Antigua's 'Island Girls' on becoming the world's first all-black team to voluntarily row across the Atlantic Ocean

The Island Girls rowed more than 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean over 47 days, 8 hours and 25 minutes for the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Upon reaching their final destination, they celebrated. Gemma Hazelwood

Meeting the rowers' basic needs of eating, sleeping and using the bathroom was not easy.

With only two-hour shifts most of the time, they sometimes had to choose between eating and sleeping, and the dehydrated food became unappealing. They all lost weight -- one of them as much as 40 pounds. Sleeping in the cabin that housed the navigation equipment was difficult because it made a loud buzzing sound and emitted bright light. The bathroom was a bucket, which they had to use on deck, along with biodegradable bags for solid waste.

After rowing more than 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean from La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, the Team Antigua Island Girls landed in English Harbour, Antigua, on Jan. 28. The four women became the first all-black team to row across an ocean and the first all-women team to represent the Caribbean in a transoceanic row.

Their journey, as part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, took 47 days, 8 hours and 25 minutes. Its significance goes well beyond the team's athletic feat and the "firsts" they achieved. The path they rowed was a slave-trading route, and as descendants of slaves, they kept that historical fact in the forefront of their minds. "We didn't go a day without thinking and talking about it -- that we were able to cross a slave route voluntarily," team member Kevinia Francis said. "It was a motivating factor. Our ancestors did this without proper nutrition," so any problems that came up were minor in comparison.

The Island Girls finished 13th out of 27 boats. Completing the Atlantic Challenge would be a remarkable achievement for anyone, but especially for people without previous rowing experience. All four women are athletes who thrive on challenge, but none of them had been rowers before they started training.

Five women of varying ages and backgrounds -- Francis, Elvira Bell, Christal Clashing, Samara Emmanuel and Junella King -- were selected for the team and trained for the journey, but only four rowers embarked on it. King served as an alternate.

Emmanuel had more than 12 years of experience as a seafarer, including sailing across the Atlantic in 2009, and she is the first Antiguan woman to become an RYA-certified yacht captain. Clashing was the first female swimmer to represent Antigua and Barbuda at the Olympics in 2004; she is an open-water swimmer, triathlete and stand-up paddleboard instructor. Bell is a learn-to-swim instructor and certified health coach, as well as a runner and martial artist.

Francis, a fitness trainer and cyclist who also excels in basketball, martial arts and track and field, had never been an "ocean person," she said. Still, she remembers that when the first team, which was all men, from Antigua and Barbuda entered the Atlantic Challenge in 2015, she had a "fleeting thought" of forming an all-women Antiguan team.

In early 2018, that fleeting thought started to stick. In January 2018, the men of Team Antigua Atlantic Rowers finished second in the 2017 Atlantic Challenge, and a call went out for women to fill the next team's ranks. The field got whittled down to this group of five.

March 2018: Training begins

The Island Girls trained for nine months. On average, most teams train for two to four years ahead of the Atlantic Challenge. But, the Island Girls jumped right in, hitting the gym six days a week, rowing on the water once a week and going out on a long row once a month, including a more than 50-mile circumnavigation around Antigua and a 65-plus-mile row to St. Kitts. "These were great experiences for us, as we were able to see how we overcame challenges and obstacles as a team," Clashing said.

These accomplished athletes were undaunted. "The mental and physical challenges -- that's what you look forward to," Bell said.

Their boat, dubbed "Jean Mary," was handed down from the Team Antigua Atlantic Rowers -- this was the boat's fourth Atlantic crossing. Clashing explained that Jean Mary's initial buyers had noticed how "the event unified the country and wanted to see more of that happening in the future," so they wanted it to be used for future teams.

Even though they had a boat, the Island Girls still had to raise $150,000 for operational costs, so several Antiguan sponsors stepped up and contributed. The team also raised funds for the Cottage of Hope, a charity that serves abused, neglected and orphaned girls.

When Jean Mary was being refurbished ahead of the journey, the team spent time on indoor rowing machines. "Our most valuable session on the rowing machine was a 12-hour simulation we did in the garage of one of the team members' houses. That session gave us some great insight into our pacing strengths and challenges," Clashing said. Then they spent the month of November in England, "making sure we knew our boat given its refurbishments and we got tips from various experts in the field of ocean rowing," she said. They also took courses on essential navigation, first aid at sea, sea survival and Marine VHF Radio.

When Clashing first threw her hat into the ring, she had been looking for her next adventure, but she was unsure whether she could handle the training and the journey because of her premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which left her with symptoms of severe depression. She had been receiving treatment but was struggling with it, so even getting to the starting line was an accomplishment. Getting through it showed her that, "despite being sick, I can still do pretty much anything I want to do -- it just takes a little bit of planning and research."

