Leg 3, Day 25 – How we became the Coxless crew…

Laura Penhaul By

Day 25 – how we became the Coxless crew…

I’m finding it very surreal that I am finally now writing this blog. January 2012 was when I first got involved in this project, what will nearly be to the day on completion 4 years on. It is so surreal to think we talked about it for so long and now we are out here, actually doing it and nearing the finish line. Since leg one I said to myself that the final leg will be the time to reflect on us as a team, to give my account of how we came together and how these 5 ladies have made this journey the life changing experience it has become.

When I first got involved in this row, I never in a million years would have thought that pulling a team together to do this would have been one of the most challenging parts to getting to the start line. As far as I was concerned, I assumed there would be hundreds of women who thought the same as me and would jump at the chance to be involved. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a once in a lifetime experience? It was a bit of a wake up call to realise that my way of thinking maybe was not quite the ‘norm’! Certainly at the start, I was naive to the enormity of the project, what had begun as a row across the Indian Ocean, developed to the first leg of our journey, just to Hawaii, to then wanting to row the whole Pacific all the way to Oz. In my head, I knew that one day there would be a team of women who would be the first team to row across the Pacific and I knew that if I gave up, then someone else would have a little more staying power and they would succeed in getting a team together, so my mantra was ‘don’t let it be someone else, we can be the first’.

There has been over 20 amazing women who have actually been directly involved in the row, that have applied and been selected to be part of the team but through one way or another, lasting a day or maybe a year, whether it was life that may have got in the way to waiver their commitment, or postponement of the row, they had made a decision to step out. At first when someone had invested their time and you had invested yours along with our support team’s time, it was hard not to take it personally when someone decided to pull out. Each time felt a little like a relationship break up, only in these circumstances you really do hope to remain good friends afterwards! However I grew to realise that the commitment and dedication I was looking for in people, was a massive undertaking and for someone to be able to take it on, all the jigsaw pieces of their life needed to be in a good place; financially, physically, emotionally and with a good social support team around them. People’s reasons for doing the row was also a key indicator, to not be in it ‘to find themselves’, but to actually already be fairly content with all aspects of their life and the row to only enhance it. I recall an ocean rower who did the Atlantic as a pair and he recounted how his rowing partner became very withdrawn and so he had said to me ‘if you’re in a bad place before starting the row, what gets thrown at you in the ocean will only drive you deeper into despair, make sure you’re in a good place to start so you can cope with what the ocean has to offer’.

For some people, the realisation that the row wasn’t for them was actually a harder decision to make to pull out than to stick with it. I have always respected their decisions to recognise if it wasn’t right, something of this scale needs 100% commitment and no questioning as to whether it’ll go ahead or not. There were plenty of moments where it was questioned if the row would happen and even 3 months before departure we still didn’t have the full budget! The row had been postponed twice and not just for a month or two, but a whole year at a time, so the track record I realised, most probably didn’t give the applicants endless confidence in their applying. There are also other things outside of our own lives that will impact on our decisions to commit, that being if you have a partner or any family pressures. I remember having the discussion with Izz when it had been a painful decision for her to step back and do the one leg instead of all three. I knew how difficult this decision would have been for her and fundamentally family always comes first. To me, I remember thinking that it was a bonus that Izzy was still keen to be involved and actually her decision worked out for the best, without it we wouldn’t have had Lizanne and Meg involved and we wouldn’t have ended up with three journeys in the one expedition.

Day out 3

Every person that has been involved in this project to get to the startline has been instrumental and without a doubt, everyone has made an impact and a mark in developing what this project has become. I feel like the row has become like a patchwork quilt, every person being influential and having made a mark when involved.

So how did our crew get involved?

About a year and a half into the project, Emma had seen our advert on Escape The City.com. She was part of a group of 18 that were selected after application and came to meet us on the Isle of Wight at the Round the Island Race with Raymarine. There was then a second round of interviews and testing more on a team dynamic perspective which was held at the clinic I used to work at Pure Sports Medicine. It was a few months later in the year, that we unfortunately lost the crew member who had started the idea of the row. Annie and I had been working together on the row for over a year and a half so when she stepped out, the next few months felt like a divorce. We had been inseparable for that time, putting all our efforts into the row, so when Annie was no longer able to be involved it certainly became a testing time for me to try and remain focussed on why I was here and what the row was for.

