Next December, 28-year-old Sofia Deambrosi and her three Bristol Gulls teammates, Chloe Juyon, Lorna Carter and Sarah Hunt, will embark on one of the world’s toughest endurance challenges: the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic row – covering 3000 nautical miles from La Gomera in the Canaries across the Atlantic to Antigua.
The all-female Bristol Gulls are planning to row as sustainably as possible, with race partners chosen for their eco credentials and a new eco boat designed by Rannoch to have less impact on the environment. They are also raising money for the RNLI and Clean-Up Bristol Harbour through their row.
With a year to go, skipper Sofia tells me about her endurance sport background, the challenges that await the team and how they’re focused on building strength and lifting heavy until their boat arrives in May 2020.
Tell me about your background – have you much experience in endurance sport?
At school, I loved sports and I played hockey, practised karate, and I was part of the athletics team – long jump, high jump, sprinting, relay – but my biggest thing was cross country running. I loved it, and my coaches at school really invested a lot of time in me. I think I first discovered the ‘pain cave’ when sprinting the last 200m to the end of a 2km race; when you think there is nothing left to give, you find that there always is.
Karate did a lot for my mental resilience and I spent a lot of time on the floor, getting taken down by taller and stronger men, but always proving I could stand back up and keep going, regardless of how battered I was. I developed pride for whatever I did and it made me the person I am today. If I compete and I don’t win, it’s because the opposition is just better or more prepared and they truly deserve it; never because I gave up or didn’t give every single thing I had.
How did you discover rowing, and have you done any endurance-based challenges before?
I discovered rowing at university in Exeter and when I moved to Bristol after University, the City of Bristol rowing club became my second home. I took up CrossFit at the end of 2017 at Valesco CrossFit, which helped me redevelop some strength and conditioning, and it’s where I met some amazingly committed and inspiring people.
I have never done a challenge of this calibre before. I’ve cycled from Bristol to Amsterdam and did the UK three peaks challenge, cycling in between the peaks, which was tough but good fun. Funnily enough, the moments of pain that really stayed with me have been 2k tests on the erg and rowing down the Henley course, both of which are shorter challenges, but you are hanging on for dear life from the go until the very end.
What kind of physical training are you doing to prepare for the Atlantic row?
The training we need is mainly strength and conditioning. We need to get to the race injury-free with strong cores and with an extra little bit of weight that we can afford to lose – ideally in the form of muscle! We’re working with Bristol Physio to identify our individual areas of weakness and the amazing Luke Brewster is developing strength and conditioning programmes for each of us based on this.
We’re getting our Eco Boat in May 2020, and from then on will be training on the water. We’re planning a couple of multiple-day rows to help us get to know the boat and allow us to practice shift-rowing and resting. I row as part of a squad at City of Bristol, but this is river rowing, in narrow boats – very different to ocean rowing. However, it means that most of my current training is endurance based. I will slowly be blending in more of the strength and conditioning into my training from early 2020.
How much time do you spend on the water rowing vs in the gym?
The gym is the main place for training for the ocean race. Weights and ergo (rowing machine), day in, day out. Time on the water will come once we have our boat. I train a lot at Valesco CrossFit, even when I have to erg. The Valesco community makes you want to be better and push yourself in every workout and I love training with them, even if my training is just to sit on the erg for an hour on my own. I like doing it in there while other people around me are sweating away with me!
What does a typical week of training look like for you?
I normally do about 12-15 hours of training a week, four water sessions with City of Bristol rowing club, two or three sessions on the ergo, and a few weights/conditioning sessions on weekday mornings, plus the odd run and cycle at weekends. I love having a good routine, but with my job, I’m sometimes away for meetings, which just disrupts the entire plan!
Often the advice of former Atlantic rowers is to put on muscle and fat to allow for the weight loss – is this your plan?
I think there’s a bit of a myth that rowers need to get huge before they set off. We’ve been advised to put on some weight but as long as this is sustainable and people are eating for performance – e.g. the right things in the right amounts to be able to do all the training – then I’m happy. There’s definitely a plan to bulk up a bit next year, ideally in the form of muscle so it’s useful weight!
You’ll be consuming 5000-6000 calories a day. What will you be eating and snacking on?
Calories will mainly come from freeze-dried meals. The plan is to try lots of flavours and see what we like, and also take a variety. Snacks can be anything really – chocolate, nuts and flapjack being top of my choices, but definitely we will be also taking some supplements to be able to drink some calories as well!
Have you spoken to Atlantic rowers about their experience?
We’ve reached out to a fair few teams from past races and I had the amazing pleasure of meeting Ben Fogle and picking his brain too. There are some themes for sure:
1 – Take food you like (i.e. – good snacks!)
2 – Get to know your team well to be able to help them through the darkest days
3 – Do not pee over the side of the boat – it’s hard work, it’s not balanced and pee on the hull is not easy to clean!
