[INTERVIEW] Natalia Cohen: how the Coxless Crew became record breakers

Natalia and the aptly named Coxless Crew became the first team of four to row unsupported across the Pacific Ocean in 2016. Which is a mammoth 8,500 miles from San Francisco to Cairns, completing the trip in a bright pink 29ft ocean rowing boat called Doris. 

With no previous rowing experience, Natalia is a testament to what can be achieved with sheer determination. Alone in the ocean, with nowhere to quit. Her story is remarkable, yet she delivers it in a down to earth and relatable way. 

We were lucky enough to interview Natalia recently and uncover the full story of how the Coxless Crew rowed to victory.

Tell us your background in terms of rowing. Was this something you had always had an interest in? What made you want to take on this challenge?


NC: Believe it or not, I had actually never rowed before the expedition…and, if I’m very honest, I’ll probably never row again!!

What drew me to the challenge initially was my love of the ocean and what I believed would be the biggest mental challenge of my life. I’m fascinated by psychology and the mind. And having spent 15 years working in the travel industry, I was also intrigued by the strength of the human spirit which I had witnessed in so many people faced with adversity in the developing world.

I believed that the expedition would be a great opportunity to overcome extreme adversity,  to look deep within to find where that strength of spirit comes from and how you access it.  

We all find inner strength when we need it the most. And although some people have life experiences where they are forced to find it, most of us will avoid situations where we need to draw on it. 

I have always had an interest in adventure, trying new things and challenging myself, so this expedition seemed perfect.   

The Coxless Crew make up an impressive team. How long have you known each other? 


NC: We all came together specifically for this expedition. We didn’t know each other beforehand. Laura (Team Leader) actually put together the recruitment process. I had just finished a contract managing a safari lodge in Tanzania and had returned to Cape Town, where I was going to spend the African summer.

I randomly came across an advert on a website called escapethecity where I saw that a newly formed group of women known as the Coxless Crew were looking for team members to join them in rowing across the Pacific Ocean. Laura had been searching for the right team for about 3 years.

Some moments are all about timing…and I suppose when I look back at that moment…the timing was perfect. I was ready for an adventure and had no upcoming commitments to stop me from applying. 

The real magic was due to the fact that we all brought something different and unique to the team. We were selected for our varying personality traits, backgrounds and abilities. We were tested on physical strength and conditioning and interviewed by a sports psychologist to make sure we were mentally up to the mark. 

But it was our ability to work as a team under high-stress conditions that was really put to the test. And to help us prepare, we endured a military style 24-hour sleep deprivation exercise in the Brecon Beacons, Wales. 

During our training period, a deep trust and respect built up between us all. We stepped onto the boat as team-mates and stepped off as a high performing team that will be forever connected as friends. That, we believe, was one of our true successes.

How were the first few days after leaving San Francisco? 


NC: Within the first few days we had to deal with some of the biggest seas we experienced during the whole trip. Huge 40ft waves, strong winds (pushing us in the wrong direction) and most of the team suffering with sea sickness.

Unluckily after only 10 days at sea, we had an incident where flooding led to a contained fire and destroyed our charge controllers that linked our batteries to our solar panels. So, we made the difficult decision to row back to land. This was a devastating setback after all that preparation and only a short time at sea. 

And it meant that we were further away from Hawaii than when we had started 16 days previous. 

I didn’t look at it as a bad omen though, and I believed it was actually a positive thing. 

It shifted our mindset and we realised that we could learn so much from situations when they don’t go according to plan. Ultimately, it comes down to perspective. The setback meant that we could fine tune a lot of the equipment on Doris, get some stronger seasickness patches and put the new charge controllers in a more stable position on the boat. 

Picking yourself up and carrying on is important, but starting again more wisely is the real key.


The crew faced some huge mental battles on the trip. How did you keep spirits high?


NC: We definitely rode an emotional roller coaster out there on the ocean. I would say that frustration was the main emotion we felt. 

There would be days where we would row as hard as we could and because of the winds and currents we would actually have travelled backwards. This was unbelievably demoralising but we simply had to keep on rowing! 

Our journey ended up taking us 3 months longer than we expected and that meant we were out there in the middle of the Pacific for a staggering 9 months. 

Routine is also a wonderful thing. We slipped into our 2-hour on/2-hour off life very quickly. The secret to dealing with that life was to either be utterly present in the moment, or keep the mind distracted. 

We developed our own personal performance enhancing strategies, which included using certain types of music, imagery, mantras and breathing. And our weekly 10 minute satellite phone calls with our family were a huge highlight! 

We told each other our life stories, played word games, made up stories, listened to music, audio books, wrote blogs, narrated films and learnt poems.

I was amazed how the ever-changing Pacific kept me mesmerised day after day. How much we all laughed, how simple life can be, how well we pulled together as a team and how we all adapted amazingly to what can only be described as a long, arduous and some would say, quite ridiculous journey!

There are so many things that happen in life that are completely out of our control and we spend so much wasted time and energy on these things. Out there on the ocean, we constantly had to remind ourselves that we could only control the controllable (like our attitude to situations) and concentrate on those things.   

