by Marcus Leach
Elsa Hammond has been an adventurer from a young age, with a history of exploration and expeditions. Yet she will be the first to admit that her next expedition is set to be the greatest and most chellenging to date.
In June she will begin her mission to row 2,400 miles from California to Hawaii, solo and unsupported, as the only European female solo competitor in the inaugural Great Pacific Race. As she prepares to break several world records, and push her mind and body to their limits to complete this epic challenge, The Essential Cyclist caught up with her to find out why she is doing it.
What was your inspiration to take this challenge on?
That's quite a common question. I think it is probably lots of different things that come together really, and it's hard to pinpoint one specific thing. I've always been quite adventurous, and have an eclectic background. I have a history of rowing and sailing and just roughing it really, and ocean rowing is a bit like camping at sea really and you have to be prepared to be really uncomfortable for a really long time by yourself. I heard about people doing ocean rowing about eight years ago and it has stuck in my mind ever since as something I would like to do. It has been in my head for a while and I have finally decided that now is the time to do it. I guess in that I'm nearly thirty it comes down to age as well.
It's not your average 'I'm turning thirty' crisis though is it?
It's not. But then it is something that I have wanted to do since I was about twenty. I know I will regret it if I don't go and do it, and if I don't do it soon then I know I might never do it. It comes from a childhood of reading adventure books and always wanting to go on a big adventure of my own. It's a big challenge, I guess it's challenging myself. It's hard to put my finger on it. When I first heard of people rowing oceans I thought 'wow, that is really something I want to do'. I just know that if I don't do it now I will end up regretting it.
How do you go about preparing for something like this?
The preparation is kind of intense and multifaceted. The physical side is just one side of it. When I first started doing it I thought I would be spending a lot of time on the rowing machine, but actually I have found myself minimising that because it is so different. Rowing machines are so regular and calm and it is a very different feeling when you're in the ocean with your ores going all over the place. So I have just been spending more time in the gym really and just trying to bulk up a bit and put on some more muscle. I need to get stronger so that I am protecting my joints, but also I am trying to keep it quite varied which sounds strange because when I am out there I am going to be doing the same thing every day for hours and hours.
How many days are you expecting it to take?
About three months.
And what about the mental side of things? How will you cope with the solitude?
I think there are a couple of things. I am actually seeing a psychologist who has worked with other solo-ocean rowers so I have been working on ways to stop myself going mad. Ultimately though I like my own company and am very comfortable with spending long periods on my own. If you were not at ease with yourself you would be a little mad to do something like a solo row. Also I am not cut off as people would have been a hundred years ago as I will have a sat phone. This means I will be able to give daily updates and I will be blogging and sharing my story as I go. So I don't feel like I will be totally cut off and isolated.
When you are out there and not rowing, how do you stay on course?
You get blown around quite a bit. As a solo rower you do have to accept that sometimes you will be blown off course when you are asleep. I have got a parachute anchor, which is a big parachute on a long rope that you put out at the bag of the boat and it will create a drag. It wont hold you in one place but it will help you if the current is against you, making sure I don't lose too much ground. But yes, there will be days when I wake up and I will be further back than I was when I went to sleep, but then on the other hand there will be days that I wake up and I have been blown a lot further along.
Obviously what you are doing will place a huge physical strain on your body, how will you ensure you get enough nutrition whilst on the boat?
I'm looking at packing between 4,500-8,000 calories per day. To make it easier for myself whilst I am out there I am going to pack each daily bag in advance, so all I have to do is reach in and grab what I need for that day. That will be four or five expedition meals, dehydrated food that I just add hot water to them, five lots of pudding and then lots of chocolate, dried fruit and nuts and protein bars.
You mentioned hot water there, are you going to have a kettle with you?
I've got a jet boil so that will be my drinks and food hot water. I've got that on a hook on the front of the cabin and the jet boil is mounted so it can swing with the boat. But I have to cook outside of my cabin, so on cold and windy days I am still trying to envisage how cooking is going to work.
You can only prepare so much, so how do you prepare for things that you can't prepare for?
