Laura Penhaul: Rower

Laura P profile pic

Name: Laura Penhaul | Age: 33 | Mission: Row 9,200 miles across the Pacific ocean | Loves: Boobies | Hates: Pirates

Follow Laura (and the Coxless Crew) Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram 

Watch the Crew’s documentary trailer: Loosing Sight of Shore

Watch Laura’s TEDx Talk: What it takes for a team to survive 9 months at sea.

Email Laura through: Laura@Coxlesscrew.com

Laura is quite possibly one of the most humble. modest and down to earth world record breaker’s you will ever meet. I first met her in 2013, when I organised an Adventure Queens wild camping trip in Surrey. That night, with five of us nestled in bivvy bags, under a full and bright moon, Laura told me that she had a dream to lead the first ever all-female team across the Pacific ocean. I remember being struck by the unique combination of an individual with an outwardly quiet nature, and an undeniably steely determination bubbling beneath the surface.

Laura was open about her fears and honest about the setbacks she encountered during 4 years of trying to gather the funds and a team to just make it to the start line. Above all she was resolute that she’d do anything to make this dream happen. In January 2016, after almost 9 months at sea, Laura and the Coxless Crew rowed into the harbour at Cairns, Australia. They’d journeyed over 9,200 miles across the Pacific, becoming the first all female team, and the first ever team of four to do so in the process. Now back in her day job as a medic for the GB Athletics Paralympic team, I caught up with Laura on the banks of the Thames ahead of her jetting off to join the team in Rio. We chatted all things rowing, oceans and….pirates (naturally).

LISTEN TO LAURA’S INTERVIEW (26 minutes)

READ LAURA’S INTERVIEW (28 minute read)

Anna McNuff: Welcome to the Adventure Queen Podcast! Number 5, I think…

Laura Penhaul: (gasp) That’s my lucky number!

Anna:  Is it really?!

Laura:  Oh yeah!

Anna: Amazing!  And we are, probably, in the most appropriate place for a rower. We’re on the Putney Embankment, or just off it, with one Miss Laura Penhaul! Hello, Adventure Queen Laura!

Laura: Hello, missus!

Anna: How are you this evening?

Laura:  I’m very good. It’s a lovely evening.

Anna: It is! Now, Laura is a record-breaking Pacific rower and she’s going to be telling us all about that. But first of all, let’s go right back to the beginning.  Can you tell me where all this madness started?  What was the moment you decided you wanted to go and row an ocean?

Laura:  Do you know what, the initial moment was lying in my bed in Putney about five years ago.  And I get a message from one of my good mates that I had done a ski season with, which basically said, “Hey mate, I know you’re looking for something crazy to do, you’ve been looking for a big challenge – well I just heard about this girl that wants to put together a team and row across the Indian ocean.  Do you fancy it?”

And that was it.

And then she said, “By the way, I’m away now for two weeks, so I’ll speak to you about it when I get back.”   And I was like (excitedly) “No! Don’t wait for two weeks! Tell me now! I want to know now!”

Anna: (laughs)

Laura:  And do you know what, that was the absolute ignite of me.  I remember the next day walking out of my house and down Putney Hill and I just thought, “oh my God, this HAS to happen, I’ve got to make it happen.”

Anna: You were that excited?!

Laura:  I was REALLY excited, yep.

Anna: So how did it then go from rowing the Indian ocean with that girl, to actually rowing the Pacific with five others?

Laura:  It massively evolved . . . I got involved with Annie who had set that team up at the start, and when we looked at it there was already a female crew that had just rowed the Indian Ocean.  So we spoke to Tony, our on-shore support who helped to manage the expedition.  We knew the Atlantic had been done, we knew the Indian had been done, so of course that posed the question about the Pacific…

Anna: (teasing) Just an innocent little question…

Laura:  Well, just, you know, just like, “That’s the other ocean, innit?”  (giggles) My geography’s not too sharp.

Anna:  (also giggling) It’s wet!

Laura: Yeah, exactly! It’s the sea!

He said, “Well actually, interestingly enough, there hasn’t been a fours boat that’s ever gone across the Pacific, and certainly not an all-female crew, so if you did this you’d be able to set two world records.  It wouldn’t have to be a speed event, it’s just a case of completion.”

And then, he said, “You know, you could go from San Francisco to Hawaii, there’s a race that’s just about to start, (the) New Ocean Wave race with Chris Martin that we’re setting up.”