You’ll be taking the row in shifts – what will this involve?
The plan is to row in two-hour shifts. We will likely pair up at the beginning and stick to our pairs. That way, everyone can have an assigned cabin and assigned seat. Two hours you row, two hours you do everything else: prepare food, eat food, clean yourself, clean boat, communicate with land, repair parts, sleep!
Tell us about your Eco Boat?
Our Eco Boat will be made from more sustainable composite materials compared to the materials used in the standard Rannoch R45 build. The Eco Boat aims to have less impact on the environment. The composite boat is made of three main components – resin, fibre and core. The resin is a “green” epoxy because roughly 50% of the carbon used to produce it comes from plant origin. The glass fibre is manufactured from a renewable energy source. The foam core is manufactured from 100% recycled plastic (post-consumer). The entire build process is also being adapted to have less impact on the environment. These materials have been tested and are structurally able to work together.
Can you share more about the environmental element of the row?
We all love the ocean and decided we wanted to do this row to try to inspire change in behaviour and showcase the importance of being kind to our local and global waters. We are supporting charities that have aligned values: RNLI and Clean Up Bristol Harbour, and our mission is to encourage a safe and healthy relationship with our waters.
We wanted to push the boundaries of the sustainability limits of this row, and we have done so from the boat, cosmetics and kit to the packaging of our food. We are still a long way to go with our research and selection of providers and equipment sourcing, but we welcome all ideas and support.
In terms of kit and cosmetics, we will limit the amount of single-use plastic we bring to the boat as much as possible, and we’re sourcing it all from sustainable providers.
Finally, freeze-dried meals usually come in plastic pouches which are hard to recycle and not very eco-friendly. We are researching packaging companies and will try and link-up expedition food companies with sustainable packaging companies. The aim is to be able to inspire change and get people engaged with our environment. We are working with Sustainable Sidekicks and Unplastify, who have been amazing in the support they have given us for our research.
Are you doing any mental preparation for being at sea for so long?
We’re trying to spend as much time as we can together to get to know each other very well; going on hikes, having roast dinners, going to the pub – although a lot of these outings end up in admin sessions! We’re working with the very patient sport psychologist Matt Cheesbrough. We recently went through a bit of a stormy phase as a team, and he has really helped us come together and understand our values as a group. We are all doing individual sport psychology sessions with Matt and monthly team sessions as well.
How long have you known your other crewmates and how often do you get to train with them?
Lorna is one of my closest friends. We met in 2014 and she has been there in some of my highest and lowest moments since. I met Chloe last year through a close mutual friend but I’ve gotten to know her very well in the last 15 months, and Sarah is fairly new to our team, so she’s the one I know the least. However, one of the first conversations I had with Sarah was around values, and we very quickly realised that values such as dependability, commitment and integrity are essential to us both and we clicked straight away. Currently, we’re not training together as much, but this will soon change.
Do you have any fears about the row?
Rowing across the ocean is not your standard challenge like running a marathon, where you know the path you have to follow and exactly how things are going to go. So many things are out of our control, and my biggest fear is that something will go wrong and we won’t be able to finish the race, or even worse, somebody’s safety or health is compromised.
What are the biggest challenges you’re likely to face?
With 4-6 weeks out in the ocean, we’re likely to face more than one bad storm! Hopefully, we’ll stay upright the whole way and won’t lose anything along the way, but it could happen! Physically, it will be tough. Being struck by sea-sickness and having a rower that is too weak to row or takes a long time to recover could also pose a real challenge. However, the biggest challenge will be mental. Having wind blowing the wrong way and making negative progress some days could break the strongest of souls, so we need to remain resilient and persevere.
Do you have any sponsors right now?
Yes, we do! Only a few financial sponsors (this far!), namely Capital Dynamics who are currently our biggest sponsor. We have a lot of other partners, just some awesome people that love what we are doing and are facilitating this journey for us a lot! Enviral and Sunsprout are two brilliant sustainable PR companies who are helping us loads with interviews, blogs and media coverage.
In terms of training, Valesco CrossFit is giving us free membership to use the gym and Bristol Physio is helping us with individual areas to strengthen. Some amazing brands have provided us with kit like League Collective, Fourth Element and Boathouse who made our Bristol Gulls all-in-ones! We are looking to partner with companies whose values are aligned with ours. You can check out the Race Partners page on our website for more information.
Currently, we’re fundraising like mad to reach the start line and would absolutely love any help with donations, no matter how small! (You can visit the Gulls’ Just Giving page here)
You can follow Sofia’s journey to Atlantic rower via her social media: www.instagram.com/nofearsofia. To find out more about the Bristol Gulls and their Atlantic row visit www.bristolgulls.com and follow them via www.instagram.com/thebristolgulls and www.twitter.com/thebristolgulls.