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Rogue waves, a near capsize and 49 days alone on the Atlantic, what could stop Kiko Matthews?

Kiko Matthews -- a Brit with no previous rowing experience -- nabbed the world record for a solo row across the Atlantic in March: 2,994 miles (4,819 kilometres) in 49 days, 7 hours and 15 minutes. Clipstone Productions

NOT LONG BEFORE she was about to row across the Atlantic alone -- with merely a satellite phone as support -- Kiko Matthews was in an Oddbins wine shop in London when she struck up a conversation with a fellow customer about her upcoming adventure.

The man didn't seem too convinced that she was a rower. Nor, it seemed, did he feel that this pale, skinny 30-something was robust enough to achieve this unlikeliest of feats in world-record time. "You've got to feel the biceps and then you'll believe! Come on!" Matthews said, flexing her right arm.

So it was, in a suburban liquor store, that a startled tennis legend, Boris Becker, ended up feeling the power that drives a great British eccentric.

"I think he was impressed too," Matthews said laughing, after the three-time Wimbledon champ evidently recognised that unsuspected strength. "The thing was that I didn't even realise it was him until the shop owner pointed it out to me afterwards."

This is the sort of thing that happens to Kiko Matthews, you see. Her friends have a phrase for it. "Oh, that's so Kiko!" they say. A bit ditzy and comical but always magnificently herself, always a one-off.

Becker was right that day, though. Matthews was not a rower. Nor a sailor. Nor a seafarer of any description. If she was a 36-year-old absolute beginner who didn't look equipped to tackle a treacherous 3,000-mile crossing, Boris didn't know the half of it.

He didn't know that only a couple of months before she'd had surgery to remove a brain tumour. Nor that nine years previously, she had been at death's door with a rare disease. Nor that she would have to administer her own medication and that no doctor could predict the medical effects of her voyage into the unknown because, in her own memorable phrase, she was effectively "a guinea pig with oars and an emergency button" out there amid the 40-foot waves.

I remember getting the Boris treatment too when I first met Matthews just a couple of weeks before she was due to set off on Feb. 2 from Gran Canaria, a Spanish island off the coast of northern Africa, to the Caribbean island of Barbados. She looked unwell, was coughing and spluttering, but when I asked with some concern if, as an ordinary woman facing an extraordinary, potentially life-threatening and solitary challenge ahead, she was in any way fearful, her eyes flashed with indignation.

"Capsizing in the middle of the night would be scary," she said. "But actually if I think about it, I'm not fearful. Why do we fear death when we know the only thing that's certain in life is that we're not going to live forever?

"You could have a day of lonely, painful drowning, but I'd rather that than have a slow, painful death over several years. It's totally a mental thing. It's training yourself to not worry. And I won't."

And from what I can tell, she didn't worry.

The next time we met, a week after she reached land on March 22, Matthews had rowed 2,994 miles (4,819 kilometres) in 49 days, 7 hours and 15 minutes. This achievement earned her the Guinness World Record of "fastest female solo row across the Atlantic on the Trade Winds route 1." She had beaten the overall record, set by France's Anne Quéméré, by seven days.

To put that feat into perspective, Angus Collins, a champion ocean rower himself who back in England had been Matthews' navigator those seven dramatic weeks, said: "We're talking about something phenomenal. When ocean rowing records are broken, it's maybe by a day or two. But seven days? That's an incredible amount."

IF THERE'S ONE reason why the folks who love Matthews the most had no concerns about the perilous nature of her transatlantic quest, it was that they already understood the absolute steeliness that underpinned what always seemed her happy-go-lucky, free-spirited persona.

It was nine years since her mother, Genevieve Matthews, a nurse-turned-teacher, watched her fit, adventure-loving daughter brought close to death after a 6mm tumour on her pituitary gland triggered an aggressive form of Cushing's syndrome. The rare disease causes dreadful symptoms, including memory loss, muscle-wasting, osteoporosis, end-stage diabetes, insomnia and psychosis.

At one point, Matthews' potassium levels dropped too low for her to risk brain surgery. She stayed in intensive care until she regained enough strength to survive the procedure.

"I thought there was a possibility we could lose her," Genevieve said. "Yet her main quality is that if things go wrong, she can deal with them with amazing stoicism. I knew she would be the same on her row. Honestly, I never worried about her."

The illness and subsequent fight back to health transformed Matthews' life in another way.

"It made me want to live my life and challenge my mind and body to see what they were capable of," she said.

