A Mighty Journey: Four Women Become First All-Black Team To Row Across The Atlantic Ocean
“Because there’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away.” – Sarah Kay
For Elvira Bell, Christal Clashing, Samara Emmanuel, and Kevinia Francis, the shoreline they pushed every fiber in their body to kiss would be that of their small, mighty homeland: Antigua. After 47 days and more than 1.5 million strokes against an unpredictable sea, they became the first Black women in history to row across the Atlantic Ocean. On December 12, 2018 the four teammates — proudly known as Antigua’s “Island Girls” — departed from La Gomera in the Canary Islands alongside 27 other teams from around the world to compete in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. The proceeds of their race would benefit the charity Cottage of Hope, a nonprofit organization home for orphaned and abused girls. Their final destination was Antigua’s picturesque English Harbour, where an entire island swelled with pride, waiting to greet the athletes as they rowed in on January 28, 2019.
With no privacy for bathroom breaks, a tiny cabin for short naps, and scarce nourishment that included water and meal replacement shakes, the women relied on two persistent motives to carry them across an often merciless sea: to represent for their country and just get home.
“The race wasn’t just about me; it was bigger than me. I was representing my son, my family, mothers, and women. I was representing my country and inspiring all these children. It would not only be inspiring and pioneering for Black people, but also inspire other races to come and crush these barriers as well,” said Elvira. The race was also an opportunity to face her fear of claustrophobia and suffocation. “Even though I had respect for the sea before, I have even more respect for it now. Throughout the race I kept talking to the sea like, I see you, I feel you, I respect you.”
Representing their twin island of Antigua and Barbuda was especially significant in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Irma, which nearly destroyed all of Barbuda. Though only 180 square miles, it’s not hard to feel the pride of Antiguans from every corner. And while the island boasts of 365 flawless beaches, it’s the people that make it so special. Sunday night BBQs and passionate steelpan drum performances at Shirley Heights, an addictive hot sauce created by a one-woman army and served from a roadside cottage, welcoming neighbors cooking up fungee and pepperpot from makeshift stands up winding hills — this is the heart of Antigua.
At my hotel, Hermitage Bay, the Caribbean shoreline that the Island Girls will rejoice over when they reach provides a short pause of calm. The iconic, luxury resort is postcard perfect, with the island’s famed yachts rocking lazily over waves in the distance. At times, that same ocean will not be as merciful to the Island Girls, who faced a broken navigation system and unannounced waves that nearly capsized the boat. But still, they rowed. For Christal, that perseverance was deeper than the ocean below her. Consistent bouts of depression and a chronic illness caused her to miss practice three times during training, but she didn’t want to disappoint her teammates, or herself.
“The reason I took up this challenge is because I needed to prove to myself that a chronic illness wasn’t going to hold me down,” Christal shared. “I wanted to do this because this thing cannot dictate my life. Although I’m very quiet, I love adventure. This race taught me that I am strong enough to take on other mental challenges to improve my life. The world is my oyster. I can do whatever I want,” she said over tears. Out of the 28 teams competing, the Island Girls finished in 13th place. Even the government and schools were closed for a few hours to show support of their arrival. “I knew the whole of Antigua was behind us from day one,” Samara said. “We had love and support from everyone from the top people to the man on the street, the schoolchildren, and I did not want to disappoint them so that’s what I stayed focused on. I knew the girls got annoyed with me because I would minimize the GPS screen where you could see Antigua compared to where our boat was. And even though the island was 2,000 miles away, I was like, “Antigua is right there girls. It’s right there. I said it every day. Antigua’s right there.”
And Antigua was right there, waiting for the women to make history on a balmy Tuesday afternoon. Little Black girls sat on top of their father’s shoulders, staring with hopeful eyes at the ocean for any sign of their four superheroes to appear. The Island Girls rowed closer, ready to embrace their families and enjoy their first real meal of sushi, ducana, and pepperpot after nearly 50 days at sea. To the little girls watching that historical day in Antigua and around the world, Kevinia said: “Anything you want to do you can do, of course. Put your mind to it, work for it, and go for it.”