Girl rows across the atlantic route, Jasmine Harrison Sargassum Boat interior design

Joining a new generation of extreme endurance athletes, she rowed through the Atlantic

Jasmine Harrison, 21, became the youngest woman to row an ocean after 70 days, 3 hours and 48 minutes. To try the feat, she is among a diverse set of endurance athletes.

Jasmine Harrison, a swim instructor and bartender, had been at sea alone for nearly 50 days by mid-January. She had rowed 1,600 kilometers across the poorly temperate Atlantic Ocean and was just halfway there.

Harrison, 21, of North East England, will become the youngest woman to row an ocean if she could push forward a day at a time (or some 60 miles), defeating an American, Katie Spotz, who had held the title since 2010.

After 70 days and 3 hours and 48 minutes, about 10 a.m. on the southern coast of the Caribbean island of Antigua, she rounded the bend to English Harbour. Saturday morning local time. There were few boats there this year to welcome her after two months of paddling, 12 hours a day, due to coronavirus restrictions.

Her reward for completing the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, the most prestigious challenge for ocean rowing? A vinyl banner that read "New World Record." ($6,000 Bremont watches were given to the winners.)

In recent years, the enigmatic endurance sport has gained momentum, and Harrison has joined a rising number of rowers from varying backgrounds and skill levels who have attempted the extreme feat.

A new world record for the youngest female solo rower to row any ocean was set by Jasmine Harrison, 21,
A new world record for the youngest female solo rower to row any ocean was set by Jasmine Harrison, 21,

There have been approximately 900 attempts to row an ocean since a pair of Norwegians successfully rowed from Manhattan to France in 1896. Just two-thirds were successful. To put that in context, in 2019 alone, 955 individuals attempted to summit Mount Everest.

For the faint of heart, it isn't a sport. The 550-pound Harrison boat was knocked down by rogue waves twice, sending her into the sea. She injured an elbow the second time. She had horrific close calls, including almost colliding at four in the morning with a drilling vessel. Her family and her pets and cold drinking water missed her. She missed music as well. Her speaker, who repeated the "Fight Song" of the English rock band the Wombats and Rachel Platten, had fallen into the sea.

Every December, from the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa, to Antigua and Barbuda, the Atlantic Challenge sends rowers, from single rowers to teams of two to fives, through 3,000 miles of ocean.

A specific style of determination is needed by paddling some 20,000 strokes a day.

"It's not a rational or reasonable thing to do," said the English rower, Roz Savage, who became the first female solo athlete to start and finish the race in 2006. "What comes from the heart is something, not from the head."

Savage sits atop the most elite subset of ocean rowing: female single-handers, or solo rowers. An ocean was successfully rowed by less than 200 women, and only 18 made it across the Atlantic solo. Savage is the only one to cross three, the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian, successfully.

Savage, like Harrison, when she joined the event, had no knowledge of rowing.

After heading to the Caribbean to teach swimming and volunteer with the Hurricane Maria relief efforts, Harrison just happened to be in Antigua in 2018. She was at the Nelson Dockyard pub, where the race was over, and had a conversation with a relative of an Atlantic Challenge rower about to end. "It took me just to hear about the race," she said.

Women were some of the first ocean rowers, but the sport remains predominantly male. "Tori Murden McClure, who became the first American woman to row the Atlantic solo in 1999, said, "When I began, women in exploration were a little frowned on. "I definitely experienced a lot of sexist stuff."

Prior to the arrival of Atlantic Campaigns, which took over the challenge management in 2013, the organizers of the race had cultivated rowers who "tended to be white, British and male," said the head of security of the challenge, Ian Couch, who rowed both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. "It was kind of like a club, a very, very closed shop."

The paradigm is changing now. Four women entered the event in 2016; there were 20 this year, almost half of the roster for the event. The contingent of 24 women next year will be the highest the race has had.

Atlantic Campaigns has pushed beyond its British origins to widen the race, which has been key to the increasing inclusivity of the sport. But it mattered most to see women like Savage and McClure shatter the picture of the typical explorer. "There was a period not long ago when it was considered crazy to do an Ironman," McClure said. "What we think of as possible is what changes."

The Atlantic Challenge is also beginning to depict, although slowly, the ethnic diversity you would expect from a race organization with a workforce of 21 representing 10 nationalities, and an endurance event straddling an eighth of the world.

The Antiguans Christal Clashing, Kevinia Francis, Elvira Bell and Samara Emmanuel were the first male or female black team to finish the race in the 2019 event. Seven Black athletes, including the Antiguan women, have been in the Atlantic Challenge to date.

"Being able to make such a journey enabled us to write our own story, to take control of the narrative that Black people are not swimming, they are not doing these kinds of activities," said Clashing. "We were finally able to say, 'Yes, there was a cultural trauma going on for us across the Atlantic Ocean, but we are no longer allowing that to dictate what we are doing.'"

Harrison during the sprint on the water.
Harrison during the sprint on the water.

The race this year featured, among others, competitors from Spain and South Africa, Antigua and Uruguay, the U.S. and Britain. The race, one of the most socially remote in the world, was able to step forward at a time when many sporting activities were dramatically altered or put on hold.

The weather stayed calm as Harrison entered her final weeks of the trip, and the surface of the water shook out into "the brightest turquoise you've ever seen," she said on Feb. 12 via satellite phone. For hours, a pod of dolphins from Risso pursued her. Beside her, a blue whale rolled, the white, molar-like edge of her flipper almost high-fiving her oar.

Another 60 miles is peeling away each day. Even a passage that spread to the horizon through a dense raft of sargassum, a definitive indication that she had reached the outer edge of the Caribbean, did not slow her down.

Harrison unclipped from her safety line fifteen minutes after entering English Harbour on Saturday morning and took her first steps in 10 weeks on land. She wobbled, shocked briefly by both the firm ground and other people's sudden appearance. There was Sofa and another safety officer to hold her up.

The feeling was recognized by Couch and those who would soon follow. "Rowing an ocean is an experience that is brutally honest," he said. "When you step off the boat, when you lie back in your bed that first night, you know who you are with absolute honesty."

However, for now, Harrison was focused on a cold drink and a burger and fries, her first meal.

It was only after that that she started considering the future. "I can row again," she said on Saturday night. But, really, I would like to give other people the chance, to encourage them to do it. I'm so excited to see what the rest of my life will be right now.