An oarsome adventure: the woman rowing the Pacific for her 60th birthday

Elaine Theaker only took up rowing in her 40s – and went on to break a world record rowing the Atlantic with an all-female crew.

In 2018 Elaine Theaker was part of the oldest team of women to row the Atlantic.  

Despite enduring the worst weather conditions in 20 years and vowing never to do anything like it again, Theaker, from South Wales, will be rowing across the Pacific on her 60th birthday.  

A woman in front of waterCredit: Elaine Theaker
Elaine Theaker is taking on a Pacific challenge this year.

Theaker, a retired solicitor, never thought she would end up in the Guinness Book of Records.  

“I hated sports at school,” she laughs. “All I wanted to do was sit on the sofa and watch TV.”  

Theaker focused on her career running her own legal practice, became a mother at the age of 40 and had no desire to take part in any adventures.  

“But sometimes something happens in life which makes you completely change course,” she says. “When my son started school in Monmouth, I would drive him there and see members of the rowing club out practising on the river. I really fancied having a go. It wasn’t about getting fit, it was about being out on the water.  

“Then I spotted an advert for a rowing course at my local leisure centre, and I signed up. It was only a six-week course, and I thought it would be a great way of finding out whether it was something I wanted to do.”  


How to start rowing

Theaker says anyone thinking about trying rowing should contact their local club. You can find them through British Rowing. 

She says: “They can give you all the information you need on any courses they are running that will teach you how to row.  Then take a deep breath, sign up and go and have some fun on the water.”  

Theaker completed the course and then joined the rowing club. As she got fitter, she started entering competitions.  

She says: “I won a few of them and really enjoyed myself. Then I was watching television one night and there was an item about a group of middle-aged women who were rowing the Atlantic.  

“I looked at them and I could identify with them. They were like me, and I thought ‘I could do that’.  

“Perhaps it was a midlife crisis, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it.”  

A woman on a cross-Atlantic rowing boatCredit: Elaine Theaker
Theaker was determined to make he dream of rowing the Atlantic a reality

So Theaker went to meet the women. With their encouragement, she became even more determined.  

“None of my local rowing friends were keen to take on the challenge,” she said. “But that didn’t put me off, so I started searching and finally teamed up with two women from Shropshire.”  

In Autumn 2016 the trio, Theaker, Di Carrington and Sharon Magrath put down a deposit on a boat they christened Poppy and started fundraising and looking for sponsors.  

Theaker says: “When I first told people what I wanted to do they laughed. I’d never done anything like this in my life!  

“Even when we got the team together, they still didn’t think it was going to happen. But when the  boat arrived suddenly people started to take notice – it’s also when they told me how dangerous it could be.”  

Rowing the Atlantic

The three women set out on The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge in December 2017.  

Participants cross 3,000 miles of ocean from La Gomera in the Canary Islands, to Antigua in the Caribbean. The journey could take anything from 30 to more than 90 days. 

The conditions the women faced were the worst in the history of the challenge.  

“The whole crossing was tough, with winds of up to 40 knots (a force nine gale),” says Theaker. 

“We shared out the rowing and chores, so would spend about five hours on the oars, then share other chores, so Di was our skipper and took charge of navigation, Sharon took charge of the food, and I did the boat maintenance. As the days went on, we fitted into a daily rhythm. 

“Then on the 59th and penultimate day and with land nearly in sight, we were rowing through awful conditions. That’s when I saw it. A wave the height of a three-storey building. It was like a wall of water bearing down on us.”  

Three women setting out to row the AtlanticCredit: Elaine Theaker
The crew leaving La Gomera for their cross-Atlantic challenge

Theaker and another crew member were thrown out of the boat and only saved by their safety harnesses. They clambered back in, but the boat was hit by another wave, and they were thrown out again.  

She says: “The water had thrown us about like we were in a washing machine. We were all alive, but the second time we were thrown out I was injured, and we had a damaged boat.  

“We retreated to the cabin, and made an emergency call on our satellite phone. Rescue teams told us we were drifting way off course, but due to the storm they couldn’t reach us. We had no option but to get back on the oars.  

