Support through Sport UK finds out more about 'fourbirdsaboating' and their Pacific Ocean rowing challenge ...
Hi 'fourbirdsaboating'! Can you tell us a bit more about your challenge?
Sure. Well we are a team of four girls called 'fourbirdsaboating' and in 2014 we'll row approximately 7200 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean, teaching children all over the world live from our boat 'Mr Toad' (named after the children's book 'The Wind in the Willows'). The reason for the row is to bring the oceans alive, especially for children who may have never seen the sea, and many of our young people currently have little or no access to any form of education, so we want to inspire them and provide opportunities for finding their own ways out of poverty.
How long will it take to complete?
The time it takes to complete will very much depend upon the weather and conditions at sea, but we are aiming to complete the row within eight months. We'll be shipping 'Mr Toad' to Monterey Bay in California towards the end of April 2014, flying out ourselves in the middle of May so that we can spend some time on the Pacific, getting the boat ready for 'scrutineering' (final checks and tests), and visit schools in California. We are expecting to set off on 7th June, arriving in Honolulu, Hawaii, between 30 and 55 days later, visiting schools across Hawaii, before setting off on the final leg of the journey to Cairns, Australia. Our flight back to the UK will allow us time in Thailand, where we will be meeting some of the 4000 orphans involved on our project, some of whom lost their families in a tsunami, so we want to raise funds for them and share their stories with other children through film. The journey is very much about us being the eyes and ears of the young people we serve, so that they get to experience other cultures and countries.
What motivated you to take up the challenge?
The idea came about whilst I was teaching English as a foreign language in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. I wanted to find a way of bringing English alive for my students, so I used the BBC Oceans television series (which I had with me on DVD) as I knew the students would enjoy watching television in class. This went really well, and before long we had formed a club, which later became a 32 week Saturday course, and finally a Georgian charity for young people from across the capital Tbilisi. We used the sessions to talk with young people in other countries, including children at an Inuit school in Greenland, and later on we spoke to one of our Patrons, Dr Alex Kumar, who was working for the European Space Agency in Antarctica. Having these first hand encounters really changed English from an academic subject, into something which the students wanted to learn, so that they could get the answers to their questions, but what really surprised me was their passion for the ocean and environment. None of them had heard of David Attenborough or Kylie Minogue, but they had all heard about pioneering oceanaut Jacques Cousteau and their imaginations were captured as they watched his grandson Philippe Cousteau on the BBC Oceans series, diving around the coast of Australia and other countries.
Georgians spend a lot of the summer on the Black Sea coast, and interestingly, this was the location for Noah's Ark and a tsunami here was the reason that early man migrated into Europe, so to learn about the ocean seemed very fitting, as most of the students had never seen under the water before and were unaware of Georgia's status as one of 34 world biodiversity hotspots. The Black Sea is connected to the Mediterranean Sea, which connects to the Atlantic and world's oceans, and the BBC Oceans series covers all of these, so once we learned about how the oceans connect, and talked to young people living on the shores of different oceans, we had a better connection as to why we need to look after them. This was made even more relevant as we followed three time ocean rower and environmentalist Roz Savage as she rowed across the Indian Ocean. We would read her expedition blog to practice our English, and track her progress on an old Soviet map we found in a disused classroom. We were delighted when Roz later agreed to be one of our Patrons, along with Dr Alex Kumar in Antarctica, and Paul Rose from the BBC Oceans series, and we were the first to introduce the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award to Georgia, so we got to undertake some brilliant voluntary work at the local zoo and cleaning up plastic from the rivers.
But it wasn't until October 2012 that we first trialed the online classroom and discovered its potential for reaching some of the most remote young people, who would otherwise struggle with access to the outside world. There were human rights protests in Georgia at this time, and it wasn't possible for the students to physically attend the sessions without getting caught in the cross fire, so we piloted the online classroom, and found that not only did we have Georgian students on the course, but individual students from 56 countries, including Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean and females from countries where school was not an option for girls.
Inspired by the adventures of Roz Savage, the new forms of technology available to us for teaching, and hearing about the inaugural Great Pacific Race from Monterey Bay to Hawaii, the next step was for us to combine ocean rowing, online teaching and the Pacific Ocean to find exciting new ways to illustrate the importance of ocean literacy for students in the UK and the rest of the world.