It was at this point though that the lovely Emma became involved and thankfully was still interested in the row and for her sins she has remained highly dedicated ever since. Going into Christmas of 2014 there was Emma, myself, Ella (who has been doing our social media) and Natalie Miles. Natalie brought a huge amount to the row, just naming a few, she was behind the new logo, new design and website, bringing in great contacts such as Stephen Coe for the logo design and branding, alongside Stephanie J who designed and still manages our website (thank you both for all that you do!). Post Christmas though we realised that we still lacked the funds we needed in order to be ready and safely prepared to leave in April 2014, so the painful decision of a second postponement to 2015 was made. At this point, understandably neither Ella nor Natalie could continue to commit the time to the row, so they stepped out of the physical row commitments but thankfully Ells was still able to help out with the social media and Natalie, although has moved to Canada, I know would still have helped out if needed.

Screen shot 2015-11-05 at 16.27.16

So 2015 was the last chance for me to pull a team together. I figured there was lots of change and lack of clarity on our previous attempts, so learning from them and collaborating with our Sport Psych Keith, along with our charity Walking With The Wounded, the structure of recruitment was much more planned and stringent. Firstly, the advert and applications clearly highlighted the commitment needed for the next year and post row. These applications went out to the military, to sailing communities, rowing communities and escape the city.com. Once again through Escape the City, both Natalia and Meg found out about us. Izzy had heard through Emma’s Facebook post and Lizanne spotted the tweet about us on Chrissie Wellington’s Twitter feed (thanks Chrissie!). They were 4 amongst 20 that were invited for a day of interviews at Bisham Abbey. Here they met an experienced ocean rower Fergus Scholes, who took them through images and videos to show them what life was like aboard an ocean rowing boat. They then did physical testing with Alex Wolf our S&C coach, met with Keith our Sport Psych, did a film interview to camera, had a group session with Ems and a 1:1 with me where they could ask me anything. All applicants had a chance to visit Doris and take her out for a row too.

The final stage was with Fieri Leadership & Development who generously arranged a 24hr non-stop slog across the Brecon Beacons in Wales. This was interspersed with leadership skills and tasks to develop communication and teamwork under more stressful conditions and as we became more and more sleep deprived. Combine this with our Psychometrics with Keith and for once we had a good snapshot of team dynamics and who would work well together.
Having the Psychometrics and our team supports input, made this selection much more objective. Either way, I truly believe that everything happens for a reason and without a doubt I cannot imagine ever rowing this ocean with anyone else than the 5 girls that are here. I haven’t laughed this hard for this long ever, I have never been this open with my emotions that aren’t my best friends or family, I haven’t got this close and personal with anyone who I’m not in a relationship with. To me these girls have got to know me inside and out, my flaws and imperfections included, they have made the dream of this project come alive and every step of the journey an enjoyable one. I always wished to find a team that we step on the boat as team mates but step off as true friends and I’m so proud to say that we have achieved beyond my expectations with this.

Over the coming few weeks I will be writing individual blogs about each of the girls, to share with you what I believe they brought to the team and why they have made the journey so special.

5 of us

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8 Comments

  1. Simon TY says:

    Laura, most people probably have no idea how long it took to get to San Francisco and how many stops and starts there were along the way. It makes yr persistence (stubbornness) all the more remarkable.

    Hope you having a good few days. I am playing tennis tomorrow, sore back, sore knees, general level of whingeing. Am I doing the bloody exercises ? No. Tell me off and tell me I am bad. Thankfully, you are in the middle of the bloomin ocean, so you cannot and I can struggle on in peace.

