‘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
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