“We dug deeper than we’ve ever dug before. We were rowing for our lives to get through that storm. We rowed for eight hours straight with just adrenaline keeping us going. I can’t describe the relief we all felt when we saw land.”  

Theaker’s husband Steve and son Che were waiting for her in Antigua, but at the end of the epic challenge she could barely walk, and X-rays revealed she had damaged her pelvis.  

A boat at night lit up by flaresCredit: Elaine Theaker
Arriving at the finish line after battling through the storm

Three world records

Yet despite the high drama she says there were incredible moments.  

“We rowed next to pods of dolphins, saw whales, turtles and flying fish. The sunsets took our breath away and at night we saw meteor showers and shooting stars.” 

Theaker and her two teammates broke three world records, becoming the oldest women’s crew and first all-female threesome to achieve the feat. Team member Dianne Carrington, then 62, won the record for being the oldest woman to complete the challenge.  

Theaker says: “It was the toughest thing I’d ever done, and I’d lost 14 kilos (31lbs) in weight.  We had all suffered from nausea and sea sickness and had found it hard to eat – snacking rather than eating the dehydrated food we should have done. We ate far fewer calories than we needed and lost a total of 45 kilos in bodyweight between the three of us. 

“When I got home, I told everyone, even my local newspaper, that I would never do anything like it again.”  

Theaker ran her own law firm at the time, so she went straight back to work with little time to adjust or take on board the enormity of what she had achieved.  

Three women with a banner saying they rowed the AtlanticCredit: Elaine Theaker
The three team mates celebrating their Atlantic crossing

Fast forward five years and despite promising ‘never again’, Theaker is now gearing up for an even bigger challenge: in June she’ll be setting out with a new team to row 2,800 miles across the Pacific.  

She says her change of heart was all because of lockdown.  

“I had cabin fever, so I messaged my friend Andy, another rower, and asked him if he fancied doing a challenge,” she says. “I wasn’t sure if he would take me seriously, but he did. After that it gained momentum and suddenly it started happening.”  

She will be joined by crew members Andy Warner, Alison Wannell, Neil Blackeby and Huw Carden.  

“Four of the five team members are over 50 and the youngest is 44,’” says Theaker.  

“Between us we all have skills and experience. We’re already friends and I am looking forward to sharing this challenge with them.”  

Five crew mates standing on shore in front of the waterCredit: Elaine Theaker
Theaker and her crew mates are excited about the Pacific challenge

The boat Flyinfish is still sitting on Theaker’s driveway but she’s busy training, spending time on the rowing machine and increasing her weight training and core body training to ensure she is as strong as possible to cope with the unpredictability of the ocean.  

“It’s all getting very real,” says Theaker. “We’ve been talking about it and planning it for long enough and now it’s about to happen. We fly out to Monterey, California on May 31st, and I will be celebrating my 60th birthday a few days after we start the Pacific Challenge in June. The average time to complete the journey is 62 days, but the longest it’s taken someone is 142! 

“This race will be different to the Atlantic, as the weather will be colder to start with and the sea conditions will be tough for the first couple of weeks.  This is because of the prevailing northerly winds, which will be trying to push us in the wrong direction, and there is an underwater shelf off the California coast – which means the waves will be steep and scary.   

“We should start to experience better conditions as we approach Hawaii, and it will be roasting hot during the latter part of the race. We have to prepare for all conditions and all weathers. 

“Rowing the Atlantic was tough enough, but now I’m five years older and this is an even bigger challenge. Bring it on!”  

A woman rowing across the Atlantic in the heatCredit: Elaine Theaker
Theaker during her Atlantic challenge

Keep pushing your limits

Theaker says it is never too late to follow your dreams. 

She says: “I was always the one who was picked last for the school netball team. I was never interested in sport and I’m still not. My message to other women is not to let yourself be defined by who you were when you were younger. We all change as we age, we worry less about what other people think and we realise that we have less time left. So if we have a dream then we can’t keep waiting for tomorrow.  

“A big challenge can take the form of many different things.  What is a big challenge to one person might be a walk in the park for the next. And talking of parks, if someone asked me to do a Parkrun, that would feel like a huge challenge for me, as I don’t think I can run more than 2km without stopping.   

“So, I think it’s all about pushing your personal limits – wherever those limits might be.”  

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her


Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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