She had another motivation: Matthews wanted to pay back the King's College Hospital for saving her life by raising money -- £100,000-plus in the end -- for its Critical Care Centre.

Her best mate Ruth Holland always marveled at the "wacky" projects her pal would come up with. "She always had some crazy idea. Like the time she planned to train for the luge and compete for Great Britain at the Olympics -- until she worked out how expensive it was going to be.

"But when she said she was going to row across the Atlantic, I could see the determination. This adventure meant so much to her that I knew she'd do it. And for two years, she spent every minute of every day doing everything she could to learn to row and get that boat on the water."

The transatlantic row was like nothing that even the restless Matthews had tried before. She had run a marathon, co-founded a charity to help disadvantaged people, set up a paddleboarding company and took part in a charity drive from London to Cape Town, among other endeavors.

"But this time, I wanted -- and needed -- to do something really amazing," she said, "just to show people you can do anything you want with the right attitude, belief and support. I thought my story could inspire women to challenge themselves.'"

Getting the project off the ground, learning to row on the Thames -- and then the ocean -- and raising the funds to rent the special carbon-hulled 6.5m ocean boat almost feels now to Matthews a tougher logistical exercise than the voyage itself.

She used her £20,000 savings to make it happen and lived a spartan lifestyle in London, camping in a little cabin at the bottom of a friend's cousin's garden in exchange for nannying duties for 13 hours a week.

Then, potential calamity. In August, about five months before she was due to depart on her adventure, doctors discovered a smaller tumour on her pituitary gland that required more surgery. Surely, her voyage was now out of the question?

"No. It just made me more determined," Matthews said.

There was no way to predict how her body would hold up after seven weeks of administering her own medication on the ocean. What she did know, though, was that "four or five days without the medicine and I'll be dead."

Didn't this whole adventure then seem like so much madness?

"Well, not many have said that to me. Not to my face at least," she said. "I can be quite a force of nature, you know."

MATTHEWS WAS UNDER no illusions about the challenge. Physically, she had trained for about 1,000 hours on her boat, but how would this sociable figure stand up to the mental test of 50 days of solitude? She would have just one daily satellite phone call to navigator Collins and occasional access to email. (They racked up an £850 bill from the trip.) "I love people, I love socialising but I'm also OK on my own and quite like the unknown," she had told herself.

Then the unknown introduced itself. On the first day, after setting off to zero fanfare -- and still not feeling 100 percent only a week after overcoming the worst effects of norovirus -- she was only three-and-a-half miles off Gran Canaria when she realised she had left her vital medication in her hotel. She had to row back.

The next day, she and her boat encountered their first 40-foot waves in a storm. Collins had warned her that it might seem petrifying, but that the boat was designed to ride with and withstand the waves. Yet surely it must have been terrifying?

"No, er, 'interesting' would be the word," she said, smiling.

Oh, that's so Kiko. Making even the most daunting of ocean baptisms seem positively ho-hum. She had been, she said, ready for anything.

"I get into a life raft, but I only get into that if the boat is going down or it's tipped up and is full of water and won't right itself. If the boat capsizes, there's only one thing to do -- and that's get straight back on it," she said.

"But I knew the score, really. If I'm swimming, I'm basically dying. I was never going to panic if I fell in the water. It's happened to loads of people before, and they survived it."

On Day 3, a new situation. Matthews threw up as soon as she had eaten her specially concocted breakfast: granola made with porridge oats, coconut, protein powder, linseed and sunflower seeds. Maybe it was a touch of seasickness or problems with taking the right amount of medication, but it was the start of problems with her ability to consume enough calories. She hoped to eat approximately 6,000 calories a day but found she could manage only about 3,500.

She had brought 50 days' worth of food with her -- everything from dried meals like pasta Bolognese, chili con carne and spicy pork noodles to a few sweet treats like jelly caterpillars, bags of chocolate and licorice. She finally got into the routine of eating small portions often, but ate only 30 days' worth of food on the 49-day row.

In those first days, she wasn't getting any sleep even "when I had an insane need for it." She wasn't producing enough cortisol, the body's stress hormone, yet even with the fatigue and lack of food, the exhilaration of the adventure somehow kept her awake initially.

"It's like, 'Oh god, I shouldn't be this happy!'" she said. "But then you start to get tired, the weather gets less exciting and my body had a bit of a major crash -- I think related to my medical condition."

Then she transitioned into sleeping too much. She slept 10 hours at a stretch, but she was still exhausted when she woke up.

