By and large, the internet is not a happy place right now. But one corner of the world wide web where I’ve felt a genuine sense of hope over the past few weeks has been the Instagram account Lat35Racing, which is documenting a team of four women who are attempting to break the world record for rowing from San Francisco to Honolulu. They’ve been at it for 30 days and are about 250 nautical miles from shore. If they make it before Tuesday, July 26 at 4:41 p.m. local time in Hawaii, they’ll have beaten the last world record. (It’s not lost on me that my current favorite thing online is following the grueling, inspiring journey of a group of people who are very much offline.)
The four women are Brooke Downes, an Olympic hopeful; Adrienne Smith, an Ironman triathlete, yoga instructor, and mother; Libby Costello, a UCLA rowing alum; and Sophia Denison-Johnston, aka DJ, another Olympic hopeful. They row in continuous two-hour shifts, and each has different specialties: DJ is the skipper and lead medic, Libby is the lead technician, and so on. They poop in a bucket that they then dump into the ocean, jump in the water to scrape barnacles off of their boat (named the American Spirit), and row in the dark in the middle of the night while their teammates sleep in little cabins on the stern and bow. According to the account, they likely haven’t slept for more than 90 minutes at a time in over a month.
I first came across their mission on TikTok, where Brooke was giving her followers a lesson in rowing across an ocean. She opened by acknowledging that you probably didn’t know that that was something people did. That was true in my case. In my mind, the task of rowing from San Francisco to Honolulu—about 2400 nautical miles—seems like an entirely impossible feat, even tougher than traveling to the moon or scaling Mount Everest. (Admittedly, I say from my office desk, knowing full well that my body can only handle a 60-minute pilates class.) These women have been in the middle of the world’s largest ocean, hundreds of miles from the nearest person or boat, with all of the ocean’s untold creatures below them, for weeks.
It’s also fascinating to learn about what it takes to pull something like this off. The American Spirit is hard to capsize, and each of the women is strapped in at all times with a harness. For training, they practiced tying knots in ice water as a life preservation skill. They packed a million calories on the boat and mostly eat dehydrated meals that they boil on board. They launched at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, June 21, in order to catch the waters under the San Francisco bridge at the most advantageous moment. They’ve been using biodegradable tampons, in part because pads can cause painful sores. They communicate with people on land via satellite, which is how the Instagram stays updated. They’re raising money for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America because “digging deep, pushing through the hard times…it’s not reserved for ocean rowers. Many of us deal with that just to get through a regular day.”