The Coxless Rowers

Selection Process

As many of you already know, I’ve applied to join the Coxless Rowers on their South Pacific ocean row in 2013, and as part of that I have to go through many selection stages, including a physical, sports psychology assessment, motivation assessment, and most importantly we need to see how well we gel as a team, and whether we can put up with each other fairly amicably during the 6months we will be at sea together in a very small space, sleeping in intimately close proximity, and living with a gruelling regime of sleeping, rowing, sleeping, rowing.  This will include peeing over the side of the boat since we won’t have a toilet, living off dehydrated and fairly uninteresting food, not being able to shower, and having to process all of our water in order to take the salt out of it. Then there is the psychological aspect of boredom and being able to entertain yourself day in, day out, and the physical aspect of rowing, like sores and blisters, being under the hot sun, tornadoes (hopefully not), and flying fish.  So a lot to prepare for and take on board, and that is only once we are at sea.  Before that we have to get ourselves fit and raise money, and learn a lot of new skills like rowing, navigation by stars, chart work, first aid, etc, etc.

At Sea

I’ve never rowed an ocean before, but I have spent a lot of time at sea, mostly through my involvement with the Oxford University Royal Naval Unit, and as a kid I grew up by the sea and did a lot of sailing.  When I was a teen, my aunt sailed around the world twice, once with Operation Raleigh (now known as Raleigh International), and the second time, her and her husband took part in a race from New Zealand with two friends, which sadly ended with many ships being lost or capsized, due to a hurricane as far as I remember.  It was the day of my GCSE English exam, and we got the news as I was leaving for school, that they were lost at sea, but their capsized boat and flare had been spotted by a plane, and a ship would hopefully reach them in the next 29 hours.  And I remember in my exam, that one of my questions was a poem or story about a fish in the Pacific, which seemed quite ironic and timely. I’d been told to put the news to the back of my mind and to focus on my exam by my granny, and here I was writing about the Pacific ocean and it’s big waves!

Thankfully they were fine, they were rescued and ended up having a great adventure on a  ship from the Philippines,  travelling up the Panama Canal and on to South America.  The experience had been harrowing for them, they lost all their possessions and being winched up the side of the ship was very dangerous and one of their worst experiences ever.  Their friends wrote a book about it, and I think even a tv programme was made? But that was the end of their ocean based days, now they focus on their other passions like climbing, mountain biking, and kayaking, and continue to live in New Zealand where they run a bed and breakfast in Murchison.

But, I’ve had aspirations to row an ocean for quite a long time, it kind of crept up on me as I watched friends, read their blogs, watched their videos and so on.  It isn’t the rowing which excites me though, but the personal challenge and crossing an ocean under my own steam, and getting close to wildlife and weather in a really very vulnerable way that makes you feel so insignificant, but also that there is a greater force than us. I love that feeling of being mortal, and perhaps there is some nostalgia to my days at Steiner school studying Norse Mythology and gods like Thor, and I always loved stories of vikings and Great Britain as an island race, and of my ancestors who crossed oceans.  Since I was born, I have loved the elements, and I especially love stormy weather, thunder, and rain.  I find it comforting and it is usually the time when I feel most at peace and happy.  I love tropical storms, and I love that fresh and clean smell and feeling that comes with knowing we are mortal and after a storm or rain shower.  When I came out of hospital in India after my Guillain Barre the weather had changed from stifling hot to monsoons, and I will never forget how amazing it was to come outside for the first time, especially having been rushed in as an emergency.  Smelling the rain was just incredible and also to feel the cool air really made me feel so lucky.  You could say that I get high on my own mortality I suppose.  And that is something that I think many outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife lovers get, but that sadly many people don’t have the opportunity to experience, and perhaps is the reason why they just don’t get it, and see people who love the outdoors as extreme or strange or eccentric or whatever.  And it was that which I hated most about being at medical school as it really stifled me to be surrounded by and have pressure put on me by people who just didn’t get that need to be connected with human nature and the world we live in, and who were so focused on material things.  Yet it is so intrinsic in me, and has been since I was small.  My father would take me on nature walks even before I could walk. Carrying me in a backpack or on his shoulders, especially around the Dorset coast where I grew up.  As a youngster I loved to play with worms, snakes, spiders, and was always at my happiest catching lizards and trying to get my head around how the lizard tails that the cats brought home, would continue to wiggle even though their was no lizard attached to them, and trying to figure out how they could grow a new tail. Even now, I have an urge to explore more and learn as much as I can about the planet we live on.

