Around the Pacific in 9 Months: 4 Women Embark on Incredible 8,446-Mile Journey on a Rowboat
"We stepped on the boat as teammates and, without question, we have each stepped off the boat as true friends," the women tell PEOPLE
Four U.K. women are attempting the impossible.
On April 20, 2015, Natalia Cohen, 40, Laura Penhaul, 32, Emma Mitchell, 30, and Meg Dyos, 25, set out from San Francisco, California, in a 29-ft. long, 7-ft. wide pink rowing boat named “Doris,” to cross 8,446 miles of unforgiving Pacific water.
The women, who call themselves the Coxless Crew after their lack of a coxswain (a person who sits in the stern) member onboard, are on the third and final leg of their journey. When they arrive in Cairns, Australia, in early January, they will have become the first ever team of four to row the Pacific Ocean, setting a world record.
The team rows 24 hours a day in two-hour shifts, battling four-story high waves, torrential rains and sweeping currents in what will end up being a 9-month expedition. They have made only three stops in Santa Barbara, California, Honolulu, Hawaii, and Samoa to re-stock supplies, shower and fix any boat malfunctions.
“We are on this journey because we want to show how women can test themselves mentally and physically, and to prove what we are capable of,” Coxless Crew member Laura Penhaul, 32, tells PEOPLE via email while at sea. “We want to show that strength can come from a dynamic and diverse team and that you can draw on each other to overcome the tough times in life.”
“We may be rowing the Pacific, but everyone has their own metaphorical Pacific Ocean to cross in life, so we hope people will ask ‘What’s mine?’ ” she adds.
The fearless foursome mapped, planned and trained extensively for four years in preparation for their journey. They eat freeze-dried meals, use a bucket as a toilet and sleep in two-hour shifts – if they run into a boat and are offered food or drink, they turn it down.
The team, whose progress can be tracked online, is committed to staying 100 percent unsupported.
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“We take everything stroke by stroke, shift by shift, leg by leg,” crewmember Natalia Cohen tells PEOPLE by email. “We have stayed strong by working together as a team and continuously drawing on each other’s strengths. We try to remain positive mentally and trust in ourselves and each other, no matter what.”
The Coxless crew is rowing the Pacific not only to test themselves, they are also rowing to honor women who have fought and overcome adversity – by raising awareness and funds for Walking With the Wounded, an organization dedicated to the re-education and re-training of wounded servicemen and women, and Breast Cancer Care, a charity that provides support and information for anyone affected by breast cancer.
“There are so many women out there that are unsung heroes, and we are making this journey for them,” says Penhaul. “Their resilience and strength in moving forward to create a new life journey, to see the positive and to make the most out of life is so inspiring to us.”
The crew listens to music to pump themselves up – Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition” is a favorite – and watch Grey’s Anatomy when they’re not rowing. All huge Backstreet Boys fans, they were even given a virtual shout-out from Nick Carter himself, who wished the girls a “good luck!”
“There have been so many incredible experiences and moments that we have shared out here on the almighty Pacific,” says Cohen. “The simplicity of a life immersed in nature has been very special and with the incredible wildlife encounters, magical skies, overcoming challenges thrown at us and uniting so successfully as a team, the whole journey has been rewarding.”
And while the Coxless Crew says their journey has been “incredibly fulfilling,” they admit they faced some terrifying moments.
In the first 16 days at sea, their solar-powered battery (used to charge their desalination device that makes salt-water drinkable) malfunctioned, so they were forced to make an emergency pit stop in Santa Barbara.
In the second leg of their trip from Hawaii to Samoa, the women began to run out of food, so they rationed their food to just one meal a day.
At one point, the women actually backtracked as they were caught in the Pacific doldrums – an area along the equator known for having little to no wind and described famously by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as “hell.”
“There were nights when there was no moon and we were rowing in pitch black darkness,” Dyos tells PEOPLE through email. “Sea conditions would be really rough and waves are crashing the boat. And you can’t see any of it.”
Filmmaker Sarah Moshman, 29, is capturing the Coxless Crew’s journey and plans to release her documentary, Losing Sight of Shore in the fall of 2016.
“These women are the bravest people I’ve ever met,” Moshman tells PEOPLE. “I was so inspired by their story I had to share it. I gave them cameras, and taught them how to use them because I wanted them to tell their own story. I talk to the girls once a week and check in on their progress.”
As the four brave women row closer and closer to their final destination, they refelct on their once-in-a-lifetime experiences – “incredible interactions with marine life!” – and the things they won’t miss too much – “no showering!”
“I can’t wait to see my family, eat fresh food and sleep in a clean bed for 8 hours,” says Cohen. “I think we’ll celebrate with a huge meal and a cocktail.”
The Coxless Crew has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows together on their Pacific journey – and they wouldn t have had it any other way.
“We stepped on the boat as teammates and without question, we have each stepped off the boat as true friends, maybe even call it sisters that we’ve never had,” says Penhaul. “There is nothing more humbling and bonding than being there for someone or better still, allowing others to be there for you. I can’t wait to complete this journey.”