The Yorkshire women bidding to row across the Atlantic Ocean

PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 August 2015

Janette, Helen, Niki and Frances – Yorkshire’s own fantastic four

Janette, Helen, Niki and Frances – Yorkshire’s own fantastic four


York mums preparing for a 3,000-mile rowing challenge take time out to talk to Jo Haywood

The magnificent Rose (who looks like a cross between a rowing boat and the space shuttle)The magnificent Rose (who looks like a cross between a rowing boat and the space shuttle)

They call themselves ordinary Yorkshire women, but ordinary Yorkshire women don’t row the Atlantic. Their modesty does them credit, but the truth is that Frances Davies, Helen Butters, Janette Benaddi and Niki Doeg are absolutely extraordinary.

They’ve already secured a place in the history books as the first female crew to successfully row across the North Sea and now they’ve upped the ante even further. At 1pm on December 15th, they’ll set off in their boat – Rose – from San Sebastian de La Gomera in Spain and will race 3,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic to Antigua in the Caribbean. The crossing should take them about eight weeks, during which they’ll be battling around 20 other teams for top spot while facing the daily prospect of 30ft waves, sharks, whales, flying fish (which can give you a nasty smack in the face apparently), sea-sickness, exhaustion and chafing in all manner of vital nooks and crannies.

They’ll also have to put up with each other’s idiosyncrasies and the challenges of carrying out your daily ablutions in a rowing boat – albeit a large, high-tech one – with three constant onlookers.

The Yorkshire Rows team out on the water – a lot calmer water than they’re likely to face on the AtlanticThe Yorkshire Rows team out on the water – a lot calmer water than they’re likely to face on the Atlantic

‘Frankly, I don’t think we’ll care,’ said business owner Niki. ‘We know each other very well now and are looking forward to knowing each other even better by the end of the race. There’s no room for vanity and embarrassment on the boat.’

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – let’s row back to when the four of them first met, perhaps not surprisingly, on the River Ouse in York.

‘We all have children at St Peter’s,’ said Janette, a clinical researcher. ‘And we all signed up for a rowing taster day on the river when the school offered one through the Guy Fawkes Boat Club (a social rowing club for parents, friends and supporters).

Niki, Helen, Janette and Francis in their Guy Fawkes Boat Club gearNiki, Helen, Janette and Francis in their Guy Fawkes Boat Club gear

‘I’d never done anything like it before and have never been particularly sporty, so I was terrified they’d all be super-serious and professional while I’d just fall in and get wet.’

Instead, she found three new friends and a sport that made her not particularly sporty spirits soar.

‘We all loved it straight away,’ said Frances, a solicitor. ‘We bonded over this wonderful shared experience and couldn’t wait to take it further.’

It was Frances who first came up with the idea of rowing the Atlantic, inspired by the British adventurer Debra Searle (later Veal) who rowed the ocean alone after her then husband and rowing partner was rescued from their plywood boat.

‘He couldn’t cope, but this diminutive little woman persevered, showing amazing strength and courage,’ she explained. ‘I mentioned my idea at a dinner when everyone was a bit drunk, so it inevitably got an enthusiastic reception.’

One or two husbands took a little more convincing, but it soon became apparent that Helen (a communications expert in the NHS who was, unfortunately, unavailable for interview), Niki, Janette and Frances were actually going to rise to this seemingly unconquerable challenge.

‘I thought we’d just set off the following weekend,’ said Janette, who acts as skipper when the women are on the boat. ‘But I soon realised we’d need two years of training, preparation and fundraising to get us to the start line.’

Those two years are now rapidly drawing to a close and in just a few short months these super-fit superwomen will be heading to Spain for the biggest challenge of their lives.

They’ve already conquered the chockablock shipping lanes and impenetrable darkness of the North Sea, but do they really feel prepared for the immense task they’ve set themselves?

‘I’m absolutely convinced we’ll do it,’ said Niki. ‘We’ve worked incredibly hard and have become such an amazing team in the process. The Atlantic is very unpredictable, but if it’s just down to us four, we’ll definitely reach Antigua.’

So, after eight weeks in a boat together, rowing day and night throughout December and January – including Christmas and New Year without their families – will they be desperate to see the back of each other (and not just because that’s how they sit when they’re at the blades)?

‘No way,’ said Janette. ‘As soon as we reach land, we’ll be looking forward to being back in the boat together again.’

And do they have another challenge in them? Perhaps hopping up Everest or swimming round Australia?

‘Actually, I do have a little idea,’ said Frances, with a cunning cocked eyebrow.

Watch this space – Yorkshire’s fantastic four will be back.

Why, oh why?

No one sets off across the Atlantic on a whim (unless you’re clinically insane). So, why are these four very sane, very sensible women doing the gruelling 3,000-mile challenge?

Janette: ‘I’m doing it for the charities and for the girls.’

Helen: ‘During my dad’s illness, he amazed and inspired me with his courage, bravery and fight to the end. I hope he will be with me in spirit when I am faced with the unpredictable, vicious Atlantic Ocean.’

Niki: ‘Every single person is capable of so much more than they realise. With hard work, dedication and the support of those around them, amazing feats can be achieved.’

Frances: ‘This challenge has everything. It’s going to stretch us physically, mentally, financially and emotionally. It’s truly life-changing.’

The best reason of all, however, is the chance to raise much-needed money for the development of a Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre in Leeds and Yorkshire Air Ambulance

Do your bit

You don’t even have to get your feet wet to get involved in the Yorkshire Rows’ Atlantic adventure. By providing sponsorship and support, you can play your part in what looks set to be a life-changing journey.

You can make a donation or dedicate a song to someone special for as little as £2. The girls estimate they’ll need around 10,000 songs to fuel their flagging spirits during their trip and, when your song’s played, they’ll let you know by email and social media. They’ll also choose three very special songs for when they leave La Gomera harbour, arrive in Antigua and, perhaps most poignantly, for Christmas Day.

You can also join the 250 Club, which gets your logo or name on the boat and a feature on the girls’ website in exchange for £250, or become a key sponsor, which includes the use of the boat at company events, prominent logo displays and a host of other marketing opportunities.

Phil Brierley of key sponsor York House Leisure says his company is supporting the Yorkshire Rows challengers in a bid to raise money for Yorkshire Air Ambulance.

‘I also know Niki and wanted to show our support for the remarkable effort she and the other three working mums are making,’ he added.

Visit now and find out how you can do your bit.

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