Last year, aged 60, Shirley Thompson finally learnt to swim – not because it was a long-held dream, or a tick on a Bucket List, but because it was the first step in her plan to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
‘Learning to swim doesn’t mean that if I fall in, in the middle of the Atlantic, I will be able to swim to shore; it just means that if I fall in, I’m not going to be as terrified as I would have been otherwise!’ she laughs, when I incredulously ask her about it. ‘It doesn’t mean that when I’m rowing across I’m going to keep jumping into the water every day and having a nice swim. I’m not that keen on swimming – and I certainly don’t like swimming out of my depth – I don’t even like getting my hair wet, if I’m honest!’
As admirable as it would be if Shirley were rowing across the Atlantic even though it frightens her, the truth is even more astounding – she’s doing it because it frightens her.
‘I wanted to do something absolutely amazing to celebrate being 60. I’m a runner and I take part in ultra-marathons already, so I thought, this time I need to do something that’s outside my comfort zone. And the thing that’s REALLY outside of my comfort zone is the water. I know some people who have done ocean rows and it was something I’ve always looked at with absolute terror, but I thought, well maybe I need to look into this a bit further, and that’s what I did.
‘I had thought about climbing Everest, but the more I read about that the more I thought no; I hate the fact that you have to use oxygen to summit, the fact that you’ll climb over other people to get there – if they’re low on oxygen and you’ve got enough to get to the top, you’re not going to be able to help your fellow man, or you’ll spoil your own summit. There can be people dying all around you, and there’s rubbish left all over the place – it just didn’t sit with my philosophy. The ocean row is me, it’s human powered, it fits with everything I believe in. it’s back to nature and it gives me three months on my own to just contemplate life; it gives me the chance to prove to myself and to other people that a woman of my age can do anything she puts her mind to.’
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Shirley returns to a phrase that crops up more than once throughout our conversation: Someone ordinary can do something extraordinary. I suggest that it’s her mantra, and I can almost hear her fierce nod of agreement. ‘It’s what I always say – I’m an ordinary person and I’m putting myself completely out of my comfort zone to do something that, to me, is just incredible.’
I mention that I’m a little bit frightened of the sea myself, at which she laughs and reiterates, ‘I’m terrified! You could be rowing along, singing, enjoying the sunshine, enjoying the dolphins, and then wham! A half-submerged container could smash into the side of your boat and sink you! And the sea-sickness, that’s always fun. I do get very, very seasick, but you get used to it, you have to. It should go away after about a month. When I was out there last time, I kept throwing up non-stop. You eat something, you throw up; you don’t eat something, you throw up. Row two strokes, vomit, row two more strokes, vomit. If you lie down, you feel worse.’
The row that Shirley is preparing for will (all being well) take place in October of this year, and it’s her second attempt at two world records: she is determined to become the oldest woman to row any ocean solo, and the first woman to do so from Ireland. The first attempt was curtailed early after her boat started sinking some 350 miles off the coast.
‘I was out there for three weeks last time before I had to turn back. I was gutted. The first time I set off I hadn’t had a very good routing, and I got caught in an unfortunate system of weather in the Canary Islands. I rowed like crazy for 12 hours on the first day, had a rest, and then when I woke up the winds had taken me right back to the start. So I thought “Oh, okay. Let’s get on with it again”. So the next day I set off and the same thing happened – another 12 hours of rowing, and then I woke up the next morning at the start. And I thought to myself, this is ridiculous.’
You’d be forgiven for wondering whether Shirley gave herself a few days off to rest and recuperate, after rowing for 24 hours and getting nowhere, but that’s simply not her style.
‘I went back into shore and took a different routing; I set off again in a different direction, and I managed to make fairly good progress for three weeks. And then the weather got very bad, and I had to have five days on a parachute anchor, which is a floating anchor that I had to put out because it was too rough for me to row. I was just holed up in my tiny little cabin which is about the size of a cupboard and I was just stuck there, just being sick. I thought, this is just miserable, why am I here?
‘But then the weather calmed down. I had my best day’s rowing and I was so happy with the world: I saw a whale, I saw dolphins, the sunset was beautiful and I went to bed that night so empowered; I thought, I’m going to make this and it’s going to be amazing!
