How four women set a world record rowing across Pacific Ocean

This week, four women rowed to a new world record after a trip that took them from San Francisco to Honolulu.

Libby Costello, Sophia Denison-Johnston, Brooke Downes and Adrienne Smith began their 2,400 nautical mile Pacific crossing in June. 34 days, 14 hours and 11 minutes later, the Lat35 team arrived in Hawaii’s largest city on Tuesday.

All four women have connections to California. Costello and Denison-Johnston are former UCLA rowers, Downes is a former USC rower, and Smith runs a yoga studio in Santa Barbara.

To reach the goal, the women rowed in pairs for two hours and slept in 90-minute increments. They kept the boat moving day and night and documented the trip on social media, where they could sing and laugh together between the waves.

But they also endured their share of extreme weather, exhaustion, seasickness and salt sores — and neither woman had ever rowed in the deep sea.

“It’s kind of mind boggling to think about what they did,” said Previn Chandraratna, who coached Costello and Denison-Johnston at UCLA. “It’s like running a marathon every day for a month. But it’s not surprising to know who they are.”

Denison-Johnston was the first crew member to learn about the Great Pacific Race in February 2021. For weeks, the Olympic hopeful couldn’t get the idea out of his head. When she pitched it to Costello, her former UCLA teammate immediately jumped on board.

In college, Chandraratna said, both women were full of courage.

“They were swimming against the tide in terms of physical size in a Division 1 rowing program,” he said. “They had to work twice as hard to get to their level.”

Downes, another Olympic hopeful, got wind of the project from Costello. The two rowed together in high school. In May, Downes officially signed and moved from New Jersey to Santa Barbara for training.

Smith, a former Ironman triathlete, met the other women through her husband, Jason Smith, who served as the team’s strength and conditioning coach. She completed her first rowing strokes on the water with the team in November.

Together, the women formed Lat35’s first all-female crew. On board everyone had a different specialty. Denison-Johnston was the skipper and medic, Costello was the engineer, Downes handled navigation and nutrition, and Smith focused on logistics.

Intensive training sessions on land and water were part of the preparation for the trip. The women rowed on a rowing machine three to four times a week, lifted twice a week, and cross-trained a total of 10 to 20 hours a week in between. They also participated in life support exercises such as tying knots in ice water. The goal was to prepare their bodies to last as long as possible before giving up.

To bond as a team, the women completed communication exercises and took personality tests to understand how everyone worked. They established a language they would use when asking for or supporting each other.

“It’s been a really healthy environment from the start, and we were determined to grow each other’s size throughout,” Costello said. “All interactions were guided by love, empathy and understanding.”

Although the Lat35 team was made up of experienced athletes, the women had little to no ocean crossing experience. That’s where Duncan Roy, a professional ocean rowing coach, came in.

“Ocean rowing isn’t just rowing,” Roy said. “You have to know the weather systems, how to operate the boat, how to optimize it and how to stay safe.”

Roy’s main goal was to get the women to train in a coastal environment so they could become familiar with their boat, called the American Spirit.

When race day came, the team packed their ship with a million calories worth of dehydrated, cooked-to-order food and set off for the Pacific Ocean. It was enough food for 60 days and provided each person with 5,000 daily calories. The prepackaged meals included freeze-dried fettuccine alfredo and lasagna, which were tolerable, Smith said, but each woman came to appreciate her snack packets, which were filled with pop-tarts, Oreos and peanut M&Ms.

The women were strapped to the boat with harnesses, race directors monitored them 24 hours a day for safety, and the crew communicated regularly with a weather router, but no other help was available to them.

“They were so positive the whole time,” Roy said. “Everything was more of an opportunity than a challenge. It was so obvious how good their team dynamic was.”

The women rowed an average of 70 miles a day, slept in small cabins at the stern and bow, jumped in the water to scrape barnacles off their boat, wiped the salt off their bodies with wet wipes, and used a bucket to use the bathroom. At one stage of the journey, they were escorted by a whale.

As they rowed, the women belted out songs in the sea breeze, listened to audio books, and shared life stories with each other while keeping their heart rates between 90 and 100 beats per minute.

The boat had satellite and WiFi, but reception was rarely good. Each crew member would only connect to the internet for a few minutes each day. Sometimes, during their morning meetings, they would read fans’ comments on their social media accounts and cry together.

“When you take on a tough physical challenge, there are moments when you’re like, ‘What on earth are we doing?'” Smith said. “But in the company of the girls it was possible to go on. Sometimes we would just start laughing, just breaking out in the hilarity of it all.”

Upon arriving in Honolulu, the Lat35 team was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of friends, family and fans. The four beat the last women’s world record, set last year, by a day and 12 hours. The current men’s world record for the Great Pacific Race is 30 days, 7 hours and 30 minutes.

According to Costello, the last three miles were the most emotional part of the trip. In their final hour together, they all sat on the deck, some rowing, some navigating, going through their takeaways and highlights of the experience.

“We kind of realized that it was the last time we would just have the four of us, maybe ever, at least definitely for the near future,” Costello said.

Watching the live stream from the UK, Roy held back tears.

“I was speechless. I had goosebumps,” he said. “Just thinking about it brings back so many emotions. I’m just so proud of them. They crushed it.”

According to Smith, the women did not want to become world record holders.

“When we were done, that wasn’t the emotional part,” she said. “It was about completing the journey and ending up being stronger together than when we started.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-28/four-women-set-world-record-rowing-across-pacific-ocean How four women set a world record rowing across Pacific Ocean

Alley Einstein

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