Under Current – Exploring the why’s, the how’s & the deeper motivations of a professional adventurerBack to blog
That seemingly harmless conversation starter, “So, what do you do?” is one I use socially but I’m always wary about answering myself. The onward journey can take us into many territories depending on the first step. From my portfolio of activities over the past 20 years I could pluck out ocean rower, and easily monopolise the conversation for an entire evening, or I could focus more on my more recent experience as a charity CEO, executive coach, educator, keynote speaker, and author. I’ve been fortunate to have a varied and challenging work life, a tapestry of roles woven together partly by opportunism, partly by choice, but always with the intention that the path will be both meaningful and exciting.
Even as a child, I was captivated by the allure of travel—the bustling airport as a gateway to whereverland, striding with my wheely case to the aeroplane that could fly me to far-off places. I wanted to do everything and try anything at least once. I generally saw possibility in all directions and, perhaps naively, didn’t see a lack of knowledge or skills as a barrier to having a go. It’s this blind optimism within my personality, combined with a post-traumatic growth mindset, that led me to an ocean rowing boat in the first place.
Life at home wasn’t always easy. The turbulent relationship with my mother led to nearly a decade of estrangement. The hardships I encountered growing up manifested as anxiety, disordered eating, and panic attacks. Running my first marathon was initially a misguided effort to lose weight, Misguided not least because starvation and running aren’t complementary activities, but it evolved into a transformative journey to physical and mental well-being where overall health and fitness was more important to me than being thin. One marathon gave way to another, and soon I found myself yearning for a more significant challenge—a row across the Atlantic Ocean. I have since described it as my quarter-life crisis, the need to question the relative priorities of a job, stable relationship, or something more challenging. My then boyfriend suggested we row across the Atlantic Ocean and, with no rowing or seagoing experience and with all the odds stacked against us we got to the start of that endeavour. A decision and a point in time that would change my life.
My initial Atlantic attempt with my boyfriend lasted only six days. He suffered from epilepsy and had a seizure after several days of sea-sickness. In fact, we were raising money for an epilepsy charity, and it distressed him greatly that he was attempting to show that those with the condition could still take on big challenges, but the condition itself had stopped him from completing. Despite this setback, we had raised awareness and funds for epilepsy, and I was determined to continue, not least because I didn’t want to let our many supporters and corporate sponsors down. In an unforeseen twist of fate, my estranged mother became my new rowing partner. Four months and 106 days later, we set a world record, becoming the first mother-daughter duo to row any ocean and raising over £268,000 for The Fund for Epilepsy. Though the record was monumental, mending the broken ties with my mother remains the best outcome of that adventure.
My third venture into the Atlantic tested not just my physical mettle but also my leadership skills. Our four-woman crew were attempting to break the record for the fastest female team. Our row was beset with difficulties, facing the worst weather in the Atlantic for nearly 200 years, surviving 50ft waves and tackling 60 knot winds. One of my team slipped and hurt her back and decided she needed to get off the boat. Beyond facing the elements, as skipper I had the challenge of lifting the morale of the team. It was a lonely task fraught with paranoia and self-doubt in my capabilities not least because it was my first significant leadership role, and an ordeal by fire, or should I say water!
With one crewmate out of the picture, having been picked up by a support yacht, the remaining three oceaneers had to cope with malfunctioning equipment, a lost rudder, and a shark attack (yes, you read that right!). We eventually rowed into Antigua third from last in the event. It was an awful and unrepeatable experience but one that taught me more about myself, other people, and perseverance than perhaps a whole lifetime spent elsewhere could have done.
Ocean rowing is more than a physical activity; it’s an arena for mind games. There are physical strains, daily trials, and logistical complications but, above all, ocean rowing is lived out in one’s mind. My own mental battles varied from dealing with profound isolation being thousands of miles from land; the uncertainty and danger of sea and weather conditions; to the hard work of forming and getting the best out of a team. Overcoming these obstacles has been a real test of resilience and tenacity, but they’ve proved to me that the most significant barriers in life are often mental, not physical.
With experience, I’ve learnt to face adversity head-on, and recognised that coupling this attitude with a sprinkling of humour can help overcome most problems in life. Occasionally, I’ve had a pang of guilt about my ability to see the funny side of bad situations, some think it’s even inappropriate or in poor taste. But I’ve discovered that even the darkest of humour can help me get through even the most life-threatening of situations. What I’ve learnt at sea is not just the ability to survive in a tiny wooden boat in the open ocean but how to navigate the turbulent waters of life itself.
My ocean rows led me on a path to many more adventures and expeditions, as well as giving me the opportunity to share my stories with audiences around the world. I talk candidly about the difficulties involved, and how success over adversity has changed me. I’ve set up a charity supporting pregnant and postnatal women to stay active, born from my own knowledge that being active during this time can improve both mental and physical health. I am an executive coach and the experience of training to be a coach plus lessons from therapy have helped me to articulate how I’ve made my life choices to date and how I’ve overcome the traumas I’ve faced so far. Hopefully my experience and understanding can help others to navigate their own life challenges.
My life of adventure and beyond has been a gift, and it’s one I try not to take for granted. I hope that, in sharing my story, it provides inspiration to others, empowering them to step into an uncertain future with courage, tenacity and compassion.
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