Ocean Rowing

So, I decided that one way or the other I wanted to row an ocean, and the Pacific was the one that appealed the most, especially as I have never been to that part of the world, but have read so much about it and seen so many pictures of the Pacific garbage patch.  Last term at school, I was teaching about plate tectonics, and the ‘ring of fire’, which is a hotspot for volcanoes and earthquakes that runs around the edge of the Pacific Ocean.  The kids especially, got me excited about the volcanoes in Hawaii, reciting all sorts of facts that they had discovered as part of our ‘make a volcano’ project.  I’m also really interested in the tsunami that hit Japan and how it started in the Pacific and I’m talking with Iain Stewart and others about different kinds of research and data that we can collect whilst on our south Pacific Ocean row.

So, I’m pretty determined to row an ocean, and regardless of whether I make it through the competition to join the Coxless Rowers, I’m going to support them no matter what, and if the the time is right it will happen, and if not, then I known other opportunities will come along if it is meant to be.  But I really love this team and their ethos and attitudes and I feel we would get on really well, and I’m going to plan and research as if this is the team for me, and at least then I will be prepared, even if it means being a reserve or just joining them on the one leg, but my dream is to do the entire thing with them.

Why the Coxless Rowers

It was quite ironic how it happened.  I had already been looking into several opportunities for ocean rowing, and as if by coincidence, several rowing friends told me about this team, and I had already been in touch with them, but had not realised we were all talking about the same crew, or that we had so many friends in common…it is a small world after all!  They consist so far, of two very lovely ladies, Annabel and Laura. Both are based in Bristol, Annabel is a Speech and Language Therapist with the NHS, and Laura is a Physiotherapist who is also working with participants in the Paralympics.  Both have been training and preparing for the row for almost two years, and they are looking for two other girls to join them.  So any new members, already has a lot of catching up to do, and my being in Georgia is going to make that really tricky for me, especially with such strong competition from other rowers who have applied to join them! Tricky-yes, but not impossible, and I always say ‘where there is a will there is a way!’.

When I first read their introduction on their website, I knew we would be a great fit, and our motivations will also fit together very well.  I want to be a part of a team and to follow and be guided in what to do by the others, as I’m already very busy leading my NGO Oceans Project, and I’m not headstrong about doing things this way or that, or wanting to do things my way, so I think that will help us enormously, especially as Annabel and Laura have already done so much of the groundwork and it is really their dream and I’m just happy to be a part of that.  They already have the charities that we will raise money for, and I also think they are great charities, and I’d rather follow their lead and working as a grafter rather than telling others what needs to be done.  But I also have the opportunity to bring a new focus to our team, looking at education and collecting scientific data on the expedition.  This is what I am most passionate about, which connects to my Oceans Project here in Georgia, and which I can lead the team on, thus adding a new dimension, so in that way, the match is very good. Here is the blurb about the team:

An all female rowing team on a mission to achieve the extraordinary by rowing the Pacific Ocean to change lives, create opportunities and raise money for charity.

The Plan

This is what Laura and Annabel say about the Plan: ” We will be attempting to complete the South Pacific Route, which is from East to West. The standard southern route starts from mainland U.S.A (generally San Francisco) and ends in Hawaii. Some ocean rowers have then continued to another Pacific island before continuing onwards to Australia. We are attempting to complete the entire crossing as a 3 stage row, with two ‘breaks’ en route. We aim to row from San Francisco to Hawaii, Hawaii to Fiji and Fiji to Cairns, Australia. Due to cyclone and tidal change we will be required to stop in both Hawaii and Fiji. We have estimated we will ‘break’ at each island for a period of no longer than three weeks to re-stock, repair and potentially re-crew before attempting the next stage”.

I hope to join them for the full trip, but they may offer me just one stage, or I might not get selected to participate in any of the journey with them.  But if I can join them, then I’ll be super duper happy and I already have lots of plans and ideas for creating educational materials and geography lessons en route as part of my work as an Education Ambassador for ‘Education through Expeditions’, a Plymouth based charity (http://www.etelive.org/content/contentete.numo?id=171). I also want to visit International Award participants in the USA, Fiji, Hawaii, and Australia and if Lush get involved with Oceans Project then perhaps we can take some samples with us and distribute them to people in need on the way, and also meet with their employees in Australia.  I’m also hoping to collect some scientific data on clouds, water samples, wildlife observations, plastic, and some data about tectonics and the ring of fire, and if time allows, maybe scuba dive in Fiji and Hawaii and measure the Co2 content of the sea bed.  More about that from a researcher I have been speaking to about the prospect of us collecting data for him: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17088154

I hope that we can collect data for other scientists, but also to use the experience somehow, as part of my PhD into environmental attitudes of young people, perhaps even along the lines of how Internal Award participants are using their award to undertake work on the environment??? I also really want to send raw material, like video footage, back to the Oceans Ambassadors on Oceans Project Georgia and have them create educational videos from the footage I generate, as that will really help them to connect to the world, even when they are not able to travel.  Lots of possibilities!!!

