Portsmouth’s Emma Mitchell conquers Pacific

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  • Women complete 9,200-mile voyage across world’s largest ocean
  • Adventure that started in San Francisco ends in triumph in Cairns, Australia
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Portsmouth’s Emma Mitchell has completed an epic row across the Pacific Ocean.

After nine months at sea, she and her fellow female adventurers completed one of the toughest expeditions on the planet, rowing more than 9,200 miles.

The Coxless Crew - a group of female adventurers - celebrate in Cairns, Australia, after rowing their 29 foot boat, Doris, more than 9,200 miles across the Pacific Ocean. Picture: Sarah Moshman, Losing Sight of Shore / PA Wire

The Coxless Crew - a group of female adventurers - celebrate in Cairns, Australia, after rowing their 29 foot boat, Doris, more than 9,200 miles across the Pacific Ocean. Picture: Sarah Moshman, Losing Sight of Shore / PA Wire

The Coxless Crew set out on their journey from San Francisco in April, when they sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and pointed Doris, their pink 29ft boat, towards Australia.

Shortly before 1am on Monday, after 257 days of enduring storms, enormous waves, sea sickness and the odd attack of flying fish, the four women nosed Doris’s faded bow into the Marlin Marina at Cairns to be greeted by their proud families and friends.

There was jubilation as Laura Penhaul, Natalia Cohen, Emma Mitchell and Meg Dyos hugged each other before joining hands and taking their first unsteady steps onto solid ground for more than three months.

Sitting down for a well-earned beer in front of scores of people who cheered them ashore, the women were all grins as they described their expedition and arrival as “an overwhelming experience”.

It’s fair to say that with physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation and a lack of savoury food we are being tested to our limits. However this is where we draw on our spirit, row hard, row strong, row together

Coxless Crew blog entry

But there were conflicting emotions as they said goodbye to Doris, whose cramped cabins and salty deck have been their home for three quarters of a year.

Their final few days on the waves were spent negotiating the Great Barrier Reef and dodging dive-bombing boobie birds, and with conditions conspiring against them and supplies dwindling fast they had to dig deep to finish the last few miles.

Writing on their blog on Sunday they said: “It has been an exhausting and emotional few days as we make our approach to land.

“The last 8,500 nautical miles don’t matter anymore, it is all about these last 20. It’s fair to say that with physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation and a lack of savoury food we are being tested to our limits. However this is where we draw on our spirit, row hard, row strong, row together.”

Despite taking three months longer than planned the expedition has set two world records, the women becoming the first all-female team and the first team of four to row the Pacific.

The journey, split into three legs with resupply stops in Hawaii and Samoa, was completed in its entirety by three of the crew - Ms Penhaul, 31, Ms Cohen, 40, both from London, and Ms Mitchell, 30, from Marlow in Buckinghamshire.

Isabel Burnham, 31, from Saffron Walden near Cambridge, completed the crew for the first leg; Lizanne van Vuuren, 27, a South African who grew up in Newbury, took over for the second stage, while Meg Dyos, 25, from London, manned the oars for the final section.

The expedition got off to a bad start when water damage to Doris’s battery charging system forced them back to California, costing 16 days.

Back on the ocean they rowed continuously as pairs in two-hour shifts, sleeping 90 minutes at a time. Each consumed 5,000 calories a day, devouring freeze-dried meals with a side of protein bars, chocolate, fruit or nuts, washed down with desalinated sea water.

The rowers had to contend with a battering from a tropical storm, waves the size of houses and the heart-stopping approach of a humpback whale that surfaced just yards away.

Drenched by rain and seawater they endured painful sores, but also faced temperatures so hot they cooked a pancake on the deck just from the sun’s rays.

Setbacks from El Nino and a notorious stretch of ocean where the winds died away left them weeks behind schedule, and when they reached Samoa they were days from running out of food, but emails and the occasional call from home helped them through the dark times.

With their expedition - filmed for a documentary, Losing Sight Of Shore - now over, the Coxless Crew will concentrate on raising funds for the two charities they are supporting, Walking With The Wounded and Breast Cancer Care.

Heroines of the Pacific

The Coxless Crew is made up of six women, all of whom who are single and took time out from their jobs to row the Pacific.

