Inspirational woman rower – All Systems Row!

All Systems Row is a group of  six  formidable women taking on the GB Row Challenge, to raise money for environmental charities. I am honoured to have the opportunity to share their stories with you over the course of the following week.


Name: Andrea Harwood
Age: 45
From: Bexhill, East Sussex
Years rowing: 0
Club: Bexhill Runners and Triathletes

Originally from Northern Ireland, I moved to Nottinghamshire and represented the county as captain of the junior hockey team before studying French at Newcastle University, with a stint working as a ski guide in the Alps. On graduating, I cycled 800 miles through England, before managing teams in West and Central Africa in the aid and development sector. My first expedition many years ago, was to
Zimbabwe with Raleigh International, then I was on a team researching a tropical disease in Indonesia. I have completed 6 ultramarathons, including 100 miles on the North Downs. This year I am running the length of the Lake District in a day.
Married 18 years, I have 4 children and spent 3 years living in Yemen before the war. I am a Social Worker with children seeking asylum in the UK. I am excited about becoming a rower and hopefully a world record holder.

My interview with Andrea Harwood.

What led you to begin rowing?

I wasn’t a rower before I started training for this challenge. I’d never rowed anything or anywhere and it had always confused me that rowing was backwards. My main sports as a child were dancing (the teacher advised my mum that I was not well suited to ballet) and swimming. I started playing adult club hockey when I was 12 years old, and they really led me astray over the years with the post-match antics! I stuck with hockey all the way through university, loving the banter and team spirit, then when I moved to West Africa, where I took up running as there weren’t really many other sporting options. Running has been my main sport now for many years and I’ve run a few 50 milers and a
100-mile trail race as well as a 3 day event in the Lake District last year. My favourite time of the week is our ‘Trail Tuesday’ easy 7 milers with a disparate bunch of fantastic folk of all ages and backgrounds, where we laugh and joke with one another whilst jogging up muddy hills in the dark with headtorches on. My goal for next year is to complete the World’s Toughest Mountain Race, which is a 6-day event called Dragon’s Back through the whole of Wales over all the mountain ranges. For the GB Row Challenge, I consider myself a runner on loan to rowing.

When Steph suggested that I join her on this challenge around Great Britain and I got involved with this group of ladies I had a bit of a rocky start. In fact, it felt like a rollercoaster of excitement followed by disappointment. There was a fair bit of reluctance from the others to take a non-rower and so I didn’t get a place initially for that reason. I was totally gutted. So, when they did eventually accept me into the crew, I needed to prove myself pretty quickly. Steph, Lia, and Charlie have all given me advice on technique. Vinny, the club captain has been patient and encouraging, inviting me on outings to the river. Mark, one of the coaches at the club has gently pushed me to strengths and speeds that I never thought I was capable of. As well as dragging myself out of bed early in the mornings for training with Steph and Lia, I joined a league with a bunch of blokes from the club who I didn’t know and whose incredible rowing stats astounded me. Soon I was producing results on the rowing machine that were on a par with the other women. I didn’t find it particularly interesting though, certainly not sitting on a rowing machine just going back and forwards for hours as we started the longer endurance row training. I’ve never been a gym bunny. The thing I love about running is being outdoors in the sun, wind and rain, immersing myself in the scenery and views, bird spotting, root dodging and flying downhill. There’s none of that when you’re sitting on a rowing machine. The prospect of being out at sea on our boat
and seeing the stunning British coastline has really kept me going through the relentless on land training for this challenge. That, along with having Steph and Lia to train with…they have been amazing and their upbeat company even at 05:50 has definitely got me though the cold, dark winter.

What made you want to get involved in All Systems Row?

