THREE DAYS after arriving in Antigua, Frances Davies admits she has yet to come to terms with the magnitude of what she and three other Yorkshire mothers have just achieved.
A member of the oldest all-female crew ever to cross an ocean, the 47-year-old solicitor from York is struggling with the new-found celebrity status that has greeted the Yorkshire Rows in the Caribbean island.
“It’s been surreal, we never thought there’d be so much interest in what we were doing,” she said. “You are in a kind of a bubble when you’re on boat but since we landed on Thursday we’ve been able to see people’s reaction to what we did.
“Some of the comments on Facebook have reduced us to tears. We just had no idea.
“People have been coming off the cruise ships and rushing over to see us because they recognise the boat and know we’re here. We’ve posed for so many photos it’s unreal.”
Mrs Davies, clinical researcher Janette Benaddi, 51, entrepreneur Niki Doeg, 46, and NHS communications expert Helen Butters, 45, set off from La Gomera in the Canary Islands on December 20 on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge and over the next 67 days enjoyed a series of life-changing - and body-changing - experiences.
If we were annoyed with something one of the others did or said, we made a point of not bottling it up and speaking out, often by adding ‘I’m just saying’ at the end of the sentence so that everyone understood.Frances Davies
“We have all lost weight,” said Mrs Davies. “I’ve lost a stone and a half, as have Niki and Helen, but our skipper Janette has shed more than two stones.
“We all look great and are down to the weight we were before we had our children. At our age that’s just wonderful.
“Before the trip we were advised to take on 5,000 calories a day, but would burn 7,000. Eating 5,000 calories at sea takes some doing because there just isn’t time.
“We were supposed to eat four rehydrated meals a day and constantly graze on snack packs but I found that two meals a day were right for me.”
The crew maintained the mantra of ‘Eat, sleep, row, repeat’ throughout their record-breaking 3,000-mile voyage, a journey which tested their physical abilities to the full and put the strength of friendships forged on the school run at Burn in North Yorkshire under the microscope
For all the closeness of the bond they enjoyed back home, including their love of rowing together at the Guy Fawkes Boat Club in York, almost 10 weeks of living cheek by jowl within the close confines of a small boat was fraught with potential difficulty.
However Mrs Davies has revealed that the Yorkshire Rows will return to Broad Acres next month closer than ever before.
“To begin with, living together seemed easier than any of us had expected largely because we enjoyed the rowing so much,” she explained.
“We were all quite good at communicating and found different ways to communicate with each other.
“If we were annoyed with something one of the others did or said, we made a point of not bottling it up and speaking out, often by adding ‘I’m just saying’ at the end of the sentence so that everyone understood.
“It worked really well. We set out determined not to have any fall-outs on the trip and we were very successful because we worked at it.
“We’re better friends now than before we set off.
“We all had different ways of dealing with things and different levels of patience. If any stresses surfaced then the person with least patience stepped away and someone with more patience came forward and made sure things were resolved.
“There was a rhythm to life on the boat, it was lovely.
“I was a little worried prior to the trip about how things would work out because I’m someone who likes their own space.
“If I have social events on every night of the week after work I’ll always go along and enjoy them but really treasure the quiet times at home with my family.”
The only place to get away from it all aboard the boat was in one of the two cabins while the rest of the crew either slept in another cabin or rowed, but that solution worked well for the four mums.
“We all had different ways to recharge the batteries: Janette would laugh hysterically to lift her spirits, for example, and hearing always put a smile on our faces. We had a strong synergy between us.”
An expert in tax law, Mrs Davies is a partner in Progeny Private Law, the firm she helped set up last year just a few weeks after signing up for the trans-Atlantic challenge. After three months away, she will return to the office eager to use her experiences to further the business.
“Part of the reason I signed up for the trip was to have three months away from an environment I wasn’t enjoying that much at my last job,” she said.
“However after signing up for the trip I started the new business with three of my former colleagues and they have been very supportive.
“I can’t wait to get back to work, I have loads of ideas I want to implement in the business.
“While rowing you get a lot of time to think, to consider things like what you can do to make relationships better.
