7 February, 2024

Crossing an ocean in a rowing boat. It’s billed as the ‘World’s Toughest Row’, so what drives someone to do it?

“For me, it’s all because a friend of mine had a fatal brain haemorrhage. The last text message she ever sent to me was ‘Life’s too short, let’s have some fun!’. And I thought that’s right because you don’t know what’s around the corner.”

That’s Fiona Deakin explaining why she’s part of a four-woman team taking part in the annual 3,000-mile race from San Sebastian in La Gomera, Canary Islands, across the Atlantic Ocean to Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua. Formerly known as The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, the race begins in December, with about 40 teams from around the world.

Age is just a number

Fiona is a keen rower and has competed in the world championships, so when she saw an advert for a rower, she applied. This was despite thinking that her age might be against her, as she approaches 60. As it turns out, the age range in the ‘Scotland The Wave’ team stretches across four decades. The team consists of’; Andrena McShane-Kerr (41), Fiona Deakin (58), Heather McCallum (29) and Nicola Matthews (57), rowing the 24-foot-long boat.

“Despite the age differences between us, we gel together because we share the same objective. We’re all motivated to take on the unique experience of crossing an ocean in a rowing boat,” says Fiona. “We’re also supporting various charities. I decided on Breast Cancer UK because more of my friends and family have been affected by breast cancer than a brain haemorrhage.”

The race has challenges. For example, the Rannoch R45 Elite boat is just 24 feet long (8.64m) and just over 5 feet (1.74m) wide. The four women will live on the boat for the entirety of the race, which typically takes more than a month to complete.

The ‘world’s toughest row’

“It’s two people on, two off, and you generally row two hours on and then you have two hours off where you eat, sleep, and navigate,” explains Fiona. “We’ll do that routine 24/7. We aim to do it in about 45 days, but it’s very much weather dependent. It could take longer than that.”

The team will carry dehydrated food and convert sea water into a potable liquid. The toilet facility is a bucket.

“The challenge is empowering for me, but it also reaches out to affect other people,” says Fiona. “For example, I run a bed and breakfast, and a sign in my reception area tells people what I’m doing. My guests contributed more than £3,000 towards the row. And another woman called me in tears recently, explaining that she was so inspired by the challenge we’re taking on that she lost weight and has just finished a half marathon.”

Fiona has a personal challenge, too, in that she’s battling with a diagnosis of Graves Disease. However, she’s determined to beat it.

“I am definitely doing this, although it’s exhausting,” she says. “I’m training and so furious to get it because I’m such a healthy person normally and eat well. These things happen. You just have to deal with it.”

She also wants to prove to herself that she can do something amazing: “I was the fat kid at school, and I’ve made some stupid life choices, but now I’m happy. I just wanted to show that you can do whatever you want. Because if, three years ago, someone had said I’d be rowing the Atlantic in 2025, I would have just laughed. There was absolutely no way I could do it, nor want to do it at that stage of my life. But then came my friend’s brain haemorrhage and her comment. So, putting yourself out there is important, and I’m excited to do it.”

It takes a village

Fiona comes from a rural area in Scotland, where life is basic and straightforward. Yet, everyone she knows is putting money away so they can support the team.

“Some people have kids still at school or work commitments that they can’t leave. So they’re doing this challenge vicariously through me, and that’s a really lovely empowering thing as well.”

Each team provides their boat, and must get enough sponsors to cover total costs of around £100,000. Then there’s the year or more spent training for the race before the start in December 2025. This includes living on the boat in the Hebrides to get used to the conditions and taking courses in navigation and survival for the world’s toughest row

Fiona is positive. “It’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be brutal,” she says.” For example, one three-women team ad a marlin strike – those fish are large and long with a rounded spear that comes out the front, and that spear went right through the boat. It could have been tragic. But, those challenges, the risks, the adventure is all part of it, and we’re all so excited to be doing this.”

If you would like to row or raise funds for Breast Cancer UK like Fiona, or take on a different challenge, email the team [email protected] to get started. 

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