Yorkshire Rows: Against the tide

Forty foot waves, seasickness and sharks were all in a day’s work when the oldest female crew to cross the Atlantic were rowing

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It was September 2012 when four middle-aged women from York met at their local rowing club. All mothers to two children, Janette Benaddi, Helen Butters, Frances Davies and Niki Doeg each had their own reasons for joining. For Benaddi it was a way for her to find common ground with her teenage son, who had recently taken up the sport – and she was hoping she might lose some weight in the process. For Davies, a solicitor, it was a case of filling a gap in her busy schedule; for Butters it was a way to learn a new skill; Doeg, who had known Davies for some time, wanted a way to blow off some steam in between raising two small boys and running a finance business.

Every Saturday morning the foursome would climb into a wooden boat and row their way down the River Ouse before heading to a hotel for coffee and cake.

Davies wrote: “I do see that it sounds very silly, but I think we could do this race.”

For the first few months their commitment to rowing was simply recreational. In their first race the group was towed off the River Ouse after ploughing into the riverbank, but they didn’t let the experience deter them from entering more. Then, in May 2013, Davies yearned to crank their ambitions up a notch: she suggested that they enter a gruelling race across the Atlantic Ocean.

She emailed the others: “I do see that it sounds very silly but I think we could do this race. Other people have done it and we must be as good as they are.”

The race in question was the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, also known as the world’s toughest row. Participants row 3,000 miles from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua. The journey can take up to three months, and the challenges including biblical storms, 40ft waves, blisters, salt rash, sleep deprivation, sharks, whales and solitude.

Most people would recoil at the thought of spending up to 80 days in one of the world’s most threatening environments, but when Davies sent her proposal to her friends, Benaddi, who owns a clinical trials company, was the first to reply. “Life is for living, so let’s really live,” she wrote. “I am definitely up for it.”

Butters, an NHS communications expert, was the next to agree, but for Doeg the decision was much more difficult. Her two children, then aged seven and 11, were the youngest of the group, and she ran a business alongside her husband.

“I had young children and we had a business together,” she says. “There were so many things that we did together that it was hard for us to find a way for me to go away for such a long period of time. I think women are quite hard on themselves.

“We feel like we can’t take time away and we have to take control a little bit. We feel like we can’t disappear because life would fall down around us if we did.”

After months of discussions, Doeg finally agreed to join the others on board, but that was just the start of the journey. To enter the race, the women had to stump up more than £100,000 to cover the boat, equipment, training courses and the £19,000 entrance fee.

The group started a fundraising campaign, calling themselves the Yorkshire Rows, but although they believed they could row across the ocean, finding other people who believed they could was a different matter, and for months they struggled to find sponsors who would support them.

With time ticking on, it was Benaddi who agreed to buy the boat up front, and the women agreed that they would split the £67,000 cost four ways if they failed to raise the funds. In October 2014, they travelled to Burnham-on-Crouch to collect their 28ft-long boat, which had been tailor-made by Charlie Pitcher, the world’s fastest Atlantic solo rower.

Once they had the boat, which they named Rose, the group started taking her to fundraising events in a bid to drum up support. In May 2015 they rowed across the North Sea as preparation, breaking a world record in the process.

“After we’d rowed across the North Sea I think people then took us more seriously – we were the first women to do that,” says Butters. “BBC Breakfast decided to follow our story and that became a massive advantage for us because it became easier to raise the money.”

The Yorkshire Rows’ appearance on BBC Breakfast was a massive step up in raising their profile, and the group were inundated with comments of support. But among all the positivity, there were some who criticised them for planning to leave their families.

The first waves lifted the boat out of the water and dropped it from a great height

“The feedback was almost 100 per cent positive,” says Davies. “I did hear the odd comment – not to my face but from somebody saying something to my husband about how they could never possibly leave their children for so long. Nobody really came out and overtly said it but there were one or two comments that we were being selfish and irresponsible. After we’d been on BBC Breakfast some man had put on Facebook: ‘I can’t believe how selfish they’re being, they are risking their own lives and other people’s lives, they will need to be rescued. Who is going to pay for that? They will never get to Antigua.’

“We got a lot of attention because we were mothers and we were leaving our children, but in the race there were lots of fathers who were leaving their children as well and nobody said a word to them about it. It’s sort of a case of double standards. I don’t think a man in the same position would have faced the same dilemmas. Even now society has different expectations of mothers, even working mothers. Somehow it’s conditioned into your mind.

Yorkshire Rows: Helen Butters, Frances Davies, Niki Doeg and Janette Benaddi –
Helen Butters, Frances Davies, Niki Doeg and Janette Benaddi Photos: Ben Duffy

“We ignored the fact that there were expectations of us and we looked at our own individual circumstances. Our children and husbands were all 100 per cent supportive of us. As an individual decision for each of us it worked a treat. Had any of our families not supported it, then that person, I don’t think, would have gone. We were all really lucky that they all did. They didn’t all straight away but they did ultimately. They could not have been bigger supporters of it.”

After almost two years of planning, fundraising and attending training courses, the Yorkshire Rows set off on their journey in December 2015.

At the start of the journey Butters suffered from severe seasickness, but she had no choice but to persevere.

“The upside was once you have experienced seasickness there’s nothing worse,” she says. “Everything else I could cope with a bit better, so all the sores on my bum and sleep deprivation and stuff.”

Just three days in to the row a huge wave hit the side of the boat as Doeg was getting changed on deck. The wave sent her flying, and with one leg still in her trousers she was hurled against a metal peg that sank into the base of her spine, fracturing her coccyx. The pain rendered her barely able to speak, but she carried on rowing regardless.

After celebrating Christmas and New Year on the boat, the group were given some worrying news: the first hurricane to form in the Atlantic since 1955 was on its way, so they had to row south as fast as they could. It wasn’t enough to stop the storm from catching up. The first waves lifted the boat out of the water and dropped it from a great height, and it went on for three days. The group spent 70 hours locked in their cabins, waiting for the storm to pass.

Benaddi, who was the boat’s skipper, says: “I felt I had a responsibility to keep everyone safe. If you are the skipper you are the captain of the ship. I tried to learn as much as I could about the boat because I thought if they have questions I should be the one to answer them.”

Eventually, after 67 days, five hours and two minutes at sea, the Yorkshire Rows sailed into Nelson’s Dockyard English Harbour, becoming the oldest all-female crew to complete the challenge.

“When we arrived in Antigua, apart from being very tired, tired inside, completely fatigued, I’d say we’d never been healthier,” says Davies. “We’d had no or very little alcohol; only the odd bit of brandy or gin as we went across but no more than a sip, drinking only water, having 12-15 hours of exercise a day for over two months and all that fresh air. I felt amazingly fit but I was very tired. I went to bed the first night as a normal person would, but for a long time I would just wake up at 3am and not be able to get back to sleep. It took me a good six or seven weeks to be able to sleep through the night again.”

Now, a year on, the Yorkshire Rows are still great friends. They hope their story inspires other people, particularly mothers, to do extraordinary things.

Davies says: “I remember listening to an interview with Nigella Lawson years ago and she said that when you have children, in terms of the picture of your life, your children become the picture and you become the frame. And I really like that because it actually is what happens. Everything is about your children and it’s not about you, but I think it’s too easy to forget that you don’t have to be the frame. You are allowed to dip into the picture as well. As your children get older it’s easy to forget that you are allowed to have an independent life away from them as well. It is part of them becoming independent as well as you getting back your own independence.”

Four Mums in a Boat by Helen Butters, Niki Doeg, Frances Davies and Janette Benaddi (Harper Collins, £16.99), is out now.

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