Photo: Anthony Ball
When 37-year-old Kiko Matthews set out to break the solo speed record for rowing the Atlantic in January, she’d already faced death at least twice in the form of two brain surgeries and time in intensive care whilst deeply ill with Cushing’s disease. Her experience inspired a quest to raise money for King’s College Hospital who treated her, and fostered a positive mindset that meant that even the 80ft waves she encountered during her record breaking 49-day row didn’t faze her.
In fact, Kiko completed the 3280-mile Atlantic row without any dramatic tales; she didn’t missed anyone or anything, liked her own company and genuinely enjoyed the experience. Truth be told, I was expecting tales of hallucinations, naked rowing and life-changing moments of facing fears, loneliness and total exhaustion, but Kiko’s positive approach to life meant that, save the brief low moment, she literally sailed through it. As she said to me, “You don’t have to do a big challenge in order to find yourself or to be happy – for me, these revelations have come from everyday life, from all the experiences I’ve had, good and bad.”
Enjoy the rest of our chat.
How’s it feel to be the fastest woman to row the Atlantic solo?
Well, I don’t wake-up and go, Woohoo I’m a world record holder! I only remember when people tell me. It’s not like I’m walking around with an air of awesomeness. I saw this little 4-year-old girl at nursery today and she said, ‘Can I just say, you’re amazing, you crossed an ocean on your own.’ And I was like, Thanks! But I don’t feel like I’m amazing.
During your row, how long did it take you to get used to the fact that there was nobody around?
I never felt like there wasn’t anyone around. Unless I stood up and looked around and thought, This is cool, it never really crossed my mind that I was on my own. I didn’t miss anyone. It didn’t factor in my thoughts unless I was thinking how cool it was.
How long did you row for each day?
I rowed for 16 hours and would have a few hours’ sleep. I was so not regimental. I went with what my body said, and what the weather said, and was flexible. I didn’t really like the middle of the night row during sleeping time – who wants to be up rowing at 1am? If the weather was nice and the waves weren’t massive and I was feeling good, I’d maybe get a 3-hour sleep and then row at 2.30am. My tracker would ping at 12-midnight, 4am, 8am, 12-midday, 4pm, 8pm. So when I was feeling good and the weather was good, I would try at night-time periods to get a 2-hour slot in each of those four and then I’d do more in the daytime.
Did you get bored?
I’m not sure about bored, but it was relentless. You’re either lying in your cabin or rowing. But because there’s nothing else to do, the thing that stops you being bored is actually the rowing itself. There’s not a huge amount of things to do, other than rowing, spotting different wave shapes and sizes, the odd bird that goes by, a shape in the sky.
Did you do anything to pass the time?
I did have an iPad, I downloaded a few things like the BBC’s Taboo, with Tom Hardy, and Entourage, and a few movies just in case. When I had really calm weather, I’d watch some things to pass the time. At the beginning though, it was too hectic and crazy so at night-time, I’d just shut myself in and wait for the morning. Plus, watching the iPad at night would give me night blindness, so I couldn’t see the waves. The last two weeks I didn’t need anything though; I was just at one with my thoughts.
What did you think about during the 49 days at sea?
All sorts of things. There were some things that I was thinking about that are not for the general public, such as thinking about naked sailors [laughs]. And I’d think about how far away I was from people.
Did you have any hallucinations?
No. I f*cking love sleep. I could sleep for ten minutes and feel great. The alarm would go off and I’d be like, [energetic voice] ‘Great. Off we go!’ so I’m very good at mega power naps. That’s the thing about doing it solo. If you do it in a team, you have to do 2 hours on, 2 hours off; although I don’t know why people get hallucinations because that’s enough time to sleep. I was rowing 16 hours a day, but when I was rowing, I was eating. So I didn’t stop to eat.
Lots of Atlantic rowers row naked – did you give it a go?
No! I wore shorts and when I didn’t wear them I had my bottom on the sheepskin [seat padding], then it got sweaty and salty and way more uncomfortable – there was sweat between my crotch when I went forward and back. I was like, why would anyone want to row this naked? So I wore shorts. Everything else was naked – I had a little silk scarf that I’d put around my neck and over my tummy to stop it getting totally frazzled. It was hot out there!
