To get from San Francisco to Honolulu, most people would opt to take a five-and-a-half-hour flight. Libby Costello, Sophia Denison-Johnston, Brooke Downes and Adrienne Smith decided on a different mode of transportation – a row boat that would take them across the Pacific, a trip that lasted 34 days, 14 hours and 11 minutes to be exact. Upon completing the trek that tested their physical and mental endurance, the foursome now holds the women’s record for fastest time in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The crew, who were sponsored by Lat 35 Racing, had two-hour rowing shifts throughout the 2,400 nautical mile journey, slept 90 minutes at a time (when they could fall asleep), ate freeze dried meals, pantry snacks and peanut M&Ms, and stayed motivated by playing Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Harry Styles, country music and the Jonas Brothers. Their feat also was for a good cause, raising money for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Below, we caught up with the rowers to hear all about their experience.
How did this idea come about?
Smith: “This idea originated with Sophia. She contacted Jason Caldwell after reading his book What If about crossing the Atlantic. He wanted to put together a women’s team… the seed was planted and then she started to put the team together.”
What was the training process?
Denison-Johnston: "The training process was extensive. There was physical training and then there was learning. The physical training was very similar to what most of us had done before in rowing training but focused primarily on building muscle and sitting for longer and longer periods on the erg. The longest day I had in training I rowed over 87,000 meters. We also focused on coordination and injury prevention. While this was hard work, the learning was probably the most important. We are all athletes. We know how to train physically, but we had no idea how the boat worked, what to expect out at sea, how to navigate, etc. We had to take lots of courses online and in person to learn everything we needed to know to be safe at sea. Duncan Roy, an ocean rowing coach, was instrumental to us in helping us learn the skills necessary to take the boat out by ourselves in open water. After that, we were able to execute longer and longer training rows in our boat out of Santa Barbara, at one point rowing from Santa Barbara to Ventura."
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Downes: “We also did team building together. We did several very long hikes together. I love hiking but don’t do it often so going from my longest hike ever of six miles to 30 miles was definitely a challenge. One of the first workouts we did together was a BUD/S-inspired workout in a pool where we had 20-pound dumbbells in each hand and would have to bob in and out of the water. By rep 15, your mouth was only out of the water long enough to take a small breath of air. This was the beginning of me really being pushed out of my comfort zone and having to stay calm. We also did walk sits while practicing critical knots with our hands in buckets of ice. I also spent time doing certain “seasickness training” like spinning in a chair and then immediately getting on the rowing machine and training my eyes to work together better.”
Costello: “We decided early on the language that we were going to use to communicate with each other and have a common ground that was upheld by our values, some of which are joy, courage, integrity, trust and transparency.”
Smith: “Our trainer, Jason Smith (also my husband and how I landed on this team) trained us with cardiovascular workouts that ranged from 60 minutes to eight hours a day. We had to train our bodies to be able to keep moving, which for me was easy as my background, unlike the other women, is long distance endurance sports. We worked a lot on grip strength carrying various weights of kettlebells, pull ups and hanging exercises. I struggled with weightlifting as I have scoliosis and a continuously aggravated back caused a bit of concern prior to take off. As a result, I worked with a lot of specialists to help realign my body. It all worked! None of us got injured. I made sure to incorporate a lot of dynamic mobility work like yoga and foundation training as that helped my body handle the continuous sitting hinging on the rowing machine.”
Did you also train yourselves for the lack of sleep?
Denison-Johnston: “I did not train for lack of sleep! I’m committed to my eight-plus hours whenever I can get it. It was an adjustment on the boat, but our bodies handled it beautifully, I think.”
Downes: “My first time really doing the shift pattern was during the actual crossing. We did two 24-hour training rows but for just a day, so I wasn’t tired enough to feel like I had to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. I was also really seasick during these long training rows, so I spent a lot of time in the cabin because I couldn’t be on deck without getting sick.”
Costello: “We knew our bodies would adapt to the sleeping and rowing schedule once we started. We wanted to get to the start line as fueled and rested as possible, and do what we can to slow the degradation process.”
