Conquering the Great Pacific
Four British women broke world records when they rowed the Great Pacific Race in just 35 days. We spoke to the crew about why they took on the challenge and what they learnt from their experience.
When a mum-of-two in a corporate job signed up for the Great Pacific Rowing Race, she didn’t expect to be taking home a world record for the fastest female foursome to ever complete it. “I’m five foot four and not built for rowing,” says Purusha Gordon. "I’m just a normal person. I’m not some kind of sports athlete,” she adds.
Purusha, known as 'P’, was one of the four women who conquered the 2,700-mile (4,345-kilometre) row from San Francisco, California to Waikiki, Hawaii last summer. She was joined by Bella Collins, Mary Sutherland and Lily Lower, with the team calling themselves the "Ocean Sheroes”.
The women rowed for two hours on and two hours off every day, for 35 days, 14 hours and 23 minutes, while maintaining the equipment, cleaning the boat, navigating and looking after themselves. The race is unassisted from the start gun in San Francisco until the finish in Hawaii.
They endured sleep deprivation, fatigue, salt sores, extreme weather and equipment failure all while living in the confined space of their 8.3 x 1.5-metre custom-built fibreglass boat, called Fenris.
They beat the previous world record for this race by about two weeks, which is known as one of the toughest endurance races on earth. Only 60 people have ever completed the row.
Tackling ocean plastic pollution
One of the factors that persuaded Lily to join the crew was the charity they would be supporting. The Seabin Foundation uses technology to clean plastic out of the oceans. The charity uses floating ‘bins’ to gather litter from the oceans which are then broken down and disposed of safely. "Ultimately, I knew that if I didn’t say yes, I would regret not being a part of it,” Lily explains.
P describes Lily as the team’s "sustainability guru”. “She challenged us as a team to make sure that what we were buying for the boat was as sustainable as possible and making sure we were doing everything in the right way,” says P. “That was not always the cheapest, quickest or easiest way, but we were pleased to be able to challenge the adventure market and say, ‘hang on a second, there are products out there that are not particularly environmentally friendly’,” she adds.
Rowing with purpose
This focus on cleaning the oceans not only helped the rowers to share their story but also helped them to stay motivated when the race was tough. Bella says: “We focused on why we were rowing this, why we were doing this individually, as a team, and what was the message we were telling people externally.”
As the pandemic prevented the rowers from training together for much of the run-up to the race, they prioritised regular video calls. "We spent a lot of time discussing what our goals and priorities were. Doing that work ahead of time helped to guide us in difficult situations,” says Lily.
The crew decided they firstly would prioritise everyone completing the trip safely. Secondly, they wanted to arrive better friends than when they started and third, they would focus on the world record. “This means that if there’s a situation where somebody feels uncomfortable, then you can make the right call,” says P. “If you put the record first, you will always compromise on everything else,” she adds.
Morale is key for motivation
The importance of prioritising team morale if you want to succeed was a clear lesson that each rower took home from the experience. This can be applied in all walks of life from business to parenting, says Bella. "If team morale is not good, no one’s going to be motivated to get their head down and support each other. When we were all exhausted and grinding away we would find that if we stopped for half a day the morale was much better the next day,” she adds.
One example of this happening was during the second week of their five-week trip. The conditions were hot and sunny as they rowed into a headwind. "That sounds fun, but it’s not fast. It is really hard work,” P explains. Tensions were rising in the boat. Knowing the wind would change in a few hours, P suggested that the team should take time for themselves until then.
"It allowed us to reset and not allow tensions to rise,” P explains. “We didn’t want to argue two weeks into a five-week crossing. I was proud that we held ourselves accountable to our values and what we had said our priorities were. For me, that was a really important moment on the crossing.
A key lesson that each rower took home was that we are all able to achieve more than we think we are. "The hardest point of a journey when doing something like this is just saying ‘yes’, whether it’s a half marathon or marathon, rowing an ocean, going for a career change,” says P. “You’ll surprise yourself by what you can achieve when you’re just taking one step at a time,” she adds.
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