"Physically, I couldn't move," she said. "The alarm would go off and I'd be like, 'No, I must have another hour of sleep.' I was angry when I woke, feeling guilty that the boat was still moving forward without me rowing."

But the tasks of the day kept her busy. Beyond the essential chores of cleaning, cooking, maintaining equipment and desalinating sea water, Matthews also filmed herself for a documentary and penned daily blogs that varied wildly: the reflective, the banal and the brilliant.

Matthews had never been partial to routine, but the days began to find their own peaceful rhythm with the rediscovery of her appetite and a now-regular sleeping pattern. She rowed on average 12 hours a day and slept from about 12:30 a.m. until 4:30 a.m. (her "big" sleep) -- with bits of rest throughout the day (see sidebar).

Then, there was a maddening period when, for 10 days, unfavourable winds meant the boat wasn't progressing at all and, on occasion, was actually moving farther away from her destination. Collins would have to break the bad news, one morning telling her that she'd gone backward 11 miles.

"I knew there were days when she was going to be going through hell," said Collins. "There were a couple of times when I could sense quite a lot of almost doubt in me, although I don't feel she actually meant it. You just need to blame someone when you're putting in all that effort and not getting the reward -- and it feels like the most unfair thing in the world."

There were exhilarating highs, too, of course. Like the day, given a hearty following wind, when she rowed for 86 miles -- 20 miles or so above her daily average. Or the one where she stood in her boat, simply marveling at the idea that she was nearer to astronauts on the space station 300 miles above her than to anyone on the ocean.

But nothing could beat the emotion of the moment when she read a batch of good luck emails and messages of support, including one that informed her that her former school had just named a boat in her honor.

"I had to cry," she said. "It made me realise every stroke meant something. Physically I was alone, but in my cabin I had the photos of all the people who were supporting me, my constant, inspiring companions."

Amid her "sea of nothingness," this strange mix of bliss and monotony, what on earth did she think about as the journey wore into its second month -- apart from dreams of icy mojitos, white sheets and fresh food, that is?

Well, everything from chucking peanuts into the ocean and worrying if the fish might have food allergies to wondering if the next time she rowed an ocean she might be a mum with kids in tow in a "Swiss Family Robinson"-type adventure.

"You see, when there's nothing else to think about, no stresses or strains on you, your imagination does start to run riot," she said.

But she could never afford complacency. Matthews was within a week of arrival in Barbados when a massive rogue wave crashed into the side of the boat, leaving her desperately holding on to the satellite phone with one hand and to the boat with the other. "The ocean was defo always the boss," she said.

Then one final push, rowing 18 hours nonstop -- the most she did in any 24-hour stretch -- on just 10 spoonfuls of food and a ton of adrenaline. On the north side of Barbados, Matthews' parents, Genevieve and Paddy, and brother Robin gazed out to where the Caribbean and Atlantic meet and could see a speck in the distance.

"My son had a mirror, caught the glint from the sun and Kiko could see someone was signaling her, so she stood up and waved. Oh, that was a very, very special moment," said Genevieve.

As for Matthews, when she finally made land in Barbados, legs wobbly but feeling sprightly and fit -- she shed 15 pounds through it all -- she remembers, "I wasn't particularly emotional at all. It was just, 'Where's my mojito?' Way better than champagne by the way."

MATTHEWS' MUM LOOKED at her daughter after her arrival and felt amazed.

"She just jumped out of that boat," said Genevieve, "and the very next day, you would never have had a clue that she'd just done something so incredible."

But the world noticed.

"You've done something 99.99999% of us couldn't even begin to consider possible" was the salute from Britain's most decorated female Olympian, former rower Dame Katherine Grainger. Matthews also received a marriage proposal from an evidently impressed Daily Mail reader.

Yet for all the fuss, Matthews could never quite convince herself that she had achieved anything outlandish.

"You see, in my head, I still don't think I'm anyone special to have done this," she said over coffee back in London a week after her adventure. "I don't think it's changed me, but it might have confirmed to me that I can do anything I set my mind to. I hoped this would be the outcome.

"Now I just want to carry on, somehow, with the legacy of inspiring."

Yes, but how could she outdo her last trick?

"True, I've gone for the cherry on the top before I've even made the cake," she said, before musing about the possibility of paddleboarding the length of the Nile or rowing round the world.

A few weeks later, though, she reckoned she had really cracked it. Her next project, she said, would involve a bicycle and a campaign for the environment. Beyond that, I was sworn to secrecy until she unveils the full details.

Suffice to say, we will doubtless end up all thinking: "Oh, that's so Kiko!"