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This rowing team from Antigua made history in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge

Team Antigua Island Girls row into English Harbour in Antigua on Jan. 28, 2019, after arriving home following 47 days and 3,000 miles of rowing in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. They are the first all-black team to row across the Atlantic.
Team Antigua Island Girls row into English Harbour in Antigua on Jan. 28, 2019, after arriving home following 47 days and 3,000 miles of rowing in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. They are the first all-black team to row across the Atlantic. Gemma Hazelwood Photography

Kevinia Francis stepped off the 25-foot row boat and onto the jam-packed pier at English Harbour in southern Antigua. Physically and emotionally spent, she embraced the family members she had not seen in almost three months. Her legs were rubbery, the result of atrophy from 47 straight days at sea during the 3,000-mile Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge from La Gomera (Canary Islands) to Antigua.

Francis’ teammates — Christal Clashing, Samara Emmanuel and Elvira Bell — also hugged family members and supporters as tears and champagne flowed. More than 1,000 locals came out to welcome the four women home. The marina and tourist haven made famous by British Admiral Horatio Nelson more than a century earlier was transformed into a cascade of red-yellow-and-blue Antigua flags.

Minutes earlier, when the four women made their final row into the channel while flanked by the Antigua Coast Guard, they saw supporters waving flags from the hills. “It was very overwhelming,” says Francis, a part-time Kendall resident who earned a Master’s Degree in Physical Therapy from Florida International University in 2003.

Led by Francis, Team Antigua Island Girls became the first all-black team — male or female — to row across the Atlantic. They embarked from La Gomera on Dec. 12, 2018, and arrived in Antigua on Jan. 28, 2019. In between, they endured a grueling trip that tested their physical and mental endurance, discipline and tolerance. By the time they docked, the four women had lost a combined 102 pounds. But they persevered to finish 13th overall of the 28 teams. Now they were back home, with time to reflect about an adventure that was almost a year in the making.

A CLARION CALL

In 2015 and 2017, Antigua entered teams in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, billed as the world’s toughest row. But those squads consisted of all men. After last year’s race, there was a national call by the government to assemble the first all-female Antiguan squad. Island-wide recruiting commenced in early February of 2018. About 16 women showed strong interest initially and began to attend meetings. That number then dwindled to 12. By March the final five (four, plus one alternate) was confirmed:

Francis, 40, a personal trainer and karate Black Belt who relishes outdoor challenges and has competed in triathlons. Francis was voted captain by her teammates.

Clashing, 29, a swimmer who represented Antigua at the 2004 Olympics in Athens at age 14, the youngest Olympian in the island’s history.

Emmanuel, 32, the first certified female boat captain in Antigua.

Bell, 37, who is Francis’ cousin and often joins Francis during her outdoor ventures.

Junella King, 17, who came on board just months before graduating from high school. King was pegged as the alternate.

With the team finalized, the members went in search of sponsors. They would need in excess of $100,000 to finance the venture. They worked the phones, contacted newspapers, radio and TV stations, and utilized the power of social media. They also identified a charity that would receive the proceeds: Cottage of Hope, a refuge for girls who have been abused, neglected or orphaned. In a few months, with contributions from mostly local businesses, they raised in excess of $200,000.

The Talisker Whisky Challenge began in 1997 as the Atlantic Rowing Challenge. The first route was Tenerife (Canary Islands) to Barbados and featured only teams of two rowers. Over the years, the race evolved to feature a variety of categories, including singles and even teams of six. Talisker Whisky, a distillery based in Scotland, took over as the main organizer in 2012.

Although no one has died during the event, there have been capsized boats, rescues and illnesses. So Team Antigua Island Girls were aware early of what they were up against. They went through the mandatory preparations, including a survival seminar and months of weight training and core exercises in the gym. They then conducted two test rows — 68 miles from Antigua to Saint Kitts, a night row that took 14 hours, and a row around Antigua that took four days — before heading to Essex, England, for a month of final training last November.

The girls departed Antigua for Essex to much fanfare on Oct. 30, 2018. After their training in Essex, they flew to Tenerife and took a ferry to La Gomera. Twenty-eight teams took off on Wednesday, December 12, 2018.

AN OPTIMISTIC START

“When we started the race we had the adrenaline pumping and we were rowing hard,” Francis says. “We were sometimes rowing three at a time.”

But by nightfall on Day 1, two of the women began to feel seasick. Bell was most affected. She began regurgitating everything she ate. When the weather team phoned with the customary updates, the women informed them about Bell’s condition. “They told us if Elvira doesn’t get any better they would have to get her off the boat,” Francis says.

Were that to happen, the team would be disqualified. Bell overheard the conversation. “I decided that by the hook or the crook I was going to help us get back to Antigua,” says Bell. “I wanted to set an example to my son about not giving up and I didn’t want to let down the girls at Cottage of Hope.”

So Bell ate two slices of stale pizza and took some anti-regurgitation tablets. She recovered, but the team could not make up the time it lost.

ROUGHING IT

The rowers’ schedule was quite regimented. They rowed in interchangeable teams of two (sometimes three) in two-hour shifts. The two who weren’t rowing would get some sleep or attend to other duties such as scraping barnacles from the exterior of the boat or wiping residue off the solar panels, the main source of electricity. “I never got more than an hour and a half sleep at any point during the race,” Francis says.

The eating schedule also had to be streamlined. The team brought along a 60-day supply of food. They would have a “replacement meal” protein shake for breakfast, a snack for lunch and a “Ready to Eat” meal for dinner, usually Cheese Tortellini, Pasta Fagioli or Chicken Tikka Marsala. They would have another protein shake at night.