And then I looked at it and I thought, “Well, that’s a third. I can’t say I’m rowing the Pacific and only do a third of it.”

Anna: So you immediately looked at the Pacific and thought, “Well, I’ve got to row the whole way across”?

Laura: Yeah!  I went back to Tony and asked is this going to be do-able? Could we row all of it?  He said, “l I think you’re going to have to do stops as you won’t be able to carry all your food, but yes, in essence it will take you about six months.”  I thought, “Well six months is do-able!”   So…that’s when it all started to snowball.

Pacific-Ocean-Route-Map-Women-Four-Rowing-Record

The final 8,442 mile route rowed by Laura and the Coxless Crew – from California to Cairns.

Anna:  And when you’re going through that process –  when someone sends you an email and you immediately get excited about rowing an ocean first of all, and then you start thinking about perhaps rowing a bigger one – are there any fears or alarm bells going off in your head – or are you just pushing them aside because you’re so excited?

Laura:  Good question.  I think the problem with me is that I’m kind of all or nothing. So when I get my teeth stuck into something and I get really focussed and think “oh my God, I could make this happen…what the opportunities are and what the scope is. . .” it’s like a beaming light and I just want to go towards it the whole time.

Anna:  So there’s almost no time to actually think about being frightened?

Laura:  No.  Occasionally – well I say occasionally – there were definitely many times during that whole process of getting to the start line where there were loads of things that were challenging.  We thought it was only going to take a year but it ended up that we needed to postpone it.  And then, during that time, things just got overwhelmingly bigger and bigger and bigger and. . . you’ve got to make such a life commitment towards it.  It was really difficult when the original team member Annie had to leave.

So that’s when we re-structured it. We started as Coxless Crew and I re-recruited and started afresh at that stage.

Anna: So how many times did you move the start date back? Because I remember when I first met you it was probably, the second time.  But how many times did it actually change?

Laura: Three.

Anna: Three!

Laura: Third time lucky.

Anna: So three years in a row you were prepared to go  – to leave your job, friends, family and go and row an ocean.  And three times it fell through?

Laura:  Yes. There was a weather window, we had to leave between April and June really, from San Francisco, so Christmas always felt like “Right, ok, this is the last Christmas before we go” so every Christmas got more and more emotionally difficult. The hardest thing is what you’re putting your family through and seeing them each year just getting more and more worried about it and drawn into it more.

So I used to find going home would suddenly make things really emotional.  When I was away from home I could crack on, stay focussed, I felt like I only had myself to worry about.  Whereas when you go home you think “oh, actually I should think about my parents a little bit more than I do.”

Anna: And was there a point in those in those 4 years where as a Team Lead you thought, “I’m done. I’m going to walk away”?

Laura:  Yes, there were a few times to be honest.  When people had left the team and it was back to only me or one other, it definitely made me question what I was doing.  When Annie left it was really difficult because fundamentally it was her original idea to row an ocean.  I was completely thrown and massively distraught. It all got really messy, and so I asked myself a deep rotted question: “Well, what on earth is this all about? Why am I doing this?”

And that’s what drove me forwards because I felt “I know we can do this, I know we can achieve this” and that’s why I gave it three goes. I just had to give this one last go because I’ll never be able to live with myself if I don’t.

I said to myself, “Well, there’s going be an all-female crew one day that will do this so what is the difference between them making it happen and me?  What am I doing wrong? What do I need to change to get this team right?”  And that was the final point where I felt, “Right, I’ve got to make this happen.  Let’s do the right recruitment, let’s get the advice in and some external people in to help because maybe I’m just too blinkered with it.  And actually, you need to step back and get some external opinions.” And that made it happen, thank God!

Anna: Thank God!

Laura: Otherwise, I’d most probably still be in my bed watching movies and eating ice cream right now!

Anna: Watching Castaway!

Laura:  Yeah, exactly!

Laura with the 6 members of the Coxless Crew. 3 rowed the whole way across and 3 of them did a leg each.

Laura with the 6 members of the Coxless Crew. 3 rowed the whole way across and 3 of them did a leg each.

Anna: So, let’s fast forward and go right to the start of the row now.  You’ve raised the spondoolies, you’re out there and you’re pushing off.  You’re rowing away from the bank – the first time! – how do you feel?

