Four Devon women are battling the elements to row, unaided and unsupported, over rough seas, on board a 28-foot rowing boat for up to 60 days across the Atlantic.

Before the team can reap the rewards of this incredible feat, they must first endure sleep deprivation, dehydration, huge calorie deficits, hallucinations, salt sores, 60 ft waves and almost total physical and mental exhaustion as they navigate their way across the vast stretch of inhospitable water.

When more people have been into space than have rowed the Atlantic, it’s worth asking the team what inspired such an ambition.

We spoke to the four women from Kingsbridge to get the lowdown on their forthcoming world record attempt.

What inspired your desire to row the Atlantic?

Helen Symons who will turn 33 while at sea, and her hockey team buddy, Louise Read, who will celebrate her fiftieth birthday mid-row, were undertaking a gruelling cycling challenge from John O’Groats to Land’s End in 2015 when they joked that it would probably be easier to row the Atlantic because at least it was flat.

That idea gently took hold, and in spite of the likelihood that waves would disrupt the desired flatness of such a mission, soon the two were joined by fellow hockey team members, Chloe Harvey, aged 27, and Lou’s daughter, Emily Read, who will celebrate her 21st during the race.

Together the four have been training for what could be a 60-day test, during which they will face all kinds of mental and physical challenges.

‘We intend to become the fastest all-women crew to cross the Atlantic. The current record stands at 34 days; it’s a tough ask, but we like a challenge,’ says Helen. ‘Hey, we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t!’

It may have been upon the more familiar terrain of the astroturf where the women practised hockey for Salcombe and Kingsbridge that the four forged their connection, but hundreds of miles of water is a very different element to negotiate, with its formidable weather and currents.

About the challenge

The team departs from San Sebastian in the Canary Islands and the challenge concludes at Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua. Once the team leaves the security of the harbour they are on their own.

During the challenge there are no whole-team breaks, just continued rowing with pairs alternating: two hours on, two hours off, 24-hours a day until they reach their destination for days, maybe even months.

‘It’s going to be tough,’ says the youngest member of the team, Emily, ‘But we’re preparing as best we can by hitting the gym 4-5 times a week. We’re doing a lot of weight training as each us needs to gain 6% more muscle mass in the run up. Friends and family have to be very supportive and patient - especially as they don’t get to see much of us at the moment!’

Not only is the Astro-to Atlantic team aiming to complete the feat unassisted, that is entirely under their own steam with no backup travelling alongside, but they are also aiming to beat the world record, which was completed in just 34 days.

The four have done their research, speaking to others who have accomplished similar challenges and gathering advice from the rowing community, which has been very encouraging and generous.

The background that anchors the team

You could be forgiven for assuming the south Devon team have been seafarers since birth, but actually, though each of them is very physically fit and active in pursuing a punishing training programme training in anticipation of the launch, none of them are sailors or ocean rowers.

In fact, Chloe is a paralegal, Lou and Emily both administrators, and Helen a driving instructor, each fitting their disciplined programme of training around fairly normal working lives.

’We’re all very excited,’ says Lou. ‘But there’s so much planning and work to do behind the scenes even before we get the the start line. We’ve been putting in a great deal of energy into raising the funds we need to make the challenge possible. Our corporate sponsors and partners have been fantastic, but to meet our December launch date we need just one more push by welcoming new partners aboard.’

Indeed, the race is so high profile that the 2015 Talisker Atlantic challenge reached 39 countries and National Geographic became the race’s global launch partner, with race stories reaching millions globally.

‘The preparation has been a huge learning curve for us,’ says Helen. ‘We’ve undertaken all the necessary first aid, navigation and fitness training, but we’ve learnt from scratch and we need to be very practised and knowledgeable to do what we are planning.’

Why December?

The team departs on December 12th; the most favourable time of year in terms of weather and currents.

The warmer climes of the Canary Islands will be a welcome contrast to the UK’s frosty shores during December, but the relative comfort won’t last for long as the team will very quickly set themselves in motion for the rhythm they will need to cover the necessary distance every hour, day and night.

How are you preparing?

The team has been fundraising and gathering support steadily since 2016 with the aim of reaching the £100,000 needed to make the feat possible, which includes the cost of the boat, their equipment, and the training they need to successfully navigate the ocean.

‘To date we’ve run fundraisers from gin parties to bingo nights,’ says Chloe. ‘It’s been great fun and we have more planned too. We’ve invited our supporters to take on our 500m and 200m sprints for just £2 per entry, which is a really fun way for individuals to get involved.’

Needless to say, beyond the levels of physical fitness and resilience required, the team is also preparing mentally for the task ahead. Spending possibly up to 60 days together in a small boat, sleep deprived (thanks to the sheer noise of the waves against bow and the heat of the cabins), while living on what looks like space food, is certainly likely to test even the closest of bonds.

‘We already see a great deal of each other, in fact, it’s weird when a day passes and we don’t,’ says Emily, the youngest member of the team. We know the right things and the wrong things to say to each other and there will be tough times, but we’ll be there to help each other along.’

It’s clear the team is not only bonded by their close relationships on the pitch, but also by their fearless sense of adventure and with it the inevitable element of trepidation required to fully prepare for such an undertaking. Certainly team spirit is the most fundamental of requirements for such a task, and something the four women have in spades.

Supporting Devon Air Ambulance

Once the team has met their ambition to hit the water, they can switch their focus to fundraising for Devon Air Ambulance. The charity is very close to the women’s hearts as a sporting club and as people involved in dynamic physical activities.

‘It was very easy to agree on who to raise money for’, says Lou. ‘We all know someone who has been touched by the charity, which is an essential service to Devon’s communities. We’re looking forward to helping to make a positive difference to those within the county that we live, work and train.’

Following the race, the team also plans to donate money raised from the sale of the boat and the equipment to Devon Air Ambulance.

‘We’re bowled over by the incredible feat the Astro to Atlantic team is undertaking,’ says Caroline Creer, Fundraising and Communications Director for the charity. ‘They are four very courageous people who have committed to a real test of their strength, endurance and themselves and we feel very honoured to have been selected as their charity to support.’

Would you like to support the challenge?

If you would like to support the Astro to Atlantic team then visit their website