An interview with Kiko Matthews

Posted by Kath Austin on

Imagine being out at sea on a small boat, closer to astronauts than to any person on land. Surely, most of us would be a little freaked out....not Kiko.

Kiko Matthews rowed 3000 nautical miles across the Atlantic, alone and unaided, setting a new world record. I got the chance to chat to Kiko about her amazing adventure, poo stories and all!

Kiko Matthews on her epic solo Atlantic row

You’ve gone from being diagnosed with Cushing’s disease and a 6mm tumour on your Pituitary Gland to rowing the Atlantic unaided! What impact did your illness have on your life and how did it take you to the ocean?

When I was diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease initially the impact was huge. I spent a month in the hospital, some of that in intensive care. I lost so much muscle I couldn’t climb the stairs, I had Diabetes, osteoporosis, my body swelled and I was so spotty! There was a gap after I recovered and deciding to take on the challenge, so it wasn’t an epiphany or anything. I got healthier and well again to the point where I wanted to challenge myself and also raise money for Kings College Hospital who saved my life.

When I was in training I managed to overtake some guys out on their bikes. It was then I thought the tumour might be back. The pituitary gland manages hormones in the body and the regrown tumour appeared to have changed the levels of testosterone in my body making me stronger. I’ve always been someone to do the loopy stuff but perhaps the hormone change made me decide to be extra crazy and take on this challenge too!

It does seem crazy to take on a challenge you have no experience in. Why did you choose rowing the Atlantic rather than something you were better prepared for?

Firstly, it’s because I knew a guy with a boat! (Charlie Pitcher, male solo world record holder). Secondly, I am really into paddleboarding so it was a natural step towards a water-based challenge. Thirdly, the planning of a challenge like this is so much simpler than a cycling or trekking challenge. Less likelihood of someone mugging me, not as many health risks, no problems with where to stay en route, the risk of injury is far less.

How did you train for the challenge and what sort of time commitment did that entail?

Honestly, I wanted to train when I felt like it. I don’t like following rules so a training plan would never work. I cycled everywhere, went to the gym, and probably did around 40 indoor rowing stints – two of which were marathons.

I did take the boat out a few times to get used to her. There was a five-day trip planned but it didn’t go according to plan so never happened. However, I did do a very long day on the boat by accident. I got up and out at 4 am and rowed for about 5 hours in beautiful conditions, having a great time.

I anchored and slept for half an hour then carried on still going great guns, actually a little too good. I realised I’d rowed too far out to get back against the tide so I stopped to put the anchor down. However, I hadn’t tied the anchor down before I dropped it and couldn’t hold the boat resulting in losing the anchor. So now I’m on the boat being taken away from where I need to be, and with no anchor, I started rowing back against the tide. I realised I was still being taken out but much more slowly. As the tide turned I was rowing enough to basically stand still then it went in my favour I rowed hard to get back calculating I had about an hour before it turned again meaning another six hours of this!!

I was coming into Felixstowe, a very busy port, and called ahead to alert them. Over the phone I could hear the office sharing the news across the radio…"be aware of a solo rower as he makes his way into the port”. I quickly corrected their mistake!

Kiko Matthews in training for her solo Atlantic row

After an experience like that most people would be put off forever, what kept you going? What keeps you from doubting yourself?

If I can handle the Felixstowe day then I figured I could handle the Atlantic too. It gave me the power and strength to do it.

I don’t tend to worry about not being able to do it. I know that five women did it before me and that it is possible. I guess I rationalise the challenge.

What was life like on the boat? How did you wash, poo, eat, sleep?

Haha, pooing is a subject so few people talk about and I just don’t know why. I pooed in a bucket and fed it to the fish, they loved it! I washed very little, I almost didn’t need to be sprayed with water all the time. Everything gets salty and sticky which isn’t great so occasionally I would give them everything a good wash. I had a machine to desalinate the seawater for drinking and eating.

I ate dried food which I added water to. Initially, I hated it but I was concerned a wave would throw the hot water over me, and by the time I got to eating the food it was usually cold, that mostly I just ate cold food.

Sleeping was erratic, I tried lots of patterns but in the end, I tended to row mostly in the daytime. If I did 12 hours on a good day I was happy, although a bad day I’d row 16 hours to catch up. I have always been able to sleep easily so cat naps in between worked well for me.

My body was awesome, it just did what I asked of it. I had no blisters, no injuries, just some seriously calloused hands and a spotty bottom which needed occasional attention - a quick pop and the spots hurt less. A few cuts I had did take a lot longer to heal than usual. I put that down to the bacteria in the water.

Kiko Matthews calloused hands

You seem so grounded and unphased. Were you ever scared? How was the solitude?

The 80-foot waves were pretty hairy and at that point, I did start praying for the first time in 25 years! The boat is built so well that it’s hard to capsize and I’m always attached. You can’t control it so it’s not worth worrying about too much, and if the absolute worst happened I wouldn’t know about it anyway.

I loved standing up on my boat and looking out at the ocean. Nothing for miles and miles. It was a crazy feeling but I actually didn’t mind being alone. That was never my concern.

Besides I had visitors, a storm petrel visited me almost every day regardless of it being off course for its migration route. My mum said it was my granny looking after me. Although I’m not sure what a storm petrel would do in an emergency…

Gigantic waves on Kiko Matthews solo Atlantic row

I love that you had company from the wildlife. Were there any other wildlife experiences?

I saw a white whale. Apparently, there are only 3 or 4 known white whales so I was very lucky. As you’d expect I saw lots of other whales, dolphins and fish. In fact, I got hit in the face by flying fish! They would leap in the boat and get stuck. I’d rescue them but at one point I did accidentally stand on one!!

Alongside nature, did you see any pollution?

The route isn’t on the typically polluted areas like the great gyres however it was still there. I saw plastic more than I saw boats. Considering the vastness of the ocean to see any pollution means it must be quite widespread. It wasn’t old plastic either, mostly modern-day, mostly a recent problem. To be so far away from land and see something that originated on land was concerning.

This challenge was in support of Kings College Hospital and not focused on plastic pollution however I am far more aware of it now. I will definitely reconsider what I take on board next time. I’m glad to take BeeBee Wraps on board to wrap food!

We’re delighted to support you on your adventures. What’s coming up for Kiko next?

I have been offered a spot on the ‘By The Ocean We Unite’ sailing ship in August, researching ocean plastic and learning more about the problem and how we can help solve it.

As an ‘Impact Maker,’ it means I have been offered my place for free for a few stretches of the trip. The gap in between I’ll be cycling from Skagen (north Denmark) to Kiel (North Germany) as well as cycling to the start and the finish, so another epic challenge powered by my legs!

I will be recording the journey as I go, documenting our findings so keep an eye out. I’m excited as it ties in so well with my next big project, an environmentally based challenge back in the UK.

Thanks so much for the Kiko, good luck on your next adventure and we will catch up with you when you’re back.

Kiko Matthews in Barbados at the end of her epic solo Atlantic row

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