Laura:  So. 2am. It’s pitch black. All we had was our family on the dockside. It just felt really surreal. It felt like we were just going off for a little training row.  It didn’t feel like we were actually rowing out until we then went underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and started to see the lights disappearing in the distance.  At that point I remember thinking, “oh my God, we’re finally, finally here. We’re finally doing this!”  All the planning and preparation and the amount of emotion – and flipping tears! – I’ve cried. I’m not the most teary person, but Jesus!

It really made me think, “Ok, this is it, all we’ve got left now is about six months.  Get this done and it’s over with.” And that sense of serenity and just complete… relief.  There’s no more emails and chasing people and needing to get people to be involved, everybody was there in the boat, and I knew the other girls were ready to join us later on.  So, yes, a massive sense of excitement.  Obviously, there’s the initial emotion of saying goodbye to the folks, more the fact I was worried for them and what they thought.  I knew we would be alright but, y’know, it’s what they think.

Anna:  I love that! Rowing across the Pacific for nine months, “I know we’ll be alright. It’s fine. Don’t worry. Chill mum, chill – what’s your beef?!”

So talk to me about rowing an ocean.  I’ve promised my mum I’ll never do it but I may go back on that one…

Laura:  I so tried to get you in the boat!

Anna:  I know you did!

Laura:  Dammit!

Anna:  I was doing something – I was running or cycling or something!   Either way, it does appeal to me because of what people say about the serenity out there. But it’s also pretty frightening.

So what are the highlights of rowing an ocean? For the ‘Dummies Guide for Rowing the Pacific’?

Laura:   Ok, highlights. For us, we have never – we all say – we have never laughed so much in all our lives and I think that was definitely because of the team dynamics we had on the boat. The girls were just awesome.  There were literally tears of complete hysterical laughter.  Mostly, I should say, because we were massively sleep deprived! Most probably what we were hysterically laughing about wouldn’t have made any sense to anybody else.   

The other thing was the wildlife. Without a doubt, we were really fortunate to see a huge amount of wildlife.  Our boat, Doris, is small – only 8.5m long, 29 foot.  Greg Rutherford’s world record long jump is longer than Doris!

Life inside Doris' Cabin

Crew life inside Doris’ tiny Cabin

Anna: I love that Greg Rutherford could jump over your boat.

Laura: Yeah, I should give him a shout about that!

But the point being, because Doris is so small, the wildlife just totally accepted her. The whales would come over and be really inquisitive. They’d come from miles off in the distance and they’d swim right next to you, under you, and breach a couple of hundred metres away…

A: Wow.

Laura: ….and then you had the birds! The birds were so cool.  There were) these birds called Boobies…

Anna: (Silly voice) Boobies!

Laura:  (Equally silly voice!) Boooooooobies! They were my favourite. It was always a classic joke that I loved the Boobies. They’d come in and land on the boat and swoop right next to your head, to the point where the feathers would hit you in the face.  Then they’d land right next to you and just hang out and then sidestep to get more of a stationary point on the boat.  And then they’d start cleaning themselves, and the next minute they’d tuck their head in and go off for a snooze for a wee while. One night that was really special was Christmas Eve.  Being out in the ocean has made me a bit more in touch with my spiritual side or whatever you want to call it, but….this was bizarre. Although we had loads of birds, each time there’d only be one, maximum two…but on Christmas Eve night, when I was massively missing home, there were FOUR Boobies!

Anna: Four boobies!!  Quadraboobies!!

Laura: Four that all landed on the aft cabin where we slept.  And then there was one little Sooty Tern that landed on the bow.  So, the way I saw it, the Sooty Tern was for Doris and then we had one Booby each.

Anna: Awwww.

Laura: It was cute!  And the next day when we celebrated Christmas we had one Booby that hung out on the oar, right next to us, when we were eating our Christmas pud from my Aunty Marie.

Anna: So, those were the most amazing times. What was the scariest moment out there?  Because I remember reading Sarah Outen’s book (A Dip in the Ocean) when she was getting smashed to bits on some reef somewhere and I remember thinking “how do you even deal with that level of fear?”

Laura:  Sarah, bless her, she’s properly been through it. I mean we – to a certain extent – were extremely lucky with the experiences we had that we didn’t have anything to the extent that Sarah’s had.  She was being thrown around a huge amount….

Anna:  It’s like the weather gods were having a laugh with Sarah, isn’t it?

