Rowing across the Atlantic
WRITTEN BY:Phoebe Wright
We met Phoebe way back in November 2019, swimming in Derwent Water. She was working for Atom Packs and had loads of good tales from previous trips. A year later we get a message saying, 'I'm going to row across the Atlantic with three other women, do fancy sponsoring us?'. Erm, yes. What better test for an energy bar? On top of that, the Gull's low impact approach was right in line with ours.
We had some nut butter prototypes - their slow-release energy profile was perfect for two hour on/off rowing shifts, so we bundled up what we had sent them off. Phoebe wrote this on her way back to blighty...
The Bristol Gulls; Lorna, Sofia, Sarah and Phoebe
Most people spent their lockdowns in their pyjamas but I spent mine rowing 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in an 8m boat.
Let me rewind.
In July last year, I was cycling my way back to the UK from Berlin when one of my oldest friends, Lorna, messaged me to ask if I wanted to row the Atlantic with her and two others, Sofia and Sarah. The team already has a name; The Bristol Gulls and was preparing to take part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. One of the original crew members had just pulled out, so Lorna has suggested me - how could I say no?
I hastily pedalled the rest of the way back to England in time for the boat launch and just like that I officially became a Bristol Gull.
I spent the next few months training, looking for sponsors and getting the boat prepped for all eventualities.
Our mission was to cross the Atlantic in the most sustainable way possible. We would be rowing in Vaquita, a boat made from over 10,000 recycled bottles, with 50% of the resin being plant-based.
Just as with the construction of the boat, we considered how we could reduce the impact of almost everything on board; from suncream to clothing, food and its packaging. Enter Outdoor Provisions...
We set off from La Gomera on 12th December and from almost the moment we left, food became a constant thought.
Rowing two hours on, two hours off, around the clock meant we needed a lot of fuel. We had spent hours planning our nutrition, preparing snack bags and testing meals before we left. Our daily diet consisted of homemade porridge, two dehydrated meals and lots and lots of snacks.
If it was calm enough, we'd make hot food but on rougher days, we made do with cold soaked mush. We would scoff down sun softened Outdoor Provisions bars mid-shift, shove their coffee, almond and cashew nut butter into our gobs in the middle of the night and rummage through trail mix bags to find the peanut M&Ms.
We were fortunate to not encounter many problems with the boat but towards the end of our first week, we pulled out a rather soggy snack bag and realised there was water in the boat where it shouldn’t have been. Exhaustion setting in, we’d forgotten to run our bilge pump and litres of seawater had seeped into our supposedly watertight food lockers.
In our efforts to be more eco-conscious we’d replaced standard zip lock bags with biodegradable vacuum pouches but many of these had started to deteriorate and we painstakingly had to assess the damage and salvage what we could.
Can you pick a particular highlight?
My memories of the row are overwhelmingly of sky, sea and laughter. Hours were spent discussing the most ridiculous things, fantasising about real food or singing noughties pop hits.
We celebrated two birthdays, Christmas and saw in the New Year thousands of miles from the nearest land. We swam in water that was five miles deep and started each new week with a shared can of lukewarm cola!
The beauty of the sunrises and sunsets was breathtaking, displays of colours so vivid that the sea would turn pink. Some nights the moon was so bright it felt like the sun had never set. On others it was so dark, you couldn’t see the rower in front of you.
We were also treated to some incredible wildlife encounters. Birds (mainly Storm Petrels) visited us every day. Pods of dolphins played in the water around us and we even had whales surface and swim under the boat.
The excitement at seeing land for the first time in over six weeks was incredible and our arrival into Antigua was just phenomenal. We had superyachts and strangers honking horns and cheering us through the finish line.
What about lowlights?
Of course, it wasn’t always fun on board and there were many moments when I questioned my sanity and cursed myself for ever thinking that rowing across an ocean was a good idea.
Body aches and pains were constant; muscles would cramp from crouching all day and at the start of each shift I would have to peel my clawed, blistered fingers open.
Rough seas would smash our oars out of our hands or into our shins, leaving our bodies battered and bruised. A few of us suffered seasickness and battled infection. The heat was also relentless. Our only respite from the sun was inside the small cabins which were like a sauna in the midday heat.
The capsize was pretty scary too. We had a full 360-degree boat flip in the early hours of a stormy morning. We lost a few valuable things, including our loo bucket. Luckily we had a spare.
What’s next for you/the team?
We finished in 46 days, 7 hours and 50 minutes.
The four of us enjoyed a few weeks in Antigua, resting and sampling the local rum punch before parting ways. Sofia, who became the first South American to row any ocean, flew back to Uruguay and has become a bit of a celebrity there. Right now I’m crossing back across the Atlantic on a yacht, working as a chef but dreaming of getting back on my bike and doing another cycle tour. Lorna and Sarah have both returned to work in Bristol and are continuing to share our sustainability message.
We’re still fundraising for our two charities the RNLI and Clean Up Bristol Harbour and keep your eyes peeled for a documentary that will be coming out about our campaign and crossing.
Stats from the crossing
We came in 9th place overall (2nd female team) out of 21 crews.
We ate over 200 OP during the crossing.
This year saw a few ocean rowing records broken; oldest rower (aged 70), the youngest SOLO woman (aged 21) and a new pairs record of 32 days.
2021 saw the first crossing in an eco boat - by us!
We each rowed 12 hours a day x 46 days = over 550 hours on the oars each.
Toilet buckets lost = 2 (sorry ocean)