Antiguan women set to make rowing history in the Atlantic Ocean

Antiguan women set to make rowing history in the Atlantic Ocean

June 21, 2018

Kevinia Francis relishes a challenge.

At age 32, she took up cycling and became Antigua & Barbuda’s national time trial champion three years later in 2015.

The toughest test she has ever had to endure is yet to come.

Francis is preparing to embark on a mid-Atlantic experience that will test her physical and mental fortitude and endurance.

She is a member of Team Antigua Island Girls that’s set to make history in this year’s Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

It’s the first time that an all-Black team will attempt the world’s most demanding ocean row from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to English Harbour in Antigua. Depending on the trade winds, the voyage could take between 30 and 85 days.

The 3000-nautical mile race starts on December 12.

Francis said the team hopes to complete the challenge in 30 to 35 days.

“By far, this is going to be the toughest endeavour that any of us have been part of,” said the 40-year-old health and fitness trainer who was in Toronto recently to help her daughter transfer from the University of Western Ontario to Florida State University. “The preparation started over three months ago and we are working as a team to ensure we are ready.”

She’s the oldest member of the team comprising Christal Clashing who made history in 2004 as the first female swimmer to represent Antigua & Barbuda at the Olympics, swim instructor & certified health coach Elvira Bell, certified yacht captain Samara Emmanuel and high school student Junella King who, at age 17, is the youngest member.

 Samara Emmanuel (l), Christal Clashing, Junella King, Elvira Bell & Kevinia Francis

Samara Emmanuel (l), Christal Clashing, Junella King, Elvira Bell & Kevinia Francis

On May 9, they went on the first lengthy row from Antigua to St. Kitts.

King, who enjoys sailing, was unable to make the journey because of exams.

The quartet completed the 60-mile voyage in 14 hours, impressing coach Eli Fuller who estimated they would take about 20 hours.

“The longest period should be 26 hours and the shortest between 15 to 16,” said Fuller, a third generation Antiguan whose grandfather built the island’s first hotel, Lord Nelson Beach, which opened in 1950. “They did it in almost world record pace. If they can row like that across the Atlantic for 30 days, then it will be mission accomplished.”

The training run to St. Kitts provided a gauge as to how the team will fare in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in a 23ft. by 5ft. vessel buffeted by high waves.

“I and three other rowers got seasick, but the highlight for me was the bio-luminescent sea creatures that glided by as we rowed to our destination,” noted Francis who has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Florida International University. “…The inaugural row confirmed what we already knew about ourselves and that is we are in this just not to participate, but to be highly competitive. Each of us wants to do this and do it well to make Antigua & Barbuda proud.”

For Francis and her teammates, it’s the first time that they are rowing.

One of them will be an alternate in the four-team event.

“I was approached by Scott Potter (he was a member of the Antiguan men’s team that finished second in the 2017 event in 30 days, two hours & 12 minutes),” Francis said. “I love challenges, I love adventure and I am a regular hiker. My only concern was my lack of rowing experience and navigating the wide open ocean. I really don’t consider myself a strong swimmer.”

As part of their training regimen, they spend three days in the gym doing strength and core conditioning.

“I have done half marathons and cycling which, for me, was the most challenging exercise I have ever been part of,” said Francis who is also a bar manager at Island B-Hive Party Stand. “It’s the mental aspect that, I think, could be really difficult.”

Confined in their small boat for just over a month, the crew will alternate with two members rowing for two hours in the non-stop event while the others are resting in the two cabins. They will have access to a satellite connection that will enable them to send videos charting their progress in their vessel stocked with desalinated drinking water and freeze-dried food that cost nearly US$8,000.

There are no restrooms on board which means the crew will use a bucket.

“That’s something we are going to have to get used to, but I don’t think it will be a problem,” said Francis who was Antigua & Barbuda’s first Black Belt instructor. “We will figure out how to utilise that system.”

The Antigua to St. Kitts row last month provided the females with their first opportunity to use the bucket which they nicknamed ‘Jane’.

The team has to come up with US$150,000 to enter the race. 

The boat has to be shipped from Antigua by September 1 with all of the supplies, including life jackets, a raft, foul weather gear and a set of new oars.

The eighth of nine children, Francis started participating in sports activities at a young age.

Introduced to martial arts at age five by an older brother, she reached the Black Belt level before leaving for the United States to pursue post-secondary studies. She also played basketball and volleyball and competed in track & field while in high school.

Returning home in 2010 after completing her Master’s of Science in physical therapy, Francis started teaching when she learnt of a call for female cyclists.

“Why not?” was her reaction. “How difficult it can be to ride a bike?”

Francis soon found out that cycling is hard and gruelling.

“It’s one of the most difficult and time consuming things I have been involved in,” she said.

Success came rapidly for the cycling neophyte.

In the opening race of the 2013 season, Francis finished second in an eight-mile race in 24:57. The following year, she won an 18-mile event in 53:47 and the national road race in 1:58.17.

Fuller anticipates the team will log about 300 miles before the race starts, which is way above the 72 required miles.

This will be the third Antiguan & Barbudan team to take part in the race.

Team Wadadali and Team Antigua Atlantic Rowers men competed in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

During the historic row, the women’s team will raise money for Cottage of Hope which is a dormitory established nine years ago for abused, neglected and orphaned girls.

The men’s team raised almost US$150,000 in the 2017-18 event for two environmental projects.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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