257 Days of Girl Power: Female Rowing Team Sets Record With Pacific Crossing

Take a look inside the nine-month journey that tested the Coxless Crew to its limits.
Coxless Crew members Natalia Cohen, Emma Mitchell, Laura Penhaul, and Meg Dyos are pictured here with 'Losing Sight of Shore' director Sarah Moshman. (Photo: Sarah Moshman)
Jan 29, 2016· 4 MIN READ
TakePart editorial fellow Nicole Mormann covers a variety of topics, including social justice, entertainment, and environment.

Nine months ago, a rowing team set off from San Francisco in a tiny boat named Doris on a nearly 8,500-mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean to Cairns, Australia.

Equipped with dehydrated meals, a water desalinator, and tubs of Sudocrem, an antiseptic cream, the Coxless Crew—a team made up of six British women—rowed in two-hour shifts, trading spots every so often to nap for an hour and a half at a time. This was their routine nearly every day for 257 days, minus their two weeklong stops in Honolulu and the South Pacific islands of Samoa for supplies and repairs.

When they docked on Monday, the women became the first all-female crew to row the trans-Pacific route. But make no mistake: Their story isn’t about rowing, it’s about empowerment.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we all face challenges and can inspire each other,” Sarah Moshman, the director of the documentary Losing Sight of Shore, about the crew’s journey, told TakePart. “I can’t imagine living on this tiny vessel with a couple other women for months, but by the end, I wanted to go with them. That’s what they do—they convince you you’re capable of more than you know.”

The team is made up of Laura Penhaul, Emma Mitchell, Natalia Cohen, Isabel Burnham, Lizanne van Vuuren, and Meg Dyos.

Penhaul, along with Mitchell and Cohen, rowed the entire journey, while the other three rowed one leg each.

When Moshman first met them over Skype, she was hesitant to take on the project. At the time, she was in Los Angeles and already involved in making another documentary, The Empowerment Project, for which she and other women directors drove across America to inspire young girls to become strong female leaders. A U.K.-based blogger, Fiona Tatton, emailed her about the team’s goal to row the ocean, but knowing nothing about rowing, Moshman wasn’t into taking on the film—until the video chat.

“I was prepared to just tell them they were awesome and have that be it, but after an hour of Skyping, I was convinced,” she said. “It’s not about rowing at all. It’s about what these women can accomplish when faced with adversity.”

Sarah Moshman filming the group. (Photo: Courtesy Sarah Moshman)

Four days before they set off, Moshman met the crew in San Francisco. She handed them four GoPros and a professional camera so they could document their journey in her absence (she was only able to meet them in Honolulu, Samoa, and Cairns). The team initially told her the expedition would take them six months to complete, but rough sea conditions and unexpected delays kept them rowing for three additional months.

Shortly after the journey began, one of the boat’s solar-powered batteries went out. Since they were already hugging the Southern California coast, the team decided to dock in Santa Barbara to fix the battery before continuing onto Hawaii. The delay cost them an extra 13 days at sea; the initial goal was 55 days.

From Hawaii on, the trek only got harder. The most arduous part of the journey occurred when the crew got caught in the Doldrums, a stagnant area of the Pacific Ocean where Moshman says people often get rescued, on their way to Samoa. The original travel time was 60 to 65 days, but it took 97 days with the delay.

“Some days, they were rowing negative miles,” Moshman said. “To have that physical exertion but to make negative progress definitely took a toll on their body.”

Despite their setbacks, though, the crew managed to make the entire journey without seeking outside support.

When the crew’s battery-powered water desalinator failed, they pumped their own water. They relied on dehydrated food—a whopping 1,020 meals overall—that ran low at times. Showers were taken out in the open. Their bathroom was a bucket, with a “bucket and chuck it” policy. Even the two recreational cabins on the boat were less enjoyable than being outside, considering they were so small that the crew members couldn’t stand up in them. The boat is about 29 feet long by seven feet wide. The spaces also had no ventilation—the women had to keep the hatches closed in case waves splashed the deck—so when it was 110 degrees Fahrenheit outside, it would be the same temperature inside the cabin.

Filmmaker Sarah Moshman documented the Coxless Crew journey on Doris.

“Those cabins are the only space away from rowing,” said Moshman. “I have footage of their sweat; there’s no comfort.”

But the journey didn’t just pose a physical challenge; it also posed an emotional one. Away from their other friends and family, the women were forced to spend day in and day out with one another. They celebrated holidays in between rowing shifts instead of at home. By the second leg of the trip, Moshman said, crew members started to really dig deep into their emotions, even talking to the camera as if they were talking to Moshman herself.

“They would start off saying something like, ‘Sarah, I’m going through something today,’ ” the director told TakePart. “There was so much vulnerability and honesty.”

And by the time they arrived in Cairns, the grueling experience had only brought the team closer together.

“More than 9 months after Doris set off from San Francisco, we have made land in Cairns, Australia. 257 days at sea, nearly 6,200 hours of rowing, 1,020+ dehydrated meals consumed, 7,700+ litres of water drunk, 12 giant tubs of Sudocrem, sea creatures, passing ships, sunsets, sunrises, torrential rain, black nights, starry nights, huge swells, flat calm, sea sickness, salt sores, storms, swimming, ‘showering,’ ‘bucketing,’ birthdays, Christmas, New Years, tears, hugs, laugher and unbreakable bonds formed between the 6 of us,” the team wrote on their Facebook page.

The final four-person crew and Doris are headed back to the U.K. from Australia soon, but in the meantime, the women are enjoying their time on land with friends and family. Though the team started out with a goal of raising some $360,000 for the charities Walking With the Wounded and Breast Cancer Care, they’ve raised about $55,000 so far.

Now it’s all up to Moshman to go back and edit the footage, which she plans to have finished by October.

“It’s like they’ve passed the baton to me,” she said. “Come fall, we will have all crossed the Pacific.”