Are you all seasoned rowers?
Ha ha, far from it actually! Despite two of the team members coming from Henley-On-Thames, a town which is world famous for rowing, only Kate from the team has rowed before, and that was for her university a long time ago. Kate is in the Royal Navy, so she spends a lot of time at sea, but doesn't often get the chance to row. Luckily we have received an incredible amount of support from the Leander Club in Henley (one of the oldest rowing clubs in the world), and Leander Club's Captain and Olympic Rower, Debbie Flood, has been a huge source of advice and inspiration, spending time with us whenever she can. We've also been out with GB Rower Erica Bodman, and Lizzie's dad Robin is an Olympic Rowing coach. Lizzie had never rowed before, but her dad has successfully coached Helen Glover and Heather Stanning for the 2012 Olympic Games, so we are definitely in good hands when he isn't busy training the GB team. Ocean rowing is a different technique to river rowing, but thankfully there is a lot of cross over, and we will be out on the sea with Charlie our boat builder once the boat is finished in the Autumn.
Tell us about your training regimes; how do you prepare to row 7,200 nautical miles?
I was pretty unfit after three years in Georgia, I'm the oldest member of the team at age 37, and I've had some injuries and illness in the past, including Guillain-Barre which left me temporarily paralysed. So the first thing I needed to do before learning to row, was to get myself fit, work on my flexibility, and build up my core strength. I worked closely with Debbie on that, and she put together a basic programme for me to follow on my own at the gym, and she taught me some basic technique for using the ergo or rowing machine. I had no gym kit and my budget has been really tight as I am still on my Georgian salary of £800 for the year, so I pretty much had to beg and borrow trainers, a sports bra, and sports clothes. We've been incredibly lucky with sponsors and support in kind, and a small grant from the Henley Regatta allowed me to buy a pair of trainers, and a local gym and studio had just opened in town and offered me complimentary membership, so the training has pretty much been dictated by what was available at the time.
The training is therefore a bit different for each of the team, but we all have Debbie's basic plan and follow this as part of a regular routine. Much of it requires no equipment, and that makes it easy to follow no matter where we are or what we are doing, for example, even Kate can follow this whilst on deployment, though she is pretty fit already. For me, I train at the Pure Stretch Studio 5 mornings a week, using yoga, Pilates, Thai chi, stretch, and dance to improve my flexibility, and after each session I head to Urban Fitness gym where I work on my cardio and weights programme, sometimes with a personal trainer who has donated her time for free. I started training in this way, back in January, and set myself the challenge of rowing the equivalent of the Pacific Ocean, on the rowing machine, logging each row on the Concept2 website. I think this will help me mentally when we get to the start line, as I'll already know that I've done the equivalent miles on my own, so to share that with three other girls will be much less work. I'm a keen outdoor swimmer so I generally swim at least once a week for about an hour.
I'm using the outdoor swimming to help me prepare mentally for the row, for example, one of my biggest fears is snorkelling underneath the boat to clean off barnacles and things as I don't like the idea of not knowing what lies beneath. We'll be crossing an area which is renowned for its large groups of female great white sharks, and we know from other rowers that whales and dolphins sometimes surface close by and might brush against your foot. I'm an experienced scuba diver and I love diving with sharks, but there is something a bit unnerving about being on the surface of the water above the deepest ocean in the world, a bit like having vertigo. So I've been swimming outdoors at moonlight and in weed filled water to help me overcome my active imagination which is great at convincing me there are aliens and submarines and a whole other host of weird and wonderful things beneath me. Swimming is also great exercise, and swimming in different temperatures and conditions has helped me to really challenge myself mentally and physically. My first swim of the year was in three degrees c in a lake, and I recently did the Henley Swim, a 2.1km swim against the current along the Regatta course at 5am. Being a slower swimmer than the other competitors was great for toughening up mentally, and swimming against a current was great for endurance training and not allowing yourself to feel negative or to give in. The rest of the team are runners and much fitter and younger than me, so they have been participating in events such as the Adidas 24 hr Thunder Run and half marathons to work on their stamina and pushing their comfort zones to see how they cope and learn to deal with frustration and tiredness. From talking with other ocean rowers, we know that it is the mental rather than the physical side which plays the biggest role in success, especially as we will undergo a gruelling regime of rowing for around 15 hours per day, with just two hours of rest between each session and we won't be able to consume enough calories to replace what we lose each day.
