Women's Sports: Four women, one boat and the record breaking row across the Pacific. An Exclusive interview with Girls Who Dare

GMSW Row

When Jess Shuman, Anna Campbell and Kat Butler are in the middle of their 4000km row across the Pacific, between California and Hawaii, they will be closer to a satellite in space than land on earth.

To complete the Great Pacific Race – one of the world's most gruelling endurance races – they will have to navigate waves taller than double-decker buses and avoid getting into tussles with sharks, rowing in two-hour shifts. Under the name "Girls Who Dare" the crew is also hoping to break the women's world record that currently stands at 50 days 19 hours. 

Before even reaching the start line where they will row out from underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, they have to navigate training, fundraising and planning with full-time jobs. Shulman works in asset management, Campbell works for a not-for-profit and Butler is a surgeon.

Why row the Pacific Ocean?

If you think this challenge sounds crazy, so do they but, says Butler: "The more I talk about it, the more I feel like it's normalised in my head. We talk about it like it's buying a loaf of bread".

So what on earth inspired them to take on an ocean rowing challenge that means they must take unpaid leave?

For a start, they are addicted to challenges. Shuman and Campbell have rowed together before, crossing the Irish Sea, and were after a bigger adventure. Shuman says they were "looking for their next hit". Butler similarly has rowed at a high level, and after seeing a Facebook ad asking "Do you want to row the Pacific?" she clicked yes and hasn't looked back.

When it comes to rowing the Pacific specifically, Shuman says: "It's so epic, there's this real sense that you've got to have blind faith in yourself and your team. It's huge; we are just ordinary women doing something unknown."

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There's also a charity element; the crew are aiming to raise £40,000 to split between Women's Sport and Mates in Mind. Shuman says the two charities tie different aspects of the challenge together: "Sport has given us confidence, but also it's a way of us now reaching out to other girls and women showing how it's helped us be successful in our professional lives and given us the confidence to take on this challenge. Then the mental health side is going to be huge because I would say it's probably more of a mental challenge than a physical one."

They want to use their platform, to be honest about what goes into the preparation and journey, rather than focusing on the glamour of the finish line. They've gone into schools to talk to children about their adventure and have even gone as far as sharing how they'll manage periods on Instagram – running packs of pills together if you're interested: "I don't want sharks anywhere near us" exclaims Butler. 

GMSW Rowing

What are the risks?

Talk of sharks begs the question, is the race dangerous? Butler says: "No-one has ever died. That's what I told my mum, and it is true." There are, however, 50 to 60-foot swells and less than 20 women have ever completed the crossing.

Shuman says there's always an element of danger when you're in nature but "there are things in place to mitigate this". These include learning all they can about boat maintenance, using the radio, and safety protocols. The boats are even designed to self-right if they capsize. For worst-case scenarios, there's also a help boat available for the different crews taking part in the race – although if they receive help, they won't be eligible for the world record.

Sharks are more than just a joke. Butler explains that once a week, they will clean barnacles off the boat. To do this safely, they must use a so-called shark spray which goes into the water surrounding their boat and gives them three metres of protection so they can jump out and clean.

This must be terrifying to know for their friends and family, but they say that for the most part, everyone has been incredibly supportive. Shuman says: "Initially my mom was horrified, but I think she thought I'd rock up in San Fran with a blow-up dinghy."

After seeing how much is going into the row, their mums have become their biggest fans. The row has cost Butler one friend, who said it was too dangerous but she says she's found the support from everyone else motivating: "I owe it to them. Now it's not just about us; it's about them." 

How do you prepare for a challenge this big?

They'll need support and lots of it because training and planning are taking over their whole lives. The three of them are split between London and Oxford, so do most of their training in the gym on the rowing machine, getting out on the water a couple of weekends a month. As the build-up to the race, they will have to find the time to take their boat out on the sea for more extended periods.

They are also looking for sponsors and planning logistics like what they'll eat – they need a 60-day supply of dehydrated sachets, so they have enough food in case they get stuck in a hurricane. They're even looking for a fourth crew member, and while they have interested people, actually convincing them to devote their lives to this row for the next year isn't the easiest challenge.

It sounds exhausting but training even when they don't want to will give them the mental strength they'll need to keep going for 50 days with only 90-minute bursts of sleep in cabins that Shuman says are "a little bit like being in a coffin."

Spending time together is another crucial element of creating an environment on the boat where they can cope mentally. The crew has a shared planner, message over 100 times a day and spend what weekends they can with each other.

Butler explains: "We just have to spend time together to learn how each other works and how each other ticks for when we're in the boat."

Doing what they can to prepare mentally now is key, especially because for Butler her biggest fear is how she'll react to terrifying situations: "I have no idea how I will respond to that fear especially in the worst-case scenarios you imagine, like at night in a huge storm and the battery dies on your solar lights then there's a 50 foot wave. I hope I'll just get on with it, but there's a bit of you that's like what if I freak out." 

It's this adventurousness and the scale of their challenge that saw them nominated for the Most Inspiring Woman award, a public vote that could provide a much-needed funding and profile boost, both for their problem and the causes they are rowing for.

The row is scheduled to start on June 7 2020, although the weather could change this slightly. Before then, the crew need to continue training, getting to know each other and secure the money they need to make it to the start line – they think they currently have 40 per cent of their sponsorship sorted.

It's perhaps as big a challenge as actually navigating enormous waves in a 24-foot boat the size of a small caravan, but their excitement is infectious. When asked if they're enjoying the challenge so far, both Butler and Shuman immediately responded "yes".

As the race creeps closer, what are they most excited about? Shuman says that while she's trying not to think about the finish line, the feeling will be epic. For Butler it's something else: "There will be flat bits, not very often I'm not being deluded, but there will be bits where it's completely flat, and the sun will come up. Those are the moments where we'll be like this is why we do it – this is amazing."

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