“When rowing you watch the waves, the stars and live in the moment. As a working mum it’s a real luxury to have quality time like that.”
The journey was not without its complications for the Yorkshire Rows, who has to cope with a broken steering equipment, problems with their GPS system and the small matter of rowing through Hurricane Alex.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was the steering issues which provided the most traumatic memory for Mrs Davies.
“It sounds crazy but we all loved the experience of the hurricane,” she said. “To us it was just a storm.
“We had plenty of advance warning that it was coming: Janette’s husband had seen it a week before and advised us to head south to avoid the worst of it.
“Just before it hit we put our sea anchor and climbed into the cabins, where we stayed for 44 hours or so.
“That was a special time for me. I was in with Janette and we played cards, listened to music and just existed. One of the others had left a chocolate orange in our cabin: that didn’t last long!
“We shot a few vids on the camcorder as the hurricane tossed the boat around and they’re hilarious.
“We knew we were safe. My big fear wasn’t that we’d capsize but that one of us would be swept overboard: the cabins were the safest place to be in the storm.
“When our automatic steering system broke down, the winds were really strong. At night when the moon wasn’t out you couldn’t see where the waves were coming from and it was hard to control the boat.
“You would only have loose control of the steering and when the waves hit there was no way to control the direction of the boat.
“I was scared we were going to tip over. I cried myself to sleep I was so scared. That was my only wobble.”
The Yorkshire Rows have had to deal with ‘wobbles’ of a different kind in recent days as their minds and bodies become accustomed to the lack of movement on dry land.
“We’re all still rocking and rolling to the rhythm of the sea, it’s a strange feeling but in a peculiar way it’s lovely because it’s a reminder of what we have just done,” said Mrs Davies, who is treasuring the memories of what was the trip of a lifetime.
“One of my favourite moments came last Monday, just three days before the finish when we had a visit from the support yacht. When you have been away from home for so long, to see other people is so uplifting,” she said
“The boats came and went all day, we got our stereo working and completely lived in the present all day long. To be able to take out of your mind any worries about what you should or shouldn’t have done in the past, and what you still have to do to get to the finish line was such a great feeling.
“I wanted to finish in 50 days but in the end we were out for 67. That happened for a reason: if we had finished inside 50 days we would have missed that life-affirming experience on Day 64.
“Me and Niki jumped into the water to clean the bottom of the boat. The sea was two miles deep, perfectly clear and the most beautiful turquoise colour I’ve ever seen.
As we cleaned away we were surrounded by lots of tiny fish and then some big doradas appeared to check us out. You just felt like you were a visitor in a world where you really had no right to be, it was lovely.
“One day we spotted a whale swimming with us: it was half the length of the boat, around four metres long and the most amazing creature any of us had ever seen.
“Then we realised that it was just a baby because its mother appeared and she was twice the length of the boat.
“They swam with us for a couple of hours, repeatedly crossing beneath the boat and then surfacing so close you could feel the spray from their blowholes as we rowed.
“A turtle came swimming past one day and we also saw some sharks. That makes your hackles stand up.
“Those are the experiences that make you realise how lucky you are and that you’re just a guest in this amazing world.”
So what now for the Yorkshire Rows, once they arrive home and the expected fuss from friends families and the media starts to recede?
“We are looking forward to getting back on the river in York,” said Mrs Davies. “Someone asked me on the day we landed ‘Would you do it again?’ and my answer was an emphatic ‘No way!’ but two days later I started thinking ‘Hmm, never say never…’
“We want to carry on as a group of four, and there are a few things we’ve already started thinking about. Maybe we’ll take on a land-based challenge next.
“We all need to remember that we had this amazing adventure and never forget what the highlights were.”
The legacy of their adventure will be felt by thousands of people across Yorkshire in years to come with all funds raised split between between the charity Maggie’s, who will be opening a new cancer support centre at St James’s Hospital in Leeds next year, and Yorkshire air ambulance.
To donate to Maggie’s text ROWS88 with the amount to 70070, or for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance text ROWS91 to the same number or visit yorkshirerows.com/donate