Team Antigua Island Girls: One of the Toughest Teams in the World

April 2019

By Linisa George, BGR Media and Communications Inc., Antigua

On the cool afternoon in late January 2019, four women rowed into the Nelson’s Dockyard English Harbour in Antigua as history-makers. On that day Team Antigua Island Girls became the first all-female Caribbean team to complete the grueling Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge and the first all-black team to row across the Atlantic. Their journey began in December 2018 in La Gomora, Canary Islands, and after rowing for 47 days, the team touched their home soil as champions. While the third Antiguan team to compete and complete the Atlantic challenge, the Team Antigua Island Girls’ voyage and homecoming stood apart from previous returns.

In January 2019, the Team Antigua Island Girls made history as they entered Nelson’s Dockyard English Harbour in Antigua. They are the first all-female Caribbean team to complete the grueling Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge and the first all-black team to row across the Atlantic. (Photo: Ted Martin)

Team Antigua Island Girls come together

Kevinia Francis, Elvira Bell, Christal Clashing and Samara Emmanuel are the dynamic Team Antigua Island Girls. In early 2018, the ladies were among a larger group of women who answered a national call to join  the first all-female Antigua rowing team, on the understanding that they would compete in the 2019 Talisker Challenge. During the early vetting stage, however, it was decided that those selected for the team would compete in the 2018 edition (and not the 2019) of the Challenge –a year earlier than expected. As the reality of the situation dawned on the larger group of women, many withdrew. The number of willing participants would eventually dwindle to five: Kevinia, Elvira, Christal, Samara and their then 17-year-old alternate Junella King.

Samara is the first Antiguan woman to become a Royal Yachting Association-certified captain and has more than 12 years of experience at sea. Christal is a triathlete and the first female swimmer to represent Antigua and Barbuda in an Olympic Games. Elvira is a learn-to-swim instructor and certified health coach. And Kevinia, the team’s skipper, is a fitness trainer and cyclist who excels in basketball, martial arts and track and field.

A daunting challenge

“When we first realized we had to compete in the 2018 cycle, we all collectively tried to get it pushed back to 2019. Somehow that never happened, although we tried for a month-and- a-half,” laughs Christal.

Kevinia was adamant that entering the 2018 Challenge wasn’t remotely possible. “I initially thought absolutely not. I hadn’t fully committed because I couldn’t swim and I wasn’t sure I could learn to swim well enough in time to compete.” But once the women began to train, their doubts evaporated as they quickly learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how they could build a strong team together.

So began a grueling nine months of preparation and training for Team Antigua Island Girls, assisted by members of Team Antigua Atlantic Rowers who had arrived home in second place on January 13, 2018 after completing in the 2017 Atlantic Challenge. In that period the women immersed themselves in preparing their minds and bodies to undertake one of the world’s toughest challenges.

A lot of logistical planning went into ensuring the team had the right training to take on the Challenge, and a great deal of juggling to manage work and family commitments – three of the team members are mothers. Between Kevinia learning to swim and the team having to take certification courses in rowing and safety, and training for 2-4 hours a day in the gym, the women also engaged in practice rows. The four-day row around Antigua and the 16-hour row to St. Kitts were the first real test of the team’s problem-solving skills, and their ability to adapt to setbacks, mishaps and changing weather conditions. These practice sessions were invaluable. The team learned how to operate the boat’s equipment efficiently and how to deal with broken equipment (a broken wheel, for example), finding solutions when thrown off-course by heavy winds, and how to optimize power naps. This was exactly the type of preparation the women needed to prepare for their transatlantic voyage.

More people have climbed Mount Everest than have rowed the Atlantic!

The Talisker Whisky Challenge Atlantic Challenge is the premier event in ocean rowing. It is the world’s toughest row and a unique test of physical and mental strength. The challenge takes rowers more than 3,000 miles west from San Sebastian in La Gomera, Canary Islands to Nelson’s Dockyard English Harbour in Antigua. The Annual race begins in early December, with up to 30 teams participating from around the world. More people have climbed Mount Everest than have rowed the Atlantic!

Innovative technology keeps the team going

One of the factors that makes the rowing challenge manageable is the innovative equipment available to the rowers. The Team Antigua Island Girls boat, affectionately named the Jean Mary, is made from carbon fiber and is equipped with an autopilot, water-maker and solar panels, plus navigational tools, including a GPS monitor. The solar panels powered the water-maker during the day, filtering the salt water to produce clean water for use by the crew. Donated to the second Antiguan rowing team in 2017, the 2018 Challenge was the fourth Atlantic crossing for the Jean Mary.

