Written by Sara Brewer, the oldest woman to row the Atlantic
On Sunday, 8 March 2020, aged 64, I became the oldest woman to have rowed any ocean, a journey I undertook with my rowing partner, Ann Prestige. We set off from La Gomera in the Canary Islands as part of The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge to row 3000 miles, unsupported, to Antigua. It took us precisely 86 days, 8 hours, and 59 minutes. Our boat, Making Memories, was 24’ long and 7’ wide, with two cabins, one at either end. It had an open deck area with rowing positions for two people which we shared during the day and rowed singly at night – two hours on, two hours off. By the end of our journey, we had raised £66,000 which we shared between Alzheimer’s Society and Street League, a charity which encourages young people into work through the medium of team sport. Beyond any tangible accomplishment, through this remarkable journey I discovered a profound connection to the ocean. It remains with me as a place of solace and wonder.
Setting Sail and Breaking Records
When we left La Gomera on 12 December 2019 it was the culmination of two years of preparation including learning how to navigate, how to manage our calorie intake, radio protocol and Mayday procedures should the unthinkable happen. Although, when the nearest vessel could be hundreds of miles away, calling for help through the internationally recognised Mayday signal was of little comfort. Despite the intensity of the training and the strength of my conviction, nothing could have prepared me for that first night. We had started the race at the tail end of a massive storm system and had been warned that the conditions would be rough. Out of sight and sound of La Gomera harbour, its well-wishers and bunting proclaiming The World’s Toughest Row, when darkness fell and the moon rose just enough to show the height of the waves, I realised what the bunting had proclaimed, and I was terrified. It was impossible to steer our little boat against the constant battering of the waves and I questioned everything that had led me to this place, to the danger I had invited in and the foolhardiness that allowed me to think I could even attempt the crossing. But in that moment of fear also came exhilaration. This was the moment of truth when everything I had learnt was being put to the test: just one small boat, two people and the immense expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. It was intoxicating. In the madness of that first night, a massive tuna leapt out of the water and crashed down just feet away from the boat, its underbelly shining white in the moonlight. It was the first of many creatures to accompany us on our journey.
Dolphins would sometimes make a joyful appearance, and we became the beneficiaries of private displays of acrobatic brilliance as they swam in formation alongside us. Once, as we rode up the front of an approaching wave, four dolphins positioned themselves side-by-side within the wave. They seemed to float above the top of the boat, and as I looked up, we faced each other. I still see them in my mind, that brief moment of connection which may have been no more than my imagination, but which remains with me, as powerful now as it was then. The dolphins only joined us when the sea was calm and never when bad weather threatened, but a more constant companion was a bird– which appeared at dawn each morning and left as dusk was setting in. We looked out for the bird every day and grew anxious if it didn’t appear. In an environment of constant change, it is surprising how often we seek a pattern.
The seascape changed constantly, and we soon became accustomed to adjusting our bodies in sync with the movement of the boat as though it were some sort of symbiotic dance. At times, huge waves came towards us in majestic formation and from the top of each crest it seemed possible to see to the edges of the earth. Where the sea meets the sky and all around for 360 degrees, there was nothing but the constant roll of wave upon wave, as far as the eye could see. We surfed down those waves in an effervescence of foam, drawing the oars in so as not to risk breakage. But mostly, we experienced a confusion of powerful choppy waves which collided and reshaped to produce ever-shifting angles. In one moment, they would loom ominously, only to vanish in the next heartbeat. At such times it was impossible to detect any sense of direction and holding a steady course became a constant challenge.
Confronting the Ocean’s Trials
As we reached the thousand-mile mark, the challenge was set to intensify. We steered by a system of wires which ran through the boat, with one end attached to a footplate and the other to the rudder. One thousand miles into the row the wires sheared, and now a pivotal choice lay before us – repair them or send out a Mayday call. In our minds there was no choice, we had to fix them and together we developed a plan which enabled me to swim to the back of the boat and reattach the lines. My heart was pounding as I prepared to enter the water, and my mind ran to the terrifying depths which lay beneath me. I realised that if anything happened to me, I needed to know that my last sensation was the touch of another human being and I asked Ann if I could hold her hand. That touch was so important, just the simple act of holding hands gave me the courage to continue.