    Xx S

  2. Robert says:

    OSCAR current model says you are rowing into a 0.5 knot current which stretches all the way to Port Vila increasing to 0.7 knots at the halfway point!
    If OSCAR model is correct you have a solution:)
    Row due South and you will enter a current that is flowing South West at up to 0.9 knots:)
    If you can’t make South, SSW is ok, but you absolutely need to escape from the counter current your speed is not the best …
    Also get some SLEEEEP!!!
    Row 1 at a time with 6 hour watch on and 18 hours off, woo hoo:):):)
    John Beeden is doing just fine as a single rower in a very similar boat …
    In your 18 hours off you will have plenty of time to help the single rower!!!
    Also if there are two of you rowing use 1 oar each as in a surfboat so you can devote your full energy to the one blade.
    You may have to move the button down the sleeve as far as you can to bring the handle in board a bit which will give you more leverage. Take short 60 degree strokes.
    Lets get this show on the road (ocean) finally:)

  3. Babs says:

    Such heartfelt words Laura, and what a team you have and have had around you, The dedication to detail in the planning has been such a roller coaster, but has shown by being persistent, it has paid off. Hopefully soon you will be able to have more favourable seas bringing you closer to Cairns. We watched you over the last few years bring this epic journey to fruition, and gain the knowledge and skills to undertake such a challenge. Knowing that you all had the training from the best and with Tony’s professionalism and support, has been invaluable. Now all we want is for you to stay safe, enjoy these last few weeks and come home very soon.x

  4. Phil T says:

    What a fantastic achievement from the planning to executing the row, and to think you’re nearly there! Phenomenal. I’ve dipped in and out of the blogs along the journey, and they’ve been a great read. Interesting, funny and honest. From the time you’ve been planning and rowing I’ve done a couple of Ironmans but they seem insignificant to the task of the row itself. It’s on a different scale! Well done, keeping pushing on with the final chapter! Laura, I bet you can’t wait for a proper pasty when you get home!! 🙂

  5. Laura, you’re such an inspiration along with the rest of the team. You’ve stuck by your dream through such tough and testing times over the years and you’ve made it reality. None of this would be happening if it wasn’t for you, your passion, enthusiasm and dedication. We’re so proud of you all. Sarah x

  6. Jim Andrews says:

    Fantastic, Laura. I sometimes feel that I don’t have the right to be reading these blogs. They sometimes feel very personal and for the perusal of your inner circle of Family and friends. Only the inner circle will truly understand, what you have gone through,what you have put into this mammoth project. The heartbreak and disappointments along the way. They will also know your strengths, weaknesses and aspirations. I have followed your adventure since my first learning of it. On BBC One “The One Show”, way back in April, just a few days before your departure to San Fran. I could not believe that four girls were going to row, unsupported for 8.5k miles across the Pacific. To say I admire you (as a team) is an understatement. I am intelligent enough to know that no show goes on the road without endless, casting, planning and rehearsals BUT I have no idea where you even begin, with a show like yours. Many followers have called you many admirable things over the past 8 months. None of which, ever seems to quite reach the level of praise, intended. I shall continue to pry into, the “inner circle” until your triumphant arrival in Cairns, when I shall be eternally grateful to have been able to share in this fantastic piece of history being created. Stay safe. XX

  7. Well done Laura. You are one of the kindest people I have ever met. One of those people one would not like to disappoint.I can’t even contemplate how Simon can have the nerve to tell you he doesn’t do his bloody exercises (LOL)
    Selecting the right crew I think was one of the most important and challenging aspects of the expedition .You have been blessed to have Keith to help you with that. I think eventually you found a wonderful team. It must have been a very difficult decision for Izzy to step back but I am grateful that she gave Lizanne and Meg the opportunity to be part of the row(Was shocked when Lizanne told me the first time that she is going to do it , but now I am grateful and proud that she could be part of history in the making.)
    Keep rowing girls , you nearly halve way. It is getting so close. Keep safe XXX

  8. JG says:

    Great plogpost Laura. Gives us more insight into the level of planning and preparation for this expedition that has made it such a success. Life will seem pretty humdrum after this but no doubt you will find something else to exercise your obvious drive and determination. As Jim says we are definitely outsiders looking in.

    Daughter: “Mum what is marriage?”
    Mum: “It’s a fancy word for adopting an overgrown male child who cannot be handled by his parents any more”

    Keep safe and fingers crossed for the currents.

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