Thankfully we have a large support crew helping us to prepare, from sports massage to medics and researchers helping us with endurance and exercise physiology and nutrition. Speaking to Olympic athletes has also been a massive help as many of the things they go through in terms of the sport psychology, equally apply to us, particularly when thinking about the isolation we will experience at sea, and then being faced by media crews, and large groups of friends and family as we reach land, as well as things like dealing with nerves on the day of the 'race' when we set off on our eight months at sea. No matter how much we prepare, we will never be able to replicate what it will be like out on that journey, so learning to adapt and being comfortable with being in new and unfamiliar scenarios will be a key to our success as a team. Training together as a team and taking our sea survival and other courses together is a great way for this, as we will get to see how we each perform under different conditions.
And what sort of boat will you be rowing in? Will it include a water maker etc?
Our boat 'Mr Toad' is 23 foot long and six foot wide. It is made of a carbon composite which makes it relatively light, great for moving it along via human power, but not so great if it is very windy. It has been designed for us by British yachtsman Phil Morrisson, and is being built by world record breaking Atlantic Ocean rower Charlie Pitcher, who used a solo version of our fours boat for his Transatlantic solo row earlier this year. The boat contains everything we need to survive at sea, and as long as we stay attached to the boat, we'll be fine (we have special cords for this, a bit like a surfer would use to attach to the surf board). The boat has communication technology, a radar, short wave radio, and a water maker, all powered by solar panels on the outside of the cabin. In rough weather, the four of us will have to bed down in a small cabin, not quite big enough for us to sit up or stretch out properly, and when the boat rolls we will need to be wearing head protection to prevent injury during the washing machine type spin. At the other end of the boat, is a smaller cabin which will contain spares, dehydrated food supplies, and tool kits. We'll also have a life raft and grab bag for dire emergencies.
Can you tell us about the educational resources that you'll be providing to children across the world whilst at sea?
The main focus of the ocean row is the provision of education to children all over the world. The aim of the Pacific Ocean row is therefore two fold, helping us to raise the profile and funds for our charitable education work, and secondly to provide us with an exciting environment in which we can bring STEM subjects like science, technology, engineering, maths, and geography to life.
What makes our project different is that the funds are raised by students at schools in the UK, who sell recycled gourmet pens and pencils to class mates. Once they have sold enough pens and pencils to raise £500, they choose from a list of children's projects which have been put forward to us by other NGOS and charities already working in other countries. These are projects where a need has already been identified and there is a desire to learn, and where education would help the children to access scholarships, to work with foreigners and English speakers through tourism, or where English is necessary to apply for grants and funding from abroad. Some of these projects include children living on rubbish dumps, children sold into the sex trade, orphans, and children whose families are so poor that they are unable to attend school because they are earning a living during school hours.
Each of the beneficiary projects then receives an iPad, two years of internet access, solar chargers, a projector, and a Foldedsheet map designed by our team. With this kit, they can access our online classroom, designed and provided for us free of charge via Frog (UK) and WizIQ (India). The Frog platform features worksheets and videos which were created by the UK students, linked to the British National Curriculum, along with live sessions from our visits to schools and from the boat as we row across the Pacific. As well as these, there will be 3D films of any scuba dives we make, of children we meet on the journey, and any flora and fauna we encounter. Other videos on the platform, will be with the UK students interviewing inspirational people, such as Olympic athletes, as a way of helping to build self esteem and showing that with hard work, dreams can come true.
'Mr Toad' will then be available to future ocean rowers, free of charge, on the proviso that the future teams continue to raise funds for our work, and provide sessions live from the ocean. At the moment, we have 48 beneficiary projects across all 7 continents, as well as the individual students. The Frog platform also has a forum where students can chat to each other, and the UK teachers will be able to upload any other educational materials and mentor or tutor students if they so wish, giving the possibility of students one day being able to take recognised qualifications like GCSEs or A'Levels online, paid for by our charity. Because the classroom is open 24/7, and all sessions get instantly recorded, it means that students can watch the sessions at a time which suits them best, and as many times as they want.