After two thousand miles, the lines sheared again, but this time conditions were too rough to enter the water. We waited at first, for hours, hoping the conditions would improve and steadily moving further and further from our set course. Eventually, we decided to attempt to find a pattern in the waves so that we could enter the water at a relatively safe moment. We counted the waves between a fast-moving, powerful force, which seemed to be beneath the surface, and which we could feel but not see. I have no other way to describe this phenomenon, but we did find a pattern. I knew I had six waves after its appearance to get in the water, reattach the line and get out. It was enough.
In retrospect, I couldn’t help but notice how the same problem presented different obstacles to overcome on these two occasions. When the lines first sheared, we needed to find a solution and I needed to calm my fear. But, in reality, there was little danger. I was attached to the boat by a line and harness and the water was relatively calm. On the second occasion, we knew what to do, we just needed to work out when best to do it. I was not afraid, and yet there was real danger. It made me realise that fear of the unknown is often greater than fear of a known danger. But fear is not without benefit. In an environment where risk is a constant companion, fear is a valuable tool to mitigate risk and we quickly learnt to assess risk and respect the overwhelming force of nature.
Evidence of the power of nature was never far away. Once we were hit so hard by a wave that we narrowly escaped capsize. Ann took the full force, and it is a wonder she did not go overboard. I can see her now, knocked out of her seat holding a shattered oar. We hadn’t even seen the wave coming. It came, hit and was gone in an instant. I had been about to open the cabin door. If I had done so there could have been devastating consequences as water would have filled the cabin and made the boat top-heavy, thereby losing its ability to self-right. That would have been the end of our row.
There are some who say that ocean rowers are complete novices during their first crossing, and thereafter they are experts. I do not agree. There are far too many variables in nature. Each crossing is unique, and obstacles which some surmount may simply not be encountered by others. However, as our journey progressed, we were learning how to be more creative at problem solving and navigation was an area where we had to be particularly creative.
Navigating the Waters with the Help of Unexpected Visitors
By day we navigated with the use of a deck repeater, a small, digital display relaying essential navigation information, which gave our bearings and speed. The main navigation equipment was housed inside the stern cabin, the door to which had to remain locked when not in use as it acted as a vital buoyancy aid in case of capsize. We could also track our position in relation to the sun to ensure we had not spun around.
By night we navigated with the extra help from the moon and the stars, following a silver path which seemed to be laid out especially for us. On such a night, I saw a large meteorite entering the earth’s atmosphere in a ball of fire. It lasted for several seconds and drew my thoughts towards our place in the universe. With no light pollution and the night sky as a backdrop, I no longer felt I was on an isolated ocean but a part of some larger whole. I was on a planet within a solar system within a universe and rather than making me feel small, it opened up a whole vista as I realised that we are all part of something so big it is beyond comprehension.
But the moon did not, of course, rise every night, and the stars were often obscured by clouds, so we tried as best we could to navigate by the deck repeater and a damaged compass that had no backlight making it difficult to see in the dark. Curiously the worse the weather became, the better we were able to navigate. This was thanks to the unexpected behaviour of birds. It started when a storm petrel landed on Ann’s oar and settled on the boat, it showed no fear towards either one of us. The petrel was joined by others until finally the roof of the cabin was covered in birds seeking shelter from the wind. The darkness meant that we felt rather than saw the waves but the faint glow from our navigation light meant we could just about make out the shapes of the birds. I noticed that, from time-to-time, the birds moved as one to face the wind. I began to realise that each time they turned was an indication that we had spun and needed to adjust our bearing. It might not have been the most sophisticated, or indeed reliable means of navigation, but it demonstrated how much we can learn by observing nature. The birds stayed with us throughout the night, leaving again as dawn broke.