To be honest, it was the prospect of becoming a world record holder. I don’t know why that is so appealing to me. I have a wild adventurous friend who I once cycled 11 days with through England, calling ourselves the Alphabikers and going from a town starting with A in Northumberland to a town starting with Z in Cornwall via every letter of the alphabet. A few years ago, she asked me to consider rowing the Atlantic with her and so I started doing some research about it as it was totally outside of my realm of experience. I read a book called ‘Four Mums in A Boat’ about 4 Yorkshire Women who completed the Atlantic rowing challenge and that’s where I got the idea that I too, an
ordinary woman, could actually, possibly become a world record holder. The excitement that aroused in me was so unexpected, but it kept me awake at night. What a wild thing for an average working, middle aged mum to contemplate! A couple of years later Steph asked me, via my eldest son, whether I would do this and I absolutely jumped at the chance.

How did you raise the money to take part in All Systems Row?

When Steph offered me the chance to get involved, I was a “YES” without hesitation. There were a few things standing in my way, apart from the fact that I couldn’t row, and one of them was the money. We have four kids to feed, clothe, their hobbies to pay for, a big mortgage, two vehicles to fuel and insure. We both work as public servants (social worker and teacher) and we haven’t got anything spare. There certainly wasn’t five grand sitting idly in the bank. I was clear about that from the outset, but I was also committed to working hard to generate that money so that I could do it. I imagined that this would come from sponsors and grants. In actual fact, I have ended up taking on additional work on my day off and in the evenings to pay the £5000 that I needed to contribute personally.

Early on, we were offered £39k from a sponsor. To me it felt like an answer to prayer. Here was the provision I needed being handed to us. What a relief! But the skipper said no because we would have to agree to the sponsor being exclusive and we would therefore rule out the chance of earning more income from other sources. This was a wobbly time for me. It felt like the wrong decision. I wanted to play it safe and just get the cash in the bag so we could crack on with the row. This was the first time that I really had to trust Jess and let her lead.

During our monthly team building session with our team Coach – Jules after this decision, we talked about finances. I actually hate money. I just don’t like it. He noticed that I wasn’t saying much, quite out of character for me, and he asked me directly what I thought about the situation. I ended up crying. I think that was my first vulnerable moment in front of the team and it was difficult. I wanted them to think I was hard as nails and definitely not going to fall apart emotionally out at sea when we hit a tough spot. When I originally signed up there was no personal fee mentioned – we were just planning to raise it all, but then this idea was introduced. I don’t think I would have got involved originally if Steph had said at the beginning that I needed to stump up such a sum. That would have put me off completely. It seemed huge. We had no savings. But by the time that was announced, I was already invested and couldn’t give it up just because of lack of funds. Why should it just be rich people who get to do these exciting things? Nor did I want my family to have to sacrifice their activities to pay for me. I had to earn it for myself. So, I have worked doing assessments of prospective foster carers squeezing this in around my main job, the washing, shopping, ferrying the kids around, training, weekly team meetings, being a school governor and trustee at my church and
still trying to run the odd mile here and there.

It was such a relief to transfer my final instalment into the crew bank account. I have always been a bargain hunter and a spendthrift and when it has come to making purchases for the row, I have really felt the burden of responsibility spending other people’s money. I think I’ve done a good job shopping around for our rations and snacks, buying second hand bivvy bags, choosing harnesses and water bottles. I’ve taken it pretty seriously. My house is now completely overrun with boxes of rations and bags of snacks for the row piled high in most rooms.

What are you most looking forward to about the adventure?

The tranquillity of being at sea, away from the noise and the hurry, slow rhythmic repetitive rowing, fewer responsibilities and no appointments, the clouds and the stars around me, the elements – the sun and wind in my face, day turning to night and back to day again, taking one day at a time, quiet moments, time to think, working together in a team depending on one another, seeing how things around us change…rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, busy shipping lanes, wind farms. Observing how the sea is mirror-like and glassy one day then raging and furious the next. As a Christian, I’m so excited to be immersing myself in the beauty and diversity of creation.

What do you think you will find most challenging?

