Four naked women rowing a boat across the ocean… what a mental picture that conjures up, and what a dream for the headline writers.
In reality, the epic 67-day transatlantic trip by four determined Yorkshire mums, who discarded their clothes along with their inhibitions, was far from sexy or glamorous. They suffered painful blisters, cracked skin, sore unmentionable bits, dehydration, seasickness, and the indignity of going to the toilet in a bucket in full view of the others.
I’ve never seen so much fanny in my life… just fanny, fanny, fanny everywhere!
But they did it! The four – three of them in their 40s and one over 50 – rowed their boat Rose 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, claiming a Guinness World Record as the oldest all-female crew to row across any ocean and earning the respect and admiration of thousands who followed their exploits.
Now their inspiring story is told in Four Mums in a Boat, a new book about how the four hit on the idea of their epic challenge, prepared for it, tackled the many perils of the ocean and arrived safely to return to normal life. The team were: skipper Janette Benaddi, a Leeds businesswoman; Helen Butters, an NHS communications expert from Cawood; Frances Davies, a solicitor from York who runs her own firm in Leeds, and Niki Doeg, a York business owner and rugby coach. All four are married with two children each.
The four met four years earlier at York’s Guy Fawkes Boat Club and decided over a glass of wine at the boat club dinner to enter the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, probably the toughest rowing race on earth.
Under the name Yorkshire Rows, they prepared for three years, acquiring their boat, training on the river Ouse and at sea, and assembling their equipment and supplies. They decided to raise money for Yorkshire Air Ambulance and the charity Maggie’s for a new cancer support centre at St James’s University Hospital, Leeds.
In the book they describe their misgivings as they stood on the harbour at La Gomera on the Canaries, watching the violent swell of the Atlantic where they were about to set off westwards towards the West Indies and their goal of Antigua. “Here we were, staring into a cauldron of currents and tides, with hurricane-force winds and waves up to 60 feet high, not to mention the giant shipping tankers who would take out our little rowing boat at a moment’s notice.”
The Rose crew were first to set off, followed at 15-minute intervals by the other teams, and soon realised it would be no picnic…
“The waves were growing and the current grew stronger, and rose was being pulled along in it. Time and again we tried to row, and time and again the oars were being wrenched out of our hands. It was also cold, freezing cold, as wave after 40-foot wave broke over us, dousing us in icy salt water.”
A cauldron of currents and tides, with hurricane-force winds and waves up to 60 feet high
Just moving around on the boat was difficult, and cooking was actually, dangerous as boiling water slopped around, but going to the toilet was somewhat farcical…
“…it is difficult to do one’s business with your waterproof salopettes around your ankles while riding a rollercoaster wave, with a biodegradable wet wipe in your hand. Not forgetting the audience. In the front row.”
Seasickness hit Helen Butters early on – “I felt so ill, throwing up every half-hour” – and a painful setback came on just the third day out, when Niki Doeg fractured her coccyx but rowed on, downing painkillers as her backside turned black with bruising.
Christmas at sea was an emotional time, as BBC’s Breakfast arranged for the husbands and children to send Christmas Eve greetings.
The nearest they came to disaster was when a force-12 hurricane struck. “The wind howled, lightning shot across the sky and thunder sounded like some HGV lorry about to plough into the side of the boat. And all we could do was lie there, gripping the sides of our bunks, unable
to get flat or straight. And it went on and on… we spent 70 hours locked in our cabins – two nights and three days of pure hell.”
But they survived, and the long slog of rowing two hours on, two off, continued for mile after relentless mile, with the inevitable boredom, occasional arguments and angry silences. The women’s ‘chafe-free’ pants lost the battle against salt water and constant movement, so they were chucked away and the women rowed nude.
Janette commented: “I’ve never seen so much fanny in my life… just fanny, fanny, fanny everywhere! Sometimes you’d open a cabin door to find an arse in your face, as someone had put surgical spirit on their backside and were cooling it off in the air. Or maybe they were just giving their buttocks an airing.”
Four mums in a Boat, by Janette Benaddi, Helen Butters, Niki Doeg and Frances Davies, HQ books, an imprint of Harper Collins.