Ben Duffy

Give a Black woman a challenge and watch her rise to the occasion. It’s an undeniable element entwined in her DNA that makes the impossible, possible, turns pain into passion, and flips the downright difficult into her greatest inspiration. Some say it’s “magic.” Some call it “blacknificence.” And others like Elvira Bell, Christal Clashing, Samara Emmanuel, and Kevinia Francis — collectively known as Team Antigua Island Girls — understand that it’s a culmination of hard work, sacrifice, prayer, and grit.

Last week, the women who had no prior rowing experience before this year, set off to make history as the first Black women, and the first all-Black team, to participate in and complete the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, a transatlantic race dubbed “The World’s Toughest Row.”  

The competition takes crews from La Gomera in the Canary Islands, Spain to Antigua’s English Harbour, with determined entrants logging a total of 3,000 nautical miles between the two points. For even the most successful team, the row has taken 29 days, with others enduring for more than three months. Still, the ladies who spoke to ESSENCE before their December 12th start said they had absolutely no anxieties going in.

“I think it’s because we’ve been focused more on the preparation, and that has kind of kept us comfortable knowing that we are prepared to take on the challenge,” Kevinia Francis said of the team’s mindset approaching the race.

Preparation for the foursome and their alternate team member, Junella King, consisted of core strengthening six days a week in the gym, spending time on the water once a week, and accomplishing at least one long row per month. The ladies, who started their training in March after calls from the previous Antiguan team to form an all-female unit, admit the journey hasn’t always been easy, but with practice have gone from little to no technique to a well-coordinated crew aiming to take the podium at the end of the adventure.

“We went out on the water and our technique, in the beginning, was all over the place,” Francis, a personal trainer and road cyclist acknowledged. “But you know, we did our research and eventually, with practice and training, it came together. And for charity, everybody was even more motivated. Charity is always a great thing to do something for — and country.”

In addition to breaking barriers and making history, the women have also set out to raise $150,000 dollars for Cottage of Hope, a transitional home for neglected, abandoned, and abused girls.

“They’re in a two-bedroom house right now and we’re trying to raise funds to improve their living situation. The goal is to get them better facilities and better funding for education,” Christal Clashing, an adventure guide, said of the partnership.

But before tackling the improvements at the cottage, the women are first taking on the unpredictable Atlantic. Their plan, as they explained it, is to work in a shift system — two row, two “rest” — forging ahead for 24 hours a day until they reach their home country of Antigua.

“In that rest time, you have to clean yourself from all the salt and sweat, you have to find something to eat, do little repairs around the boat, check the systems, make sure that we’re on track,” Francis expounded. “Then we switch out.”

With this plan, the team hopes to be on pace to break the existing female record of reaching the finish line in 34 days.

“Not only are we doing this for sport and trying to accomplish something that is really great, but we’re also doing this for charity, we’re doing this for our country,” Samara Emmanuel, Antigua’s first female yacht captain, said of their participation in the competition. “I mean, as the first all-Black team, male or female, I think it will be something that is really going to go down in the history books and I’m happy to be a part of that.”

Waiting at the end of their arduous journey will be the island of Antigua — best known for its 365 beaches and breathtaking views —  and the ladies’ supportive families.

“I have a 15-year-old son who’s been very supportive,” Elvira Bell gushed. “He hasn’t been shy about it at all. I think now that I’ve finally left the country, and have been away for a month, he realizes that it’s coming down to the time where I won’t be able to speak with him every day, and that has even more meaning for me. Now it appears more real than ever.”

Team Antigua Island Girls hope that their adventure at sea will not only inspire their small island community, but also other female teams and the Black community as a whole.

“Growing up, I know I used to look at certain sports and say, ‘Okay, I can’t do that because I’m not white. White people don’t do this sport and Black people don’t do this sport,’” Francis admitted. “So it’s about breaking down those misconceptions and those barriers. We can actually do any sport that we choose. You just need to have determination, dedication, practice, and get out there.”

 

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