If something happens to the boat and we have to come into land, I will be really disappointed that we won’t get the records that we are after. However if we can carry on and complete the circumnavigation, I will still enjoy the journey without the records. If we have to give up en route and abandon it completely for some reason like equipment failure I will be seriously disappointed. Another practical thing that I anticipate being challenging is that I suffer with headaches and migraines quite regularly, especially if I haven’t slept well. Our conditions in the cabin are cramped and uncomfortable. I’m told it is also going to be damp and cold. I’ve just been moved cabin to give the two navigators more space and am now sharing with Fiona, who snores. Our shifts are two hours on, two hours off. All of that is really going to
mess with my body clock. If I get a serious migraine, I really can’t function and it feels dreadful. So, I’m worried about that happening and not being able to pull my weight. I don’t want to let the team down.

Who has supported you as you prepare for the challenge?

One of my major dilemmas when I was first contemplating this challenge was whether it was selfish or not given that I have four kids depending on me and a job looking after 14 other young people, plus a husband, who can just about manage to handle the stresses
of a teaching job let alone manage to run the entire household singlehandedly for an extended period. Who would do the washing, cooking and shopping if I disappeared for 6 weeks?? The kids make so much constant mess and feign helplessness when asked to
do the simplest of chores. My husband Dan is not a man of many words, more of a thinker, but he has really stepped up at home and impressed me hugely. Since I started being more absent for training during this preparation period, he has sorted the meals,
spent quality time with the kids and managed to maintain his own fitness. It’s like he’s found new pep and vigour. He’s a great sportsman and has loads of really practical skills, I’d love for him to follow his dreams and have some of his own adventures, or even better, enjoy them together. I hope me doing this will inspire him to start planning. We’ve got two sets of incredibly helpful parents waiting in the wings to help whilst I’m away, but I’m pretty confident that Dan’s going to a great job holding the fort and I’m really proud of him for that. Dan is working on the day of our departure from Tower Bridge, and I told him it was fine that he couldn’t be at the start line as I’d probably be dashing about a bit frantically with last minute preparations. However, he replied that the kids need to be there to see me off as it might be the last time they see me!!

The kids do think I’m a bit mad. Will (14) told me that what I’m doing is ‘extremely dangerous’, which I suppose it could be. Grace (13) thinks everyone else in the crew is cool, but I’m just embarrassing. I’m glad she’s got some great role models out of it, especially Lia, who helps coach her. I went into Barney and Eva’s school and gave an assembly about what we’re doing, which has probably given me some kudos amongst their mates, but not as much as when I appeared at the end of the street with chocolate biscuits for the whole class when they were walking past to play basketball at the nearby secondary school. Then they referred to me as ‘the GOAT’, a label which I’m quite proud
of. The kids have coped well with me disappearing at weekends for training and have been intrigued when I appear with new stuff like my foul weather gear including the dungaree trousers with the drop seat for easy toileting in the bucket! They’ve put up with me rowing noisily on the erg in the living room and Eva (9) fed me grapes once when I got into my last 30 minutes of a 2hr rowing stint, which was the 3rd one of the day. In terms of whilst I’m away, I won’t be available to help the kids with reading or homework, drive them to swimming lessons, cheer them on at running races, make packed lunches or pancakes for breakfast, find lost football socks, buy ice-creams or agree to friends’ sleepovers. They’ll be glad not have me nagging them about picking up wet towels or putting dirty socks in the washing bin, emptying the dishwasher or turning the lights off. I’ll be sad to miss Barney (11) finishing his time at primary school, where he has been Head Boy this year, but he and I have had a special trip together to celebrate that.

My boss at work deserves a mention too for his supportive response to me asking for a leave of absence of unknown duration. Right from the start, his response was ‘Go for it!’ and that just makes me want to work harder for him and to give my all to my work with young asylum seekers, which I love. It is so helpful that he can appreciate the value having adventures outside of work for motivation and satisfaction. He has been to the Arctic, so he can relate to my way interests.