Smith: “I had a kid... I already know what sleep deprivation feels like! We actually slept between 40 and 90 minutes during each of our rest periods. After four days at sea with this two hours on, two off pattern, we all started to feel fully capable of handling the new life pattern. Also being at sea (and outside) with natural light and very little technology, my body seemed to fall asleep quicker and my mind was at ease to sleep. It makes me aware of how much the constant busy-ness of life impacts my ability to relax, rest and restore.”
How good was that first sleep once arriving in Hawaii?
Denison-Johnston: “I was worried I wouldn’t be able to sleep through the night, but I absolutely knocked out. Lucky for us we came in around sunset, so I didn’t have to wait too long to get to my bed!”
Downes: “My first night's sleep wasn’t as awesome as I expected. I had a really hard time falling asleep and only slept for about 4-5 hours, which did feel good since it was way more than I had gotten at a time in five weeks, but I was expecting to feel way better. I was also totally running off adrenaline for the first five days back on land.”
Smith: “First sleep was welcomed but not great. It felt great to sleep, no matter how long, next to my husband and daughter. After the first night, I slept amazing!”
How did you mentally prepare?
Denison-Johnston: “A couple of ways. Fear often comes from the unknown. The learning process helped a lot in the mental preparation department. The more I was able to understand what was going on and what to do in different scenarios, the less afraid I became. Running through hypothetical scenarios, drilling emergency routines such as deploying the parachute anchor and even practicing everyday things like shift changes that are the most likely times for someone to go overboard all helped.”
Downes: “We were all mentally prepared for this row to be terrible. The row was hard and had really rough moments, but it was also way more fun than I expected. Before our crossing we made our mission statement ‘to elevate each other’s greatness and get to Hawaii as fast as possible.’ We also made a list of values and one of them was joy. We knew the crossing would be hard, but we knew it didn’t have to be miserable 100% of the time.”
Smith: “We meditated and also worked with a Toltec healer to get us mentally prepped for the journey at sea.”
Were they any moments where you doubted yourself and how did you overcome it?
Downes: “My big moments of doubt came before we started. Seasickness is a very real deal out there, and we talked to teams who had teammates need to come get rescued off the boat due to dehydration. These are serious cases for people who have very bad seasickness, and from our training rows it was clear that it was a possibility for me if I couldn’t get enough food and water. During our long training rows my team had to cover rowing shifts for me. They never made me feel guilty and made sure I was drinking sips of water when I could. During our crossing I only got sick one time. My only explanation is that I had more adrenaline for the crossing and my body was more in a survival state because it knew it didn’t have the comfort of going back in to land in a few hours.”
Costello: “Once we started and rowed away from the dock, I never doubted myself or my team’s ability to complete the route. We had a few curveballs thrown at us the month before leaving, but we approached each event together and always found a way.”
Smith: “I had a few moments I just wanted to stop rowing and cry. Having a team of amazing women, however, I was able to pull myself out of my own pity party. The adventure was about showing up for each other.”
What was the most challenging part for you?
Denison-Johnston: "One of my biggest challenges was waking up for the night shifts. I think the ocean did a number on my phone’s speaker, so my wake-up alarm got quieter and quieter throughout the row. By the end, I was so disoriented when it came to understanding what time it was that I would wake up only an hour into my break and start getting ready to come on the oars.”
Downes: “One of the most challenging parts for me was resting in the stern cabin in the middle of the day once the climate got hotter. I would come out of my rest feeling worse than when I went in. It was brutal—hotter than a sauna and the air was thick. We only had one teeny fan that I had to have four inches from my face while I slept.”
Smith: “My left hand/wrist and arm hurt a lot. We were impacted on the starboard side of the boat with oars getting caught by waves, jammed into our legs, etc. It always took me about 20 strokes to be able to hold the oar tight because my tendons in my hand and forearm were so fatigued and overused.”
What did you each learn about yourselves by doing this?
Denison-Johnston: “I learned that by taking our preparation so seriously we were able to enjoy the ride. Nothing is so serious that you can’t have a little fun. And I learned that I really do just love to row. I genuinely enjoyed 99% of my time on the oars.”
Downes: “I learned that you really can do anything you set your mind to and also that I don’t have to change any part of me to do amazing things.”
