Helen Butters is a mother, Sunday Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, communications expert, qualified performance coach with NLP and a constant work in progress. In 2016 she followed her dream of rowing across both the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean with a team of 3 amazing women.
“Our dream was rowing
across an ocean but for
others it could be anything
from learning a new
instrument or paddle
boarding. I think our
story somehow gave
women the permission to
follow their dreams and to
believe in themselves:
that’s the superpower.”
How are you ? What are you up to right now?
I’ve just walked in from walking my pooch Flora. We bought her just before the pandemic hit and I am so glad we did as she has been a great distraction over the last year. When I was on the boat I used to look up at the sky and create pictures from the clouds (there was nothing else to look other than the ocean, sky, Frances, Niki and Janette!) and I used to see poodle shapes. I vowed that I would buy a poodle when I reached land and name it Manfred. Manfred was the skipper of a support yacht that came to visit us a couple of weeks before we reached land. He dived in the ocean and swam around. We hadn’t seen a human for so long so Manfred was like a magical merman. I did get the poodle but didn’t call her Manfred!
I read your book ‘Four Mum’s in a Boat’ during lockdown. Not only was it great escapism but extremely inspiring. It’s a few years since your achievement but the impact on others rolls on. That must pleasing …..
The best thing about our adventure wasn’t getting to Antigua. For me it’s always been hearing the inspiring stories of others as a result of what we did. This was a bi-product I wasn’t expecting when I agreed to take part in the challenge. We call it #whatsyourocean – our dream was rowing crossing an ocean but for others it could be anything from learning a new instrument or paddle boarding. I think our story somehow gave women the permission to follow their dreams and to believe in themselves: that’s the superpower.
At the time of the expedition my daughter was 15 and my son was 12. I was a very busy working mum and one thing I wanted to ensure was that my children were happy for me to go. Luckily for me they were both very excited about it and my son particularly, became very involved in the planning. He wrote me a list of things to take on the boat which we now called “Henry’s List” He included things such as ocean friendly shampoo (which I should have listened to him about) after nearly having to have my hair shaved off when I got to Antigua). I really wanted the children to be involved in the whole adventure and I wanted them to see that I had a life outside the domestic home and work world. We met so many inspiring people along the three year planning journey and I wanted my children to absorb all that positive “can do” energy. For me it was a priceless gift to give to my children.
I love hearing from people who have either read the book or watched the documentary telling us what their oceans are. People have left their comfort zones demystified the risk and have followed their dream. Stories range from people who have decided to row an ocean themselves to a lovely woman who has now become a friend who paddle boarded solo from Liverpool to Goole to book clubs organising bucket list adventures: that’s a whole other book right there. Our story and effect has been strong I think, because we are relatable. We are working mums,(not professional athletes) with families and careers: we had a lot of juggling to do to get to the start line!!! Our secret? We all really wanted to have a go at rowing across an ocean. I say have a go, because if we hadn’t made it to Antigua I would have been equally has proud that I had tried. If you genuinely really want something you will find a way to make it happen.
What kick started the whole idea?
Three years before the Atlantic, I had wanted to learn something new so took the opportunity to learn to row when I had some free time on a Saturday morning. I met Frances, Janette and Niki at the rowing club and we all learnt to row together. I found rowing very difficult but what kept me going was the friendship I had found. I looked forward to 2 hours of therapy out on the river rowing chatting and laughing.
The big idea came from Frances who asked us all at a dinner if we fancied entering a rowing race across the Atlantic Ocean. She was clever in her pitching as she asked us after we had all consumed many glasses of wine. I immediately said yes. There were so many reasons to say no: I worked full time, I had bills to pay, I had a family. I had no time or money and would need to find both. This was not running a marathon this was an extremely dangerous pursuit: not many people had successfully rowed across oceans, at that time only around 100 women had completed the challenge…..but It just felt right. I am a big believer in following your “inner current” that feeling you get in your gut when something, even it if sounds crazy, feels right. This had been the opportunity I was looking for. I just needed to sell my dream to my family!
What were the highlights of the entire experience from the beginnings of the idea to the end result?