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‘And then I woke up in the early hours of the morning with the sound of water all around me, and I thought: that’s not outside the boat. So I switched on my head torch to see that water had started coming in and it was filling up the cabin. I was terrified, and gutted – I’d lost all the electrics so I knew there was nothing I could do. I knew the voyage was over – once the batteries are saturated then you can’t navigate, you can’t desalinate water, you can’t do anything you need to do to survive. That realisation was devastating.
Even in the face of such disaster, Shirley didn’t lose her sense of humour – and just because she’s an intrepid adventurer, she is not immune to the worries many of us have about our appearance.
‘So I had to set off my emergency beacon and I got rescued. They sent a rescue helicopter, and a terribly handsome man was winched down from the rescue helicopter like a cross between James Bond and the Milk Tray Man and there was I covered in sick and my hair a mess. Instead of thinking, I’m so happy I’m being rescued, I thought, oh my God, why do I look like THIS? If I’d known they were sending a James Bond lookalike, I’d have said give me another hour and I’d have washed my hair!
‘But I forgot about that when they were winching me up and I looked down at my boat, lurched to one side and half submerged. You get very attached to your boat; mine is named Amigo because she is my friend, and I felt so guilty about leaving her in the Atlantic.
“Age is not an obstacle for anything. As you get older you know yourself much better, and we’re much more capable than we think. We’re capable of any sort of adventure. Anybody ordinary can do something extraordinary.”
‘We went out a few days later on a sailboat, tearing round the sea to find my boat and tow her to land. I was so happy to see her, so pleased to be able to rescue her. I had a survey done; the person who worked on her installed the watermaker [the contraption that desalinates water to make it drinkable] incorrectly; instead of a valve shutting water off when it was pumping from the sea, it was continuing to pump it in, and the boat was filling up with water more and more every day. Needless to say, he did not repair my boat for me!’
When I first heard about her first attempt going wrong after three weeks, I wondered whether she’d ever felt like she’d been handed a ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card – she tried, it didn’t work; did it ever feel like time to move on from the idea, and go back to just doing ultra-marathons (!)?
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Shirley is vehement in her refusal to admit defeat.
‘The only thing I struggled with in terms of going back and trying again was the huge financial burden. If you’re away for three months you still have bills to pay, and I had planned everything down to the last five pounds. So budget-wise it was a struggle, but mentally I was angry, and that kept me going. When I was preparing for it I always focussed my mind on ‘this time next year I’ll have done my row’; and I had so many things planned for after it. So now I feel like I’ve lost a year and I’m disappointed, but there was never any stage where I thought, I’m not going to do this. I always wanted to get back out there. I wasn’t going to let someone else’s incompetence take away my dream. I’m determined to do it, and where there’s a will there’s a way, so I had to find a way.
‘The first time round I put savings into it and I got a bit of sponsorship, but I had to pay thousands to get my boat rescued. It costs over £130,000 to row an ocean! I thought about how I could make it happen, and I realised I had jewellery from a previous marriage, sitting in a box gathering dust. I thought, what’s the point in keeping this? So I decided to take a negative and turn it into a positive. I found WP Diamonds’ site, and organised selling them my jewellery, to put the funds towards my row. I told them what I was doing, and they ended up becoming one of my sponsors, so that was really lucky, absolutely serendipitous. Getting rid of my jewellery was empowering; I’m a huge believer of negative energy, and even though the pieces were hidden away in a jewellery box, they were still there, holding their bad memories – so it was liberating to be able to do something for me with it. The moment it was done I thought good riddance, off you go, why didn’t I do this sooner? There used to be a stigma attached to selling something of value; people would go to a pawnbroker but now times have changed, and people recycle. So why hang on to something that holds bad memories? People are more about experiences than material goods – I can’t row the Atlantic Ocean sitting on a diamond ring.’
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During our conversation I am frequently moved to laugh aloud at the way she speaks – frankly and positively, and I can’t help but be carried along by her infectious enthusiasm. I ask how people react to the news of her expedition – do they view her differently when they know what she has planned?
‘People think I’m bonkers. Well - people who don’t know me think I’m bonkers, but people who do know me aren’t surprised because they know that I’ll always try to do something that’s a little bit different. To celebrate their 60th most of my friends went to a spa, or had a holiday or a big party; they don’t quite understand why I would put myself in debt and flog all my jewellery, to spend three months being sick and terrified as I row across the Atlantic – but it works for me! It’s what I want to do.’ She pauses, thoughtfully, before adding, ‘And then I’ll go to a spa afterwards.’
This article appeared in the October 2019 issue of Saga Magazine