competitive races taught you about yourself, the ocean and teammates?
Bella: I’ve learnt that I am capable of so much more than I ever thought possible – and that’s saying something from someone who constantly doubts themselves! Mother nature will always win and you have to respect it. It’s also beautiful, seeing nature untouched by human life in the middle of the ocean is truly incredible. Teammates are your motivation. They are the reason you get up at 2am because you want to relieve them from their shift and why you row harder (to get to the finish line asap to celebrate over a cocktail!).
Mary: I've learnt probably more than I realise when at sea. I've crossed the Atlantic a few times now and every time I learn a new way of doing things, mostly from the people I'm with. When experience is shared, the team grows. It's cool to see. What I've learnt about myself changes every time, but one thing I've learnt about endurance is that I'm stronger than I know, and better than I let on.
2 hours rowing, 2 hours resting, 24/7 for 50 days straight. What will be the most challenging aspect of this race, and what are you most looking forward to?
Purusha: There is no question the most challenging aspect of the race will be the mental fortitude needed to be at sea for 45-50 days on an 8.5 x 1.5m boat with 3 other people. Everything has to happen within the space and there are no ‘stop offs’ if you need respite. This also on the flip side is the most incredible opportunity to lead a simplistic existence for this time. Row, eat, rest, repeat. A detox from the digital world and an opportunity to just be in the present. We’re all excited about the wildlife, sunrises and sunsets and the night sky full of stars.
Lily: I think the hardest part will be dealing with the elements on a daily basis which will be pretty relentless, whether that be adverse weather, rain, wind, monster waves, salt sores, sun or humidity – and everything will be wet constantly! Strong currents and variable weather patterns mean that we’ll have our work cut out for us the first couple of weeks getting away from the coast of California. But hopefully after that we can settle into the rhythm and routine on the boat a bit better, and it will be blue skies and sunshine all the way to Hawaii!
I’m really looking forward to the simplicity of life on board the boat, away from all the stress and noise of everyday life. I’m excited to not have to worry about my phone, work, emails or social media, and just really focus on our immediate surroundings and keeping the boat going forwards. I think it will be interesting when life is stripped back to the bare essentials; the cycle of eat, sleep, row, repeat, thinking about what actually matters in life.
My favourite shift when offshore is dawn. The sense of achievement when the sun comes up after making it through a particularly tough night watch is immense, and when the darkness lifts and you have another day ahead of you, it’s pretty awesome.
Bella: Most challenging will be the pain; the bangs on your body, the salt sores on your hands and bum and the muscle tiredness. I’m most looking forward to seeing nature, whales especially! And creating lifelong memories with my teammates, because you quickly forget the pain but you’ll always remember the highs!
Mary: The rowing schedule is very tough at first, but it always surprises me how quickly you get into it. It's always tough but it gets easier, and I take solace in that. Morale is one of the hardest things. Sometimes just waking the next shift up with a cuppa or a smile makes all the difference.
All four of you are highly skilled waterwomen and are connected to bodies of water in your own individual ways, whether it’s sailing, rowing, surfing or swimming. When and how did your relationship with water begin?
Bella: I was taught to sail almost before I could walk! I grew up on boats, swimming in the river, mud sliding alongside the deals. I’ve always felt more comfortable by the water. It’s why I moved to Cornwall, I need the sea for my mental health and lifestyle.
Lily: I first learnt to sail at the Royal Burnham Yacht Club when I was about 7 or 8 years old as my dad is a keen sailor. When I was 18 I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with my dad as part of a race which we ended up coming 2nd in. That’s when my love of offshore sailing really began. Since then I’ve logged about 10,000 offshore miles and competed in races ranging from a couple of days to a couple of weeks in length, as well as in the highly competitive pro-am Fast40+ inshore circuit on the Solent. I took up rowing at university and was Senior Women’s Captain in my final year, so ocean rowing combines these two sports together!
Purusha: My love for water began when I started to swim. I didn’t start until I was 7 years old but I loved it. I am not a strong swimmer at all and I still can’t do front crawl but I love the zingy feeling of calm you get from cold water swimming. Spending time in or by water is always a priority even though I don’t live by the sea. It’s restorative, energising and more than anything else it makes me smile and feel great.
What does this journey across the Pacific Ocean mean to you? Why are you choosing to push your body and mind to the extreme in a way only very few people could?
Mary: I'm not sure why I'm doing it again based on my opinion that one was enough! But when someone asks you if you want to row the Pacific, my default answer is 'why not'?
My last row was New York to Falmouth which was cold and raining at the end. I was jealous of Bella's Caribbean finish as she had done the same race but in reverse. When our team evolved and grew, I knew we had something special. It's an addictive sport I think, you just have to dip your toe in and go for it.
Purusha: It’s an opportunity to challenge myself like never before. To learn and grow as an individual and encourage other mums out there who felt lost at one time to realise that anything is possible. We just have to reach inside and find that inner courage and strength. We are all capable of more than we think we are but the hard bit is saying yes in the first place or having the courage to take the step. I believe that by pushing and challenging yourself, whatever that may be in life, no matter how big or small, it’s in those moments we learn the most about ourselves and grow.
Lily: I have wanted to row an ocean for a long time. Having seen so many awesome people from Burnham rowing oceans I always felt like it was only a matter of time before I signed up for a challenge like this. Ocean rowing is very similar in a lot of ways to offshore sailing – the same discipline, resilience and teamwork are needed for both.
I enjoy pushing myself beyond my limits and challenging myself as it really makes you grow as a person, and builds a resilience which can be applied to all parts of everyday life. I’m also very passionate about sustainability – I couldn’t be more excited to be raising money for such an amazing organisation as the Seabin Project.
Bella: I am doing this for two reasons; one to challenge myself personally, to remind myself that I am capable and strong and to hopefully inspire other women to take on challenges big and small. Secondly, to help raise awareness of the huge plastic problem by supporting organisations like The Seabin Project, who are trying to prevent and stop waste ending up in our marine environments.
The Ocean Sheroes crew will leave from San Francisco to Hawaii on 25th May 2021. Please help and show your support by following the Ocean Sheroes team on their journey and support their fundraising efforts for the Seabin Project visit oceansheroes.com
To learn more about the Seabin project visit seabinproject.com