Natalia Cohen was part of the all-female ‘Coxless Crew’ who became the first British women to row the Pacific when they landed in Australia in 2016. Her talk for TedxWandsworth, entitled ‘Lessons from 257 days at sea in a rowboat’ has since been viewed nearly 4,000 times. Here, she explains how she prepared, the importance of positivity and why we should all share our stories.
How did you get involved in rowing the Pacific?
I was keen to challenge myself more than I had ever done before. I have always loved the ocean and knew that the journey would be a catalyst to help me better understand the human spirit. I believe that the strength of human spirit is an incredibly powerful force, and that we all have it within us.
I had just finished a contract managing a safari lodge in Tanzania when the expedition was presented. It sounded like the perfect way to explore the mind. Having never rowed before, I knew I would be outside of my comfort zone and that it would be a steep learning curve.
We were rowing to raise money for Breast Cancer Care and Walking With The Wounded and it seemed like an incredible opportunity to support women who were overcoming adversity, and I hoped to inspire others to deal with their own personal challenges.
For me, that is what life is all about: extraordinary experiences, connections and making a difference.
What is your background?
I started out in the music industry and then moved into the travel industry as an adventure tour leader.
I did that for over 15 years, leading tours, setting up new destinations and volunteer projects and managing safari lodges. Learning about different cultures and exploring the world are a huge part of what drives me.
What challenges did you face in the lead up to the row?
Getting to the start line was almost as challenging as the row itself. We had to deal with the sponsorship, PR, media, marketing, logistics, legal, admin and do all the physical and practical training whilst holding down full time jobs!
Dealing with feelings of being overwhelmed and managing our time effectively were tough, as well as the practicalities of getting funding and getting ourselves as prepared as we possibly could.
And once you started?
Our first major challenge came after just 10 days. A flood caused a fire (luckily contained to a small compartment) that meant we lost the use of our batteries. We actually had to turn around and row back to land.
The next challenge was to fight the gremlins in our mind when we realised that the trip would take us much longer than we expected. For nine months, we dealt with exhaustion, extreme heat, monotony, confined spaces, sea sickness, sleep deprivation, salt sores, pressure wounds, unpredictable conditions and having nowhere to run or hide!
What was your most memorable moment?
There were many. Every time I felt a powerful connection to my team, to the mighty Pacific Ocean and to my inner world.
We encountered breaching humpback whales meters from the boat. We had sharks follow us. The turtles, dolphins, birds and fish were remarkable. The 360-degree view of ocean and sky, sunsets, sunrises and ever changing sea states were mesmerizing.
But the moments I remember most always involved laughter. As a team, we supported each other amazingly and laughed our way through all the discomfort, challenge and frustration.
Why is it important that individuals push themselves to achieve great feats like this?
I think it’s important to be bold, to challenge yourself and to learn from every experience in life. For me, that is where we grow the most and real personal breakthroughs happen. You develop mental resilience so you become stronger and better able to deal with the next challenge – and there will always be more challenges!
You will also learn to empathise and will be much better placed to support others around you.
How has the experience changed you?
I now love the colour pink! I never used to like it, but as all our branding was pink, I grew used to it and now find myself attracted to it.
More seriously, I learnt so much about understanding your strengths, the power of the mind, the importance of perseverance and of supporting your team.
I learnt that you can choose how you want to feel and should always look for the positive. It’s OK to be your authentic self and it’s also OK to be vulnerable. I now have first-hand proof of how wonderfully adaptable human beings are. With self-belief, focus and dedication, we can truly do anything.
What drew you to talk at TEDxWandsworth?
I wanted to share my story and insights, and be a living example that we can do anything we set our minds to. The TEDx platform seemed like the perfect way to do this. I spent my time preparing for our Pacific row in London, so I wanted to do my TEDx talk there, too.
Why is it important that we share our stories?
Everyone has a story to tell. We are all wonderfully unique. We can learn from each other and connect more deeply through sharing our stories. We develop more understanding and compassion. You never know how your life may shift from the simple act of hearing or sharing one powerful story or idea.
What does 2017 hold for you?
This year I am developing my speaking career and mindset coaching practice further. I will be doing talks and workshops internationally and our documentary will be premiering in Spring! Five of our Coxless Crew team have entered a 10km open water swim in June, so that will be my next focus – especially considering that I haven’t really swum for about three years!
Watch Natalia Cohen’s talk – Lessons from 257 days at sea in a rowboat
Interview by Rosy Edwards