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Front row seat Adventure lover aims to be first Irish woman to row solo across the Atlantic

Karen has twice sailed across the Atlantic. But her latest adventure, a 3,000-mile solo ocean journey in a rowing boat, is her most challenging trip.

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Karen Weekes is in training for her solo Atlantic row.

Karen Weekes is in training for her solo Atlantic row.

Karen Weekes is in training for her solo Atlantic row.

Karen Weekes has her 2021 Christmas Day plans already boxed off. She will be single-handedly rowing across the Atlantic Ocean.

Ever since her parents sat her in a kayak when she was just two years of age, a sense of adventure has anchored her life.

It began when she and a friend, Karen Kennedy, circumvented Ireland in a kayak. Later, there were kayaking trips between the Lofoten Islands of Norway, along the coast of Croatia and around the islands off Scotland.

Then she switched to cycling, undertaking a solo trip across Canada as well as bikes rides in Alaska and along the west coast of the United States.

Karen has twice sailed across the Atlantic. But her latest adventure, a 3,000-mile solo ocean journey in a rowing boat, is her most challenging trip.

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Karen in her kayak

Karen in her kayak

Karen in her kayak

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Kayaking in Stormolla, Norway

Kayaking in Stormolla, Norway

Kayaking in Stormolla, Norway

A lecturer in the Cork-based Munster Technology University, Karen lives in Kinvara, Co Galway. “I was born in Dublin and have lived in a lot of places, but I call Kinvara home,” she says.

Her parents loved the outdoors and family outings centred on camping, fishing and sailing trips. Those early adventures had a profound influence on Karen, who has been contemplating her solo attempt across the Atlantic for several years.

Karen holds a doctorate in sports psychology and she has worked with rowers who have crewed boats on ocean trips.

“I know what they have been through. I had anticipated waiting for a few years before I did it. Instead, I had been planning to do more solo cycles in places like Mongolia and Uzbekistan.

But due to Covid-19 restrictions I had to put these plans on hold.

“Last August I decided to do the row and I have been training and planning for the trip since.”

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Karen in her kayak.

Karen in her kayak.

Karen in her kayak.

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Karen cycled across Canada

Karen cycled across Canada

Karen cycled across Canada

Karen is attempting to become the first Irish woman to complete a solo row of the Atlantic. Only 19 females worldwide have completed the 3,000-mile trip, which she estimates will take at least 75 days. But as a precaution, she will pack enough provisions for 100 days.

Planning the adventure is a mammoth task and Weekes is seeking corporate sponsorship to offset some of the expenses. She has sourced a boat which is currently being serviced in England and will be delivered to Galway later this month. Before long she will be taking it for spins in Galway Bay and along the west coast.

“There is a huge amount of logistics involved, such as getting the right navigational and communication equipment. Recently I spent a weekend at the Maritime Naval Base in Cork doing a sea survival course.

“During some of the kayaking trips we’ve been hit by some very high seas and you are always getting close to danger. We’ve had situations which we’ve had to get ourselves out of.

“But I suppose this builds up my coping toolbox. It builds up mental strength. Dealing with adversity on the high seas also gives one a great respect for the sea.”

Home comforts will be in short supply on the boat.

“Well, I won’t have a three-hob cooker,” she says with a laugh. “I will have a jet boiler and will eat a lot of hydrated food, which means pouring hot water into a packet and eating its contents. So I will check what suits my stomach before I go. I will also bring a lot of protein drinks and snack bars and I will have a water-maker on board to desalinate the sea water.”

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Kayaking in Stormolla, Norway

Kayaking in Stormolla, Norway

Kayaking in Stormolla, Norway

Rowing the Atlantic is a foolproof way to lose weight.

“Typically, you will burn between 4,000 and 4,500 calories a day and because you are not eating heavy duty carbs and stuff like that, you will lose weight because you are expending so much energy.”

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Karen cycled across Canada.

Karen cycled across Canada.

Karen cycled across Canada.

Ultimately, she aims to row for up to 16 hours a day.

“I have spoken to a lot of solo rowers who all said that as the trip progresses you become more accustomed to the rowing and become fitter, which enables you to spend more time rowing. The rest of the time is divided between tending to the boat, cooking, eating, navigating and sleeping.”

The mental challenge of being alone on the high seas for at least two-and-a-half months fascinates Karen.

“When I was doing my PhD, I looked at the cognitive coping strategies of K2 mountaineers. I lived in their base camp in Pakistan for six weeks and interviewed them. I also interviewed elite runners who had competed in 100 mile plus races.

“I tested the skills they shared when I cycled across Canada. I really pushed myself hard for 4,000 miles on the bike. So I think that gave me a good insight into how my mind works under pressure and stress. This is going up to another level in terms of pushing the body and mind.

“But I am really looking forward to exploring my own head space and seeing where the mind goes. If you think about it – and a lot of rowers will say this as well – it is only 70 days of your whole life, so it is probably no harm.”

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Karen kayaking

Karen kayaking

Karen kayaking

The underlying philosophy governing the trip is a desire by Weekes to encourage women to participate in adventure sports and push themselves outside their comfort zone.

She also wants to highlight the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, specifically ‘gender equality’ and ‘life under the water’, which focuses on the conservation of oceans and marine life.

Apart from the obvious threat posed by storms and shipping, there are other dangers lurking in the Atlantic.

“Three of the boats in the annual race between Gran Canaria and Antigua got punctured by marlin. They didn’t attack the boats but brushed underneath them and damaged their hulls. The crews had to do a quick fix but when you’re on your own it is a different ball game.”

Her only luxury on the trip will be a robust sound system. “I love music and I will have music pumping from the sound system and hopefully I will have a chance to listen to podcasts and audio books as well.”

For more information on Karen’s trip log on to shecando2021.org

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