The people we met were definitely a primary highlight for me. Before the race, we were asked to take the boat to the Isle of Skye to the Talisker Distillery. The idea was that we would be filmed rowing on the Loch in front of the Distillery. We had so much fun that weekend with drones flying over our heads whilst rowing, it was like something out of Dr Who. We met Simon and Ollie for the first time who were filming and producing the short film as well as Steff and Pet who were the drone pilots. Even though we didn’t know at the time – these people would become firm friends throughout our journey and beyond. It was Simon and Ollie who waved us off in La Gomera and came to meet us on a small boat before we rowed into Antigua Harbour. Another highlight was when we entered a rowing competition down in Burnham on Crouch. We were up against 5 other boats all men, with one of the boats full of ex marines including Jason Fox before his SAS Who Dares Wins fame. When a boat full of mums from Yorkshire beat Jason’s team in a race this was definitely one of my highlights and I am sure something they will want to forget. We were obviously on a high after that and made the decision to row across the North Sea as a practice.
No one had successfully rowed across the North Sea before (other than I guess the Vikings) we learnt so much for having a go at that one: it took 45 hours of rowing, lots of hallucinating due to exhaustion, me horrendously sea sick, Niki nearly falling off the boat trying to wee over the side and getting lost outside the harbour for what seemed forever due to our failure of adding our final waypoint. Luckily we say Jason’s boat and followed them in. I was supposed to call a film crew before we rowed into the harbour with an ETA, but forgot. When we called her to say we had got to the harbour she was not best pleased and made us row out again and row back in. Just what we needed after 45 hours at sea. The experience definitely stretched us but that’s where you learn and grow, and boy did we learn from that trip! We ended up being the first women to row across the North Sea which is one of my best achievements. Let’s hope a group of Viking women didn’t beat us to it!
On the Atlantic Ocean we felt we were guests in another world. We were so far away from land space seemed closer. The moon became our friend – it was our bedroom light in the 12 hours of pitch blackness. Night rowing was either beautiful or extremely scary when the Atlantic was trying to kill us as she tried to do regularly. I remember one night when the Ocean was calm the moon was full, the stars were bright and I was belly laughing listening to Alan Carr’s audio book: what a surreal moment that was.
Two weeks before we got to Antigua the support Yacht came to visit us. They would come and go over the day as they were not allowed to come too close but it was such a treat to see another human being. Whilst the sun was setting we sang songs from the Sound of Music, in honour of Manfred being Austrian. I am sure this was not one of his highlights!
The night before we arrived in Antigua was special as that was when our phones started to work. We were so excited that we were nearly there, but part of us didn’t want to finish as we knew the journey we had been planning for so long was coming to an end. Because my family were not able to come to Antigua to meet me, I wanted to send them a message that I had arrived before they heard it anywhere else. I read my children’s social media posts which made me cry. I hadn’t cried the whole journey as I vowed I wouldn’t! They were so proud of me and the risk of doing this adventure for them had paid off.
Inspiring others is definitely a bi-product we didn’t set out to do. We were just four friends who wanted to follow our dream of rowing across an ocean. Because of the book and the documentary our story is being kept alive and in turn more people are using it as a catalyst to have their own adventures.
How are the rest of the team Janette, Frances & Niki?
It’s now 5 years since we rowed an ocean fulfilling a shared dream, raising money for charity and taking ourselves into the record books. Much has happened in those 5 years and we have all settled back into our lives and in some ways gone our separate ways. We will always be a team of four women who followed their dream and we will always have that special bond of connectedness that comes with an adventure like this. What brought us together will keep us together. During the first year after the row, we saw each other frequently as we did a lot of public speaking together and had many events to attend. As the years have gone on we are still in touch with each other, though we don’t have a full team adventure planned (not yet anyway). None of us row anymore unless its on the ergo machine. Tootling up and down the River Ouse just doesn’t have the same appeal anymore. What we’ve all done instead is to use our ocean experience to really expand both our horizons and comfort zones and that has enabled us to connect with many other people, mostly women. We have all gone on to do different things from marathons to mountain climbing from paddle boarding to travelling. Our passions and desires are different and that’s important. We have always been very different women which is what made us a spectacular team.
My final highlight has been connecting with Melanie Sykes. She inspired me to challenge myself after watching her on I’m a celebrity get me out of here, to her then reading my book to her then contacting me. Its’s gone full circle!
“On the Atlantic Ocean we felt we were guests in another world. We were so far away from land space seemed closer. The moon became our friend – it was our bedroom light in the 12 hours of pitch blackness. Night rowing was either beautiful or extremely scary when the Atlantic was trying to kill us as she tried to do regularly.”
Are you planning anymore adventures with them when we are free to roam?
