The ‘World’s Toughest Row’ Meets the Wildest Story in Rowing

Charlotte Harris and Jessica Oliver celebrate their record-breaking Atlantic crossing in 2022; (photo/World's Toughest Row)

When a pair of best friends in the U.K. decided to row across the Atlantic Ocean, it’s safe to say that expectations were low. For Charlotte Harris and Jessica Oliver, the idea of joining this grueling, 3,000-mile race across the world’s second-largest ocean just sounded like a fun challenge.

Harris and Oliver had no rowing experience, unlike many of the professional athletes they were competing against. When they showed up in Spain’s Canary Islands to start the race in December 2021, the two friends were sufficiently inebriated that race organizers almost didn’t let them compete.

Then the incredible happened — they won. Harris and Oliver beat out 35 other teams, arriving in Antigua a full 5 days earlier than the next closest team. They even smashed 5 days off the previous world record for women, making the trip in 45 days, 7 hours, and 25 minutes.

“It was the most emotional, overwhelming experience ever,” Oliver told the Metro in 2022. “I’m still in shock. I can’t believe it.”

Now the two women, or Team Wild Waves, aim to make history once again by rowing across the Pacific Ocean as part of The World’s Toughest Row. Oliver and Harris — along with eight other teams — departed from Monterey Bay, Calif., on Saturday morning.

team wild waves
Harris and Oliver hope to break another world record in their Pacific crossing; (photo/James Baker for Ryde)

Another Race Against the Odds

The two women face steep odds as they once again compete with some of the best rowers in the world. At the same time, only a small number of teams are participating in this infamously difficult adventure race across 2,800 miles of the Pacific Ocean, from California to Hawaii.

The World’s Toughest Row allows for teams of two, three, or four people. This year sees just three teams of pairs, two trios, and four teams of four. Most of the teams are women, with just two male teams participating, both of them in the four-person category. In fact, this year marks the largest turnout of women competitors in the event’s history.

The other two-person teams also include serious contenders for winning the race — and even setting a new record.

Liz Wardley likely tops that list. In January, the Australian and self-described “adrenaline junkie” set a new women’s world record in a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

She managed the trip in 44 days, slashing a whopping 15 days off the previous record. That’s also 24 hours faster than Oliver and Harris in 2022. But this time around, Wardley will make the attempt with young French teammate Lena Kurbiel.

‘We’ve stopped probably a few times each to have cookies, bacon, sandwiches, peas, drinks,” Wardley said in a Facebook video posted 11 hours after she and Kurbiel set out from California on Saturday morning. “But yeah, never for more than a couple minutes each time.”

Team United Row rounds out the competition with British rower Anna McLean and her American partner Jenny D’Anthony. Another pair of adventurous best friends, McLean and D’Anthony also met in college and dreamed of crossing an ocean together.

As of Tuesday morning, the event’s live tracker showed Liz and Lena outpacing Team Wild Waves, followed by Team United Row. But in a race that will take at least a month to complete, every team will be tested to their limits.

‘It’s Going to Be Grim’

As participants prepared to leave last weekend, event organizers led them through a briefing about what to expect. It takes over a million rows to reach Hawaii from California in the small, car-sized rowboats. And using only human power to move forward in the turbulent ocean means rowing 24/7, with partners in rotating shifts.

“Honestly, right now, your first week out here is going to be grim,” Head Safety Officer Ian Couch told the gathered rowers. “You are going to doubt yourself. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be uncomfortable, it’s going to be cold, it’s going to be wet, it’s going to be absolutely brutal. But that’s what you’re here for.”

team wild waves 3
Oliver and Harris on their rowboat; (photo/James Baker for Ryde)

Oliver and Harris learned that during their Atlantic race in 2022. And this time around, they’re taking the competition a lot more seriously.

They hired a coach, Gus Barton of Ocean Ready, and spent the last year training. That included rowing three times a week, along with strength and cross-functional training. The massive physical exertion requires them to consume 6,500 calories a day, usually in six meals.

Most of that nutrition comes from dehydrated food, though the pair also brought supplements from sponsor Ryde.

High energy and profound connection is evident in nearly every photo of this rambunctious duo, who take on Australian alter egos named Pam and Sheila when the delirium and exhaustion feels overwhelming. They also have their own mantras. LT means Low Tolerance, which they use when feeling “tired, cranky or disengaged from the conversation,” Oliver and Harris said in a statement.

Then there’s the more colorful one: “It is what it is. F*** it. Lessons Learned.”

“We speak our own language. We know that these situations out on the water can make or break even the strongest of relationships,” the pair said. “If something goes wrong or it doesn’t go to plan, we are very much like, ‘okay, change, move on.’ This mantra has transcended the water into all areas of our lives.” 

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