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Sink or swim

March 17th 2016 / Susannah Taylor

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Laura Penhaul and a crew of six women spent nine months crossing the Pacific in an 8.5 metre rowing boat. Here's what she learnt from the experience

Recently, 31 year old Laura Penhaul led a team of women 9,000 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean in an 8.5 metre pink rowing boat - the first time this has ever been done by a crew of four women (there were actually six who did the challenge in total, some of them swapped in for different parts of the journey, but Laura and two others completed the whole thing.) For nine months they battled two hours on, two hours off sleeping patterns, with virtually no shelter, freeze-dried food, terrifying storms and the toughest challenge of all - their own minds. So what did she learn from the experience? Here she tells us some life lessons we could all learn from.

I first met Laura Penhaul about four years ago when I’d just started training and got injured. I was recommended Laura who was a physio (she still is, for the Paralympic team) and she treated me. I had started, from scratch, to train for a half marathon and was really upset that my injury meant I might not be able to see it through. As I fought back the tears in my session with her and told her that one day I’d love to do a triathlon, she was just incredibly kind, totally ‘got’ why it meant a lot to me, and speaking as a regular triathlete (her) to a rookie exerciser (me), she really made me feel like anything was possible. One session she brought in a book written by athlete Chrissie Wellington in which she had highlighted the quotes that inspired her. Whilst she is clearly a very good physio I was more touched by her thoughtfulness.

In our physio sessions Laura told me she was building a boat and wanted to row across the Atlantic. ‘She’s unassumingly hardcore’ I thought, and thought nothing more of it. But Laura didn’t row across the Atlantic, she, with four other women crossed the Pacific ocean, unsupported, all 9000 nautical miles of it. From San Francisco to Hawaii, to Samoa, they finished in Cairns, Australia on 25th January this year after nine months at sea. Eating rehydrated food, they lived on the 8.5 metre boat named Doris (“That equates to the same distance as Greg Rutherford’s long jump,” says Laura), especially engineered to withstand the conditions. At night they slept two hours on and two hours off in a cabin the size of a small two person tent, battled 40 foot high waves, got whacked by flying fish the size of their legs, and hardly ever saw land for the 257 days they spent at sea.

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When you’ve been through an experience like that, it has to change your outlook on life. Here are the key things Laura learnt from this extraordinary mission (and BTW they aren’t about rowing):

1. Your mind limits you before your body does

Laura and her crew rowed for two hour shifts at a time in pairs through extreme currents and waves which were ‘the size of a two storey house' but, Laura says, it was the first two weeks that proved the toughest physically, “That’s when you have discomforts, aches and pains, but then your body adapts - it’s called conditioning.” But, Laura told me, your mind is what might tell you not to carry on, not your body, “It proved to me how the mind will limit you before the body does. Every time I felt like my body has nothing more to give, it surprised me with its ability to dig even deeper, its ability to heal, and its ability to adapt even in intense heat or through severe sleep deprivation.”

2. Visualisation works in stressful situations

A great man called Keith Goddard from Zeus Performance Psychology was Laura and her team’s rock in her preparation for the journey. “We developed individual performance enhancing strategies,”says Laura, “Strategies for getting us into a better performance zone or strategies to unwind. We learnt to use photos, music or touchstones if we were in difficult situations and weren’t sure what to do.” Laura found visualisation particularly useful, especially one time when she was in a long storm, “I was so uncomfortable,” she says, “We were sheltering in the cabin for days which only just squashed the four of us in sitting up. The thing was you couldn’t sit up straight.” Laura used a distraction technique to take her away, mentally from the discomfort, “I would use my drive home to where I’m from, Cornwall, and really think about the smells, the signs, the sounds that I would see along this special route - this would mentally take me away to a different, lovely place.”

3. Eating all the food you want doesn’t make you feel good

Laura usually weighs in at 57kg, runs marathons, does triathlons and has a low body fat percentage, however for this challenge she and the team were forced to put on quite a lot of weight prior to setting off as the sheer amount of exercise they would do, and the amount of daily calories they would burn would make them lose weight rapidly. As a result, against all female instincts, Laura went on a mission to put on weight and ended up piling on an extra 2 stone before their departure. To begin with, she says, she tried to do it in a healthy way, but wasn’t gaining enough weight so she ended up shovelling whatever she could into her mouth. “It was a very strange moment having a profiterole eating challenge with my strength and conditioning coach,” she laughs. But what she found even more interesting was how eating badly affected the way she felt. “I was the strongest I’ve ever been physically, but mentally I felt so lethargic and I was really emotionally fatigued. Plus my skin suddenly wasn’t great.”