Dec. 12, 2018: Out to sea

Once the Island Girls set out on the ocean, everyone had a job to do. Francis served as captain, which meant motivating the team, monitoring their progress and making decisions for the good of the crew. Emmanuel, with her boating experience, entered the coordinates that the weather team directed them to, maintained the boat log and handled most of the mechanical and electrical repairs. Bell was in charge of maintaining the boat's order and cleanliness, and she dealt with the water maker when it acted up. As a self-proclaimed "water baby," Clashing explained that she "had the task of jumping overboard into the Atlantic to clean the hull of the boat of barnacles that slowed the boat down," which she had to do four times during the crossing.

Because the women were competing with other teams and trying to finish as quickly as possible, someone always had to be rowing. Most of the time, two people were rowing and two were resting, in two-hour shifts -- and rest time included eating, preparing food, washing, using the bathroom, maintaining the boat and sleeping. The rowers slept in the two cabins at each end of the boat, which fit one person each.

The team's first major challenge was seasickness, which hit some of them hard. Then their autopilot failed, so they had to steer by hand for 36 hours until the land-based support team found a solution: cutting and splicing wires. They didn't get the favorable winds they'd hoped for, and sometimes, "the waves were against us, and it felt like we were rowing through mud -- thick and sludgy," Francis said.

"Our biggest fear was capsizing at night," Francis said, and it nearly happened once, when a rogue wave hit on an otherwise calm night. Jean Mary jolted perpendicular to the water, "tossing us into the safety lines and breaking two oars. It was very scary and made us a little paranoid for the rest of the trip," she said.

Although they faced some difficulties, the challenges were not as bad as they had expected overall. As they rowed, flying fish often flew up and hit the rowers, especially at night, so they had to throw the fish overboard in the morning. They saw dolphins frequently, and birds visited them every day.

The rowers "spoke" to their ancestors in different ways while at sea. "It was healing in a way," Francis said. For some, it felt like a sense of peace or getting help while rowing. Clashing said it hit her during the second week. "I remember thinking, this is exactly where I'm supposed to be in life -- right there in the middle of the Atlantic, doing what I was doing," she said.

A few years beforehand, Clashing had encountered a group traveling through the Caribbean by canoe, tracing historical routes. She was struck by the opportunity "to have adventure and history mixed together," she said. Then, "I found myself in a position to do exactly that," as the route she rowed is part of her history, she saw it as "taking some power back into that Atlantic crossing."

When the Island Girls got within sight of Antigua, they broke into song and posted a video thanking their supporters.

Jan. 28, 2019: Back home

At the very end of the journey, as Jean Mary pulled in, three of the four women were standing and waving at the crowd. Clashing was rowing, so she couldn't see at first, but she heard the roar of the masses. Then, to see the national flag and all the people who had gathered was overwhelming, Clashing said. "It was really special once we got on the dock. I didn't break down until my uncle started crying, and then I started ugly crying."

That day, the Antiguan government and schools closed early so that people could welcome home the team. "The welcome was kind of mind-blowing," Clashing said. "I had joked that I wanted the country to shut down and make it a national holiday, but I didn't think it would happen. And it did."

Since coming back, "I noticed a sense of unity that we've brought to the country," Clashing said, reminiscent of Antigua's dominance in cricket when she was younger.

"Apart from the fact that we were doing this for adventure, for charity, and for country, we also knew about the historic meaning behind this challenge that we were undertaking, but I don't think any of us had an idea of just how big of a deal" it would be, Emmanuel said. "We are now actually the first all-black team -- male or female -- to have voluntarily rowed an ocean, and I don't think it gets bigger than that."

"You can't give someone an eating disorder, but genetics load the gun and environment pulls the trigger."

Rowing is still a predominantly white sport. Olympic and collegiate rowing are different from transoceanic rowing, but for context: In NCAA women's collegiate rowing, the athletes were 74 percent white and 2 percent black in 2018. For male and female rowers at all levels in the United States, 57 percent were white, and 1.1 percent were black, according to USRowing's 2017 membership data.

The Island Girls' trek was an anomaly of sorts, a groundbreaking event.

Bell echoed that sentiment. "I felt humbled to be even selected, and very proud after we accomplished this, for our families, our charity and our country," she said. "It's pretty amazing to be able to accomplish that as Caribbeans, rowing across the slave trade route, as actual descendants of slaves."

The team members have become local celebrities. "I can't walk anywhere without being recognized," Clashing said. "It's incredible. School children come up to us, and especially the girls -- they are super excited," and some of them say they want to row.

"Black people in the Caribbean are not known for swimming or ocean-related sports," Francis said, and the team's row helps dispel those stereotypes. "It's an honor to be able to represent black people and women in the Caribbean in a feat that's considered not for us."

She added, "Now we have little girls saying they want to do it when they grow up."

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor in metro Detroit. You can read more of her work here.