How did rowing for 49 days effect you physically?
You get a spotty bottom, which is irritating and painful, especially if you’re sitting on one of those spots. Your body breaks down your muscles, so my arse has now gone. Because I’d lost weight, my boobs – when I would lean forward they went into little tubes. Oh my god, so unattractive. They’ve firmed up now and I’m now looking uber hot [laughs].
Did everything get sticky from the salt?
Yes, everything in the boat, your clothes… The bed I was sleeping in was sticky and salty. It also had a lot of muesli and sunflower seeds in it… a lot of chia seeds. I had seeds stuck in my bottom. Urghh.
Would you say rowing the Atlantic is more mentally or physically challenging?
They go hand-in-hand but I’d definitely say mental. My mental strength is so strong that I didn’t feel it was that tough mentally, but I know I had to use my mental strength at times to go and row, or to remember that things were temporary. So I needed mental strength to bring myself back [to a good mood], but it didn’t take long. I could see a bird or have a funky idea, or a tune [and I’d be fine]…
Speaking of tunes, you made some terrible music choices for the row…
I absolutely hated my iTunes. Do not download the 100 Best Classical Music Tunes! I’d downloaded a lot of classical music because I just thought when you got to the big waves they’d be nothing cooler than to have a bit of cymbals crashing as the waves rocked me from side to side. I wanted to sing, actually, I guess because I wasn’t really using my vocal cords that much. I was feeling so happy for quite a lot of the time that I wanted some happy tunes to sing along to. Next time I do it, I’ll make sure my playlist is a lot better.
What was your food like?
I took freeze-dried food from Outdoor Foods – it was really good. Much nicer than any of the other crap that’s been out there in other years. Orzo pasta bolognaise, spicy pork noodles, chili con carne, dhal spinach and rice, posh pork sausages. The meaty ones gave me really bad farts – really meaty farts. Then I discovered the dhal and rice and it was such a relief that I didn’t have to have meat!
The little orzo pasta looked like little maggots. I’d have a few spoons when I was rowing, but I’d ladle the little spoon massively high and they would go everywhere – so there were loads of little ‘maggots’ all around my boat all the time. They’d grow because of the water.
Did you crave any particular food, taste or texture?
Anything fresh! Mojitos, vegetables and cold liquids. I dreamt about broad beans, fresh broad beans where I was popping and eating them out of the pod.
Last time we chatted you recalled feeling guilty that you had a ‘good boat’ for the world record?
I had this massive guilt period where I was feeling guilty that my boat was so good and I was smashing this record while I was sleeping. I felt guilty for a long time to the point I was actually crying about it. I did have a good boat. It wasn’t until I had a little conversation with myself that I was alright with it. I was like, someone else could have taken two years out of their life, someone else could have raised £70k to get the boat in the water, on their own, and break the record. That, actually is the hardest bit. So I stopped feeling guilty.
You already know how you’re going to smash your own Atlantic record, don’t you?
I know what to expect now, I know what to take. It would be so much easier. I’d love to do it again, I’d smash it. Because it wasn’t until I got to the very end that I realised what .1 of a knot was – I hadn’t appreciated the distance. And when you’re tired you’re like, What difference does an hour make? But it wasn’t until the end, when I was trying to get in to Barbados for a certain time (because of the sun and filming), that I realised how important that was.
Doing it again with the right clothing and the right food that I like – because I didn’t like my snack bag – and knowing the routine and not being so deficient (medically), I think I’d be able to take another 5 days off. And I had shit weather. It was foul. I had no wind, then I got a little bit. Generally, it was one of the worst [attempts] in terms of weather for a speed record. Which is great for being safe. But I didn’t have the wind that we’d hoped for.
Did you have a favourite time of the day during your row?
Sweetie time! That was the shifts between 4pm and 6ish because I felt like I’d got through the main hot part of the day and was now on the way to the end of the day. In terms of my favourite shifts, when it wasn’t too windy, I actually really enjoyed the early morning night shifts – the 5.30am shift. For some reason, the oars in the water would move really easily at that time of day. I loved the morning bit, I loved the evening. Hated the really hot bit of the day. It made me lethargic and tired.