Laura:  I know, she’s been through the mill. For us – the first 24 hrs we went straight into quite a big storm that came in on the coast.  We were suddenly faced with 40 foot seas, which of course we hadn’t been faced with before.  Now maybe later on, we may have been a bit more blasé about those sorts of waves because we’d have got used to it. But to go straight into that was fairly scary.  And the waves crash right next to you and throw you off your seat. Anytime that happens, we just said to each other, “Hold on!”

Little 8.5 metre Doris out on the Pacific waves

Little 8.5 metre Doris out on the Pacific waves

Anna: Oh my gosh!

Laura:  “Hold on!” and you’re thinking, “Crap, I’m going to go over.” Luckily Doris was actually quite heavy, so she sat low in the water and I think that was a blessing for us as it meant she never properly capsized.   She got thrown up on about – not quite 90 degrees – but she did get thrown up a couple of times but then just got shunted along instead of capsizing, I think because we sat low in the water.  If she’d sat where she should have we 100% would have capsized plenty of times.  When we were out on the oars as well, which was my big worry!

But I think, to be honest, my actual proper gut fear was when I had a moment when I thought pirates were about to come on the boat!  In all seriousness, there’s a backstory to this.  So I’ll set the scene:

The day before we were leaving Samoa, there were these two guys who were hanging out by the boat. They looked a bit sketchy, they didn’t speak any English and we found out later on they were pirates.

Anna:  Casual.

Laura:  So that was one thing.  We were then driving through the town that night – Tony was driving – and as we were going through I saw these two guys, these two pirates.  And I thought, “what the heck are they carrying?”   Turns out they were carrying a flippin’ cow’s head that was still dripping blood at the back, literally as if they’d walked around the corner and just chopped it off.  So I thought, “ok, that’s slightly dodgy and weird.”

Anyway, we didn’t see any more of them.  We left Samoa the next day and for the next 24 hrs we had to follow the land round before we could get out into the Pacific. As we were following it round, about mid-afternoon, there was this old fishing boat that came up in the distance and I could see two guys with hoodies up.  They were just hovering and I said to Nat then – I think because my back was up a little bit from the day before – “It feels really uncomfortable, I feel a bit vulnerable.”   Suddenly, for once out of the whole row, I felt, “We’re four girls in a bright pink boat, what the hell have we got on this boat to do?”  So that started my mind ticking. 

At 1am we could see this light every so often come on in the distance and then it would go off for ages.  I just thought it was a car going round the headland or something. And then Nat said, “No, I think it might be a boat mate” and I said “No, no, well, why wouldn’t they keep (the light) on?”

Next minute, it was pitch black, the light had gone off but you could suddenly hear the whirring of a boat engine and I thought, “Holy crap, it is actually a boat, why hasn’t he got his light on?” and then he turns it on and the flippin’ boat was right next to us! On top of that there were two guys in kayaks who came right next to our oars, and then there were six guys in the water with snorkels and masks on!

Anna: What?!

Laura:   I screamed at the poor girls in the cabin – they’re fast asleep – I’m screaming at them to get up. I shouted, “Emma, call Tony on the sat phone right now!”

So I’m kicking off, poor Meg has only just got on the boat, so she’s never seen me lose it, so she’s thinking, “Woah, what the hell is going on?”

Anna:  “She’s thinking Laura’s gone crazy!”

Laura:  Yeah!  Meanwhile, after I suddenly heard the other boat, I ripped back the hatch underneath me and pulled out a flare.  I had the flare in my hand as I carried on rowing.  And then these guys that were in the water – I mean, I’m not joking – they were between our oars, right in them.  They were talking in Samoan, you couldn’t understand anything, and they said, “Fish, fish!” and Nat was trying to say to me, “Mate, I think they’re just fishing” and I thought, “It’s the middle of the night, what are they doing here?!” 

Then, of course, my mind had just gone off on one, like I’m in a movie, thinking,  “Omigod, they’re distracting us, there’s going to be other people the other side of the boat!”   I said, “Nat, check the other side of the boat!  Meg, go up the back hatch, make sure they’re not holding onto the ropes!”

Meanwhile, I’ve got this flare in my hand, I’m about to shoot the sods if they went to climb on the boat and I’m thinking, “Right, there’s a knife to my left, I can take that oar out, I can hit them with the oar” so I’m totally on edge and on guard…and then we get Tony on the sat phone.  Emma’s relaying the story to him and he’s like, “Yeah, mate. They’re most probably just night-time fishing.”

Anna: (laughing) They’re probably crapping themselves! They’re like “There’s this crazy white lady in a boat with a flare!”