Smith: “I am not my thoughts, and at any moment, I can recreate who I am from being aggravated, upset and exhausted to exhilarated and excited. Humor was a key driver!”
Anything crazy happen while out in the middle of the ocean?
Denison-Johnston: “One of the scariest moments was an encounter with a big fish, probably a tuna or Dorado, that smacked into our rudder. We heard and felt a loud thud and then we lost control of our steering, our boat turning sideways into the waves…”
Downes: "We had already had some auto arms die, so we were quick to go through the protocol to fix the steering but didn’t expect it to affect us like this. I was worried the rudder was broken so I stuck a GoPro down to make sure our fin was still on.”
Did you guys do anything else except row, sleep, repeat?
Denison-Johnston: “We did our laundry, occasionally washed our hair, went swimming if we thought it wouldn’t slow us down too much, cleaned the boat, cooked and ate our food. I tried to sleep as much of the off shifts as possible, so I didn’t do anything aside from listen to music and audiobooks during my shifts.”
Costello: “We had a lot of chores on the boat – we had packed schedules nearly every day!”
Reaching Hawaii, what was the first thought you had once hitting land?
Downes: “I knew that our team was capable of breaking the world record, but it still felt unbelievable that we did it. I also couldn’t believe it was over. There were a lot of feelings and emotions. Everyone was so welcoming when we arrived, that whole night was amazing.”
Costello: “The first thought I had when we landed in Hawaii was ‘I have to hug my team; I love them so much.’ While living on a 28-foot long boat together, we mostly high-fived, gave a pat on the back or leaned on each other while traversing the boat, but it wasn’t stable enough for much else so it was nice to give a proper hug and say, ‘Thank you for everything.’”
Smith: “When the boats came by to take our pictures, we couldn’t tell who everyone was…. And then I heard ‘Hi mommy’ and my body filled with chills. I got goosebumps and was looking everywhere for my daughter, Reese. Then when we got to the dock, she ran into my arms, and I’ve never felt so much love in my life. It was bigger than when I gave birth. At that moment, accomplishments didn’t matter, just my presence did. She didn’t know what I did and how challenging it was or that we broke a world record. She just wanted to be with me and me with her. As I flew home, that’s when a new feeling hit me. While flying over San Francisco, I thought I really made it. I don’t think I’ll ever fly over the Pacific Ocean and look at it the same way. There is a new feeling of wonder, awe and hope that wasn’t present before.”
Four of you together for a little over a month, you probably have such a bond now…
Denison-Johnston: We do have a special bond! We have a lot more in common on the boat than we do on land. We all come from such different places in life, expertise, personality, experience, that we really complemented each other as a team. There are moments of joy, frustration and love that no one else in the world will understand but us. And that’s pretty magical.”
In doing this trip, you raised money for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. How did you choose this organization?
Smith: “We have all been affected by anxiety and depression–each one of us personally has dealt with symptoms or have loved ones who do. It was important to support an organization that is backed by scientific research.”
Denison-Johnston: “We loved that they didn’t just walk the walk of breaking stigma but actually help propel research on treating anxiety and depression forward with their annual conference. Their website has credible information to learn about anxiety and depression and they have a find a therapist tool on their website that makes getting access to care that much easier.”
Anything new you want to tackle in terms of other records?!
Denison-Johnston: "Who knows! Now is too soon to say what will come next. The lightweight 2x has only one more Olympic cycle before it gets cut from the Olympic program and there are oceans to be rowed, mountains to be climbed and flown from. I’m sure you’ll find me out there trying hard at something. What that something will be, I guess we’ll find out!”
Downes: “I have a dream of winning gold at the Olympics, so I have my eyes on Los Angeles 2028.”
Costello: “Not a record, but now that we’ve got a break in training schedule, I’d like to sign up for a dance class when I get back to California, and if you knew me, you’d know that’s ambitious!
Smith: “No records, but I’d like to start writing more and exploring something new. I am going to shift my leadership into the public speaking and coaching realm. I’ve done a lot of this in the past but didn’t push it because I was scared to step into something new and different. After rowing across an ocean, I feel like I would be silly to be scared! I’ll use this challenge and experience to encourage and inspire youth and mothers to be brave, take risks, trust intuition, encourage play and creativity to feel and live more alive!”