And you're planning to conduct some essential scientific research too? Can you tell us some more about that?
As a STEM Ambassador in the UK, one of my roles is to promote subjects like science, technology, engineering, maths, and geography. The Pacific Ocean row, gives me a unique opportunity to create educational materials, based on the British national curriculum, but directly linked to the boat, to the sport of rowing, and to my scientific research at sea, to show that these subjects have real life impacts. This is actually a very important issue right now, because new legislation from Europe will demand an increase in marine scientists, particularly in the areas of fisheries and aquaculture, the skills gap that we are currently seeing in these areas could provide future jobs and development in the UK - already a world leader in aquaculture management. Our online classroom could potentially help to change this situation by having students replicate and understand the research we are doing at sea.
There are three main strands to the research: human physiology, marine debris and plastic pollution, and wildlife sightings. For the physiology part, scientists at Roehampton University are studying our muscles to help patients with back pain, and they are looking at our nutrition, how we perceive food, how much weight we lose, and we are even collecting samples of our poo, to be sent back to the UK for analysis. We will probably do some research on sports psychology too, keeping a feelings diary, which our students will be able to replicate themselves. For example, when are we happiest? Is it when the weather is nice, or is it when we have a wash, talk to family on the satelite phone, or when we see a dolphin?
For the plastics research, we have a small net from the 5 Gyres Project in the USA, and we will drag this behind the boat, and collect any water and plastic samples from the water's surface. We'll also be cutting up any flying fish we find dead on the boat and seeing if they have any plastic in their stomachs, and we'll take photos of any bigger bits of plastic we see floating around, and note the location on the GPS. The plastics we collect, will be analysed by Plymouth University and the University of Tokyo. There are five ocean gyres in the Pacific Ocean, and we'll be traveling through several 'garbage patches' so the data we collect will help us to understand where this rubbish is coming from, and what impacts it will have on the food we eat, especially since the ocean provides billions of people with their only source of food and protein. By understanding the plastic we find out in the remotest parts of the ocean, we hope to encourage people to think carefully about whether they really need so much plastic packaging for the items they buy locally. Plastic is a major problem in Georgia, and lots of people simply throw it in the rivers in the belief that it washes away, without realising that it can travel through the world's oceans and end up on their dinner plate!
The final bit of research involves us identifying and writing down any wildlife we see on the journey, using the GPS to note the location, and filming and photographing the wildlife to document the behaviour. This could be anything from an albatross hitching a ride on our boat, a whale shark swimming alongside the boat, or a shark banging on the bottom of our boat. This data will help us to find out whether the wildlife is in the same area as the pollution we see, and might tell us about the presence of species which are on the verge of extinction, as well as how healthy the population are. From this we will know more about the food chains and health of the ecosystem.
As part of our daily ship's log, we will already be recording data on the weather, sea state, and water clarity/plankton content for example, and this might be used by people such as NASA to check whether their computer models and predictions are accurate. But the schools will be able to document and upload their own data on the weather, to get them familiar with scientific and mathematical methods too. This is another important way for us to bring the data to life for them, and to help them appreciate that other countries have different climates and weather.
If anyone reading this would like to sponsor, or support you, where can they find out more?
BulletproofPR have very kindly built us a website, and you can follow our journey on there, on Twitter, and on Facebook. A school in London is currently designing a computer app which will be available free of charge from the website closer to the row. If anyone would like to support us you can do so by becoming a friend of the team, buying a tshirt, ordering one of our specially made Foldedsheet maps, or becoming a corporate sponsor. UK schools can get involved as sponsors of projects in developing countries by dropping us an email. We also have a kit list and are looking for donations of items in kind, from sun tan lotion to life rafts. But a really easy way to support us is by sharing our links and helping us to spread the word and to reach as many young people as we can. We can't complete this project / challenge without corporate and individual sponsors, so any support is gratefully received.
Contact details: Sarah Weldon (skipper) email@example.com
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We wish you the very best of luck with this phenomenal challenge!