Monday, 27 September 2021

Teacher leads all-woman crew in row across Pacific

A WOMAN from Henley is preparing to row across the Pacific for charity.

A WOMAN from Henley is preparing to row across the Pacific for charity.

Sarah Weldon, who has never rowed before, will be part of a four-woman crew who plan to row 8,300 miles from California to Australia in 240 days next year.

She is being trained by Leander Club captain and double Olympic silver medallist Debbie Flood.

Miss Weldon, a 37-year-old teacher, who lives off Greys Road, decided to take on the challenge to raise awareness of Oceans Project Georgia, the charity she set up to help improve children’s education in the former Soviet republic after working there.

She also hopes to help set a world record as either the first or fastest four to cross the Pacific.

She said: “I do have moments when I think, ‘my God, what am I doing?’ There’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of people have invested and put their faith in us — I’ve really put myself on the line and don’t want to let them down.

“In other ways, it feels like it’s my calling and I’m doing something I feel so passionately about. I’m very honoured to be doing this job and to have met those children. It’s all about how it’s going to help them.”

Miss Weldon grew up in Hampstead Norreys, near Newbury, and moved to Henley, where her grandfather taught at Gillotts School, after finishing university.

She worked as a carer at Chilterns End nursing home in Greys Road and later as a healthcare assistant at Townlands Hospital in York Road.

When her grandfather died in 2010, she changed career and secured a short-term teaching job with Georgia’s Ministry of Education and Science.

She fell in love with the country, where a third of people live in poverty, and decided to help its children.

She said: “Going out there was only meant to be a short break to recharge but I ended up staying for more than two years.

“There were families sharing rooms in crumbling buildings with no windows but the kids didn’t care — they felt lucky just to have each other and saw things like having electricity as a bonus. It’s not at all materialistic like it is here and coming back was a real culture shock, especially at Christmas.”

Her charity raises money for textbooks and equipment for Georgian schools as well as computers so teachers and children can use the internet to make contact with their counterparts in other countries. Miss Weldon will be rowing with fellow teachers Michelle Andrews, 26, from Wetherby, and Brigid Weir, 25, from Johannesburg, whom she met in Georgia, and friend Kate Gibbs, 29, who teaches at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. None of the four has rowed before.

The women, known as Fourbirdsaboating, are training individually but will come together in Henley in May for four months training with Flood before moving to London to train with the Royal Marines.

The row starts in June next year, when the women will take part in the New Ocean Wave race from Monterey Bay in California to Honolulu in Hawaii, a distance of 2,500 miles. They will then row a further 5,800 miles to Cairns in Queensland on Australia’s north-east coast.

The women will row 24 hours a day, with two at a time taking turns to row alternate two-hour shifts. They will be naked most of the time because they will be caked in salt from the sea, which can cause blisters if it rubs against their clothes.

Miss Weldon said: “There’s no toilet on board — just a bucket next to where the other girls are rowing, so that’s something we’ll have to get used to. We’ll have to go to the loo while we’re moving up and down on the waves and with an audience, so there may be some problems with ‘stage fright’ at first. With that and being naked, the first few weeks could be quite humiliating.

“However, we’re going to have to do things like dress boils on each other’s bums, so we’ll just have to toughen up and get used to it.”

Each rower will burn about 8,000 calories a day, so they will snack on high-energy ration packs around the clock. These include a mix of ready-to-eat meals, chocolate bars and dried foods that have to be reheated.

Miss Weldon said: “We will basically have to eat all the time as there’s no question we’ll be losing weight. We’re also certain to be seasick in the first two weeks and will struggle to keep food down, so it’s very much a case of eating whatever we can and whenever we can.”

The vessel will be equipped with a solar-powered desalinator, which removes salt from sea water to make it drinkable. If it runs out of power, they will have to drink the fresh water ballast stored in the hull.

To cope with boredom, the team will bring an iPod loaded with audio books and their favourite tunes. The playlist will include Sarah’s favourites the B52s, Toyah Willcox and Pink Martini.

Miss Weldon said: “It’s going to be hard but I’m confident that we’ll be able to get along. Michelle, Brigid and I have lived with host families in Georgia, where the culture’s very different and there’s no privacy, so we’re used to being in challenging situations. The training with the Marines will also be extremely tough, so we will learn to work together and help each other.”

During the journey they will communicate with the children in their classrooms in Georgia using a live video link.

Miss Weldon said: “It’s going to be a much more tangible experience for them because they know us. When we go back out there, we’ll be able to tell them all about it.”

Flood has devised a series of daily workouts to get Miss Weldon into shape, which she started in January.

To improve her flexibility, she attends 45-minute yoga and Pilates classes at Pure Stretch in Market Place three times a week. She also spends six hours a week at Urban Fitness in Greys Road car park, where she does cardiovascular and weight training exercises. Both venues have given her free membership.

The Stewards’ Trust, which is the charitable arm of the Henley Royal Regatta, paid for her training gear.Flood is teaching her the basics of rowing and has encouraged her to practise on rowing machines. The pair have not yet trained together on the Thames because the river is flowing too fast.

Miss Weldon said: “I’ve been very lucky to have the support of Leander Club, which is, of course, the best rowing club in the world. I’m also grateful to the Stewards’ Trust as I needed new kit — you can’t train with an Olympic athlete and have shoes with the soles falling off.

“It’s all gone really well so far, apart from having to battle a bit of a cold for a week. The programme I’m on is a massive confidence booster because someone like Debbie knows exactly what areas to work on.

“It’s also really useful to be taking guidance from someone who knows all about endurance and looking after your body in the long term.”

Flood said: “Sarah has been excellent and so far she’s doing everything right. She’s really motivated, keen and eager to challenge herself.”

The women’s £56,000 boat is being built by Essex adventurer Charlie Pitcher, who rowed the Atlantic in a record-breaking 54 days in 2010, with naval architect Phil Morrison. The 23ft vessel will be made from a lightweight carbon composite and named Mr Toad after the Wind in the Willows character.

The women need to raise £150,000 to pay for the trip, which they are raising through a series of sponsored events. On April 15, the Regal Picturehouse in Henley will show a documentary about the New Ocean Wave race and founder Chris Martin will be on hand to answer questions.

Miss Weldon is also appealing for donations from the public through sponsorship website Sponsume.

Any additional funds will go to disability charity First Step Georgia and the Thai Children’s Trust.

She also wants to inspire supporters to invest in Oceans Project Georgia. She is selling 300 partnerships at £3,250 each. Sponsors will be rewarded with a range of benefits, including dinner with the athletes at Leander Club.

In 2015, Miss Weldon hopes to raise more funds by trekking to the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility, the furthest spot in the Arctic from land. She will be accompanied by Polar explorer Hannah McKeand, who set a world record after skiing from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole in under 40 days.

For more information, visit or email

To sponsor the row, visit pacific-ocean-row-2014

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