Burnley woman's incredible solo Atlantic row world record bid

A former RAF squadron leader will have a world record in her sights when she takes on the incredible challenge of rowing solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Tuesday, 23rd November 2021, 2:15 pm
Emma Wolstenholme is hoping to become the fastest woman to row solo across the Atlantic in a pure class boat.

Burnley-born Emma Wolstenholme (39) is planning to leave the Canary Islands in a 20ft rowing boat at the end of January, arriving 3,000 nautical miles later in the Caribbean.

As well as attempting to break the current women's world record of 56 days, 13 hours and 9 minutes, the former St Hilda's RC High School pupil is hoping to raise £80,000 for the RAF Air Cadets charity.

Emma, who served across the Middle East and was the last woman aboard the last helicopter out of Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, in 2014, was recently made an honorary ambassador for the organisation, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year.

Earlier this month, Emma travelled to RAF Cranwell with her ocean rowing boat where was presented with her Cadet Forces Commission in the rank of Wing Commander, assuming the role of honorary ambassador.

"I believe my mental strength and self-belief stems from when I was an air cadet, actively embracing all the opportunities open to me," said Emma, who was a member of the 352 Burnley squadron.

"The team spirit often spurred me to literally push myself to the edge, once abseiling head-first over a cliff, continuing safely after slipping on the wet rock face, dangling upside-down but under the expert guidance of the instructors."

Emma believes this attitude will stand her in good stead and is confident she can deal with anything by remaining calm and following all the right drills, even when facing 15 metre waves in the middle of the Atlantic.

Not only will she be the first female military veteran, and first former air cadet, to attempt the record; she will be embarking on this phenomenal feat of endurance completely alone, with with no support crew alongside her at any point.

In order to make the challenge even more difficult, she will also be using a pure class boat, which is more streamlined for lower wind assistance when compared to a race class boat.

"This challenge has to be harder than my last, and I don’t want to do it the ‘easy’ way."

The race class world record for a woman stands at 49 days, 7 hours and 15 minutes – a time she has one eye on.

The former Nelson and Colne College pupil is certainly no stranger to the extreme. She has represented Great Britain in the Europa Cup at Skeleton Bobsleigh, and climbed two of the Seven Summits – Aconcagua (Argentina) and Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) – among many other adrenaline-soaked accomplishments.

This though will be her toughest challenge to date.

There will actually be times during the row where the nearest human to Emma will be on the International Space Station.

She will row for at least 14 hours a day, and will need to eat 4,500 calories per day. Even then, she is still likely to lose 13kg in weight.

"There's the physical training and then there's the mental," sad Emma, who aside from a short stint at university has no history of rowing. "I think the mental training has been happening my entire life. Everything from when I did the BT National Swimathon at the age of eight in the Thompson Centre –I was the youngest person in the country to do it – to serving in the RAF.

"It will be 55 days on my own, not seeing anybody else, probably not even seeing another boat. It's going to an interesting challenge. But I was in charge of the Survival School and one of the things we teach is how to deal with social isolation – if you're taken captive then you could potentially be completely alone, left in a room – so, how to deal with that, and how to occupy your mind.

"Physically, I'm in the gym every day. I start off with a weights session. Everybody thinks it's upper body strength, which you do need, but it's more about the legs. The boat has a sliding seat just as you would find in a gym. So it's mostly about pushing with your legs. Then I tend to finish with a bit of cardio for the endurance element. But you don't want to lose too much weight.

"Even eating 4,500 calories a day, I still expect to lose around two stone. What I will be eating is all freeze dried food, it's all been dehydrated. I have a water maker on the boat, which takes the salt out of the sea water, and cleans it. I then boil that in a jet boil and add it to the freeze dried food, which re-constitutes it and I eat that. It's a bit like space food."

There will be satellite communication on board in case anything was to go wrong, and a personal locator beacon will also be attached to Emma the whole time she is rowing.

Despite this, she's fully aware of the risks a crossling such as this poses – as is her family.

"They're behind me the whole way, but they're definitely worried for me. Even when you do sports like skeleton bobsleigh, hurtling down an ice track at 75mph, if you hurt yourself you can just go to the hospital. Whereas if something goes wrong out there, there isn't anybody around."

Emma is funding the whole challenge herself, so every penny raised will go to the Air Cadet Development Trust, supporting cadets and young volunteers who need it the most.

Anybody wishing to donate can do so here – https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/soloatlanticrow.

Commandant Air Cadets Air Commadore Anthony Keeling said: "I have known Emma for a long time and have always been inspired by her amazing spirit of adventure, but it is only recently that I became aware that this spirit was fostered during her time with 352 (Burnley) Squadron Air Training Corps.

"Emma’s solo and unassisted world record attempt is inspiring, the fact that she is using it as a platform to raise funds for the Air Cadet Development Trust is humbling, and it is heartening to know that so many air cadets and young volunteers will benefit directly from Emma’s amazing endeavour.

"Emma is the epitome of the air cadet motto ‘Venture Adventure’ and she will be a fantastic addition to our ambassador team. From everyone in the air cadet family, welcome aboard Emma and we wish you every success in your Atlantic roar!"