tlantic row challenge

Female crew smashes world record, raises £1m for human trafficking charities

The all-female crew on board The Guardian smashed two world records on 22 January 2012 – the first five-woman team to row any ocean and the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by an all-female team.

As part of the world’s toughest rowing race, the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, the girls rowed the 3,000 miles across the Atlantic starting on 7 December to raise awareness of human trafficking, and to raise £1 million for The A21 Campaign and ECPAT UK.

Skipper Debbie Beadle said: “We’re exhausted and relieved. We’ve seen nothing but the sea, dolphins and each other for 45 days, so it’s overwhelming to see all our family and friends. Our bodies are falling apart – we’re waking up with our hands cramped into the rowing position and our backs aching.

"We’ve been on dehydrated food and desalinated water for a month and a half, so we can’t wait to have some proper food and an ice-cold cocktail! Oh, and to sleep in a proper bed! It’s all so emotional – and to break the world records too!”

More people have gone into space or climbed Everest than have rowed an ocean, so why did these five women, of which only one had previous rowing experience, take up this challenge?

It was the brainchild of Julia Immonen (pictured above, centre), a director’s assistant at Sky Sports News, founder of Sports Against Trafficking and member of HTB church. Her love for sport and passion to see an end to human trafficking were the combined inspiration for Row For Freedom. I had the privilege of talking to her onboard when they were just 80 miles away from the finishing point – Barbados.

The sheer determination that gripped these women is inspiring. They endured sweltering heat, terrible sores and chafing (which resulted in them rowing naked!), 30-foot waves, storms, sickness, sleep deprivation (due to the constant 24-hr pattern of rowing two hours on, two hours off), hunger, boredom, loneliness, cramp and other aches and pains and didn’t even have any contact with their families to help them through it: “We opted not to have news from home as we were worried that it would be too emotional to hear from close relatives while in the middle of the Atlantic.”

Their boat suffered too, making things much harder for them. The automatic steering malfunctioned early on, their water-maker caught fire and the desalinator broke, so they used a hand pump to create drinking water. All this on top of the fact that there were no bathroom facilities, limited cooking ability and a tiny space to sleep in.

Each one of them faced their own personal challenges. Julia explained that it was the mental side of it that was hardest for her: “Breaking down the enormity of 3,000 miles and potentially 50 days and taking it step by step … This adventure is one of incredible highs and lows but when I’m in pain physically or mentally, when it is so tough I’ve cried buckets and been really emotional, I think I have the option to get off this boat in Barbados and there are 27 million who don’t have that freedom. That cause has always been at the forefront of my mind. Kate and I pray at night together when rowing and I said early on let’s pray for the 27 million each night and we have – that keeps it really real for me.”

Julia is certainly determined to make sure everyone knows the facts about human trafficking. She told me the shocking truth of what goes on before a huge sporting event, and how desperate she is to raise people’s awareness before the Games here in the summer:

“I was in South Africa before the World Cup with my best friend and we visited a safe house for trafficked women and it was there that we learned about these large sporting events – that it’s just supply and demand. When millions of people descend on a city it places a demand on hotels, on food and when there are millions of men gathered the demand for sex goes up. It so alarmed me and it was something I became very passionate about because I work in sport. I also thought what is going to be happening on our doorstep in the UK in 2012 and the 2014 Commonwealth Games? I want to raise awareness about this when I get back, which was why I so wanted Row For Freedom to be a success.

“A pre-Olympic campaign is definitely something I want to do and I’ve done my homework – prostitution has already doubled in East London ahead of the Olympics because there are 10,000 men working on the construction site. This just shows what a big problem it is and the average person in the UK just doesn’t know about it.”

Even with the end in sight and the world records within reach, Julia’s thoughts were still focused on the victims of human trafficking: “The best support you can give us is by donating to these worthy causes or by doing something yourself for freedom – be inspired to make a difference with whatever you are passionate about.”


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