Laura:  I know!  And there I was, “Ohmigod, no, no, they’re not fishing, they’re not fishing!” 

Then, a couple of minutes later we’ve rowed past them and I think then I realise that we’d rowed through them rather than them approaching us!  And then I was thinking, “Maybe I’ll just put the flare back in the box, just tidy that up a little bit…”

Anna:  And..put the knife back!

Laura:  ”It’s ok, guys, you go back to sleep, it’s all fine.  Sorry, sorry ladies!”

Anna:  Oh my days! I’m impressed with your reaction, though.  I’ve been in a couple of situations where something dangerous is about to happen or is happening and you just go instinct on it, it’s amazing isn’t it?

Laura:  Yeah, massively.

The Coxless Crew pulling in to the harbour at Cairns

The Coxless Crew pulling in to the harbour at Cairns as world record breakers

Anna:  Now – other than being absolutely petrified – you had to make a very difficult decision while you were out there in the middle of the ocean about continuing.  Can you just tell us a little bit about that?

Laura:  Yeah, about 10 days into the row we’d been in big seas, there was a big storm as I said and we’d all been pretty seasick.  I went and did the hatch check just to make sure everything was alright and suddenly came across a load of water that was in the hatch where the batteries are kept. They were completely melted with a brown heat spot on the roof of the lid of it.  Those two had been on fire, they’d melted into themselves.

I had to disconnect the batteries and empty out the water.  We’d lost our signal –  AIS is a signal that our boat will send out to tell bigger boats that we’re around – so we were sitting ducks and it was about to be night-time.

That night I got everybody out the cabin and all the emergency equipment and. . . we put the sea anchor out as well so the boat was just held in the water.  We did two hours in the cabin and two hrs just sitting out on deck freezing our arses off.  The next morning I went to re-assess the damage and found we’d lost one charger but the other one was still just about working, though it had still melted a bit.

We then had a split in the team about what to do next.  Our options were either continue forwards to Hawaii – we had back- ups, we’d prepared for the loss of electronics. . .but it would mean we would have to hand pump the water-maker in our rest shifts, which is pretty tiring, and then we wouldn’t be able to do communications, we wouldn’t be able to blog, we wouldn’t have any email or be able to speak to Tony very often.  We would be pretty compromised as we still had 2000-odd miles to go.

Second option was that we turned back in to Santa Barbara.  We were about 500 miles offshore – it would mean rowing 500 miles in, sorting the boat out and then rowing another 500 miles out.  Santa Barbara’s lower than San Francisco so we’d actually have further to re-start than when we left San Franciso. 

I put the decision to the team.  We always said we’d go with a unanimous decision on the boat and if there wasn’t a unanimous decision then the final decision would sit with me.    I asked the girls who wants to do what, and two of us wanted to continue forwards to Hawaii….

Anna:  You included?

Laura:  Yeah, my initial thought was, “No, dear God, I don’t want to go back because I don’t know if I will want to get back in the boat again.”  And I didn’t know if the other girls wanted to get back in the boat either.  So it was a split decision, two and two, and then fundamentally the decision would be left with me if I wanted to go forwards.  I felt that I wasn’t really happy with that because I know two don’t want to do it…

We came to the agreement  to go forwards  and then I thought, “You know what, I’m just going to check the batteries again.”   It was a blessing, really, because I discovered that the second one had gone.  And I said, “No, sod this, let’s go back in.” So the decision was made for us I suppose.

Anna:  So you had to go all the way back to the start?

Laura: Yeah, so then we went all the way back in to Santa Barbara – further down the coastline.

Anna: And it’s not like you can just press a little magic button and just get back dragged there, you’ve actually got to row back in the wrong direction.

Laura:  It took us six days to get in and then we were in there for five days (sorting the boat).  It gave us a chance to sort a lot of stuff out on the boat – even after just two weeks out at sea there was loads of wear and tear on certain bits and pieces already.   We fixed loads of stuff, got a bit more food provisions, got a few other bits and pieces sorted out medical-wise, and then we re-started.  We had to chuck ourselves back out.

I think by that point the strength of the team really showed.  We could have seen turning back in so many different ways.  Initially, I massively saw it as a failure. I always worry about what people think so. . . as much as I hate that trait. . .I always do.  For me, I very much felt  “This is just typical.”  I wanted us to be a strong team of women that had planned and prepared for any given scenario. I did not want to be that flipping pink boat full of women that couldn’t hack it and are turning back in after 10 days.

