Imagine being out on the open water for 48 days. You are on a 39-foot catamaran named Big Blue with 15 people from all around the world with whom you have previously spent very little time.
Each day, the waves of the ocean toss your vessel about. The sun beats down, trying to sap you of every last ounce of energy you have.
Sure, there is a GPS on board to let people on shore know where you are. Other than that, it’s just you, 15 new faces, and more than 3,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean, which you have to row across.
This is how Elizabeth Koenig ’07 chose to spend most of her winter.
That’s right. Koenig chose this adventure.
A former member of URI’s women’s crew team, Koenig was part of an international crew that last January set out to break a world record by rowing from Tarfaya, Morocco, to Port St. Charles, Barbados, in less than 33 days.
The row was completely unaided, with no second trailing boat to help out if Big Blue ran into trouble. Koenig and the rest of the team were on their own.
Crew members rowed in shifts for two hours at a time, catching sleep and meals in between. Each crew member had extra duties. Whether cooking meals, providing medical attention, or documenting the experience with cameras, everyone had to pitch in.
What started as an inquiry into an Internet advertisement turned into an experience the Huntington, N.Y., native will never forget.
“I was looking on Row2k.com, and I came across an ad looking for athletes to try out for an international crew,” Koenig said. “I thought to myself, ‘If I am going to do this, I want that world record.’ Initially, 15 people tried out, and I was one of the 12 they kept.”
The record attempt was targeted for the winter of 2010. However, a change in skippers and other logistical issues pushed the trip to 2011.
One January 15, Koenig became a member of a crew that included American skipper Angela Madsen (a paraplegic), Australian Margaret Bowling, and others from England, Austria, and Canada. Crew member David Davlianidze, originally from the Republic of Georgia, is president and chief operating officer of Roc Expedition, which supported the record attempt.
Unfortunately, Big Blue was blown off course and had to drop anchor 10 days into the attempt, costing the crew a shot at the world record. Adding to the disappointment was the news that a boat from the United Kingdom with a more traditional single hull had succeeded in breaking the world record by two days, completing the course in 31 days.
While the Big Blue crew did not set the world record, they did manage to become the first 16-person catamaran to complete the voyage.
“Mental preparation is the biggest part of ocean racing,” Koenig said. “You can work out and get yourself physically prepared, but the mental aspect is huge. Rowing out in the ocean is so different from flat-water rowing; some of the challenges you face, you just can’t really train for.”
While Koenig did not get the world record she was looking for, there were plenty of benefits that she did gain. Before setting off on the journey, she had raised $10,000 in sponsorships. Part of the money is going to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Koenig dedicated her efforts with Big Blue to three people she knew who had cancer. Two died, but Koenig’s younger cousin Sarah was able to beat cancer thanks to the care provided at Sloan-Kettering. Koenig decided to raise money through her Row for Hope to show her family’s appreciation. The money will help further research on pediatric cancer.
The students at Saint Anthony’s High School in Long, Island—where Koenig is both an alumna and a part-time coach—chipped in as well. They sold hundreds of Row for Hope bracelets for $5 each, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Sloan-Kettering.
“One of the girls on the crew team at Saint Anthony’s, Caroline Spiezio, really took that responsibility on,” said Koenig, who had been a captain at Saint Anthony’s during her prep years. “I coached her last year when she was a freshman, and she came to me saying how much she wanted to do something to help. So she became my campaign manager. It was one of many examples of the type of support that made this whole thing possible.”
The team members at Saint Anthony’s provided emotional support for Koenig, too. Training on her own for several months before meeting up with the Big Blue crew was a tall order.
“In the winter, when I was doing indoor training, they were all getting a kick out of it,” said Koenig, who juggled coaching and training with her full-time job as a community manager for the digital marketing firm Kinetic Fin. “I would work out early in the morning and late in the afternoon; it was really helpful to be able to coach and work out there.”
In the end, Koenig got an adventure on the open water while helping a cause close to her heart: “It was a way for me to help fight for a cause I believe in, curing pediatric cancer. My cousin is a survivor, and with proper research, others can do it, too. I’ve known other people who weren’t as fortunate. Research saved my cousin. This row was an opportunity to do something for myself while helping others at the same time.”
To learn more about Koenig’s adventure, go to http://bigbluerow.blogspot.com/
Shane Donaldson ’99