Once the seasickness was under control, another obstacle surfaced. The rowers were getting very little wind assistance. “Some days we felt like we were rowing in mud,” Francis says. “The race is very much weather-dependent. When the wind is good, we can go 4 to 8 knots. Some days we were struggling for 1 knot.”

Although the race is challenging, there are many safeguards to minimize danger. First, the race starts in December — after hurricane season. There are two rescue sailboats available, however any assistance results in automatic disqualification. Also, rowers must be harnessed in at all times. The boat has two Satellite phones – one for communication with race organizers and the weather team and another to speak with the rowers’ families. “We told our families not to call us, we will call them,” Francis says. “We didn’t want to hear any bad news while we were out there.”

Despite the safeguards, this is the Atlantic Ocean. Rowers are at the mercy of the elements — and wildlife. It wasn’t uncommon in the mornings to find several flying fish that had torpedoed their way onto the vessel during the night. The pesky flying fish were a thorn for much of the trip. “I would get hit with them in the face sometimes when I was rowing,” Clashing says. “I would sometimes find flying fish in weird [crevices] on the boat, making you wonder how they got in there.”

The boat — dubbed the “Jean Mary” — was donated some years earlier by an anonymous expatriate couple in Antigua. The sleek, hydrodynamic craft, which costs about $100,000 new, is made of carbon fiber and is equipped with an auto pilot, water maker, solar panels, plus navigational tools, including a GPS monitor.

The one convenience it does not have is a bathroom. Rowers had to use a bucket to relieve themselves. The bucket was located in the back of the boat. So whenever a rower was using it, her teammates would be rowing and facing the same direction. “In the beginning it was really uncomfortable,” Francis says, “but after a while you were like ... whatever.”

TIME TO GET HOME

As the days turned into weeks and the race gradually became more of a chore due to lack of strong trade winds, the women realized they were no longer on pace for a record. One tactical mistake they made was to take a southerly route instead of the customary southwest passage. They hoped to get wind assistance but didn’t. Eventually, they reassessed their goals and focused simply on getting home.

The women said one source of motivation was the knowledge that the route they were taking was similar to the ones used by slave ships centuries earlier. They said they felt the presence of their ancestors. Bell especially said she felt a tangible presence and insists she was not hallucinating. “At one point I felt like the ancestors were helping me to row,” Bell says with a serious tone. “I even stopped rowing at one time and the oars kept moving. I told the girls about it and they thought I was crazy.”

Some days were especially memorable, such as the time a group of about 60 dolphins frolicked near the craft.

“It was almost like a dolphin convention,” Clashing says.

Night time was not as scary as one might imagine, Francis says. The moonlight reflected off the ocean, creating a pleasing hue. Generally, the weather was pleasant. There were some cool days but the Atlantic was never frigid. On January 18, the women took a break from their continuous rowing, but it was for good reason. It was Emmanuel’s 33rd birthday. Her teammates presented her with chocolate chip biscuit pudding in the shape of a small cake and a homemade birthday card. Bell then serenaded her with a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday.

Seven days later — three days before their arrival — celebration turned to chaos.

‘A ROGUE WAVE’

“That night it was overcast and the sky was pitch black,” Francis says. “All of a sudden a rogue wave pitched the boat. Me and Christal were thrown off our seats and pushed onto the safety lines. The boat turned to its side at a 90-degree angle. Water was gushing all over my face. It all happened so fast. If it wasn’t for the safety lines I probably would have gone overboard. Also, the auto pilot got knocked out.”

The boat eventually righted itself. The auto pilot was eventually reset, but the women were now paranoid about the ocean and its waves, especially at night. “After that, we just wanted to get home,” Francis says.

Not so fast, said the race organizers.

At their current pace, the women were scheduled to arrive in Antigua around midnight Sunday (Jan. 27). The organizers were unaware of the near-catastrophe and the girls’ yearning to get back to land. They asked them to slow their progress so they could arrive around mid-day Monday in order for the public, media, sponsors and politicians to give them an official welcome. “So we had to slow down,” says Francis, bemused by the irony of the women rowing as fast they could for 46 days and now being told they were going too fast.

When the women entered English Harbour, they were visibly thinner but in good spirits. They lit flares and raised them in unison. Once they came on land, they hugged more people than they can remember, including many strangers.

BACK TO CIVILIZATION

In the days and weeks after their arrival, they have made numerous public appearances. Strangers approach them on the street, many emotional, sharing stories about what the accomplishment means to them. “One girl told me that because of us she’s now going to seriously pursue her dream of being an actress,” Francis says. Antigua’s famous soca band Burning Flames re-mixed their 1989 hit song Island Girl and altered the lyrics as a tribute to the girls.

The women know the novelty will eventually subside and they will go back to their normal routines. They were not paid for their accomplishment, but Clashing plans to pen a book about the trip, including how she used it as catharsis in her personal battle against depression. Francis is already speaking to sponsors about starting a rowing club in Antigua for children. She also hasn’t written off another Atlantic crossing.

After being inseparable for almost a year, including their 47 eventful days at sea, the women will forever be linked. Like soldiers in an army bunker whose survival depends on each other, they have formed a profound bond. “Now it feels strange when we’re not together,” Clashing says.

The memory of reaching their homeland, drenched in sweat and tears after 47 days at sea, will replay in their minds forever.

It was indeed a watershed moment.

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