Part of it is mental preparation. It's trying to imagine what some of the dark places are going to be, and making it a tool bank where I might not actually know what to do, but I know how to get my mind to react to it, if that makes sense. So there is that and anticipating how to deal with the emotions that certain situations are going to throw up. Then I am also reading as many books as I can of other people's accounts of solo rows and solo sails. I have also talked to as many people as possible who have done this sort of thing. The advantage of having that sat phone is that if something came up that I had no idea how to deal with it I can call back to my shore team and get the advice I need.
And what about your boat? Has it been specifically built for your expedition?
It has been built by Justin Adkin of Sea Sabre and it is specifically designed for this. The boat is strong and really well built, but obviously there are things that could go wrong with it. He rowed the Atlantic as a crew of four in a boat built to this spec, so I have a huge amount of faith in the boat. There's a few adjustment that have been made to the design from the one he used back in 2005. There are so many bits and bobs on a boat that of course things can go wrong in such a harsh environment of salt water and sun. A lot of things on the boat are electric and won't like the elements, the rudder is quite delicate and people have had issues with those before, and even the ores have various components that could go wrong. But I am well prepared and I will have spares for certain parts and then I am taking a lot of gaffer tape and cable ties! I have been going over in my mind and making lists of things that have gone wrong for other people and this has helped me prepare and make sure I have contingency plans in place before I set foot in the boat. I can't prepare for everything, but I will be as prepared as I possibly can.
It's a daunting task that you are taking on, are you scared at all?
Yes I am. At night that fear will come out more. I guess it is like anything, at the moment I am just hugely excited about it, but at night it's a different story. There are times at night when I wake up and think how will I cope if I wake up and there's a deep dark sea under me and a storm brewing and a knock on the side of the boat and I see a huge fin. There is something about the ocean where you know you can't control it, the depth beneath you makes it daunting. I have been out on the sea at night, and granted it wasn't on my own or as far out, but I also think you start to adjust to your environment as well. The first few weeks I think will be pretty miserable but I will get used to it, and will have long enough to get used to it. I think that is part of what interested me about this, having long enough in a hard and unfamiliar environment to get to know it.
Is there a sense as well of wanting to see how far you can push yourself?
I think that is definitely part of it. In every day life there is always so much going on. When you are feeling down you can talk to someone or watch television and take your mind of it, there is always something going on or to do. I don't think you ever really have to deal with what is going on if you don't want to. I am drawn to dealing with what I've got, the minimal of things and to be ok with that and to be happy in my own mind, time to really reflect and think as it will just be me and the water. Although that said if I have enough electricity each day I do have my music to keep me company, not to mention audio books so I can hear stories and catch up on books I have been wanting to read.
What about extreme weathers? What is the worse you could expect?
The worst I could expect is a hurricane, but hopefully that won't happen. We have been able to try and work out the best possible time to do this in terms of the more difficult seasons. But I am expecting anything from flat calms to forty or fifty foot waves. Weather systems can be unpredictable so I am just going to have to deal with them as they develop.
Is that not daunting thinking you could be rowing into sets of fifty foot waves?
I think what scares me there is pitch poling. If everything goes to plan my boat will self-right itself if and when it capsizes, but pitch polling is when it goes over length ways. So if I am going down the front of a wave and it goes over that way I am worried, as it is a long way to fall. I have a fear of that happening and my boat breaking in half, but when I mention that to my boat builder he just laughs at me. I do have an emergency beacon with me, as well as the sat phone, so if something did go drastically wrong I'm not going to be totally isolated.
And finally, what are you plans for after this event, do you have anything else planned?
I have lots of ideas but I am not letting myself think about them as I need to be totally focused on this. The planning at present is very full on, not to mention what is to come when I actually start. This won't be the last adventure, but right now it is the only one I am thinking about.
Each mile of Elsa's row will be dedicated to an inspirational woman. www.2400women.com Anyone can nominate a woman for £42: the woman's name will be written on the boat, they will receive a certificate, and Elsa will send out a message about them on the day she rows 'their' mile. If you want to dedicate a mile to an inspirational woman you know, then click here.