Crossing the great blue gauntlet of the Atlantic Ocean by sail is a bucket list challenge and triumph for many. But for Nini Champion and Lisa Roland, this feat is a been-there, done-that not once, but several times. In fact, the 30- and 31-year-old professional sailors together have 60,000 nautical miles under their belts. Now, they are ready to challenge themselves in a new way. In December, Champion and Roland as Team Ocean Grown will be one of 13 pairs teams to depart from La Gomera, in the Canary Islands, in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, rowing their way 3000 miles transatlantic to Nelson’s Dockyard, in Antigua. The duo is not the first. The four-women Team Antigua Island Girls became the first all-female Caribbean team to complete this epic row in 2019. Four-men teams before them, Team Antigua in 2018 and Team Wadadli in 2015, completed the challenge too. But for 2023, the next line in the sand is a two-woman Caribbean-based team.
“We have both been so privileged to spend time working and living in Antigua, the iconic sailing destination which also serves as the finish line for the race. Each year, the community welcomes the rowers as they complete this incredible challenge, and for both of us, a seed was planted. As sailors, crossing an ocean by the power of wind is such a remarkable feat. The thought of crossing by your own strength, while intimidating and terrifying, is an exceptional new challenge. We each have our reasons for deciding to come together, but the strength to rise to such a challenge, the perseverance required to get to the start line, and the cooperation, determination, and raw endurance required to row an ocean was intoxicating. It was over a dinner with friends in February 2019 where we first discussed our mutual desire to race, and in November of 2020, Team Ocean Grown was born,” explains Champion.
A Wealth of On the Water Experience
Champion, a professional rigger, and Roland, a licensed captain, have nearly life-long personal and professional experience on the sea.
Champion grew up in Annapolis, MD, and did deliveries from here to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, as well as her first transatlantic from Annapolis to Portugal by way of Bermuda and the Azores, with her family. For the last five years, she has worked as a professional sailor in positions such as a first mate, a rigging technician, and last summer as a rotational captain in Denmark. Earlier this year, Champion crewed aboard Antigua’s Bernie Wong’s RP 37, Taz, in the RORC 600.
Canadian-born Roland grew up sailing dinghies such as Sunfish, Optis and Lasers. She started her career at 19, working on the 75-foot wooden ketch, Mar II, as a day sailor out of Halifax. In her career, Roland has worked on tall ships, sport fishing vessels, and sailing yachts. She served as a successful captain for Dream Yacht Charters in locations across the globe. This led to jobs on private, internationally run yachts, including a transatlantic voyage from Antigua to Palma six years ago. Then, she was recruited back as a base manager for Dream Yacht at its St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands location. Roland also does a substantial amount of work in the superyacht industry on topics of diversity and inclusion. She’s delivered keynote addresses to industry leaders on the topic.
Teams in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge row transatlantic in a self-contained, self-sufficient rowboat. The Rannoch Adventure R25 is a two-person design with two rowing positions and two berths in its 24-foot of length and 5.5-foot beam. Teams row two hours on, two hours off, 24 hours a day from start to finish. Last year, a British duo set the record for two-women teams at 45 days, 7 hours and 25 minutes. Champion and Roland have based their vessel in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, where they are training. Preparing for the challenge has also included seeking out tips from other successful women rowers.
“One of the most valuable tips we’ve received was from the woman last year who set the fastest solo record to date for this race. She told us to be sure to eat. We’ll be provisioned with freeze-dried snack meals, but she warned us there is a huge temptation at the end of a two-hour shift to just curl up and sleep rather than trying to heat up and eat a meal in the rolling swell. But it’s important to stay fueled and hydrated,” says Champion.
On average, rowers lose 25 pounds during the 1.5 million oar strokes it takes to cross the Atlantic.
The Give Back
Beyond the incredible challenge and self-building aspect of the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, teams are encouraged to choose and raise funds for a cause important to them. For Champion and Roland, this is their Bridges over Water grant fund. The fund will finance young adults who have aged out of the foster care system to gain entry to and pursue careers in the maritime industry. It’s a topic near and dear to Roland’s heart, having experienced the challenges of the foster care system firsthand.
“We wanted to use our row to create an initiative to further the opportunities of these at-risk youths,” says Roland, about helping the next generation by removing the financial barriers to enter, receive mentorship and job placement, and make successful careers for themselves in the marine sector.
The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge will depart on December 12, 2023. Champion and Roland, Team Ocean Grown, will be among a total of some 30 teams with members representing countries from around the world. Each team has a Yellow Brick tracker so it’s possible to watch their progress towards Antigua from the event website: www.worldstoughestrow.com To learn more about Team Ocean Grown, visit www.oceangrown.co