Island Girls: ocean reflections

Team Antigua Island Girls from left to right Samara Emmanuel, Christal Clashing, Junella King, Elvira Bell and Kevinia Francis

Elvira Bell, Christal Clashing, Samara Emmanuel, and Kevinia Francis. Memorise those names because history wouldn’t forget these four formidable women who rowed their way into the Guinness Book of World Records, after voluntarily putting their lives at risk to improve the lives of another special group of young girls in Antigua and Barbuda.

These women, who just completed the 3,000-nautical miles, Talikser Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, also dubbed “the world’s toughest row,” are now home and settling in and making their media rounds, telling their stories – the lessons they learned and how they hope to continue to inspire others.

Even before they completed the journey, and now more so afterwards, thousands of Antiguans and Barbudans; people of African descent; women and girls; musicians; and so many other groups have been expressing how proud they are of the successes of Bell, Clashing, Emmanuel and Francis – the first set of black women to row the Atlantic and the first female Caribbean TWAC team.

Many of us cannot begin to imagine walking in their shoes, or more like, rowing in their boat for one day, much less for 47 days, eight hours and 25 minutes – that is the time they took to complete the journey across the same Atlantic ocean, which was the unwanted watery grave for their black ancestors who were forcibly taken from their homes in Africa to the Americas and thrown into slavery.

The team said yesterday that during the row, they reflected on that horrendous legacy and Bell said “We spoke about it all the time, every day, we would ask our ancestors to guide us, and thanked them.”

Emmanuel added that while reflecting on the history of slavery, she gave thanks knowing the journey for her group on the TWAC had it “a lot better because we are not chained, we are not sick and still have to work, we are not being raped or anything, we are just willingly rowing, trying to bring honour to what they did.”

Another dark echo of the past that one cannot overlook, was that the journey, a tough one for these four brave women, culminated at the UNESCO Heritage Site, the Dockyard by the British Navy whose construction would not have been possible without the labour of generations of enslaved Africans since the end of the 18th century.

It’s no wonder the ‘Island Girls’ feel they have made a triumph out of our peoples’ tragic legacy as they rowed voluntarily, and for charity – to raise funds for the Cottage of Hope.

Before they took up the challenge to enter TWAC, not much was known about the organisation.

The home, registered in 2009, is a non-profit, non-denominational Christian organisation that offers short to long-term residency to girls who are abused, neglected or orphaned. Since inception, it has housed 36 girls and one boy, and has helped scores more.          

Cottage of Hope takes in babies and individuals up to 14 years of age, and although the upper age for housing is 18, young women who are willing to comply with the rules may stay for as long as they must.

Team Antigua Island Girls hopes to reach their target of US $150,000 dollars for the Cottage, to help expand the current two-bedroom transitional home for those who benefit from it and need the assistance.

So, in addition to wanting to go on an adventure, break barriers and make history as black women, as Antiguans and Barbudans, as Caribbean women, Bell, Clashing, Emmanuel and Francis have been focused on fundraising. The total received thus far has not yet been tallied, and their efforts are still continuing even after completing the TWAC.

Yesterday, the team reflected on the sacrifices they made to embark on the mission, and they said they would do it all over again.

To get a sense of what they endured, imagine waking up one day and moving to live on the sea, confined to a 28-ft long, three-foot wide open-vessel; sleeping for 45 minutes only per day; eating mainly preserved, dried food; rowing in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight for weeks; then being whipped by rough waves, losing the autohelm and getting your oars broken.

Surely, just one of the aforementioned conditions would be enough to break your spirit or the spirit of some of the toughest people on the planet.

Bell said that as she pushed through, day after day, she prayed and repeated “I See You! I Feel You! I Respect You!”, as she thought about the sufferings of her ancestors and compared it to what the team was enduring.

Now after she and her team – best friends now – have completed the TWAC, we say, We See You! We Hear You! We Respect You! For your bravery, boldness, sacrifice, ambitiousness and successes, and we look forward to seeing you break more barriers in the future.

NB: After completing TWAC, the team had a combined weight loss of 105 pounds, and today they are advising everyone to embrace adventure, friendships and other relationships, work for what you want and give to charity.