Rowing For Freedom
Julia Immonen and Andrew Mazibrada
Losing sight of land ought to have had more of an effect on me than it did – two days before we started rowing unsupported and alone for 45 days across 3,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean, our captain and the most experienced member of our group had left in less than ideal circumstances. We were advised to go without her – her emotional strength called into question – so we did. It meant leaving two days after the official race began to allow us time to adjust to being five, and to redistribute her roles. It made us a tighter team united by our passion for the cause and our desire to secure the world record.
Our trip, designed to draw the world’s attention to the growing problem of the trafficking in human beings for sex and slavery, had been appropriately publicised, and departing without an experienced captain gained us a lot of media attention, which actually meant the spotlight was shone all the more on our campaign which was nice to have something positive come out of a tough situation. Although sport had always been part of my life I was, like many of my crew members, a complete novice rower let alone deeply unqualified to pilot any sort vessel across an ocean. Even more so something carrying five women and measuring only 29ft.
We would experience waves nearly twice that during our crossing. For some, losing sight of land is overwhelming and an emotional tipping point. Yet, when I first realised that I could no longer see anything other than a vast blue expanse of powerful but otherwise featureless water, I felt energised instead. We had begun – we were really doing this. We had two world records to set and momentum was to be our constant companion.
Although sport had always been part of my life I was, like many of my crew members, a complete novice rower let alone deeply unqualified to pilot any sort vessel across an ocean. Even more so something carrying five women and measuring only 29ft.
Records meant publicity which meant those enslaved by criminals might have a chance at freedom. This sobering thought pushed me through the pain like a juggernaut.
Nothing could have prepared us for the mental challenge we were about to face. We had done everything we could to prepare physically: rowing out on the water twice a week, strength and conditioning training twice a week, and rowing on the ergo up to four sessions a week. We’d do training in the middle of the night – setting the alarm for 2am to spend two hours on the ergo was horrific, but we needed desperately to prepare for the gruelling rowing schedule we’d set ourselves out on the ocean. As the darkness of that first night drew in and the stars appeared like shimmering crystals in the sky – unpolluted by big city lights – my mind drifted back to the celestial navigation training we’d undertaken – had our GPS failed, we would have needed to use the sun, moon and stars to navigate. Our battery tester worked on land during our final checks but within hours of setting off it was the first thing that failed us which meant we were paranoid as to how much power we had in our batteries heightened by the lack of sunshine to charge the solar panels. This meant we only used one tiny navigation light to illuminate the deck.
The darkness not only made things logistically harder – time seemed to drag interminably and fear and apprehension enjoys greater dominance in hours of night. During the day, I enjoyed the combination marriage of the monotony of our punishing routine allied with the vastness and ever changing state and colour of the ocean. It gave me time to think about things that I’d been shunting to the back of my mind although, alone on the ocean like that, it’s easy to be introspective. 560 hours of rowing will do that to you. One of the benefits of the fact we were an international team was that we had a great deal to talk about. Yet during the night, things were different. I focused mainly on the rowing, delighting in the breaks I had in our two hours on, two hours of schedule. Rowing in the bow position, I found it hard to hear my rowing partner Kate’s softly spoken voice which got lost in the ferocious winds we experienced in the first couple of weeks. Those nights were the hardest of my life. Trying to stay awake we would play games, often memories games as they killed the longest time and there was only so much ‘Eye Spy’ you can play on the ocean!
Our cabins, if you could call them that, were literally enough space for us to crawl in, generally in sodden, waterlogged clothes and sleep. Because we were going for the speed attempt, we wanted the boat to be as light as possible and so we’d agreed on a diaphanous, scant foam mattress to sleep on and jumpers for pillows. We were just so exhausted that we slept pretty easily, in fact. Personal administration was undertaken into a bucket or a better term ‘bucket and chuck-it’. After finishing a two hour rowing shift, wiping off the sea salt with baby wipes and eating some high calorie expedition food or snacks, meant only 90 minutes of sleep was available at any given time, but we snatched at it. We made sure our changeovers were ultra-efficient: losing 30 seconds every 2 hours for 45 days could have added days onto the crossing. Records meant publicity which meant those enslaved by criminals might have a chance at freedom. This sobering thought pushed me through the pain like a juggernaut.
