Suffolk’s Bella Collins is riding the crest of a wave for women everywhere after rowing ‘like a girl’
- Credit: PA
Suffolk’s record-breaking trans-Atlantic oarswoman Bella Collins tells Sheena Grant what 40 days at sea on a 28ft by 6ft boat is really like and why doing something ‘like a girl’ should be a source of pride.
They battled storms, 20ft waves and boat problems to sail into the history books and become the fastest and youngest all-female team to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
But Bella Collins, from Hartest, near Bury St Edmunds, and her three team mates on the rowing boat Nelson didn’t achieve their momentous second place in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, described as the world’s toughest rowing race, by trying to ape the men who vastly outnumbered them at sea.
They did it on their own terms and by living up to the name they very deliberately chose for their team to reclaim what is all-too often used as a term of abuse. They showed that to Row Like a Girl is something to be proud of.
Bella, 23, Olivia Bolesworth, 26, Gee Purdy, 22, and skipper Lauren Morton, 25, hope their achievements will help inspire females around the world to be proud of what they too can do ‘like a girl’.
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What’s more, they are on track to raise £50,000 for charity Plan UK’s Because I am a Girl campaign, which aims to help millions of the world’s poorest girls get an education, live free from violence and fulfil their potential.
Speaking by phone from Antigua, where she is staying until the end of February after crossing the finishing line in the Atlantic Challenge on January 29, Bella admitted to still being on “cloud nine” after the girls’ exhausting but amazing 40 days at sea.
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“We always knew that we were well prepared, that there was a strong bond between the four of us and that we could do well,” she says. “But we never expected to come second.
“By day five or six of the race, when we realised we were in third place, we started to get competitive and really went for it. My brother (Angus, who was in the winning team) overtook us when we had about five things break on our boat. They got 12 hours on us at that point. But to come second and be the fastest ever all female team to row the Atlantic is unbelievable.”
In fact, the brother and sister made another piece of history by becoming the first siblings to complete the race in first and second place.
Incredibly, Bella, who works as a marketing executive for a travel firm in London, had never rowed before meeting Lauren and Gee in the Seychelles when Angus rowed the Indian Ocean in 2014.
“Lauren had tried to row the Atlantic two years ago and was 96 days at sea and ended up having to get picked up by a tanker,” says Bella. “She was putting a team together to have another go and asked myself and Gee to join her when we met in the Seychelles.
“ I’d always wanted to achieve something I could be proud of but my background is in sailing, not rowing. I’d done a lot of dinghy sailing at Burnham-on-Crouch but not ocean sailing. I’d never been on an ocean before.
“Having said that, some would say ocean rowing is in my genes. My uncle, Charlie Pitcher, first rowed the Atlantic in 2010 when I was 16 and I was in complete awe of him. He inspired me to think that a girl could do it too.”
Uncle Charlie later broke the world record when he completed a 35-day solo row across the Atlantic in 2013. And when Angus hit the record books by becoming part of the fastest four-man crew to cross the Indian Ocean in a rowing boat after landing in the Seychelles, Bella knew it was time for a female family member to get a slice of the action.
With their sights set on the Atlantic Challenge the girls began a year-long campaign to find sponsors, raise funds and make their dream reality, training on the river at Burnham-on-Crouch, in the Orwell and North Sea.
“We also spent a lot of time in the gym, doing weights to get a strong body and back,” says Bella.
“But the hardest thing was the organising and getting the money together. It was almost like a second job but it has been great for me to go out and learn all the skills I needed to do it.”
One of the easiest things to accomplish, however, was choosing a name for their team.
Row Like a Girl seemed to sum up the girls’ attitude and encapsulate everything they were trying to achieve.
They took their inspiration from a campaign by Always, makers of feminine hygiene products, to show that doing things #LikeAGirl is something to be proud of.
