They say you should never meet your heroes however, I met mine years before I knew she was. Her name is Natalia Cohen (that’s her below)!
It wasn’t until she stood in front of an audience at the Adventure Travel show and regaled an epic story of the 257 days spent rowing unaided across the Pacific Ocean with an intrepid all-female crew, that I realised how in awe I was of her.
The coxless crew
She and three other resilient British women set out from San Francisco and rowed across to Hawaii, then onto Samoa and finally finishing in Cairns. If this wasn’t enough and unbeknown to the team, it was an El Nino year so all the elements were working against them, at times essentially blowing them back as they rowed forwards.
8466 miles of pure endurance, pain, beauty, hardship and sleeping for 1.5 hours at a time before their next shift, a process they maintained on a continuous loop until they washed up on Australia’s shores. This excludes the short stopovers in Hawaii and Samoa. They spent so long at sea that their leg muscles wasted away, they had trouble walking afterwards to the point where one girl had shin splints, and another suffered some form of sea sickness every day away from dry land. They endured sea sores and rowed through heavy storms which engulfed the boat during pitch black evenings, and nothing but the horizon to stare out onto during the day.
I mean seriously, when you compare this heroic feat to the likes of Kim Kardashian and other media socialites that engulf our newspapers and television, it makes you question who we really want as role models for our young people.
Listening to someone I’ve always known in a certain capacity, take on the role of superwoman, adventurer and endurance guru with enough passion and drive to take on a feet of the same magnitude as John Wesley Powell and Captain Cook? I can honestly say I sat in a very large audience, feeling very small and totally absorbed by Natalia Cohen and Emma of the Coxless Crew recounting their Pacific crossing.
In one single year, she had experiences so magnificent that most people spend their entire lives chasing. This is a woman who had an extraordinarily huge idea, and made it happen through sweat, tears and pure determination. Not only that but collectively they raised over £65,000 for their two charities Walking With the Wounded and Breast Cancer Care.
This is the inside of the bedroom/kitchen/chill area!
There are only a small handful of people I truly admire and if truth be told I could count them on one hand, but Natalia Cohen from the Coxless Crew, world explorer and all round lovely person is one of them. She would most certainly have been the fifth member of the Spice Girls had they been recruiting!
Natalia was kind enough to answer a few questions about her expedition so without further ado, I’ll pass the baton over to the woman of the hour, Natalia Cohen. But before I do, check out this video of the four girls including their 5th (but silent) partner – Doris.
Thanks for answering some questions for me Nat, the honour is most definitely mine. Right let’s crack into it shall we:
1) With no previous rowing experience, how do you wake up one day and decide that you want to row across the Pacific Ocean in a tiny boat with barely enough space for four?
I was interested in challenging myself more than I had ever done before, I have always had a love of the ocean and knew that the journey would be a catalyst in helping me to better understand the human spirit. I believe that this strength of human spirit is the most powerful force there is and we all have it within us; it was something that I always witnessed during my time in the travel industry when I was based in different destinations.
Being open to opportunities when they come my way and perfect timing, meant that when the expedition was presented I had just finished a contract managing a safari lodge in Tanzania and the journey sounded like the perfect way to explore the mind and look deep within. Having never rowed before, this was an example of being very far outside of my comfort zone and a steep learning curve in many ways. I have always been fascinated by teams and team dynamics and believe that growth and personal development is a hugely important part of life. Unimaginable opportunities to learn, support women fighting and overcoming adversity (through our charities; Breast Cancer Care and Walking With The Wounded) and hoping to inspire others to deal with their personal challenges all drew me to become involved in The Row.
For me, life is all about extraordinary experiences, connections and making a difference.
Rowing the Pacific seemed to embody all of those!
2) What degree of mental preparation goes into an expedition such as this and do you think you prepared adequately?
The challenge was a 90% mental one, so it was vital to do as much preparation as possible. We worked closely with a sports psychologist (Keith Goddard) and had individual and team sessions. We did personality profiling to understand how each of us thought and behaved, worked with coping strategies, stress testing, conflict management, reflections, how to get the best out of each other and understand what brought out the worst in each of us. We knew what each of our strengths were and drew on those as well as making sure that we supported each other through our weaknesses.
To prepare for possible eventualities out on the ocean we ran through every conceivable ‘what it’ scenario and discussed how we would each deal with them and what the action plan would be. We also shared our hopes and fears surrounding the expedition. Although during the preparation we did mental, physical and practical training, which were all equally important, developing mental resilience was key and the secret to the success of staying sane out on the ocean!
