On November 28, Lara Vafiadis embarked on an unsupported solo row 4,800 kilometre (3000 miles) across the Atlantic, the world’s second largest ocean. In the process, she is raising money for three charities close to her heart. Only 21 women have ever successfully rowed across the Atlantic solo and Vafiadis’ aim is to be the fastest.
Neos Kosmos contacted her at the beginning of January and after several challenges we managed to communicate with the assistance of her partner, a satellite phone and emails. Starting from San Sebastian in the Canary Islands and finishing in Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua and Barbuda, the challenge involves Lara rowing for up to 18 hours a day over the period of a month.
Almost seven years ago Lara became aware of the gruelling Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge and decided to take it on more than two years ago, when she began her preparations and planning.
“I have always sailed, so am very comfortable on the ocean,” the trained yacht skipper tells Neos Kosmos reminiscing on memories of her family always spending time on or near the ocean while she was growing up.
“My Greek grandfather Kiko was in the Navy and was also a rower… obviously where I get the love of rowing from, so I think the love of the ocean is in my blood. However, I only got into rowing specifically to take on this challenge. This is my first truly life changing adventure but I’m sure it won’t be my last.”
The entire challenge is dedicated to her father who passed away on September 14 2022, and always dreamed of crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a boat but sadly his illness meant he never managed to do it.
Seeing her dad suffer through years of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and everything that goes with cancer treatments – his determination and resilience inspired Lara who thought to herself – if he can go through all of that, then she can row an ocean for him.
“I decided to row across the Atlantic in honour of my father but primarily to inspire women and children that you don’t have to be this incredible athlete in order to do something incredible. When I was at school I never really felt that there were many women role-models in extreme sports or adventuring that I could look to – it was always men. So I am hoping to change that for the next generation,” she says .
All the proceeds from the donations will be divided between Prostate Cancer UK, Plan international UK, a global children’s charity who work to make sure girls and boys in some of the world’s poorest communities have access to education, health care, clean water and opportunities to thrive and to Our only World, a Cornwall based charity dedicated to removing ocean plastics and restoring the health of the oceans.”I want to honour my father for all the times he went above and beyond,” she continues.
“When he was younger his mantra was ‘Aim high. Don’t look left or right – FOCUS – and aim high’! Do the impossible.”
Vafiadis clarifies that aiming high does not mean everyone needs to go and row an ocean, but she wants whoever stumbles across her journey to be inspired to find their own ocean, whatever that may be.
“I’m carrying with me on my journey some of his things. I have his jumper and the four leaf clover he gave me when I was a child- so that he is always with me on my crossing. He won’t get to see me finish but I know he’ll be with me with every oar stroke to Antigua.”
A JOURNEY OF CHALLENGES AND REWARDS
Lara is currently based in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire but is originally from Malvern in Melbourne. When not working as a Regional Sales Manager for a UK cyber security company, she spends her time, hiking, cycling and baking.
As a woman on a boat in the middle of the ocean, there are many challenges but also rewarding moments. Most days and nights push Lara to her physical and mental limit as she emphasises that there is a reason why more people have climbed Mt. Everest than have rowed across the Atlantic.
The challenge involves significant lack of sleep, “rowing against strong winds and unpredictable conditions make sleep a nightmare”, she says.
The salt from the ocean combines with the sun have caused her painful sores. At the same time temperatures over 30 degrees without shade while constantly rowing make dehydration a real risk as she burns approximately 5000 to 8000 calories a day. By the end of her journey she is expected to lose anywhere from 10 to 15 kilos.
Everything combined, including the lack of toilet, as rowers are required to use a bucket, can cause serious sea sickness and hallucinations.”It would be fair to say that all in all, it has been pretty tough going thus far,” she admits. “I suffered with acute seasickness for the first week which made eating and rowing very challenging. Then a huge storm with 30ft waves arrived on Christmas Day which meant I was pinned down in my cabin on para anchor for four long days. A very different Christmas and one that I will never forget.”
Just last night Friday, Lara was capsized by a large wave. Luckily she was in her cabin at the time, but she describes the experience as fairly terrifying.
“The boat acted as it was meant to and self-righted after a minute or so, but I did lose three pairs of shorts that were on deck, two drinking bottles, two pairs of socks and I’m sure some other bits.”
On a more positive note, Vafiadis has been lucky enough to experience magical moments.
“One evening at sunset, my 19ft ocean rowing boat was surrounded by a pod of 30+ dolphins dancing and singing in the waves,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
“Another day, I was joined by three whales who were passing by. I have also been up close and personal with sea turtles. These are the special moments that make the tough times out at sea seem worthwhile.”
THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING
As the challenge reaches its end, Lara is left with her own thoughts, an expanse of the ocean and the job of getting the boat safely to the other side while making the most of every chance she gets to use the satellite phone to update her partner David about her days.
“Right now I’m just looking forward to getting home and seeing my family, loved ones, friends and of course my little dog Monty,” she says.
Even though she hasn’t yet made it to the finish line she is already planning her next adventure, a cycle ride with her brother to Athens. “No oceans involved this time! But cycling is a huge passion of mine.”
“The idea is to emulate the route our father took when he was eight and travelled in a car with a caravan from the UK to Athens. This challenge has the appeal of the endurance side of things but a bit more relaxed this time with lots of stops at nice cafés and Greek restaurants along the way.”