How four women set the world rowing record across the Pacific Ocean

This week, after traveling from San Francisco to Honolulu, four women have worked their way to a new world record.

Libby Costello, Sophia Denison-Johnston, Brooke Downes and Adrienne Smith began their 2,400-mile Pacific crossing in June. After 34 days, 14 hours and 11 minutes, the Lat35 team arrived on Tuesday in the largest city in Hawaii.

All four women are associated with California. Costello and Denison-Johnston are former UCLA robbers, Downes is a former USC robber, and Smith runs a yoga studio in Santa Barbara.

To get to the finish line, the women rowed in pairs for two hours and slept for 90 minutes. They made sure the boat was always in motion, day and night, and documented the journey on social media, where they could be seen singing and laughing together amidst the waves.

But they’ve also endured their share of extreme weather, exhaustion, seasickness and salt sores – and none of the women have ever rowed in the deep ocean.

“When you think about what they did, your brain breaks,” said Previn Chandraratna, who coached Costello and Denison-Johnston at UCLA. “It’s like running a marathon every day for a month. But no wonder, knowing who they are.”

Denison-Johnston was the first crew member to hear about the Great Pacific Rush in February 2021. For several weeks, the Olympic champion could not get this idea out of her mind. When she reported this to Costello, her former UCLA teammate immediately picked her up.

In college, according to Chandraratna, both women were full of courage.

“They were swimming upstream in terms of physical size in the Division 1 rowing program,” he said. “They had to work twice as hard to reach the level they were working at.”

Downes, another Olympic contender, sniffed out the project from Costello. They rowed together in high school. In May, Downs officially signed and moved from New Jersey to Santa Barbara for training.

Smith, a former Ironman triathlete, with other women through her husband Jason Smith, who served as the team’s strength and conditioning coach. In November, she made her first strokes on the water with the team.

Together the women made up the first Lat35 women’s team. On board, each of them had their own specialty. Denison-Johnston was the skipper and medic, Costello was the technician, Downes handled navigation and catering, and Smith handled logistics.

Preparations for the trip included intensive training on land and on water. The women rowed on the indoor rower three to four times a week, lifted weights twice a week, and trained in between for a total of 10 to 20 hours a week. They also took part in life saving exercises such as tying knots in icy water. The goal was to make their bodies last as long as possible before they gave up.

To bond as a team, the women went through communication exercises and took personality quizzes to understand how everyone works. They established the language that each of them would use when asking for or giving support to each other.

“It was a really healthy environment right from the start and we were determined to elevate each other’s greatness throughout,” Costello said. “All interactions were guided by love, empathy and understanding.”

Although the Lat35 team consisted of experienced athletes, the women had little to no ocean crossing experience. And then Duncan Roy, a professional ocean rowing coach, came to the rescue.

“Ocean rowing is not just rowing,” Roy said. “You have to know the weather systems, how to operate the boat, how to optimize it and how to stay safe.”

Roy’s main goal was to teach women how to train in a coastal environment so they could feel comfortable on their boat, called the American Spirit.

When race day arrived, the team loaded their vessel with a million-calorie dehydrated food and set off for the Pacific Ocean. There was enough food for 60 days, providing each person with 5,000 daily calories. The prepackaged meals included freeze-dried alfredo fettuccine and lasagna, which Smith said were bearable, but every woman came to cherish her snack bags filled with items like Pop-Tarts, Oreos and Peanut M&M’s.

The women were strapped to the boat with seat belts, the race directors monitored their safety around the clock, and the crew contacted the weather router regularly, but otherwise they received no assistance.

“They were so positive all the time,” Roy said. “It was more of an opportunity than a challenge. It was so obvious how good their team dynamics were.”

The women rowed an average of 70 miles every day, slept in small cabins at the stern and bow, jumped into the water to scrape shells from the boat, wiped salt off their bodies with wet wipes, and went to the bathroom in a bucket. During one stage of the journey they were accompanied by a whale.

While paddling, the women sang songs to the ocean breeze, listened to audiobooks and told each other life stories while keeping their heart rate between 90 and 100 beats per minute.

There was satellite and wifi on the boat, but the reception was rarely good. Each crew member connected to the Internet for only a few minutes each day. Sometimes during their morning meetings, they would read the comments left by fans on their social media accounts and cry together.

“When you’re doing a physically demanding task, there are times when you ask yourself, ‘What are we doing?'” Smith said. “But being in the company of girls allowed me to continue. At times we just started laughing, just scratching our heads over the fun of it all.”

When they arrived in Honolulu, the Lat35 team was joined by an enthusiastic crowd of friends, family and fans. The four beat the previous women’s world record, set last year, by one day and 12 hours. The current men’s world record for the Great Pacific Race is 30 days, 7 hours and 30 minutes.

According to Costello, the last three miles were the most emotional part of the journey. In their last hour together, they all sat on deck, some rowing, some navigating, and discussed their findings and highlights from the experience.

“We kind of realized that this was the last time we were going to be just the four of us, maybe someday, at least definitely in the near future,” Costello said.

Watching the live broadcast from the UK, Roy held back tears.

“I was speechless. I had goosebumps,” he said. “Even thinking about it now causes so many emotions. I’m just so proud of them. They crushed him.”

According to Smith, women were not going to become world record holders.

“When we finished, it wasn’t the emotional part,” she said. “It’s all about completing the journey and being stronger together at the end than at the beginning.”