Anna: Which is not what anyone would think, but I know that’s how the brain goes.

Laura: Of course. That’s what originally had really frustrated me, but actually the girls were really good at turning it around. Within a couple of hours –  I think it was Nat’s brother – we received an email and he’d said “You know what? You should just see that as a practice row which is now going to make you experienced rowers when you start. You weren’t able to practice in big seas off the Cornish coastline, this has now given you the Pacific sea, you know what to expect, you’ve been in the worst stuff, so now you’ve gone through that you’ve got nothing else that’s going to be unknown.”

Anna:  Good old Nat’s brother!

Laura:  I know!  He hit the nail on the head.

It was awesome and totally changed our perspective. I just think some people can be so influential  because we could easily have gone down the route of all of us being really glum and pulling each other down.

Laura and crewmate Meg, out on the vast Pacific Ocean.

Laura and crewmate Lizanne, out on the vast Pacific Ocean.

Anna:  So, you learnt so much about the team, I mean you were the Team Lead but from talking to you you learnt so much about what makes a good team and the importance of diversity in it.

I know you’ve recently done a TED talk about it, just throwing that one in there…

But what did you learn about how to put a team together and what’s important to have in a team of people in such a close environment?

Laura:  It’s made me massively realise not to see things through your own lens. I used to very much see life as this one impression. I thought I knew what I’d need in a team and that was going to be people that were like-minded and had a physical background in sport or whatever.  Actually, if everyone’s the same you’re all going to have the same strengths and that means usually you’re going to have the same downfalls.  Nobody’s perfect, nobody is fully strong without having anything to work on and so having that diversity massively strengthened us as a team.  We had such mutual respect for each other.

Having somebody that would actually make you laugh and bring the kid out in you was hugely important, especially for me, because I know I can get too focussed and too serious about it –  I’ll just get my head down and crack on.  This is great when somebody like Emma’s with me on the oars because I know she really delivers – she’s somebody that’s very consistent and massively reliable and will deliver every time no matter how she’s feeling.  She was really crucial to have in the team. And then you need people like Nat or Meg to mix it up a little bit. Then, when Lizanne came in, from a personal perspective. . . we had a bit of a personal connection from a medical perspective as she’s an osteopath.  So, having some intellectual conversation that we both shared was great, because it took me out of the boat and took me somewhere else that we both understood.

Anna:  It took you to your other life?

Laura:  Yeah! And then Izzy is just awesome, she was pretty much the glue that got us to the start line. She’s so well organised and planned and everything’s just very black and white, there’s no grey with her, which is great – you really need that sometimes in a team.  In that first leg especially she helped us set our routines which then set us up for what we carried on doing.  The girls who then got involved at each leg after that just followed suit, nothing was questioned.  It was very much Izzy that was great in holding us to our routines. We didn’t stray from it, and she did keep the boat tidy…

Anna: I would love to talk about so much more of the row and of the boat but I know that there’s a documentary coming out so that’s alright, people can watch that.

Laura: There is, yes.

The Coxless Crew step test their sea legs out on shore.

The Coxless Crew step test their sea legs out on shore.

Anna: So let’s go right to the end of the row.

Laura: Woo-hoo, party time!

Anna: Woo-hoo!  So, you’ve been going nine months, how many thousands of miles had your rowed?

Laura:  Just over 9000 miles.

Anna:  9000 miles!  How many world records were you on to break?

Laura: We set two world records.

Anna: And how do you feel when the boat hits land for the final time – I’m getting a bit emotional thinking about it – and you all step out of that boat together?

Laura:  It was so special, massively emotional. Plus, having sea-legs – we all nearly wiped out.  I got quite emotional.  Obviously, I’m emotional at that point, but even just before that. . .there were quite a few moments out at sea in that last leg where I thought, “oh my God, this is coming to the end, this is it. Flipping heck, we’ve worked on this for 4.5 years and now finally we’ve achieved what we set out to do!”  Sometimes on the last leg I would start thinking that but then I thought, “we haven’t finished yet, so stop it” because you can allow yourself to accept it only when we literally get into the finish. 