The Questionnaire

My main job today is to complete a questionnaire, which the sports psychologist will go through and use as part of the selection process.  I’ve been thinking about the questions ever since I received the questionnaire, and reflecting on my experiences and processing my thoughts, so that in itself has been pretty amazing.  Here are some of the questions:

  • Why do want to row The Pacific Ocean with The Coxless Rowers?
  • In a typical week, how many times do you exercise?
  • How do you see yourself fitting within this team?
  • What are you motivations for doing this challenge?
  • What’s your biggest achievement to date?
  • Can you describe a situation where you have been out of your comfort zone & what did you do to overcome this?

They look fairly simple and easy to answer on the surface, but when you want something badly, but know that what you say is important not just because you want to be selected, but because you want to be honest and open enough that the right person for the team is selected, it becomes a bit tricky.  There is no standard ‘this is what they are looking for answer’.  Nor do I want to answer in that way.  This is a massive undertaking and the whole point is to make sure that everyone knows where you are at, because there is no good in being on a boat together for 6months and finding out that you hate water, even though you said in your application that you love water and go swimming everyday.  This is a life and death kind of questionnaire, and the answers are what can make or break a team.  Better to find out at this stage that you are not compatible, than to spend 6 months together all being miserable because you actually have nothing in common!  So it is a big deal for me as I want to be selected for being the right person for the team because we fit together well, and I’d rather do that now, than join and find that I’d have been better to wait for another team later down the line.  So I really hope I do it justice today.

But I have to say, that I really didn’t realise until I read and reflected on those questions, just how proud I am of setting up Oceans Project Georgia.  When I think back over what we have done so far, I’m always amazed, and seeing the kids doing such great things, reading their facebook comments, and watching them present and meet new people, I’m always so proud of them and really humbled to have met such incredible young people, especially when I remember that they were all born during civil war.  They haven’t had the opportunities that other young people their ages have had, but they are always happy and creative and have the best attitudes, and I think I am going to have those guys in my head whenever I row an ocean, whether that be with the Coxless Rowers, on my own, or with another team in the future.  Those guys drive me to work harder every day and to do what I can to create opportunities for them and to raise funds for them.  And I realised this weekend why I often find myself bursting into tears during Oceans Project, especially when I’m not an emotional person on the whole.  I was starting to wonder if I had some mid life, menopausal, hormonal, PMT, or similar type of disorder or something, but then it struck me, that the reason I have become so emotional around them, is just because I am so proud, and I’m proud of what we have achieved together.  I really do have the best team in the world, and that is becoming more obvious now that we have each found our place and own motivations, and seeing the kids, drives us to work harder and to achieve more, which in turn seems to drive the kids to work harder and inspire us with their attitudes and ideas.  I’m not a believer in magic, but since being involved with Oceans Project, I can hand on heart say that magic is happening whenever we come together, and every session I leave with my mind a little more blown away, by something they have said or done, or by an idea that they have had.  And it is that sense of pride that I really love, and I have to say that Oceans Project Georgia is by far the greatest achievement of my life, no matter what happens in the future or whether we raise funds for expeditions or whatever.  We have already achieved an incredible amount, and brought people together from different societies.  You can’t undo that kind of magic!!!

So, I’m off to try and fill in the questionnaire now, but I’d like to leave you with the links to the Coxless Rowers, and hope that you will support their brilliant efforts, regardless of whether or not I get selected, because I plan to follow them on their journey no matter what and I’m proud to have been a part of their journey so far:

And just in case you thought I had forgotten about my Oceans Project Georgia fundraising campaign, here are all the Oceans Project Georgia links too!!  Please follow us and share them with every one you know, as we now have just 50 days left of our campaign to send our kids on expeditions with Earthwatch over summer:

Crowdfunder: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/investment/oceans-project-georgia-647

I’d also like to share a video with you of 6 injured British soldiers who rowed across the Atlantic Ocean recently to raise funds for a charity that looks after injured soldiers called ‘Help for Heroes’.  I followed their journey from the start.  This clip was made by ITV television in Britain and never fails to make me cry, because of their achievements and strengths, and I was especially inspired by them.  So I hope it inspires you and also gives you a sense of what the Coxless Rowers are undertaking next year on their expedition across the biggest ocean in the world and attempt to break four world records:

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About Sarah Rows Solo

British YouTuber and Founder of Environmental and STEM education charity Oceans Project, preparing for a solo row around the coast of Great Britain.
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One Response to The Coxless Rowers

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