In mid-November, Shirley Thompson will set off on a solo, unsupported crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, from Puerto de Mogan in Gran Canaria to the French island of St Barts in the Caribbean. The distance is some 3000 miles. She is going for two records in the attempt – to become the oldest woman to make the Atlantic crossing solo and to be the first Irish woman to row any ocean solo. She will make the crossing in a Pure Class boat, which is 1.8 meters wide and around 7m long, and depending on the Tradewinds, the journey could take her as long as 90 days.
Shirley has never done anything quite like an ocean-crossing before, but she is no stranger to adventure, having organised the Jungle Marathon in Brazil for many years. You can follow her crossing on facebook at Shirl’s Atlantic Row and she has a website at www.shirlsatlanticrow.com.
First a bit of Form
Shirley Thompson: This is my first monumental adventure, though over the years I have competed in many endurance events, including the Marathon des Sables, Trans 333 (a 333km non-stop desert run), the Guadarun (7 day staged run in Guadeloupe), Antarctica Marathon, Verdon Trail and the Yukon Arctic Ultra. And of course Jungle Marathon, which I organise.
I got into adventure by accident At the age of 42 I took up running, swapped a 60 ciggies a day habit for a running obsession. I got into ultra running 6 months after that and never looked back!
Why an Atlantic crossing? Why now?
I wanted to do something huge for my 60th birthday (I was 60 in May). For many years I promised myself I would climb Everest, but the more I have read, the more I have been disappointed – by the lack of helping your fellow man (leaving people near the summit who are suffering, so you can get down to safety yourself), the rubbish on the mountain etc. It’s not very green.
So, I began to look further afield and discovered that although more than 450 women have summited Everest, only 15 women have ever rowed an ocean solo. That was also the moment I remembered that the water is my nemesis - I don't like to be out of my depth and up until a month ago I couldn't swim. It is a huge challenge for me. I started to research it further at the beginning of this year. Initially I signed up for a race, but then I decided I‘d prefer to go it alone.
I love the idea of being at one with nature, so far from land and humanity. I love the isolation, the struggle and the privilege of experiencing something that so few people will ever do. I want to prove to myself that an ordinary person can do something extraordinary.
I also like the idea that I can demonstrate that age is just a number, and that a 60 year old woman is not past her sell by date - which is often how we are viewed by society.
What sort of training have you done?
Until the beginning of August my boat, RV Amigo, was being refurbished, so I only got on the water with her then, but I have been training with her almost daily since and will continue to do so until I leave for Gran Canaria.
I always keep fit, I run 10-15km a day, I water jog, I go for long hikes, but since I signed up for the crossing earlier in the year I have increased the levels. Before the delivery of RV Amigo in August, I was rowing on an ERG for 4+ hours a day (often getting up twice in the middle of the night to do 2-hour stints). Now I am on the water rowing for as many hours as I can and I will have done at least 200+ hours before I leave. Also I am swimming 75 lengths of a pool a day (I couldn’t swim a width a month ago) and I am doing weights for some upper body strength.
I have been training with Leven Brown, the legendary Scottish Ocean rower. He has refurbished my boat and will provide weather reports for me during the crossing. He will also be my “phone a friend” when I am out there.
Does being 60 make a difference?
In terms of training I don’t think it’s different. In terms of tenacity I think we have more at 60, though my creaky old back might say differently after a couple of months at sea.
And what sort of preparation have you done?
There has been quite a bit of other preparation, obviously. I have trained in sea survival, sea first aid, navigation and seamanship, I got radio operator’s licence and I have been on an ocean rowing course.
I will be eating dehydrated food mixed with cold water to avoid the danger of scalding myself in high seas. As far as the bathroom goes, it’s a bucket and chuck it scenario.
How important will the physical side be in this?
The physical plays a part, but as long as I have a solid fitness base the rest is mental for me. There’s no doubt that the mental drives the physical, and pushes you through the pain barrier when you have blisters on your hands and feet, salt sores on your bottom, sea sickness and are fed up to the back teeth of being constantly wet and covered in salt water, terrified of the storms and cannot see land….
What safety gear and back up do you have?
I will carry a life raft (a 4-person raft, so it is much bigger than my boat!!), immersion suits, lifejackets, EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio beacon - if I set this off then all ships in the ocean are informed of a Mayday and the closest one will come to the rescue), PLB (Personal Locator Beacon – it will be attached to my lifejacket, so I can activate if I go overboard and cannot get back into my boat), a VHF radio (useful only by line of sight). Also I will have Leven Brown at the end of the sat-phone, so that he can troubleshoot in case I have an issue on the boat that I cannot deal with myself.
I will be wearing a harness and will be tied on to the boat in two places at ALL times. I have three sets of oars with me and back-ups for everything, ie 3 sets of sunglasses, two sat-phones, two radios, a hand-held water maker, hand-held GPS, compass. Also I’ll carry ballast mineral water in case both water makers fail...
What is the most daunting aspect of the crossing?
As I look ahead there are so many things - rogue waves, seeing a container ship on my course that doesn't hear me on the radio! stray containers that have fallen off cargo ships. Rowing 14 hours a day is challenging enough in itself. Other daunting things include capsizing- though I do know my boat self-rights - not eating fresh fruit and veg and missing my dogs.
Is there anything to look forward to about being out there?
All of it!! The good and the less good and the terror - it’s all part of the journey. I’ll be seeing dolphins playing by the boat, whales, sharks, sea turtles, and no doubt I’ll see a few mighty waves. Even the physical battle of rowing 14 hours a day will be good. Oh, and my survival.
Most of the all though, I will be looking forwards to that very first ice-cold rum punch when I reach St Barts!
What is achievement?
To my mind achievement is anything that makes me feel fulfilled. This is really a journey to test me!
I am going for two world records – first the oldest woman ever to row any ocean solo, and second the first Irish woman to row any ocean solo. Getting those world records will be an achievement.