So, only as I was rowing in on that last little bit I got massively emotional, thinking, “Oh my God, this is so overwhelming, this is it, we never have to row again, we never have to plan or organise any of this stuff again, the stress has gone, this is now party time!”  It was just amazing.  The biggest thing was when we saw our parents standing on the pier as we rowed in and that was the switch that got the tears going because it was an overwhelming feeling of, “Thank God, we made it back safely for them.”  No matter how supportive they were, they were never going to relax until we got to land. As much as we knew we were fine out there, and as much as you say that to them on satphone or in an email, they’re still going to worry about the unknown. It was just great to see their relief and know that…

Anna: It’s done.

Laura: Yes, “I don’t have to put you through that any more!”

An emotional reunion with a little family member after almost a year away.

An emotional reunion with a little family member after almost a year away.

Anna: Now, last couple of questions.

How on earth do you adjust back to normal life?  Do you ever just sit at your desk  –you’re now back at the job you were in before, as a medic for the British Athletics Para team, which I know you love…

Laura: …I do…

Anna: …..and do you ever just sit at your desk and think ‘I rowed a freakin’ ocean’.  Not only that but ‘I rowed the biggest ocean!’ What goes through your head?

Laura:  It’s weird.   All the way leading up to the row I always kept work and the row very segmented, so I never would talk about the row when I was at work and vice versa.  But then, when I was out on the ocean, work was what I was always striving to get back for.  We were getting so delayed and it was making me really worried about the fact that I might not have a job when I got back.  One of my other dreams and passions was to be at the Rio Olympics this year and I thought that might not happen. I always wanted to have something to come back to so that post-expedition I didn’t have a real drop off because I have nothing to look forward to. I was massively excited coming back into work, I felt, “Yeah, yeah, let’s go, let’s go!” and then everybody said, “Ok, great, tell us about the row” and, “No, don’t rush into things.”   I thought, “No, I’m fine, let’s go!  I’m good, right, so where are the athletes?  I haven’t seen anybody for a year, what’s going on?”  and their response was,  “Just, you know, just come back in, just ease yourself in.”  Bless them, I think I came back as a bit of a whirlwind. 

About a month into it I had massively over-committed myself and was trying to contact everybody on email and phone call and visiting everyone and I remember turning to my sport psych and saying, “I just don’t understand it, I’m so tired!”  He said, “Laura, you’ve just been rowing for nine months. Within two weeks you’re practically back full time at work and you haven’t stopped since and you’ve already been to Brazil and done X,Y and Z with work within the first month.  That’s most probably why you’re just emotionally and mentally and physically still very tired.  You just haven’t rested yet.”

I thought,  “Oh. Yeah. Maybe…”

Anna: Sensible man.  Damn the sensible people!

Laura:  I know! But it was beautiful to come back to work and see everybody. 

You’re right, you do occasionally get those moments, when you’re sitting round in a meeting and maybe your head switches off and you just think, “Wow, this time last year I was paddling about in the middle of the ocean! There was most probably a whale just jumping over the side.  But now I’m in a meeting room talking about plans for Rio. How life changes.”

Anna: So, when are you going to Rio, how many weeks do you go?

Laura: Not long now, actually, what are we, 7th July today, so, 24th/25th August we fly out for the Paralympics, so yeah, not long at all.

Anna:  So the final question.  I always ask people for advice, but I think I’m going to put yours with a little twist. I normally I ask for advice for people who are scared about starting things.  But with you I think I’d really like your advice for people who perhaps have started things but they’re not going to plan and they’re thinking of turning back and giving up.  Just because it took you so long to get to the start line. 

What would be your advice for anyone who wants to get out there and take on something that seems insurmountable?

Laura:  Just that you’ve got to believe in it 110%.  You’ve got to have a true reason as to why you’re doing what you’re doing.  You’re going to get tough times and dark times, and during those times that’s when you need to be able to ask yourself the question of. . . what if?  And is your what if  “If I don’t do this, how am I going to feel in the future having not ever done this in my life” and is it “Actually, if I quit this and  I continue with my work am I going to be happy with myself, can I live with myself with that?” 

For me, if I ask myself “what if I didn’t do the row” every time I felt “I’m going to be gutted.”  So I needed to give it 110%, I needed to make sure I’ve left no stone unturned and if at that point I still couldn’t achieve it, well then that’s out of my control. But when it’s in my control and there’s something I can physically do about it, then I need to give it 110%.

So, give it your all, believe in what you’re setting out to do and just hold true to the reasons that are close to you.  Just – go and get it!

A:  Laura Penhaul, thank you. You are a friend, a legend and a true Adventure Queen.

coxless in ocean