The Team Antigua Island Girls took 47 days to cross the Atlantic in their boat, the Jean Mary, which is made from carbon fiber and equipped with an autopilot, solar panels, navigational tools and a water maker. The availability of such innovative equipment helped make the rowing challenge more manageable. (Photo: Ben Duffy)

The team had two satellite phones - one for communication with the race organizers and officials, and one so they could stay in touch with family and friends back home. The latter, allowed the team to update their followers and fans through contact with their management team. Team Antigua Island Girls were able to share so much with their adoring fans who were all rooting for their success and safety as they rowed the Atlantic. Daily posts on Facebook allowed everyone to connect with the team and to feel part of their momentous experience. Technology, backed by intellectual property (IP) rights, allowed the team to share videos and pictures including the hilarious birthday celebration for Samara.

Sponsorship takes Team Antigua Island Girls to the start line

Corporate sponsorship for their challenge began slowly. At first, the team benefitted from small donations – both in cash and kind – which were very welcome. But to compete in the Atlantic Challenge, the team was required to raise USD 150,000 to get them to the starting line. Thanks to an effective public relations and social media campaign by the team’s management, interest began to build. In June 2018, just six months before they were to set off, the team secured their first substantial injection of funds thanks to a sponsorship deal with the Hadeed Group worth USD 75,000. That generous show of support from one of the biggest companies on the island triggered the interest of other companies, which also began to sponsor and give their financial support to the team. Thanks to such support, Team Antigua Island Girls were quickly able to raise the money required to fund their row across the Atlantic.

Despite the short time-frame for the team to train, they were well prepared for the race. “We didn’t have time to be scared,” says Kevinia. ”We had to double up on everything. Most people have more than two years to train. We had nine months. We had to train and still make visits to schools and other organizations to share information about our charity, the Cottage of Hope, which was one of the main reasons we were rowing”.

All the teams competing in the Atlantic Challenge raise funds for a charity of their choice. Team Antigua Island Girls rowed for the Cottage of Hope, a privately run home offering a normal life to abandoned girls in Antigua. The home houses and clothes the girls and looks after them until they are old enough and have the skills to be financially independent. The identity of the girls is confidential to allow them to live their lives without judgment and free from any stigma.

The team keeps an eye on its IP assets

In the midst of all the preparations, the Antigua Island Girls realized that it was of paramount importance to protect the name and image of Team Antigua Island Girls with IP rights, such as trademarks and copyright. This helped to safeguard the reputation they had worked so hard to build and ensured appropriate use of their name and image. In this way, the team made sure that third parties could not exploit the team’s IP rights without their authorization or free-ride on the team’s success and increasing visibility. As holders of these rights, the team controls how their brand is represented and used. Since their return home, this has become even more important as they weigh up new opportunities to extend and maintain their brand, including the development of a line of sportswear and an inspirational children’s book.

The highs and the lows

The Team Antigua Island Girls’ epic journey has been a whirlwind experience with many highs and lows. Severe bouts of seasickness in the first few days of the row put the team under heavy strain causing them, at one point, to consider squarely the prospect of abandoning the race. Multiple setbacks, heavy weather and strong winds tested them to their limits, throwing into jeopardy the objective they had set for themselves. Yet, despite moments of self-doubt borne of the realization of the sheer enormity of their goals, along with broken oars, a defective autopilot, a near capsize – and a combined weight loss of 105 pounds, the team’s grit and determination to complete the race pulled them through. Individually and collectively, they conquered the challenges they faced.

Despite deeply challenging moments, the team retains vivid happy memories. These included the first time they saw a night rainbow and watching a more than 60 dolphins swimming playfully around their boat. But they all agree that the most beautiful and memorable moment of the whole journey was the homecoming they received when they entered Nelson’s Dockyard in late January.

The Team Antigua Island Girls journey is an amazing and inspiring tale of what is possible with a “can do” attitude, a suite of IP rights and a range of innovative technologies. The team’s record-breaking journey has captured the imagination of Antiguans and millions of others around the world. They have become a global phenomenon. These remarkable women from Antigua have taken us on an unforgettable journey. The world’s toughest row was no match for Antigua’s toughest team.

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