3) You undertook some training prior to setting off. I assume you had built up a solid level of trust prior to setting off. How did you maintain that same trust?
We did a lot work together as a team and although we all had very different personalities, backgrounds and interests, the one thing we shared was this incredible mutual respect for one another. We also shared the same values and tied these together with the acronym SPIRIT (strength, perseverance, integrity, resilience, inspiration and trust). Out on the Pacific, we held each other accountable to those values and also had weekly review sessions on the boat where we would complete a questionnaire and then share how we were feeling mentally and physically as well as what was ‘keeping us up at night’ (if we had any issues we wanted to discuss in general or with someone in particular). We essentially had to have trust in each other as our lives depended on it and I can honestly say that we were a truly amazing team that will be connected forever by our shared journey and experiences.
4) What did you learn about yourself during, and having completed a row across the Pacific Ocean?
That things can always change! I now love the colour pink!! Haha….I never used to like it, but as all our branding was pink, I had to get used to it and subsequently now find myself attracted to pink things wherever I go!
More seriously though, I learnt so much through the whole process of getting to the start line as well as the expedition itself. Not only the beauty about understanding yours and others strengths within a team, the power of the mind, the importance of perseverance and supporting those around you but also the deeper understanding of choosing how to feel every day and always looking for the positive. It’s so important to be your authentic self and it’s also ok to be vulnerable.
I now have this first hand proof of how wonderfully adaptable we all are as human beings and that we can truly do anything we set our minds to with the right self-belief, focus and dedication.
5) How did you fund your expedition?
This was one of the biggest challenges. The sponsorship was hard to find. Not being afraid to ask and perseverance were key characteristics I had to develop! We never got that headline sponsor we were after, but managed to get a lot of support from some amazing companies and teams that helped us with products/equipment and training. We did have to invest some of our own money into the project, but the learnings and experience we got out of the preparation stage and journey was priceless.
6) How did you motivate yourself over the course of 257 days?
Routine is a wonderful thing. We slipped into our 2-hour on/2-hour off life very quickly. The secret to dealing with that life was to either keep in the moment (be utterly present) as much as possible or keep the mind distracted. We told each other our life stories, played word games, made up stories, listened to music, audio books, wrote blogs, narrated films and learnt poems.
I was amazed how the ever-changing Pacific kept me mesmerised day after day, how much we all laughed, how simple life can be, how well I coped with sleep deprivation, how well we pulled together as a team and how amazingly we all adapted to what can only be described as a long, arduous and some would say, quite ridiculous journey!
We loved receiving comments from the blogs, and emails from supporters, family and friends. One of the biggest secrets to staying motivated was – chunking! Breaking life down into those 2-hour shifts made the overwhelming challenge seem more manageable. Stroke by stroke, shift by shift, leg by leg…
7) What was your favourite memory of your time away?
Hmmm….difficult to just choose one! Laugher and the ocean.
Developing a mindset to allow me to celebrate small success and always look for the positive meant that I truly enjoyed the journey. There were so many highlights to share but some stand out moments involved the powerful connection felt to my team, the mighty Pacific Ocean and to my inner world (what was going on in my mind). The wildlife encounters including breaching humpback whales meters from the boat, sharks that followed us, turtles, dolphins, birds and fish were remarkable. The 360-degree horizon, view of ocean and sky, sunsets, sunrises and ever changing sea states were mesmerising but some of the most memorable moments have to be the laughter. As a team we supported each other amazingly and laughed our way through all the discomfort, challenge and frustration.
8) Everyone on an expedition fantasises about something, what was your mirage in the desert?
Fresh fruit and vegetables (anything fresh that basically wasn’t freeze dried)!! and having a bubble bath!!
9) What advice would you give to someone looking to undertake an expedition?
I believe that adventure is just a mindset and whatever you set your mind to you can achieve. Whenever you’re doing something new or different, you just have to believe in yourself and how adaptable we are physically and mentally, overcome your fear and take that leap of faith. Once you have the idea…action it! If the challenge seems overwhelming then break it down into manageable sized chunks and take it moment to moment, stroke by stroke but above all else…don’t forget to enjoy the journey. An expedition is simply a journey and life is all about the journey, the experiences we have and connections we make along the way, they are what enrich our lives.
Thanks loads Nat.
Natalia now works as a motivational speaker and having seen her in action, I can absolutely vouch that she is amazing at what she does. Here are a few of her links in case you want to hire her.