Losing Sight of the Shore: Natalia Cohen on crossing your own Pacific
Natalia Cohen was part of the first all-female team to row unsupported across the Pacific Ocean. With no rowing experience prior to applying, Natalia shows how, with a positive mindset, a determined aligned team, and a sense of humour, you can cross your own personal Pacific. Together the crew completed this challenge in January 2016 setting two world records and gaining an international following. This was a journey of just under 9,000 miles from San Francisco, USA to Cairns, Australia in a 29ft ocean rowing boat. The team rowed in 2-hour shifts, 24 hours a day and the whole journey took a staggering 9 months. No stranger to embracing change and living in the moment, Natalia’s journey and life to date couldn’t be a truer example of this mantra. We caught up with her to find out about the lessons learned from her adventure and the recent documentary made about the team’s quest.
You were part of the first all-female team to row unsupported across the Pacific Ocean, can you explain to us what this experience was like?
I want to say that this was an experience unlike any other, and in many ways, it was. However, I truly believe that everything I had done in my life up until the point that I stepped foot on the boat had prepared me for this journey.
It was 9 months of every conceivable emotion - from indescribable peace and inexplicable happiness to sheer frustration. I developed the familiarity of what I can only imagine to be similar to a marriage with my team-mates on that tiny 29ft home. With nowhere to run or hide, we embraced the unknown in the most extreme way possible, whilst navigating the world’s largest Ocean. I experienced space, freedom, and connectedness like never before with fellow humans, the environment and with my inner world, yet literally and physically spent time in the most confined parameters I have ever known.
The simplicity of our world out there made me question the reality of our ‘normal’ existence and interestingly, I have never endured such uncomfortable and often painful conditions or laughed so freely, openly and often in my life. I saw beauty for which there are no words and learnt the lessons of change, perseverance, and spirit from, what I believe to be, the best teacher – Mother Nature. The experience reminded me to be filled with love and compassion for the people around me, to respect the world we live in, to be grateful for what we have, and to enjoy the little things in life. Although it’s good to have an end to journey toward, it is always the journey that matters in the end.
"With nowhere to run or hide, we embraced the unknown in the most extreme way possible."
There is a documentary being made about this adventure, how did it go from being your dream to being put on screen? Can you talk us through the process?
Losing Sight of Shore is the name of our documentary and the title is taken from a saying that has always resonated strongly with me. “You can never cross an ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore”. It’s all about being outside of your comfort zone and having the determination to keep on going, to persevere, until you eventually spot land again! That’s one element of what our adventure was about, but as a team and as individuals, we all had very different journeys to take and stories to tell.
Documenting the journey allowed us to capture various elements of the expedition. Each leg was unique; there was a change in team dynamic, an incredible environment and lots of raw emotion. I was responsible for the filming that happened on the boat, I coordinated and collated all the footage out on the ocean. It was interesting deciding whether to hug one of the girls in a moment of distress first or to try and capture it on film!!
We did our best to capture as much as we could on the Pacific for Sarah Moshman (our incredible documentary director/producer) while she interviewed us on land. She was a true inspiration to work with and we couldn’t have chosen anyone better to share our story!
It's obviously challenging to put 9 months into 90 minutes, but Losing Sight of Shore manages to capture the essence of our lives out there in the middle of the Pacific simply yet beautifully. The documentary was released globally in Spring 2017.
“You can never cross an ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
What were the biggest challenges you faced out at sea?
We faced exhaustion, sea sickness, sleep deprivation, confined spaces, salt and pressure wounds, monotony and had to fight to stay awake and alert at night times when there sometimes there was no moon or stars and only a thick, black darkness.
Our first major challenge came after just 10 ten days into the journey when rough seas and excessive movement of the boat caused a flood in one of our hatches that, in turn, caused a contained fire in the compartment where our charge controllers where kept. This meant that we lost the use of one of our batteries and eventually decided that we had to return to shore. You can imagine the utter devastation that we felt after only just beginning the journey to have to admit defeat and turn back. This setback, however, turned out to be a good thing and like most experiences, it’s how you move on and pick yourself up when you fall that holds the learning in life.
Generally speaking, the most challenging part of the journey was the sheer length of time that we were out at sea for. Due to the effects of El Nino we spent a lot of time fighting adverse currents and we had no help from expected trade winds. We spent time literally stuck in the doldrums (I now fully understand that expression!) and spent days moving backwards or moving painfully slowly. This led to the team feeling a lot of frustration and really having to dig deep to look for the positives.
However, the beauty of our team was that by working together and supporting each other as best as we could, we managed to keep pushing on through all the challenges that the ocean threw our way. Stroke by stroke, we eventually made it to Australia.
What key lessons do you hope people will take away from your journey and the subsequent documentary?
The beautiful and intriguing part of my oceanic journey is that there are countless messages and insights that were highlighted. Some of the standout points for me on a personal level, however, are linked to the mind and to the strength of a team. There are so many elements to our lives that are out of our control, but the one thing we can always control is our reaction to situations.
"We managed to keep pushing on through all the challenges that the ocean threw our way."
We navigate the world using our own personal maps that have been created by our past conditioning and experiences. Our minds are an incredibly powerful tool, whatever you set your mind to you can achieve. It's about developing that mental resilience and being mindful of your thoughts and behaviours. It really is ALL in the mind! Only once you know yourself well and have developed that mental resilience can you be better placed to then support others. There is great power that comes from having a diverse and supportive team.
Whenever you’re beginning a new challenge in life or doing something new or different, you just have to believe in yourself and how adaptable we are physically and mentally, overcome your fear and take that leap of faith. Once you have the idea - action it! Ensure you have a great support network around you and if the challenge seems overwhelming then break it down into manageable sized chunks and take it moment to moment or as we did, literally, stroke by stroke.
Also, very importantly and often above all else, don’t forget to celebrate small successes along the way and to enjoy the journey.
What is next for you?
The thread that runs through all my past personal and professional endeavours has been making a difference. With a wonderfully powerful story to recount, I am really enjoying sharing the journey of the expedition and key insights gained with a range of audiences from primary school students to CEOs and at award ceremonies to leadership conferences. I am also working one to one with individuals to help them cross their own ‘Pacific’ through coaching and mentoring.
"If the challenge seems overwhelming then break it down into manageable sized chunks and take it moment to moment or as we did, literally, stroke by stroke."
As my background is in the travel industry I am still travelling and sharing this story on an international platform and I volunteer on an advisory board for a new social enterprise called Women in Travel.
I am passionate about people, the mind and our wonderful world we live in.
I’m filling my life with a few smaller challenges at the moment including a 10km swim and have always wanted to write a book…so now feels like a good a time as any!
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