Mums’ bid to become oldest to row the Atlantic

The Yorkshire Rows who are to take part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge in 2015.  (l-r) Frances Davies, Helen Butters, Niki Doeg, and Janette Benaddi.
The Yorkshire Rows who are to take part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge in 2015. (l-r) Frances Davies, Helen Butters, Niki Doeg, and Janette Benaddi.
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Four working mums from York are planning to break a world record by becoming the oldest rowers to cross the Atlantic. Catherine Scott caught up with them as they start their training.

Many women feel in need of a new challenge when their children are a bit older.

But four working mums from York have taken that to a whole new level.

Janette Benaddi, Helen Butters, Frances Davies and Niki Doeg, known as Yorkshire Rows, are taking part in the next Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, billed as the toughest rowing race on earth.

And what makes the challenge even more remarkable is that the foursome only took up rowing two years ago.

“We all joined Guy Fawkes rowing club in York around the same time,” explains Niki who runs a financial consultancy business with her husband.

“Our children go to the same school but a lot are in different years so we didn’t really know each other that well. I think we all wanted something a bit different to do now that our children are a bit bigger. And we all just loved it.”

But enjoying competing in team events on the River Ouse in York is a far cry from tackling 30 foot waves, rowing 3,000 nautical miles nonstop in the world’s toughest races crossing the Atlantic Ocean. “It all happened over a glass wine, like these things do” explains Janette, 49.. “Frances had done some adventurous challenges before and just said at a dinner ‘Who wants to row the Atlantic?’.”

“I’d read some books by people who had rowed the Atlantic I thought how amazing, but there’s no way I could do that,” explains Frances, 45,a solicitor in Leeds who is mum to Jay,12 and Jack, 11.

“But the more time went on I started to think ‘why can’t I do that?’.”

The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge takes place every two years, with the current race just having come to an end. The women are now setting about their physical and mental training as well as raising the sponsorship needed to take part.

“We need £90,000 in sponsorships before we even begin,” said Frances. The women, who will travel to La Gomera in the Canaries for the start of the race in November 2015, will be the oldest four-man team to take part in the race which will make them world record holders when they cross the finish line some eight weeks after setting off.

“It’s a big commitment,” admits Niki. “We all work and have had to get three months off which isn’t that easy. We will be away over Christmas and New Year which will be hard but everyone has been very supportive.”

Niki, who at 43 is the youngest in the team, is mother to Aiden, seven and Corby ten. “Aiden just said: “Are you going to die” and when I said ‘no’ he said fine, have fun. We really want to get all the children involved.”

The start of the race may be a year and a half away but the women have already started their training, both physical and mental.

“We’ve spoken to a lot of people and everyone says it is 95 per cent mental and five per cent physical. So we are going to get some help from a sports psychologist and a doctor friend who is going to help us with any medic ation we might need.”

Four women in a tiny boat for two months in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean may sound like a recipe for disaster to some, not so says Janette. “We all know each other pretty well and of course there will be tears and laughter but we will get through it.”

“I just hope by the end we are still all friends,” says Frances, “I am sure there will be times when we want to chuck each other off the boat but we are getting some help from people who know about team dynamics so hopefully we will be able to handle anything that comes up. I just want us to enjoy it.”

For NHS worker Helen, 43, mother of Henry 10 and Lucy,14, rowing didn’t come easily. “I like to challenge myself but I did find rowing hard. I think if it hadn’t been for this group of women I might have given up. It’s cold and wet and difficult, but now I love it.”

The women will be travelling this weekend to order the boat which will become their second home over the coming months.

The women have also set themselves an ambitious target for three charities Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, Action for Children and Yorkshire Air Ambulance.

“We want to raise at least £150,000 for the charities,” says Janette. “They are very personal to all of us.”

Although raising money for charity is a big part of the challenge, it isn’t the women’s main driver.

“We want to show that women of a certain age, who have children and jobs can go out and do something extraordinary,” explains Niki. “It doesn’t have to be rowing the Atlantic, it could be anything.”
“I’d like to think that someone reading about us will think ‘If they can do that I can do something’,” says Janette. “It could be joining the gym, anything. But being a working mum doesn’t mean you can’t do something.”

All four women know there are a lot of challenges ahead.

For Janette, mother to Safiya, 12, and James 16, it will be over-coming her fear of sharks, for Frances it is saying goodbye to her kids.

The women plan to row two hours on two hours off 24 hours a day.

“We are all used to sleep deprivation as we’ve brought up two children,” says Niki whose main concern is equipment failure.

None of the women think their age is against them.

“To the contrary,” says Frances. “ We are used to dealing with what life throws at us and I think that will help us cope where may be some less experienced and younger competitors might panic.”

For more on Yorkshire Rows visit Twitter@yorkshirerows or call 07521 959627.