Island girl power

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In December, a team of Antiguan women will row across the Atlantic – and into the history books. Janet Kipling caught up with the amazing ladies taking on this colossal challenge

Man has always had a desire to conquer nature and to see what lies beyond the horizon. Man… And now woman. Five Antiguan women, in fact, tackling a 5,000km (3,000-mile) race across the Atlantic Ocean in a rowing boat powered only by their own strength and determination.

More people have climbed Mount Everest than have rowed the Atlantic. The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge (TWAC) is considered the world’s toughest row – a unique test of physical and mental fortitude. The race was founded in 1997 by Sir Chay Blyth, but it’s only in recent years that it’s caught the public imagination.

TWAC2018 begins in December. Boats helmed by crews of one to five rowers head west from La Gomera in the Canary Islands. Those that make it (and many don’t) will arrive in Antigua a month or more later. The fastest time – 29 days, 14 hours and 34 minutes – was achieved in last year’s race by The Four Oarsmen from the UK. Some have spent 85 days on the ocean.

Paddle pioneers
As excitement around the challenge has grown, so has the curiosity of Antiguans. So far, Antigua & Barbuda has sent two teams to compete among the mainly UK and US competitors. Team Antigua was narrowly pipped to the top spot in the 2017 race; two years earlier, Team Wadadli earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest team of four to row any ocean, including the oldest person to do so (Peter Smith, who was 74 at the time).

Now a third Antiguan team is preparing to row the Atlantic, and they, too, have records in their sights. TWAC remains heavily white and male: no all-black team has ever completed it, and no all-female Caribbean team has ever taken part. Kevinia Francis, Elvira Bell, Christal Clashing, Samara Emmanuel and Junella King – aka Team Antigua Island Girls – want to change that. They’re aiming to be the fastest women and the first black team to make it across the finishing line in Nelson’s Dockyard.

“When Team Antigua Atlantic Rowers arrived home in second place on 13 January 2018, the challenge was issued for an all-female team from Antigua & Barbuda,” says team leader Kevinia. “Several women answered the call, and five of us were eventually chosen.”

Only four women will actually compete, but all five are in training to guard against illness or injury – for there is no doubt the physical challenge is enormous. Eli Fuller, part of TWAC2017 Team Antigua, has been coaching the women since spring. They have undergone an intensive programme in the gym and on the sea. Gym workouts to build strength and endurance have been tough. “We were very strict, meeting as a group, sometimes in the wee hours or late at night,” says Kevinia. “We trained as a team, and encouraged each other to push through.” They’ve also done several test rows to St Kitts and St Maarten, and a tough circumnavigation of Antigua, to practise the two hours on/two hours off rowing shift pattern they will use in the race, which means a full night’s sleep is a distant dream. “By the time we start the race we will have logged around 300 hours on the boat – far more than the mandatory 96,” says Kevinia.

“None of it is easy,” says Eli, “but anything is possible with good prep and determination. When things get tough, they just need to focus on the next two-hour shift; if they do that, they will do well. You don’t think about the 3,000 miles.”

Bringing hope
Aside from the potential for breaking records and doing their country proud, another motivation has been raising money for charity. Team Antigua raised almost US$400,000 to pay for the boat, the equipment and supplies, but also for marine conservation, funding a new mangrove restoration project in hurricane-ravaged Barbuda that will help the Codrington Lagoon frigatebird colony. A similar conservation project within Nelson’s Dockyard National Park in Antigua is also on the cards.

The women have selected Cottage of Hope as their charity, a non-profit organisation that houses and helps girls who have been abused, neglected or orphaned. As well as raising money, they are hoping to provide inspiration. “Everything I know – every space I fill as a black woman – was once the preserve of some select group until someone or something dismantled it,” says Kevinia. “I’m driven by my adventurous and competitive spirit to enter this race. That I can capsize some stereotypes and open the door to diversity along the way gives me more impetus to row like a champion. I’m not just hoping, I am claiming it: Team Antigua Island Girls will have a podium finish and our entire journey, from preparation to the finish line, will provide a storyline that echoes well beyond our shores to attract people to our island and to inspire women and girls wherever they reside.”

Trouble ahead
Overcoming the intense mental challenge will be key. The four rowers will spend at least a month in the confines of their 28ft by 5ft boat, Jean Mary. They will row in pairs in two-hour shifts, day and night, resting briefly in tiny cabins where it’s impossible to fully stretch out. They will snack on freeze-dried food and go to the toilet in a bucket.

And all of this must be endured in weather that might range from blistering heat to hurricanes – as Dr Nick Fuller, who competed with Team Wadadli in TWAC2015, recalls. “Three weeks into our row we were informed by satellite phone that bad weather was coming our way. It turned out to be Hurricane Alex, the first Atlantic hurricane to form in January since 1938. We were locked in our cabins on the outer margins of the storm for two and a half days on sea anchor, hit by 60mph winds and 35-foot waves. Personal hygiene was made possible with ziplock bags and plastic bottles. The boat sustained rudder damage, which fortunately we were able to repair. Then we encountered another storm a week away from Antigua, again putting us on sea anchor. This crossing turned out to be one of the worst in Atlantic rowing history. But we never felt we wouldn’t make it.”