Were there any particularly scary moments on the trip? 


NC: As we rowed in 2-hour shifts for 24 hours, half of our expedition was under the cover of nightfall, some of those night times were the most challenging! Some nights we were enveloped in this thick, black darkness, and we have no idea which way the waves would come from. They could wash over the boat and knock you from your seat in an instant. 

Although we were always attached to the boat by an ankle leash, those moments were scary as we never wanted to be separated from Doris (especially at night!). Some of the girls struggled with hallucinations and we had to fight to stay awake and alert. 

If fear creeped into our minds, it was during those night time shifts. 

We never knew if floating debris or whales would hit us, or if huge cargo ships might not see us and come too close. There was always the risk of pirates, sharks and the boat capsizing, so the dawn of each new day was always a welcomed sight!

Did you find yourself counting down the days until you reached land, or did you embrace the journey of getting there?


NC: For me, life is about the journey. We have so many experiences that come and go in our lives. So many goals and ambitions that will always shift and change – so I have always made an effort to concentrate much more on the journey itself rather than the destination. It’s during the journey that we learn the most about ourselves and have the opportunity to grow and change. I do my best to stay present and enjoy the experiences for what they are.

I embraced the expedition for what it was, an utterly unique and unforgettable experience, and that’s what I wanted to savour for as long as possible. I therefore didn’t really count down the days. I lived them fully and took everything that came with that in the moment.


How did it feel reaching Australia when the end was in sight? Did it take some time to adjust to being back on land?


NC: I remember so vividly as we rowed into the harbour, we each saw our respective families one by one. It was extremely emotional. I knew what stress I had put my parents under and felt their relief as my own when they saw me and knew I was now safe again.

The love and pride I felt for my immediate team and our wider support team was also overpowering. We had done it!! It was an incredible feeling to know that we had worked so well together to accomplish something that had never been done before. Those team hugs before we finally stepped off Doris and onto land in Cairns will forever remain in my heart.

I learnt that as humans, we are all unbelievably adaptable and that we all have the power within ourselves to achieve greatness, whatever that looks like for each of us.

The first night off the boat we slept a full 7 / 8 hour monophasic sleep (full sleep). The hand calluses quickly cleared up, but the salt sores and pressure wounds on our backsides took a little bit longer!!

We’d had no real impact with solid earth for 9 months (almost like being in space). Our bodies atrophied; we lost all our calf muscles. Just by walking a few steps we gave ourselves shin splints. However, we adjusted fairly quickly to being back on land and having so much stimulus and noise. 

Without that clear goal and powerful focus driving me anymore, I felt a little lost for a while. But it did provide me with an opportunity to stop and reflect deeply on the experience, as well as spend some much needed quality time with my family.

Physically and mentally, how did you and the crew train for the trip?


NC: Preparation was key for this expedition. Mental, physical and practical training.

Four women in a tiny space of 29x7ft is going to be challenging at the best of times, never mind when you throw frustration, discomfort and sleep deprivation into the mix! 

We worked with Zeus Performance Ltd, a sport Psychologist and completed personality profiling and performance enhancing strategies. 

We also got coached through a programme called New Level Results and this created an opportunity for constant review and reflection to help map and track our progress. 

We began to get used to dealing with conflict. We were all very open and honest with one another. We made every effort not to take things personally and to all learn and grow from team feedback from the different events, exercises and training – rather than be ego-fuelled and defensive (some days were better than others, as we’re only human!) 

When conflict arose (and it only did a few times), we were all very good at addressing the issue immediately and then letting it go quickly. 

We didn’t dwell or hold on to negativity or resentment. 

We did lots of strength and conditioning exercises in the run up to our trip. And our practical training activities included sea survival skills (with Survival Wisdom), capsize drills, and a 48hr practice row, to name a few. We ran through what if scenarios, shared our hopes and fears and we each took a different area of the project to lead on. 

I would say that getting to the start line was almost as challenging as the row itself!  


What were the most memorable moments of the trip? 


There were so many!

Sunrises and sunsets that turned the sky and the ocean liquid golds, yellows, pinks and reds. Mesmerising skies and light reflecting on the ocean.

Whales, dolphins, turtles, fish and sharks that followed us! The wildlife was amazing.

Skies filled with stars that reflected in the still ocean so perfectly that it felt like we were rowing through the galaxy.

Sharing a freeze dried food dinner in the middle of the Pacific under the full moon or having a 10 minute dance party in the middle of nowhere!  

We crossed the equator and experienced a wonderfully unique Xmas and New Years Eve. I have never laughed as much as I did out there on the Pacific with those incredible women.

What’s next for you, and for the Coxless Crew?


The Coxless Crew is busy living life!! We are all doing different things. The team is made up of a physiotherapist, two teachers, a lawyer and an osteopath.

I am now sharing the story and its insights far and wide and have become an international inspirational speaker (never would have thought that!!), workshop and retreat facilitator and I also do some advisory work.

I’m always open to opportunity though, so watch this space and who knows where I may end up next!

Keep up with Natalia’s adventures on her website, Facebook and Instagram.

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