What about the 80ft waves?
People asked me what the high point of my row was, and it was pretty high on the top of the 80ft waves! Obviously I didn’t have a tape measure to be certain they were 80ft, but they were mahoosive. You could see for miles on top of them, including the deep hole you’re about to descend into. But you can’t fear anything. I’m tethered to my boat, I’ve got the button [to press if it’s an emergency], the door is shut, I’m on my little boat… if this crashes and smashes, it’s either a story, nothing happens or death.
Did any weird things happen?
I had a flying fish land in the packet of pork scratching one night. I was like, What the hell is that noise? I found this poor little flying fish flapping in the packet of chilli pork scratchings. It must have been very stingy for him.
You genuinely enjoyed rowing the Atlantic and didn’t find it mentally tough, which is pretty amazing. What does your resilience come from?
I’ve been single for 13 years! Joking aside, when you are single you do have to survive a little bit more on your own. You’ve not got that crutch to lean on – you’ve got your family, but it’s not quite the same. You’re forced to go out and do stuff, and the result is that you’re actually very capable of a lot of things that other people might not be.
All of those experiences in my life have made me so mentally strong that when I went into the Atlantic on my own to something that I’ve never done before in my life – never been to sea, never seen a big wave – it put me in really good stead to deal with that. I want to show everyone you don’t have to cross the Atlantic to be mentally strong, it comes from everyday life. Mine comes from me being me, doing what I want to do, not giving a shit about what other people think about me or what I’m doing. Just being kind, being thoughtful, sometimes being too honest, just having experiences, thinking of ways you can be positive.
During your row was there anything you were looking forward to when you finished?
Yes, I was quite looking forward to having not sticky, damp clothes. By the end of it, no matter how much you wash your clothes, they’re salty. I only had one pair of shorts because I lost one pair in the wind when they were drying. I was quite looking forward to having something clean and non-sticky. And the same with my sheets. I loved my bed on the boat – I love small places, I love feeling cosy. I don’t give a shit about 5-star hotels, but I was quite happy to have clean sheets, clean pillows and non-sticky sleep!
What did it feel like when you stepped on land – were you wobbly?
Yes, I looked like a pisshead because I was wobbling all over the place, and like a rabbit in the headlights because there were lots of people there and a camera crew put their big white light on me. I was literally swaying from side to side, holding onto chairs to stop myself falling on people who were having their dinner!
At that point, with the camera crews, I was thinking: ‘I just want to have a drink and sit down with some mates and go home!’ I didn’t really want to talk because I knew they’d want me to say how amazing it was and how exciting, but I was like, [non-plussed] ‘Oh yeah, I’ve just finished.’
How was your first meal and night on land?
I think I had some fresh fish and veggies and two mojitos. It wasn’t very restful because I was on the phone to my PR people who were telling me what I needed to do in the next 24 hours.
I loved my bed until the BBC said I had to call them at 4am for the breakfast show. No rest for the wicked!
Did you see much plastic during your row?
I saw more plastic than humans, but I didn’t see very many humans. There’s not as much as I thought there would be – but it’s the wrong part of the ocean. The current is such that it isn’t where plastic collects. The bits that I saw were things that would have come overboard from sailing ships or big cargo ships. So new stuff.
Of the whole experience, what was the most challenging?
Preparing for the row, I was putting in so much – from my day job, to exercising, to trying to raise money, having people saying no all the time and people ignoring you. You’d write an email and you’d put your whole love and passion into this email – and they’d just ignore it! You had to remember not to take it personally and not get upset. So that was difficult; you just wished everyone was as excited about it as I was.
Have you had the post-expedition blues?
Not really, but it is a bit boring. Everyone’s cracking on and busy at work and life. Easter was a bit rough because I hadn’t planned anything and everyone disappeared and I still had to tidy up my room. And the weather I came home to was shit! If you’re going to come back from an adventure, do it in the summer, not the winter!
What’s your next challenge?
It’s about plastic, it’s more community-based, and it’s closer to home. Watch this space for the big reveal!
Before then, I would love to SUP in the Philippines or Indonesia in December/January!