The Realm of the Gods
There were times when the beauty of the ocean was so awe-inspiring that I felt I had strayed into the realm of the gods and had no right to bear witness. Bright, clear mornings in particular evoked a feeling of wonder, when the sky was a radiant red and the warmth of the sun brought comfort. On clear days we often saw weather fronts coming in and could spot the arrival of a squall, a sudden violent wind often accompanied by intense rain, from many miles away. It was fascinating to watch the drama unfold before our eyes. It is easy to see how sailors of old became superstitious, imagining the work of a capricious hand when disaster struck. But the ocean is without fear or favour, it just is. It cannot be conquered because it offers neither resistance nor help.
Neither is the ocean benign. Our little boat gathered about it a small ecosystem as barnacles attached themselves to the hull and small fish followed the food trail left when we washed our dishes in the ocean. Small fish attract predators and flying fish, perhaps in an effort to escape, often landed on our deck. The birds also saw us not only as a place of refuge in a storm but as a possible source of food. My eye happened to follow a bird’s flight as it dove into the water next to our boat and, as I looked down, I saw what looked to be the triangular shape of its wing-tip, half-in and half-out of the water. It took a little while for me to realise that my eyes had lost the bird, which had no doubt dipped behind another wave and, rather than being the tip of a wing, I was looking at a shark’s fin. At this point we were roughly 2,800 miles into our journey, and I had been considering swimming to the stern of the boat to check the rudder before we reached the rocky coastline of Antigua. Needless to say, I decided to risk the rocks rather than the shark.
A Deeper Commitment
One day we noticed that small amounts of Sargassum weed began to appear which soon multiplied to form long trails slowly drifting past us. It was the first vegetation we had seen in a long time and was a sure sign that we had entered the Sargasso Sea. Occasionally a piece of what looked like rounded driftwood floated past – I took no notice until I saw other pieces of similarly-shaped driftwood following one another in line. As one piece came close to the boat, a small head with impossibly large eyes rose up, held my gaze, blinked and was gone. It was a sea turtle and far from being a dead piece of driftwood it was very much alive. As I looked into its eye, the enormity of my journey seemed to merge with the epic voyages of these marine creatures. Much like sea turtles that traverse boundless oceans to return to their birth shores, I sensed an echo of their enduring voyages in my own undertaking.
We were nearing the end of our journey and had suffered three broken oars out of the six we started with, which meant we could no longer row together. This proved to be a problem as we drew closer to Antigua when strong currents worked against us. With only one rower, we lacked the power needed to turn the boat. It was as we were taking rescue instructions over the satellite phone that I managed to turn the boat by taking small strokes with the oars, just chipping away until finally we were released from the prevailing current. It was certainly not strength, at this point I had lost 17 kilos due to the intense nature of our journey.
The oars were not the only things that had taken a battering. During the journey we both suffered from painful saltwater boils which form through the constant abrasion of salt crystals on the skin. The salt in the ocean is far more concentrated than in coastal waters where it is diluted by fresh water from rivers. Nothing we did could prevent the formation of these boils, though the liberal application of Sudocrem brought brief, but welcome, relief. Sitting on layers of foam, held together with cable ties, and attached to the rowing seats also proved invaluable and was the only way we could manage the pain whilst rowing. These boils lasted for some time, and even after the row I had to lie on the floor of the aircraft on my way home rather than sit on my still tender backside!
When we reached Antigua, we had gone so long without seeing land that the island seemed to rise out of the ocean like a mirage. We were soon joined by yachts, small pleasure craft and even paddle boards and, as we entered the harbour, the crews on the super-yachts stood at their bows and blew their horns to welcome us in. It was a welcome like no other I have ever experienced.
Now, three years later, I still feel privileged to have witnessed the extraordinary beauty of our planet. Amidst the vast expanse of the ocean, a realm often misconceived as barren and isolated, we found a profound connection. Here, the waves became our home, the marine life our companions, and the skies our ever-changing canvas. Guided by celestial bodies and sea creatures, we were witness to an ocean that left its mark on our human endeavours. I am the oldest woman to row any ocean, but what started out as a challenge and adventure grew into a profound awareness and sense of responsibility to protect our ocean and its creatures. I hope that by sharing my story I can inspire others to share my passion and cherish our oceans.