A boost for the nation
So what are the Island Girls most worried about? Blisters and seasickness are concerns. “And being away from my family,” adds Junella. “But it means a lot to have the opportunity to help uplift other women and to inspire them to achieve their dreams. It’s also important to me that we are able to show that a small country like Antigua & Barbuda has people with strength and talent who can continue to put the country on the map.”

There’s no doubt that the TWAC has raised Antigua’s sporting profile as well as creating a buzz on the island. Team Wadadli was greeted by thousands of spectators, including the prime minister and other dignitaries, when they crossed the finish line in 2016. Two years later, Nelson’s Dockyard was packed to welcome home the Team Antigua Atlantic Rowers. “The event has brought awareness, a boost in tourism, charity support and unity in our country,” says Elvira. “We hope to build on all this.”

“As women and as Antiguans we’re propelled by all the trailblazers who have gone before us to push the boundaries and pursue our dreams,” adds Kevinia. “Our team is made up of athletes, all of us competitive and with success in our individual areas. We are keen to build on the successes of the first two teams and knock down gender roles that place people in boxes.”

Changing tides
There’s no doubt that the goal of being the first all-black team and the fastest women’s team is driving the five hard. “As women, especially in the Caribbean, we are seen as childbearers and nurturers. Though we have come a long way in terms of gender equality, there is still a distance left to go,” says Samara. “One of the reasons why many black people, and certainly black Caribbean nationals, haven’t done challenges like the TWAC is that, from an early age, our minds are conditioned so we think there are ‘white people sports’ and ‘black people sports’. Because we’re placed in that box from early childhood, we tend to stick to it, and unfortunately we pass this on to our children; it becomes a limiting cycle. For example, parents put such a fear of water in us as children that a huge percentage of people from the Caribbean can’t swim.

“Also, people genuinely don’t know that these things can be done. Realistically, if you’re not from a place with snow, chances are you’d never normally think about skiing. If you don’t have access to boats, even if you’re surrounded by water, you think seafaring is something other people do. But this is a stereotype, just people’s opinions, and opinions can always change. I mean, at some point some of the most learned people thought the Earth was flat. Need I say more?”

Meet the team
Kevinia Francis
Kevinia, 40, is a title-winning all-round athlete and certified fitness trainer who juggles her passion for wellbeing with a job as a bar manager at Island B-Hive Party Stand. She began imagining an all-woman TWAC crew in 2015 when the first Antiguan team entered. “This challenge epitomises all I live for: sport, travel, competition, country, charity, adventure and
lasting memories.”

Elvira Bell
Elvira, 36, has always excelled at athletics, martial arts and swimming. She is a learn-to-swim instructor and health coach, though her day job is as a flight dispatcher at LIAT. She initially declined the chance to join the team due to a bad boating experience in the past. “Then I quickly remembered the little girl I used to be – the one who longed to be a mermaid – and my no became yes.”

Junella King
Junella, 17, juggles school with part-time employment as an RYA dinghy sailing instructor. Her interest in the TWAC was stoked when Team Wadadli visited her school. “When they talked about their experience, I knew I was going to do this.”

Samara Emmanuel
Samara, 32, is the first Antiguan woman to become an RYA certified yacht captain, and has years of seafaring experience. Currently a boat mate at Jumby Bay, Samara has a passion for racing and delivering boats. “I’ve completed countless solo deliveries across the Caribbean, and I welcome the solitude, the chance to tap into myself and to get to know my capabilities.”

Christal Clashing
Christal, 28, made history in 2004, becoming the first female swimmer to represent Antigua & Barbuda at the Olympics. “I see the TWAC2018 challenge as the opportunity to test my mettle and to come out on the other side physically and emotionally stronger.”

Need to know
TWAC18 starts 12 December 2018. Track teams at www.taliskerwhiskyatlanticchallenge.com. Follow Team Antigua Island Girls at www.antiguabarbudaislandgirls.com

COULD YOU BE NEXT?
No other Caribbean island has ever sent a team to the TWAC. If you want to try, aside from the physical and mental training you’ll need around US$150,000 to cover travel costs ($22,000), food ($12,000), race entry fees ($27,710), insurance ($2,500) and shipping the boat from Antigua to La Gomera ($9,000) – but not including the actual boat! Sponsorship is key. Team Antigua Island Girls, using Team Antigua’s boat, have Gold Plus sponsorship of US$75,000 from the Hadeed Group, Gold Level sponsorship of US$50,000 from the Jumby Bay Fund, Citizenship by Investment Unit (CIU) and Inertops, plus in-kind donations from almost 20 companies.

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