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Setting the World Record Straight With The First Female Crew To Row Across the Pacific Ocean

The mental strain of this record-setting endurance challenge was one that even the fittest and most experienced among the Coxless Crew couldn’t have anticipated.

What do you do with your girl power? Start your own business, lead your family, forever shift how a product is utilized in the world, or strike out in a new direction to change your life forever?

The Coxless Crew, as this international team of rowers calls itself, put its girl power to use by charting new territory altogether. In April 2015, it set out on a 29' boat named Doris to carry out an epic physical and mental goal: to row 8,446 miles across the Pacific Ocean, from California to Australia. A year before, the members were strangers to one another, and many had never rowed before in their lives. The Coxless Crew is living proof that women can do anything—and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. Follow their near-nine-month journey here and in their documentary, Losing Sight of Shore, which boasts the tagline of “Everyone has a Pacific to cross.”

All for one

“Everyone’s training history was extremely varied pre-row. As an elite-sport physiotherapist, I have been fortunate enough to always be in a top-level training environment,” says Coxless Crew team lead Laura Penhaul, who was decidedly not a rower before planning this epic journey. “Pre-row I used to do marathons, 24-hour sportif cycles, triathlons, and weight training, but part of what enticed me with the ocean row was that everything about it was the unknown.”

Of the other three women (plus two alternates who rowed just one of the three legs of this epic journey), only two had actual rowing experience. Emma Mitchell rowed as a teenager and also for Cambridge as a blue rower, England, and Bristol for races and regattas. Isabel Burnham (first leg) worked as a solicitor by day for intellectual property litigation, but rowed in college and was a mountaineer, ultra-runner, and ski tourer. On the rest of the team, Natalia Cohen was a travel tour leader, operations manager, and self-professed nomad; Lizanne van Vuuren (second leg) was an osteopath but had completed a half Ironman and loved swimming, biking, and running; and Meg Dyos (third leg) was a real estate agent. Talk about a diverse crew.

Yet what some of the ladies lacked in performance sports, they more than made up for in unstoppable positivity—and you can never underestimate that power, especially when almost 10,000 miles from home and at the mercy of Mother Nature. “The key to picking the team members,” Penhaul says, “wasn’t to select out of a fitness mold, as anyone can train for an event. But only those with the right mentality, focus, and adaptability will succeed in achieving this goal.”

Which leads us to...why? Why row a mainly inexperienced crew more than 8,000 miles across some of the most volatile ocean on planet Earth for 257 days? “This journey was designed to send a message to anyone and everyone, male or female, that if you want to do something, do it. And don’t let stereotypes stop you,” says Penhaul. They also raised money for wounded veterans (Walking with the Wounded) and for breast cancer care.

More gain to avoid some pain

“I loved the weight training and actually getting coached for a change. And being accountable to someone else, especially a colleague, meant I was determined to show improvements,” notes Penhaul. Her lifting regimen and diet were intensive, though, because she had to put on serious weight for energy reserves. “The worst part was having to gain 30% fat mass. I’m usually about 58kg [128lbs] marathon weight, and knew for this I’d have to put on about 15kg [33lbs]. As much as people think eating 6,000 calories a day would be fun, I ended up feeling horrendous.

“When I was still training hard, I was burning those calories easily, but then plateaued. So I had to cut cardiovascular work out and just do weights three to four times per week, but continue to eat 6,000 calories. I felt lethargic, lazy, unhealthy, and got repeated colds, all because I wasn’t doing cardio work.” Training with Alex Wolf, the lead strength and conditioning coach for English Institute of Sport, was intense any way you look at it, but “I still believe that it was the weight training and putting on muscle mass that helped our bodies stay resilient for the duration,” Penhaul says.

Make time to mind your mind

“Keith Goddard of Zeus Performance Psychology was our lifeline in mental preparations and team cohesion. Pre-row, he challenged us to break down the barriers of awkward conversations, where we reflected on each other in a critical way rather than always being too polite,” Penhaul says.

A journey like that would undoubtedly bring out the best of these women, and the worst, too, so the mental prep was just as important as time beneath the iron and behind the rower. “For example, when we were locked in a steaming hot, claustrophobic cabin and being thrown around in a storm, but we couldn’t open the hatches for risk of flooding, I would use either cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness. Without a doubt the mental training was the most important part of our preparations, well above the physical.”

All you need is love

Penhaul makes it clear that this totally mad mission from San Francisco to Australia wasn’t about proving any one person wrong; it was about proving to herself, to her team members, and to the world that however differently they did it, they could get it done.

They’d shared the experience as a close-knit team, and stepped off Doris as lifelong friends. “This is what success meant to us. If we can inspire one person to have the courage to ‘lose sight of the shore’ and head in a direction that they haven’t taken before, then we know our journey created a greater good.”

Never, ever give up

In the documentary, you can see it countless times on their faces: the longing to have feet firmly on dry land, to be far from the salty, dark waters while the ocean pounds around them and another long night falls. “There are times when you definitely want to give up if you know that no one is watching, but with a team, you never want to let them down or make them have to put in more work because you’re not doing your absolute best. Knowing that you’ve got three other girls on that boat watching your back just as much as you’re watching theirs brings a lot of comfort and strength.”

In their journey you realize how close beauty and determination really are. Because there’s nothing more powerful than seeing these vibrant, determined, and hopeful women hold hands and take that final, gleeful step from the body of Doris to the sunny shores of Australia together.

Watch the documentary Losing Sight of Shore on Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon.

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