As part of its campaign the company produced a short film challenging the way that doing something ‘like a girl’ is used as an insult and showing that actually, if you’re a girl or a woman and doing something well, like a girl, you should be proud of it.
And let’s face it, most people, men and women alike, would be flattered to be told they rowed anything like this bunch of girls.
“We were inspired by that Always campaign,” says Bella. “We wanted to show that girls can get out there in something like this race, which has been a very masculine arena in the past. It’s about teamwork and determination and how you live on the boat.
“Our choice of Plan UK and its Because I’m a Girl campaign as our charity was an important part of that.
“The campaign, for girls around the world to have the right to a good quality education and to life free from violence, is important for giving women freedom and choice that is not necessarily always available to them.
“We feel that we are representing all girls and women. We had some tough times and bad lows along the way but during those we reminded ourselves how lucky we were to have the opportunity to be on the ocean and lucky to experience this. Many girls around the world would not be able to.
“We knew we had a good boat and had trained hard and we worked well as a team. We had a lot of people doubting us along the way, telling us we were acting too ‘girly’ and taking too many pictures. But we knew they were wrong.”
Life on board the 28ft by 6ft boat the girls liked to call Mrs Nelson was cramped.
“You were constantly clambering over people to get around the side and back to the cabin,” says Bella. “But we got used to it pretty quickly. The boat was light but sturdy. It was designed to right itself if it capsized and I never felt in danger or frightened by the ocean.
“There was a cabin at each end of the boat - one housing navigation and electronic systems - where we slept. We ran a system of two people on and two off for two hours at a time, sleeping when we weren’t rowing at night. During the day you’d be cleaning, fixing things or writing a blog when you weren’t rowing.
“We took everything we needed with us. We had a desalination machine that turned sea water into drinking water, dehydrated food packets and lots of snacks, drinks and wet wipes.
“We had a very strict hygiene regime. Each person was allowed five wet wipes per shift. That was more than most of the crews but we were girls and didn’t want to be smelly.
“You couldn’t wash your hair. Making fresh water took up lots of energy and you couldn’t waste it on hair washing. By the last day my blonde hair looked black.”
Interestingly, reveals Bella, one of the things that many people asked the women was how they got on together during their time at sea.
“I don’t think they would have asked any of the boys the same question,” she says. “But for the record, we got on really well. I’ve got friends for life. They are amazing, inspiring girls.”
The weather during the 26-boat race, which began from La Gomera in the Canary Islands on December 20 and included only one other all-female crew, was largely good but there was one bad storm and a hurricane passed close by. At one point they had to deploy their para-anchor to avoid being blown back the way they had come.
“We had to be in the cabin for two-and-a-half days and just let the waves take us,” says Bella. “There was lots of rain, so heavy you couldn’t see. It wasn’t a nice experience.
“Normally, when you are rowing you are in control and know what you are doing and can change direction so it was quite scary. But we had belief in the boat and I knew I had three companions who were amazing and that we would get through.
“Some of the waves were 20ft and the boat just rides them if they are really big swells. It’s like climbing a big hill and seeing the entire ocean from the top. With the sharper waves, those more like 10ft, you could surf them if you got the boat at the right angle.”
Along the way they saw whales, dolphins, seabirds and even the odd shark.
They also had technical problems and breakdowns to contend with.
“There were a lot of things that went wrong,” says Bella.
“We were two days fixing the water maker at one point but if you have a positive vibe on the boat that has a knock-on effect on everything you do.
“I definitely believe in myself more as a result of doing the challenge. I’ve learned a few things about myself, am a more confident person and more relaxed with who I am. We talked about life a lot on the boat, reflected on what we’d done so far and what we’d like to do.
“It’s going to be tough returning to normality and finding something to top this experience but I’m sure it won’t be the last thing we’ll do together.”
To find out more about Row Like a Girl or support their fundraising for Plan UK visit www.rowlikeagirl.uk. For more on Plan UK visit www.plan-uk.org.