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Oarsome women

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They battled waves as big as houses - but it was the bungalows coming from the side that were the problem. So how did the four local women who rowed across an ocean cope with that and all the other heart-stopping dangers? Mission: Atlantic, published on Saturday, brings to life their amazing tale

They battled waves as big as houses - but it was the bungalows coming from the side that were the problem. So how did the four local women who rowed across an ocean cope with that and all the other heart-stopping dangers? Mission: Atlantic, published on Saturday, brings to life their amazing tale

10 December 2005

'There is a storm in the Atlantic Ocean.

It happens all the time. The difference on this occasion is that a rowing race is going on, with small boats and their tired crews being tossed around by the fury of a sea that is warm enough to swim in comfortably and is, on other days, idyllic. Tonight it is insane, hostile and unforgiving.

'One of these boats is Mission Atlantic, known to its crew of four women from Guernsey as Ma, from its initials. The four are all experienced rowers, but none has seen anything like this before. Even in the early days of the race, they have been through some weather they thought of as heavy, but this is ridiculous. The four are all crammed into the stern cabin with barely enough room to twitch. The wind is howling above and they can hear the waves approaching from the side with a sound they liken to that of a train. The rain lashes the boat, but that is the least of their worries. They have got used to being wet. The race is taking place in the worst conditions in its history. Again and again the waves hit the hull and break over the top.

'But as the crew lie there in the dark in this tiny space, the most frightening thing is when they reach the top of one of the waves that are going with them and career down it, dreading what might happen when they reach the bottom. What does happen, they eventually realise, is that the boat will make its way back up the next one and then down they will hurtle again, as if on some bizarre and interminable fairground ride that breaks all the safety rules.

'The girls are learning things about themselves. One of them, Sarah Day, likes rough weather. But not like this.

'"I got to the point," she will say later, "where I was so scared that there didn't seem any point in being scared. It wasn't going to help." She doesn't share this with her crewmates at the time, though. She is too busy trying to get through the experience, which they have likened to "being in a washing machine going at 50 miles an hour or like an ant in a car wash".

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To make matters worse, although by no means a reckless bunch, they have somehow been naive enough to put all their lifejackets in the bow cabin, an agonising and completely useless 10ft away.

'It was an experience that pulled into sharp focus an adventure as dangerous and demanding in reality as it was exciting in prospect.

'"After we had been through that storm, we knew the boat could survive," Sarah says later. "I don't think I ever really worried about it again."'

Chapter one of Mission: Atlantic is as gripping and compulsive as you'd expect from a book that charts the story of one of the toughest endurance races in the rowing world: The Woodvale Atlantic Race from the Canary Islands right across to the West Indies.

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It involved a gruelling 67 days of extreme effort, primitive living conditions, exhilaration, fear and self-discovery.

But Guernsey women Sarah Day, Lois Rawlins-Duquemin, Kathy Tracey and Paula Van Katwyk did it, becoming the first ladies fours team ever to cross an ocean - and world record-holders. They grabbed islanders' imagination with their bold plan, which combined achieving personal ambitions and testing themselves with raising money for two charities: the Guernsey Society for Cancer Relief and the Guernsey Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Friends and fellow members of the Guernsey Rowing Club helped them raise the money needed to take part.

Meanwhile, Nigel Jones, the chief executive of ComProp, one of the major sponsors, had an idea to raise still more money for the charities - possibly as much as £40,000 - by publishing a book on the subject.

Chris Morvan, who was commissioned to write it, soon discovered that despite acres of media coverage of the mission, he knew almost nothing about it.

That meant long interviews with all the people involved - and not just the women themselves.

There was also Cat Peet, the reserve who was on standby right until the off, the fitness coach, the nutritionist, the psychological coach who prepared the women mentally for what might be to come, the people who helped to raise funds and a number of others.

The story runs much longer than the 67 days the crossing took. There was a year and more of preparation, a range of subjects to learn about, from seamanship to diets, and personal arrangements to make - including putting jobs on hold while they were out in the middle of an ocean. Even before their careers were suspended, they had to be juggled while the preparations and training were going on. Relationships with loved-ones required care and attention, and leisure time became a thing of the past. There was rowing practice and gym work to do to build stamina and suppliers to chase.

Armed with a digital voice recorder, Chris spent hours with the women, listening to them talking and then transferring the recordings onto a computer to go over them again and again.

Interviews ranged from two to three hours each - four accounts of the same story, each going into more or less detail than others on any given topic.

Never, he said, has the expression 'getting your head around it' seemed so appropriate.

But the result is a book with many facets. At its heart is an adventure story on the high seas. Leading up to that is the assembling of the team and the working out of every aspect - these women left nothing to chance. There are the conflicting emotions when the end was in sight, the celebrations in the Caribbean and the return to normality. There is determination, doggedness and courage in the face of heart-stopping danger.

And overriding all this are camaraderie, generosity and a range of emotions - from fear to love.

* Mission: Atlantic (£9.99) goes on sale on Saturday 18 November and was produced by Offshore International Advertising for ComProp. Funds raised will go to the Guernsey Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Guernsey Society for Cancer Relief. The Mission Atlantic team will be at Checkers on Saturday to sign books and islanders will be able to get a final glimpse of their 29ft boat. The book will be available from Press shops, Buttons, The Lexicon, The Bridge Book Shop, Checkers, Safeway and eBay.

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