My running club have been really interested and supportive too. They attended our fundraising event in droves, paid for names on the boat, asked loads of questions about the preparations and training, forgave my absences from Trail Tuesday runs and it is so good to have them all behind me.

What are you hoping to learn?

I’ve already learned so much!! I was so naive when I started out. There was a line in Ross Edgely’s book which has really resonated with me: ‘It’s not all sunsets and dolphins’. I really didn’t have a clue what I was embarking on and had somewhat of an idealised vision of the task that we are taking on. I just thought I could jump in the boat and row. I am now the holder of marine VHF licence, I am a qualified ‘Competent Crew’ on a sailing yacht. I know what a ‘drogue’ is and when to use it and have tasted a few ‘MRE’. I can also use a flameless ration heater!
The scientific side of the challenge has just been shared with us recently by the various experts and is genuinely very exciting. I’m not much of a scientist myself, but even I can appreciate its importance to the environment and marine conservation in particular. It does really feel that what claims to be ‘A race with a purpose’ does have a legitimate claim to this title. It was very inspiring and motivating to hear the scientists explain the relevance of the data that we will collect as we pass around our island.

What do you think the biggest giggle will be?

Honestly, I have laughed more in the last 12 months hanging out with these ladies than I have in the past five years put together. When we are together it is so refreshing and enlivening. As time has gone on and I’ve enjoyed the laughter so much, it has made me realise how important it is to me that we actually have fun and enjoy the journey, whereas previously it just appealed to my competitive nature.
There have been times when we have actually roared with laughter. Steph in particular regularly has me in stitches. She’s a real character and has a saying for every occasion. When we first saw a sheewee I found that absolutely hilarious. I’m pretty sure there is plenty more toilet humour ahead. We’ll be up close and personal for a long time at sea.

What are you personally giving up to take part?

1. So much time with my family – over the year that we have been preparing, let alone whilst we are away at sea. I was away five weekends in a row in the autumn.
2. The chance to have ‘down time’… every spare minute is planning, purchasing preparing or training. I’m literally burning the candle at every end on an ongoing basis – spinning plates and juggling multiple balls to make this challenge happen. If I’m away at sea for more than 5 weeks, then I’ll be on unpaid leave…that’ll be tough for us as a family to manage and I feel under pressure to get round as quickly as possible
as result. However, I am not doing this solo, and I am dependent on my five team mates and particularly on Jess and Steph who are navigating to get us across the finish line. They’ve got a huge job to do, and I trust them both to do their best and make good
decisions. Generally, I feel that I am gaining so much more from this than I am sacrificing and that the sacrifices are largely being made by those around me. I am so grateful to them.

Which woman dead or alive inspires you most?

I have been hugely inspired by so many women who have been a part of my life at different times. My Northern Irish granny was a formidable woman, who worked so hard doing manual labour in all weathers on a farm in pretty poor economic circumstances. She just knuckled down and cracked on with it. My mother has experienced so much change in her lifetime, leaving that rural homestead, working her way up, sacrificing so much to raise her own two children. Their strong work ethic has shaped me considerably.

There have also been many women in my church who have blessed me over the years with endless kindnesses, large and small, in loads of practical ways, especially when my children were young and also with gentle encouraging words.

I am inspired by my friends who have different skills to me, especially the artistic and highly organised ones. I am inspired by women who go on long journeys in far-flung places and who take time to talk to people on the way. But also, those who journey closer to home. I loved reading ‘The Salt Path’. It’s more about their attitude and their outlook than their achievements. I am also inspired by humble women who make sacrifices for others and who don’t seek the limelight for themselves.

I read an incredible book some years back called ‘Half the Sky’ about unsung female leaders making meaningful changes in their communities around the world. I was so impacted by it that I bought a pile of copies to dish out to the
dynamic women I know.

What book would you recommend to another woman?