The coming weeks would see us experiencing seriously challenging conditions. Frequently, we surfed 50 foot waves in torrential rain. Within moments, then, the ocean would relax reverting instead to calm serenity. In truth, despite the danger and concentration, surfing waves actually got us further, quicker – the calmer waters were like rowing through molasses. I remember my first impressions of the boat being how highly technical it looked with all the wiring, electrics and equipment – Yet, if it could have broken, it did. We were called on to fix nearly each and every technical item aboard at some point – and of course usually in the dead of night. I seem to recall everything by days for some reason, It was deep into day 15 when the machine which desalinated the sea water into drinking water broke. We then had to hand pump water for a month. We were so careful with the hand pump because without that, we would have had to call for assistance which would have meant our records wouldn’t count. It took 2 hours to pump 2 litres of water, and so we all had to adjust to limiting our water intake – not ideal as we were dehydrated and expending a lot of energy. And the further south we went, the hotter it became. We added lots of (Dioralite) salts from our medical kit which was also an excuse to taste something with flavour. These became like gold dust with us all experiencing banging headaches with dehydration.
Physically, it was gruelling. My hamstrings ached all the way across; my wrists were constantly bruised and the chaffing in areas I do not care to speak about bit like knives. Sea sickness, one of the most virulent and horrific experiences I have ever had to deal with, lasted for a week although one of the girls had it for 30 days. We had to be creative with our clothes, adapting to the conditions as they changed. It is overwhelming to think of rowing 3,000 miles, not knowing how long we’d be out at sea and thinking of the 50ft waves were terrifying. I had to break it down. I would literally take it watch by watch, and when it got really hard I would take 27 more strokes, for the estimated 27million trapped in modern day slavery. It made my pain pale into insignificance when I remembered the stories of the girls I had met just weeks prior to setting off. One of the girls was rescued just a few days before I met her, her eyes were soulless, without hope. I had to keep going for her. I had a lot of time to reflect on the passion for this cause which brought about our campaign. I often thought about the millions of slaves who were transported across the very waters we were rowing on and the horror of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Knowing I had the freedom to get off the boat in Barbados when millions today don’t, made my pain pale into insignificance.
On day 33, dolphins drew alongside the boat and scrutinised us with the curiosity of children. In fact, I felt that throughout our time we were experiencing nature at some of its most raw. The bright starry skies buoyed me and I found that when pushed to the brink by exhaustion the buzz of seeing a shooting star arcing across the heavens was enough to keep me going. Sunsets and sunrises, unadulterated by concrete the trappings of human existence, were breath taking. The further south we went, the hotter it became. In fact, far from being a blessing, it became so hot as to be unbearable, particularly as we had to restrict our water intake because we were hand pumping all the water. Most crews use para-anchors in the high seas to stabilise, but because we were aiming for the speed record, we carried on rowing through the serious wind which required huge concentration.
We rowed into Port St Charles in Barbados at 11pm on day 45. I would row the ocean again for the elation of that night! It was incredible to see our friends and family again. Having spoken to many adventurers, cravings seem to kick in and I craved orange juice with bits all the way across. That first taste of it felt for all the world like we’d succeeded. We felt so proud to actually have done it. No one wants to hear of five girls who nearly rowed the Atlantic, and so we knew the journey had just begun, in many ways. Being able to use the row as a platform to tell people about the tragedy of slavery and trafficking is a wonderful thing and perhaps will inspire others to dream big! I found a person inside me I didn’t know existed until Post St Charles in Barbados.
Being able to use the row as a platform to tell people about the tragedy of slavery and trafficking is a wonderful thing and perhaps will inspire others to dream big! I found a person inside me I didn’t know existed until Post St Charles in Barbados.
Julia Immonen comes from the world of sport and media. As an avid sports fan and athlete, she has found her dream job at Sky Sports News. She became passionate about the injustice of human trafficking 3 years a go, an initial half marathon turned into rowing the Atlantic Ocean and founding Row For Freedom.
She is the founder and director for Sport For Freedom, a charity who rescue, rehabilitate and provide safe housing for victims of human trafficking throughout Eastern Europe.
Andrew Mazibrada is an adventure travel and outdoor writer and photographer. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild and is Joint Editor for Sidetracked.