‘I asked my­self, why can’t I row the At­lantic?’

Af­ter re­cov­er­ing from two brain tu­mours, Kiko Matthews has em­braced a life with­out lim­i­ta­tions. Boudicca Fox-Leonard meets her

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - FEATURE -

For the first two weeks af­ter Kiko Matthews set off from Gran Ca­naria to row 2,994 miles across the At­lantic, thoughts of friends and fam­ily crowded her mind. Con­ver­sa­tions re­played them­selves over and over as she pulled at the oars for 12 hours a day. But, as she bat­tled nau­sea and big waves, with no sign of any­one else for hun­dreds of miles, the in­ter­nal chat­ter started to qui­eten.

De­prived of ex­ter­nal stim­uli, her brain went down some strange av­enues: she be­gan to won­der how far a peanut dropped in the ocean would need to go be­fore its den­sity started to equal that of the salt wa­ter, or whether it would man­age to de­scend the three miles to the ocean floor.

Then, af­ter five weeks, her mind went blank. “I could do a two-hour shift and fo­cus on noth­ing but the speed I was go­ing, the waves, the noise of the oars. It was really lovely,” re­calls the 37 year-old.

Alone in the mid­dle of the ocean, Matthews reached the ul­ti­mate med­i­ta­tive state: “When you’ve got noth­ing, you’ve got noth­ing to worry about.”

It’s a mind­set she has tried to keep hold of since land­ing in Port St Charles, Bar­ba­dos, in March this year. Her 49 days, 7 hours and 15 min­utes at sea set a new record for the fastest wo­man to row solo and un­sup­ported across the At­lantic. In do­ing so she raised al­most £100,000 for King’s Col­lege Hospi­tal. The per­sonal re­wards, how­ever, have been price­less. “Now I know I can bloody do any­thing. If you can row the At­lantic solo, it changes your view of what you’re ca­pa­ble of,” says the for­mer science teacher.

If you’re think­ing that Matthews must have ab­nor­mal re­serves of men­tal and phys­i­cal re­silience, stop right there. She feels strongly that many of us, par­tic­u­larly women, look at heroic feats such as hers and as­sume they’re for other peo­ple.

She stresses that prior to tak­ing on the chal­lenge she had never rowed, had no sea ex­pe­ri­ence, and had never spent much time on her own.

“Ev­ery­body is a reg­u­lar per­son when they start out. There’s noth­ing spe­cial about the five women and 20 men who have rowed the At­lantic. There’s noth­ing spe­cial about me. I just asked ‘why can’t I do it?’.”

One thing that does make Matthews dif­fer­ent from most is that six months be­fore she set off, she un­der­went surgery to have a brain tu­mour re­moved. It was her sec­ond.

In 2009, aged 28, the south Lon­doner started ex­pe­ri­enc­ing strange symp­toms; in­som­nia, hairi­ness, weight gain and a funny taste in her mouth.

She was di­ag­nosed with di­a­betes, but what con­nected ev­ery­thing was Cush­ing’s dis­ease, a rare and lifethreat­en­ing con­di­tion which causes tu­mours on the pi­tu­itary gland – the gland that con­trols the body’s hor­mone pro­duc­tion.

Af­ter the first tu­mour was re­moved at King’s Col­lege Hospi­tal, Matthews re-eval­u­ated her life, a process that took her first to Africa and then back to the UK, where she con­cen­trated on com­bin­ing her love of the en­vi­ron­ment with her pas­sion for ed­u­ca­tion. She set up Trash4Treats, a cam­paign that enI’d couraged pad­dle board­ers to clear lit­ter from the Re­gent’s Canal.

In 2014, a friend, Char­lie Pitcher, who at the time held the men’s solo record for row­ing the At­lantic, sug­gested she have a bash at the women’s record. “I said, ‘No thank you!’ It took a cou­ple of years for my con­fi­dence in my own abil­i­ties to im­prove.”

But un­be­known to Matthews, the tu­mour had re­turned, a de­vel­op­ment she thinks might have helped con­vince her to take on the chal­lenge: “It can make you a bit loopy,” she says.

Her train­ing, once she com­mit­ted, was hardly what one would ex­pect; cy­cling com­mutes, gym ses­sions (“mostly be­cause I fan­cied my per­sonal trainer”), porkscratch­ings and pints of cider.

Sur­pris­ingly for some­one with a de­gree in molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy, she is dis­mis­sive of elite sport nutri­tion: “I do be­lieve that Ly­cra, skinny road bikes and se­ri­ous nutri­tion is not the way for­ward. That se­ri­ous stuff puts peo­ple off from hav­ing a go,” she says.

In­stead, she says, “My mind is a tem­ple, not my body. I can’t en­joy life if I’m stress­ing about nutri­tion.”

On the cross­ing it­self, she barely ate due to nau­sea. She took 50 days’ worth of food, and landed in Bar­ba­dos with 27 days’ worth re­main­ing. She strug­gles to re­mem­ber much about the ex­pe­ri­ence, liken­ing it a lit­tle to the am­ne­siac ef­fects of child­birth.

Matthews wrote blog posts on her phone through­out, and many of them now form part of a book about her ad­ven­ture. One en­try says: “To­day was tough. I’m ex­hausted. Not sure if my med­i­cal con­di­tion is adding to this, but… din­ner time and I in­hale a meal! In one sit­ting. Un­heard of.”

There were times when con­di­tions were par­tic­u­larly tough. “It was quite hec­tic at the be­gin­ning. I wouldn’t row at night be­cause the waves were scary. shut my­self in the cabin, but the au­topi­lot kept over­heat­ing and flick­ing off. I’d have to go to the outer cabin and sort it, think­ing all the time about waves crash­ing into me.”

In to­tal she saw five other boats dur­ing the whole voy­age. For 12 days straight she saw no one and noth­ing.

The equa­nim­ity she found at sea is rooted in her ap­proach to her ill­ness. “We all worry too much about things we can’t do any­thing about. There was noth­ing I could do if a wave hit my boat and it cap­sized, so there was no point stress­ing about it. Just like there’s no point wor­ry­ing about dy­ing.”

The word in­spi­ra­tional is used a lot, but there’s some­thing hugely re­fresh­ing about Matthews’ no-non­sense out­look. Right down to the fact that three miles af­ter leav­ing Gran Ca­naria she re­alised she’d left her med­i­ca­tion be­hind. “I had to row back to port, but ev­ery­one had left – so I had a pint and some fish and chips and bought a packet of cig­a­rettes – they were my only treats on the boat!”

Poor weather scup­pered her plan to fin­ish in un­der 40 days, but it was still a new record; and one she wants other women to take on. She ad­mits she hasn’t been near a row­ing ma­chine since she came home, but she has just com­pleted the Wadi Rum Ul­tra in Jor­dan, six marathons in five days. So what’s next? She hasn’t ruled out row­ing the Pa­cific (“It would take about six months, and I’d be the first fe­male to do it”) or go­ing for the stand-up pad­dle­board­ing record across the At­lantic. “I think I could beat the man’s record.”

The tu­mour may or may not come back, but Matthews doesn’t seem overly con­cerned. “I’m more scared of sit­ting around and do­ing noth­ing with my life.”

KIKO: How To Break The At­lantic Row­ing Record Af­ter Brain Surgery by Kiko Matthews (Polperro Her­itage Press, RRP £20). Buy now for £16.99 at books.tele­graph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514

Kiko Matthews dur­ing her epic record-break­ing voy­age across the At­lantic, be­low

RECORD BREAKERKiko, with fam­ily mem­bers, af­ter ar­riv­ing in Port St Charles, Bar­ba­dos

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