The books that I tend to read might not appeal to the mass market! At the moment, I have about six books on the go by the side of my bed. There are things like ‘The Day Skipper’s Handbook’, the ‘World of Tides’, ‘Will It Make the Boat Go Faster?’, ‘Leaders Eat Last’, the Bible and ‘Breath’.

Last year I read six different books just about running. My favourites were ‘There’s No Map in Hell’, ‘Running with the Kenyans’ and ‘The Rise
of the Ultrarunner’. I’ve just finished a Teen Plus novel called ‘Arctic Zoo’ that I borrowed from the library for my daughter, which I loved because it tackled loads of topical issues and was 50% set in Nigeria, which I have visited a couple of times, so that evoked lots of
powerful memories for me. I’m also reading a David Walliams book with my youngest daughter…they’re always good fun.

I’m taking ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ away with me on the boat to re-read. I can’t remember the story as it the many years since I read it originally, but I can remember lying sobbing on the sofa because whatever was happening in the plot powerfully moved me to tears. I feel excited about going back to it.

What website would you encourage women to look at?

I tend to spend more time watching videos on YouTube than browsing the Net. I watch running videos for race preparation and lately I have started to watch sailing videos from the west coast of Scotland to help me get excited and know what’s ahead for our row. I would say to others: research what you love, find out who else is out there doing it, learn what you can from them and be inspired at what is possible. There are other people out there like you, doing the amazing things that you dream of doing, whatever that may be.Learn from them and believe that you can do it too.

TED talks are also amazing to learn about new things in a short time, especially if you are an auditory learner. They’re so easy to listen to and the expert speakers are such excellent communicators. When you watch one, they recommend a list of others and it just snowballs until you are listening to talks about things that you have never even thought about before. It is astounding, captivating and challenging. Start with
‘Vulnerability’ by Brenee Brown.

What needs to change about the position of women in society?

There are still so many areas of life, professions and sports where women are underrepresented. We need to encourage our girls and young women to step into these gaps. We should not be afraid to be pioneers. They need strong, positive role models and need to be encouraged to break barriers and have courage to step into lesser known territory as each and every one has something important to contribute.

I don’t think bringing up children well is valued as much as it needs to be. It is the hardest thing I have ever done, demanding more endurance, commitment and effort than anything else I could ever give myself to in my lifetime. It requires a huge sacrifice, investment of time, energy, creativity, patience and kindness. People are so complex and little people need so much from us to develop into happy, healthy adults. If my four turn out like that then it will be my life’s greatest achievement, regardless of what world records I set.

What would you say to a woman facing a daunting challenge in her personal or professional life?

Believe that you really can achieve what you dream of achieving and don’t let anything stop you. Don’t listen to people who give you reasons not to go for it or who advise you to give up. Stay strong focused and determined on your goal. Your efforts will be worth it, and you will get there.

I love this quote, which I write to my young asylum seekers when I finish supporting them at the age of 18: “Always remember, you are braver than you think, stronger than you seem and loved more than you know”

What needs to change when it comes to how we look after our planet?

I think we’ve become too focused on what is easy and convenient for each of us as individuals and don’t think about the impact of our actions on others, especially if they live on the other side of the world. We also consume in excess and have such a wasteful throwaway culture. This is symptomatic of individualism and selfishness. We need more awareness at the grass roots level, but definitely change being led from above by our leaders as well. Living overseas in low-income countries has completely changed the way I think and behave. I feel more connected to people in other parts of our planet, and it would be good for more people to hear their voices too.

Find out more about All Systems Row and show your support for this exciting adventure.

Award-winning writer, blogger, social media consultant and charity campaigner. Social Media Manager for BritMums, the UK's largest parent blogging network Freelance clients include Firefly Communications and Save the Children UK. Works with brands on marketing projects. Examples include Visit Orlando, Give As You Live, Coca-Cola and Kodak. Cambridge Law graduate with many years experience working across three sectors in advice, media relations, events, training and project management. Available for hire at affordable rates.

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