The Bristol Gulls are a team of four phenomenal women, taking on the world’s toughest rowing race, and they’re tackling the challenge in a sustainable way.
All the Gulls have a deep connection with the ocean, and will be raising much needed funds for RNLI Portishead and Clean Up Bristol Harbour.
The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2020, is a 3000 mile ocean rowing challenge; an unsupported crossing of the Atlantic, from La Gomera in the Canary Islands, to Antigua in the Caribbean.
We talked to Sofia – co-founder of the Bristol Gulls – about her dream of crossing the Atlantic to raise awareness about ocean pollution, and drowning prevention. (And, smashing a few gender stereotypes, along-the-way.)
So when did you first think, “I know, I’ll get a team of women together and we’ll row the Atlantic”?
“I grew up by the coast, in Uruguay, and I’ve always had a special connection with the sea. I love the sport of rowing and when I moved to Bristol in 2014, I started rowing at the City of Bristol Rowing Club.
I found out that rowing across the ocean was a thing, and in 2016 I met someone who was doing the Pacific.
There’s a documentary on Netflix about them “Losing Sight of Shore”, and I just thought it was one of the most inspiring things I’d ever seen…
I heard that the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge race guys, were coming to Bristol to do a talk, so I went along.
What really stuck me was that there were only 3 other girls in the audience. (And, one of them was the event organiser, one was the sister of a team member, and the other was the girlfriend.)
Rowing as a sport is very male dominated. At competition level, there are very few female events, and events for men that don’t even exist for women.”
“There’s such a divide – women are considered not as good in the sport as men, and therefore aren’t given the platform or exposure.”
Is that why you’re doing this, to disprove the point that women aren’t good enough?
“I believe that women can outperform men in endurance sports. They are potentially stronger than men mentally – so let’s go out there and prove it!”
“We have a resilience that comes from all the things we go through in life – like pushing babies out of our bodies – that men don’t have.”
“Some of the teams that we’ll be racing against are army men, and that’s great – I’m sure they’ll do well. They might beat us. Or, they might not. But it’s not about that.
It’s about proving that you don’t have to be a 7ft man from that walk of life, to do it.”
“Ideally, we’d be the first females across the finish line. That’s something good to aim for.
But, if it’s all looking positive and we’re a third of the way through the race, and we realise we’re head to head with some of the male teams…[laughs]”
This race is not solely about equality is it, sustainability is a big part of the story…
“We wanted to cross the Atlantic in a boat that was made with less impact on the environment.”
“And, we want to cross in a respectable time to prove the competitiveness of the boat itself, and send a message to the industry.”
“We rowed across the Atlantic in an eco-friendly boat, why are you still building boats that aren’t sustainable?”
“Plus, we’re supporting two charities that are both linked to the ocean. We wanted to support local organisations, in the South West.
So tell us a bit about the other Gulls on your team…
“Lorna’s one of my best friends, she grew up in Cornwall by the sea. She’s the calm and analytical one – so different to how I am, so we complement each other well! She likes a challenge and a problem she can solve.”
“Sarah came into the team last year. Another problem solver, she thinks very well on her feet and she’s an excellent team player. Her happiness is driven by the team’s happiness.”
“Phoebe only joined us in July this year, but she’s got this positive energy that’s just contagious! So, if there’s conflict she’s able to come in and remain objective – she always tries to see silver linings.”
What do you think will be the greatest challenges for the team?
“We’re all very aware of the things we cannot control.
I’ve learned in the last few years from my own experiences, trying to control things I can’t – it made me really miserable and anxious.
So now I know that I have to let go of things. To do that, I sometimes write it down. Are we going to get the money? What if someone gets coronavirus?
For me, I’m worried about people being disappointed that it isn’t what they hoped it would be.
We have these expectations in our heads about what this challenge means to us. And, it just means so much to all of us, but for different reasons.”
Other than fitness training, what other coaching have you had?
“We’ve been working with High Performance Development, who’ve been talking us through our journey.
First understanding what our goal is as a team, and then understanding and scrutinising what that means.”
“We looked at what we want our crossing to be like?
Wellness and fast don’t always go hand-in-hand and, in a normal day of rowing, I’d happily sacrifice wellness for performance. But this challenge is very different.
So we’ve all had to look at that and make sure our mindsets are aligned.”
“We’re trusting each other with our lives, therefore we should all respect that. Whatever you do affects not only you, but the boat and the whole crew. “
“We’ve done personality tests to understand what we’re all like, and how to communicate with each other.
I’m a doer. Others are analytical – it’s good to have that balance.
They helped us decide who’d do what specific jobs on the boat. Who’ll be skipper, who’ll do the navigation, who’ll do the technical stuff, and who’ll do the wellbeing kind of jobs.
So, Phoebe is focused on making sure we’ve all eaten and drunk enough water – the mothering everyone – it comes so naturally to her.”
Obviously the biggest challenge is yet to come, but it sounds like you’ve already been on an amazing journey of discovery – about yourselves and each other…
“Yeah, honestly preparing and planning this has been – hands down – the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
“We put ads on gumtree and started doing random jobs – painting houses, lifting wood, gardening, whatever! Because we needed the money.”
“We’ve had full time jobs on the side. We’ve all put in our savings, been fundraising constantly, including crowdfunding and corporate sponsorship.”
What’s your goal in terms of your race time?
“Anything south of 40 days for a team of 4 is extremely good. Anything less than 37 is top class.
We’re not going to go fast at the expense of enjoying it.
Why would you do something of this magnitude and come out the other side and not be friends, or have permanent health issues? We want to keep the boat and the people on it safe.”
“We want it to be fast, we want it to be safe and we want it to be happy.”
“Our goal isn’t to win the race. Our goal is that we’re going to go and do the best we can, but make sure we keep it sustainable and consistent.”
“You have to just be happy with yourself and that you’ve done what you can. The rest is not up to you.”
“There’s so many things that can happen. If there’s something you can do, do it. Everything else is up to God (or whatever you believe in).”
You’re all about taking action, Sofia, so what would you like people to do when they’ve finished reading this article?
“Take a look in the mirror and ask, what can I do to make the world a better place?
Is there anything in my behaviour that I can change? Is there anything I buy that’s damaging the environment? What’s the alternative?
Pick one thing.
If everyone did that, it would be huge!”
You can follow the Bristol Gulls on their epic journey via Instagram. Or track their progress, on the ‘YB Races’ app.
And, if you would like to donate to their good causes, please go here.
The Bristol Gulls want to say an extra special thank you to their families: Carter, Deambrosi, Hunt and & Wright.
Luke Brewster, Ellie Buck, Susie Burness, Ruari Chisholm, Ellie Crawley, Ester De Roij, Livvy Drake, Steff Evans, Martin Hahn, Carina Hall, Steve Hockings, Andy Howse, Tim Hughes,Kim Ingleby, Leila Johns, Hugo Mitchell-heggs, Daphne Monro, Jonny Payman, Lucie Peters, Paul Pinder, Leah Rider, Amy Shaw, Carolyn Skuce, Martin Taylor, Dawn Turner, Sarah Whittington,
City of Bristol Rowing Club, Exmouth Marina, Feel Fit, Energised Performance, High Performance Development, Valesco Fitness Collective.
And to all the other people and organisations who have supported them on their journey so far…