Bexhill women in ambitious bid to race around British coast

A team of six women, five of whom are from Bexhill town and Rowing Club, have committed to the mammoth challenge of rowing unassisted and non-stop around Great Britain with the aim of setting a new world record.

Saturday, 19th June 2021, 3:00 pm
The team ready for an 'oarsome' challenge / Picture: Jane Allan

The team, called ‘All Systems Row’, consists of skipper Jess Plail, first mate Steph Toogood and crew: Charlie Cooper, Lia Evans, Andrea Harwood. They’re all local and are joined by Devon’s Sophie Harris.

They will depart from London’s iconic Tower Bridge in a race organised by GB Row Challenge and row around the coast of England, Wales and Scotland in a clockwise direction, before returning up the Thames, to finish where they started. There are several other teams entered, including the GB men’s bobsleigh team.

Circumnavigating Great Britain in a rowing boat has only ever been accomplished six times previously.

Four of the team ready to row / Picture: Jane Allan

Skipper Plail said: “The fact that more people have been into space than have rowed around Britain makes this a challenge of epic proportions for us.

“Despite feeling somewhat daunted, I am confident that our team will work together to succeed in breaking the world record.”

The current men’s record for a team of four was set in 2013, taking 26 days, and the women’s record for a team of four was set in 2010, taking 51 days.

This will be the first attempt by six women and the crew have their sights set on achieving their goal in 35 days.

Steph and Charlie get into position / Picture: Jane Allan

The team will row round the clock, in shifts of two hours, with three at the oars and the other three resting in the small cabins at either end of the boat.

Evans said: “We’re going to be living in such close quarters with each other for a very long time, when we’re feeling tired, grumpy and sometimes frightened.

“There’s not much that we won’t know about each other by the end of it! We’ll have seen warts and all, but that doesn’t put me off.”

As they cover the 2,000-plus miles the team will be generating their own drinking water from desalinated sea water and relying solely on solar power.

It's cosy in the cabin / Picture: Jane Allan

First mate Toogood said: “I am attracted by the self-sufficiency aspect of the challenge – we’ve got no-one to rely on except ourselves and we have to fully understand how all the equipment works in order to repair it if something goes wrong.

“We’re working hard throughout this time of preparation to learn the skills we need.”

The a ‘All Systems Row’ team crew spans four decades with Cooper and Evans both in their 20s, Plail and Harris in their 30s, Harwood in her 40s and Toogood in her 50s.

Toogood said: “I want to demonstrate that age is no big deal when it comes to having adventures and tackling challenges.”

The women all work in professional roles: three physiotherapists, a sports therapist, a physician’s associate and a social worker.

Three of them are mums and one is an amputee.

Evans said: “Working in intensive care throughout the Covid pandemic was really tough and I grew so much throughout that demanding and exhausting time. Now this rowing adventure will be another stretching challenge for me, drawing on my mental resilience that I developed in the hospital wards.”

The crew are all excited and naturally a bit daunted by the physical and mental challenge they are embarking upon, but hope to inspire others to expand their personal boundaries and seek adventure in life.

Cooper said: “I am the youngest in the boat and have never done anything like this before, but I know that if we work as a team and support one another, we will achieve our goal.’

Harris said: “I want to find out what I’m truly made of mentally and physically.”

While they are away rowing, the team hopes children in local schools can be involved in supporting the race, combining sporting challenges in school with learning about the environmental aspects of the journey.

Harwood, a school governor whose two younger children attend St Peter and St Paul’s Primary and older two attend St Richard’s Catholic College, said: ‘We want to use this challenge to send local children the message that they can dream big and achieve their goals by working hard and working together.”

As well as being an extreme endurance challenge, the race has an important environmental aspect to it.

Partnering with the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Portsmouth, during the race the teams will collect data on the amount of pollution in Britain’s seas.

The ‘All Systems Row’ team are raising funds for the charity ‘Renewable World’, which tackles poverty through renewable energy. Monies can be donated via the team’s fundraising page – justgiving.com/fundraising/allsystemsrow

The race begins in June next year, but the women will spend the 12 months intensively preparing for what is arguably the world’s toughest rowing race.

Preparations will include raising sponsorship, training for survival at sea, first aid at sea and learning how to navigate coastal waters and contending with wind and tides.

All Systems Row are seeking sponsorship and would love to hear from companies or individuals interested in providing financial support in exchange for promotion and social media coverage.

Email [email protected] and follow them on Instagram at

@allsystemsrow