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23 January 2012

Row For Freedom: world record holders

Row For Freedom: world record holders

by Claire Musters

The Row for Freedom crew on board 'The Guardian' have smashed two world records, becoming the first five-woman team to row any ocean and achieving the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by an all-female team.

As part of the world's toughest rowing race, the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, the girls - Julie Immonen, Debbie Beadle, Helen Leigh, Kate Richardson and Katie Pattison-Hart - rowed the 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, starting on 7 December to raise awareness of human trafficking, and to raise £1 million for The A21 Campaign and Ecpat UK.

As their epic journey came to an end on Sunday (22 January), skipper Debbie Beadle said: "We're exhausted and relieved. We've seen nothing but the sea, dolphins and each other for 45 days, so it's overwhelming to see all our family and friends. Our bodies are falling apart - we're waking up with our hands cramped into the rowing position and our backs aching. We've been on dehydrated food and desalinated water for a month and a half, so we can't wait to have some proper food and an ice-cold cocktail."

The challenge was the brainchild of Julia Immonen, a director's assistant at Sky Sports News, founder of Sports Against Trafficking and member of Holy Trinity Brompton church. Her love for sport and passion to see an end to human trafficking were the combined inspiration for Row For Freedom.

We spoke to her onboard when they were just 80 miles away from the finishing point - Barbados.

The women endured sweltering heat, terrible sores and chafing - which resulted in them rowing naked - 30-foot waves, storms, sickness, sleep deprivation (due to the constant 24-hour pattern of rowing two hours on, two hours off), hunger, boredom, loneliness, cramp and other aches and pains and didn't even have any contact with their families to help them through it. Julia said: "We opted not to have news from home as we were worried that it would be too emotional to hear from close relatives while in the middle of the Atlantic."

Their boat suffered too, making things much harder for them. The automatic steering malfunctioned early on, their water-maker caught fire and de-salinator broke so they used a hand pump to create drinking water. All this on top of the fact that there were no bathroom facilities, limited cooking ability and a tiny space to sleep in. 

Each one of them faced their own personal challenges. Julia said: "When it's so tough I've cried buckets and been really emotional, I remember I have the option to get off this boat in Barbados and there are 27 million who don't have that freedom. Kate and I pray at night together when rowing and I said early on let's pray for the 27 million each night and we have - that keeps it really real for me."

Julia is certainly determined to make sure everyone knows the facts about human trafficking. She told me the shocking truth of what goes on before a huge sporting event, and how desperate she is to raise people's awareness before the Games here in the summer:

"I was in South Africa before the World Cup with my best friend and we visited a safe house for trafficked women and it was there that we learned about these large sporting events - that it's just supply and demand. When millions of people descend on a city it places a demand on hotels, on food and when there are millions of men gathered the demand for sex goes up. It so alarmed me and it was something I became very passionate about because I work in sport.

"A pre-Olympic campaign is definitely something I want to do and I've done my homework - prostitution has already doubled in East London ahead of the Olympics because there are 10,000 men working on the construction site. This just shows what a big problem it is and the average person in the UK just doesn't know about it."

Even with the end in sight and the world records within their grasps, Julia's thoughts were still focused on the victims of human trafficking: "The best support you can give us is by donating to these worthy causes or by doing something yourself for freedom - be inspired to make a difference with whatever you are passionate about."

Visit the Row for Freedom website for more information or to donate.