:: Laura Penhaul, 32, originally from Cornwall but now living and working in London, is the founder and leader of the Coxless Crew. The lead physiotherapist for British Paralympics Athletics, she is a keen marathon runner, cyclist and triathlete.

:: Natalia Cohen, 40, is based in London. An adventure tour leader and manager, she has lived and worked in more than 50 countries in the last 15 years and has completed the Inca Trail in Peru 10 times. She has already crossed a section of the Pacific as part of a crew in a small yacht, monitoring plastic pollution.

:: Emma Mitchell, 30, is originally from Portsmouth and now lives in Marlow in Buckinghamshire. An expedition manager, she has rowed for England and is an ex-Cambridge Blue who competed in the Boat Race. She has a PhD, has undertaken expedition-leading courses in the jungles of Belize and has taken part in the Mont Blanc and Berlin marathons.

:: Isabel Burnham, 31, is a solicitor from Saffron Walden near Cambridge who joined the Coxless Crew for the first leg, from San Francisco to Hawaii. A keen mountaineer, trekker and ultramarathon runner, she took part in a continuous running relay from London to Rome and also rowed for Cambridge University.

:: Lizanne van Vuuren, 27, a South African osteopath who grew up in Newbury, was part of the crew for the second leg, from Hawaii to Samoa. She is a keen swimmer and runner who has completed a half ironman triathlon and also plays guitar.

:: Meg Dyos, 25, an English graduate who works as an estate agent in London, joined the Coxless Crew for the third leg, from Samoa to Cairns in Australia. She has run the London Marathon, the Great North Run and led an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Spaghetti, porridge and pancakes - how the coxless crew survived

Upon reaching land in Cairns, Australia the Coxless Crew became the first all-female team and the first four-person boat to row the Pacific.

During their expedition the crew:

:: Rowed at least 8,000 nautical miles, or 9,206 miles - more than a third of the Earth’s circumference. The true distance, measured by equipment on the boat rather than by satellite estimates, could be hundreds of miles more.

:: The first leg, San Francisco to Hawaii, was at least 2,641 miles; the second, Hawaii to Samoa, at least 3,074 miles; the last leg, Samoa to Cairns, was at least 2,957 miles. They also rowed at least 534 miles on a first leg that was aborted when water damaged the boat’s battery charging system.

:: Spent 257 days at sea - 84 days on the first stage, including 16 days for the aborted attempt; 96 days on stage two; and 77 on stage three.

:: Enjoyed around 512 ocean sunrises and sunsets.

:: Lived aboard a pink 29ft, 1.5-tonne boat called Doris, a Greek baby name meaning “gift” and also the daughter of Oceanus and mother of the sea nymphs the Nereids in Greek mythology.

:: Ate on average three meals of dehydrated food a day - around 770 meals each of freeze-dried chicken noodles, curries or spaghetti Bolognese, supplemented by protein bars, chocolate, nuts and porridge.

:: Burned 5,000 calories each a day - roughly the same as running two marathons every 24 hours, or more than 510 26.2-mile races over the entire expedition.

:: Rowed in pairs for 12 hours a day, in two hour sessions - about 3,080 hours each in total, the same as rowing non-stop for 128 days.

:: Slept approximately six hours each a day, napping for 1.5 hours at a time.

:: Endured gales, storms, waves as high as three-storey buildings and temperatures up to 40C (104F) and as low as 12C (53.6F).

:: Suffered sea sickness, sunburn, salt and pressure sores and hands that stiffened into claw shapes from pulling the oars for so long.

:: Saw humpback whales yards from their boat, pods of dolphins, schools of mahi-mahi dolphinfish, a sea snake, at least one albatross and two sharks they christened Eduardo and Fernando which followed their boat.

:: Dodged scores of flying fish - though they were often caught out and ended up bruised and battered with dazed fish floundering on Doris’s deck.

:: Spotted little other human life on the ocean - a few cargo ships, the odd passenger boat, a couple on a yacht and another ocean rower, John Beeden, who set his own record for a solo Pacific crossing just before New Year.

:: Enjoyed pancakes cooked on the deck by the Sun’s rays, using a Coxless Crew postcard to flip them.

:: Adorned Doris with fairy lights and a mini tree for Christmas, even smuggling aboard a Christmas cake.