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4. Learn to challenge your thought process

With only 8.5 metres to move around in with four other women for nine months, it was imperative for Laura to learn cognitive behavioural techniques that she could use in challenging situations. “I learnt to challenge my thoughts and also to realise that a thought was just a thought,” she says. There was one situation where they were two weeks out from finishing in Australia that she found herself using it to the max. "The last few weeks were a struggle for me, I was getting frustrated with members of the team, and so I decided to challenge myself, to question why I was getting frustrated. I realised that I was in a ‘James Cracknell headspace’ (there to win), and the team were more in a 'Ben Fogle headspace’ (there to finish).” Cognitive behavioural therapy helped Laura see another side of things.

5. Your way is not always the right way

Laura, despite her serene exterior, admits she has a very stubborn trait. This, she says can be very helpful when you have a vision you wish to fulfil, but it isn’t always helpful in a team situation or when people don’t see things your way. Cognitive behavioural therapy helped her to gain the ability to see things from someone else’s point of view. “I used to be very narrow-minded and couldn’t understand why people couldn’t see things my way,” she says. “If you are sitting opposite someone and there’s a big ball between you and one side is one colour and the other side is another, initially you only see one shade. However, when you think around the ball, you realise there is another side to everything.”

6. Team meetings are important

I asked Laura how they managed not to fall out with each other in such cramped conditions (with no hope of getting off any time soon!) for such a long period of time. “We genuinely did our utmost to work together as a team,” she says, “We could all see the benefits of working together.” Laura says they also scheduled time in every week for a weekly review which worked as a platform for people to air their issues whether it be physical, mental or how they thought they were acting as a team. “We put all our thoughts and emotions into that,” she says.

7. Be a ‘real’ leader

Laura’s thoughts about being a team leader were turned on their head through the experience. “I had this impression that leadership was all about keeping a stiff upper lip, water off a duck's back,” says Laura, “I thought I needed to be stoic, but I learnt that whilst I was as prepared as I possibly could be, I was also experiencing things for the first time.” As a result Laura tried to minimise any hierarchy. “The majority of the time it was a team decision and it was very important we had everybody’s input,” she says. As a testament to Laura’s natural leadership skills her team said in a blog from the boat: ‘Within every area of planning and execution of the expedition, LP has been nothing but professional throughout. LP is always looking to better herself or improve her skills. She’ll take on all feedback given to her and then make a point to take it on board and action it the next time there is an opportunity to put the particular skill or change of behaviour into practise.”

8. Preparation is key

Whilst Laura and her team have hit the headlines for their record-breaking crossing, Laura explains that the preparation for the event was almost as hard as the row itself. “Getting to the start line was a huge challenge,” she says, “ We had thought it was only going to take a year to organise and it ended up taking three for one reason or another,” she explains, “I’m still in two minds which was hardest - the row or the preparation.” However by the time they got to the start line they were fully prepared in many ways. One of the things they practised hard were drills out on the water so that things would click in automatically when we left. “We also did a 48 hour row before we left and practised the two hours on and two hours off rowing and sleeping regime."

9. Take your imagination with a pinch of salt

Laura learnt an invaluable life skill of separating emotions from reality, especially when things got challenging. Fear kicked in more at night time, she says: “When there wasn’t a moon, or the skies were overcast and the nights were pitch black - you couldn’t see where the waves were coming from but only hear them just before they hit the boat.” The only other time she says she truly felt fear was when she thought there were pirates trying to get on the boat. “We were rowing at night around the coastline of Samoa as we left on the third leg, and suddenly there was a boat next to us without lights on. There were about 6 men in snorkel masks in the water swimming next to our oars. It was a scenario we had prepared for, but it still felt scary.” How did you deal with it I ask? “I went into automatic and ran through our processes we had practised whilst shouting at them. We continued to row and got past them, and it turned out they weren’t pirates but they were illegally night fishing! In a nutshell I had a fear of my vivid imagination.”

10. Vanity isn’t lost at sea

When clothes (or washing them) is extremely limited, your hands are covered in callouses and you are using the ‘bucket and chuck it’ method of going to the loo for nine months, you would think vanity would go completely out the window, especially when there are only four people who will see you, all in the same boat (excuse the pun). Laura says however that all girliness was not completely lost. "Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t doing a daily facial routine or washing our hair daily (or even weekly) but I wasn’t prepared to let my eyebrows be the equivalent of a man rowing the ocean and growing a beard. My eyebrows have been a daily challenge since I was 13, so I had a pair of tweezers with me to sort them out. I also tucked away some waxing strips to wax my legs before we arrived on land, plus I had laser treatment for my underarms and bikini line before we left which worked a treat! I also cannot recommend a Tangle Teezer enough - it was magic.”


For more details go to www.coxlesscrew.com

Laura and the Coxless crew have been raising money for their chosen charities: Walking with the Wounded and Breast Cancer Care, you can sponsor them here

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