Rowing for our oceans

What does a scientist; physiotherapist, landscape architect and social media expert all have in common? Love of the ocean and a desire to see an end to the problem of single-use plastic, says LDA Design’s Kirsty Barker.

What does a scientist; physiotherapist, landscape architect and social media expert all have in common? An ambition to row unsupported 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, competing against the wind, waves and heat as well as other, mainly male, crews in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, the world’s toughest row, that’s what.

Our all-female team, Row for the Ocean, made up of Laura, Kate, Ros and myself formed in February 2018 with a view to crossing the Atlantic in December. The race follows the Trade Winds, from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean.


Fired up

But why do it? We’ve been asked so many times by friends and family. And of course, we’ve heard all the stories of crews forced to hunker down in coffin-sized cabins for days whilst being tossed around on stormy seas. Some rowers experience vivid hallucinations from lack of sleep. Others find the 40-degree heat at midday unbearable as they struggle to pull their one tonne boat through the water, one slow mile at a time.

For some reason, all of these stories only served to galvanise. More significantly, we had found our cause.

As rowers at Exeter Rowing Club, Kate, Ros and myself had noticed that plastic pollution had become a prominent feature of any river training session. Laura had also witnessed at first hand the damaging effects of single-use plastic on our coastlines after rowing around the UK’s coastline in 2016. Twelve minutes – on average, that is how long we use these items before throwing them away. In our waters, the impact lasts for decades.

As a crew, we decided the best way to draw attention to the problem was to immerse ourselves in the environment it was destroying. We elected to support South-West-based charity, Surfers Against Sewage, because of their work locally and nationally through beach cleans and lobbying for legislative change.

We also wanted to leave a positive legacy in Exeter, so we started the Plastic Free Exeter campaign which aims to make Exeter the UK’s largest plastic-free city by 2020. Juggling full-time jobs along with Plastic Free Exeter whilst preparing to cross the Atlantic was almost a bigger challenge than the row itself. We raised around £120, 000 through corporate sponsorship (thanks to LDA and others), events and a crowdfunding campaign.

The challenges were wide-reaching from being pummelled by flying fish in the middle of the night to a jellyfish in the eye to a two-hour visit from a serene pod of whales. The downside? Not a day went by when we didn’t see plastic waste.

The race

The first two weeks were a baptism of fire with steady winds whipping up 30ft waves. We learned to trust our boat as she rose all the way to the crest of these giant waves before surfing her way down the other side, reaching top speeds of 10.5 knots – pretty fast given our 2.6-knot average!

As time wore on, the two hours on, two hours off shifts continued but the wind died down and it felt like rowing through cement. Those days were a slog,  a huge mental challenge but our aim to become the fastest all-female team kept us on track to finish in a time of 43 days, 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Other highlights included Laura and Kate being pummelled by flying fish in the middle of the night; Kate getting an eyeful of a jellyfish, luckily no lasting damage; and a two-hour visit from a pod of whales. All unforgettable.

Rowers with a cause

The tragic thing is we saw more plastic than wildlife at sea. Every day, we saw plastic detritus from bottles to buckets. The impact was all around us. Though we were tired after the row, we were left more determined than ever to make a change.

We continue to raise awareness and funds – support us if you can. All donations will be gratefully received by Surfers Against Sewage. We continue in our commitment to making Exeter plastic free.

Kirsty Barker is a senior consultant with LDA Design. 

All photos provided by Row for our Oceans / Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge

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