I have really struggled to find something that I really wanted to do following the row. The idea for our next adventure came at the opening of Maggie’s Yorkshire. I was feeling moved that day and inspired by the people who were there. Especially Harriet and Robin. Harriet is one of the Ambassador’s for Maggie’s and I first met her at a Maggie’s ball where we instantly bonded over our shared love of spanks. Harriet is currently living with cancer and is one of the most inspiring and brave people I have ever met. Sitting on the stool in the Maggie’s kitchen with Janette we were discussing what we could do. At that moment a complete stranger who we now know as Chris and a keen cyclist approached us for a chat: within 5 minutes we had planned our next challenge. Cycling from Maggie’s Leeds to Maggie’s Barcelona. We will be swapping oars for wheels and 40 foot waves for the Pyrenees. Just like before, I listened to my “inner current” and if felt the right thing to do. So for the last year I have been cycling like a loon to get cycle ready. We plan to leave in September 2021 to ensure that we don’t put anyone at risk with the global pandemic.
Recently Frank Rothwell the 70 year old from Oldham just solo rowed the Atlantic. One of the most joyous and inspiring moments for me of recent times. Did you speak to him before he set off. Did you offer him any words of wisdom?We did speak to Frank before he set off. What a character! Our advice to Frank was to celebrate Christmas day with a tin of
pineapple rings. On a long expedition with only dried food and no fresh fruit – a pineapple ring is pure heaven.
“I love hearing from people who have either read the book or watched the documentary telling us what their oceans are. People have left their comfort zones demystified the risk and have followed their dream.”
How do your achievements impact the family especially your children?
The way my kids dealt with me being away during the challenge in such a positive mature and supportive way, says it all. I saw their inner resilience and strength grow. They are my heroes. It’s difficult to say whether my achievement has influenced them. Both my children are very different characters but what is similar is their belief that they can do anything they set their mind to. I certainly was not like that at their age. They don’t wait for opportunities they make their own. Henry is sorting out a gap year with the Army before University and Lucy who is currently living in the French Alps, lost her job as a ski chalet host due to the pandemic so proactively contacted a London Media company and is now working for them virtually from France and is living the dream: she made that happen and I am so proud. Both my kids are “can do” positive people and that is exactly the sort of people I wanted them to be around when they were younger.
What as been the greatest lesson you have learned for the experience?
Being on a boat in the middle of an ocean for a long period of time, your true self comes to the fore. The layers you accumulate over the years, wife, career woman, mother, peel away and what is left is you again. On the boat I had a light bulb moment. I realised the power of mindset and I wanted to be more empowered and a deliberate thinker.
We are programmed to think negative thoughts 60% of the time: the problem is we don’t challenge our brain with the evidence of those thoughts. To have a powerful mindset is to get rid of those old stories that limit what is possible. I have struggled with self doubt and its stopped me from doing lots of things. The game changer for me was realising being a deliberate thinker is a skill.
Before the Atlantic Challenge was even thought of I remember visualising doing something that challenged me both mentally and physically. Because I created that story in my head, my brain then looked for opportunities. So when the opportunity arose for me to learn to row in York I said yes: if I hadn’t I would never have rowed across the Atlantic, raised money and joined the Maggie’s cancer centre family, written a bestselling book, received a Guinness World Record and an Honorary Doctorate and travelled the world with the documentary. I credit all of that to having a deliberate mindset for sure.
“Inspiring others is definitely a bi-product we didn’t set out to do. We were just four friends who wanted to follow our dream of rowing across an ocean. Because of the book and the documentary our story is being kept alive and in turn more people are using it as a catalyst to have their own adventures.”
What are up to at the moment ? What are you plotting and planning?
My next adventure is doing what I love: coaching people. I qualified as a performance coach with NLP with an interest in mindset. The personal satisfaction I get from seeing someone enter the first coaching session with a goal they want to achieve and see them leaving 100%motivated, satisfied, content, happy and ready to take on the world: that’s how I get my kicks these days.
As a coach negative mindset is something that I am seeing with many clients. Mindset is critical for health and productivity personally and professionally. With a deliberate mindset you become more powerful, positive and confident in the way you think. I have developed a 6 week mindset refresh programme about setting goals about how you think and about your attitude. It includes an array of tools which keeps me on track and it will you too.
For more information about coaching, and the workshops I deliver on teamwork, risk and leadership check out my website www.helenbutters.com
If you fancy joining the ride from Maggie’s Leeds to Maggie’s Barcelona in September please contact me for details. All we ask if you raise some money for Maggie’s