Transcript of the Tough Girl Podcast with Sally Kettle - World Record Two-Time Atlantic Ocean Rower

Sarah: The Tough Girl Podcast is all about motivating and inspiring you.

Hello and welcome to the Tough Girl Podcast. I'm delighted to be here with Sally Kettle.

Sally, hello and welcome to the show.

Sally Kettle: Hello, how are you doing?

Sarah: I'm very well thank you.

Sally, you’ve done some incredible feats. You're known as a professional adventurer, author, motivational speaker, and you've also got a Guinness World Record.

Let's just take you back right to the beginning. How did all the adventuring really start?

Is it something that you've always wanted to do from a young age, or is just something that sort of developed throughout the years?

Sally Kettle: No, you know what, it wasn’t something I wanted to do from a young age. I just wanted to have an interesting life. I had a weird sense of my own mortality when I was a kid. I don't know why that is in particular, but I knew from an early age that actually this is it, you don't get more from this and that you've got to really make the most of it.

I was really keen to have a life that was filled with exploration and experiences and to really grab it by the proverbial rather than just go into a regular job and sort through that and come out at the other end and go, “Oh, is that it?”

I was pushing myself when I was younger to think about something really exciting, and then the ocean rowing came up as an idea. I thought, “Wow, you know what, I've never done this before, let's give it a go,” and then it all exploded from there.

Sarah: The ocean row, is that the first of a big challenge that you actually took?

Sally Kettle: No, funny enough it wasn’t.

From the outside looking it, it probably was, but for me the stuff with the London Marathon was my biggest challenge to start with because I've never really run before.

I remember being very quite sporty, but enthusiastic at sport at school but actually never really good at it. I was always the first to fall over because I was so excited about getting stuck into the netball match or whatever that I’d trip over myself with excitement there’d be blood leaking down onto my white socks. I left school and I think as most young women tend to do is they kind of drop out of doing any sort of sports participation.

Then you get into your 20s and you try to feel in a bit blobby and you think what am I going to do about this, and then you get stuck into your first mini-challenge. For me that was the London Marathon.

I remember when I first started training I couldn’t even run down the street literally to run down the street without feeling painful and horrible. At the time I kind of got myself to start the race and that for me was a massive achievement from both my self –confidence and for my physical fitness too.

Anybody who has trained for a marathon knows how mentally difficult it is. It is really tough going. Just doing that really helped when me when it came to preparations for an ocean row.

Sarah: I think you’ve actually hit the nail on the head because a lot of the schools where I go to, a lot the girls don't want to play sports, they don't want to get involved and they do end up dropping out.

They miss out on all of this, the teamwork and the fun that comes from being involved in team sports. I've run the London Marathon myself so I know how hard the training can actually be, and the mental challenge it actually places on you.

You’ve run the marathon, you obviously got the massive high from completing that challenge. How did that translate to rowing across the ocean because that's quite a big jump from running to rowing?

Sally Kettle: Yeah, it was a massive jump. I had a boyfriend that was home and I think when you're done, it's kind of massive. I think it is massive as running a marathon.

You still think what's my next challenge and it feels like a demand for you to continue challenging yourself so that you don't drop into a lack of activity all over again.

I suggested to him that we did....from the bike and that would take two weeks, it would be great the two of us. He said, “No, I couldn’t go,” because he was planning to go with a friend of his and it was boys only.

He said, “We can row across the Atlantic.” The funny thing is I had never heard of it. I instantly thought of the row at the local rowing lake, the harbor type thing. I thought nobody had ever done it. With a little bit of investigation and found out there was actually quite a few ocean rowers and they've actually been in races. He must have read about it somewhere because he just called it out of nowhere. He was by no stretch an athlete in any way and he had never done any running or any rowing, and I certainly had not done any rowing but I just thought, “Wow, this could be it.” I was kind of crossing life crises at that point, that bit where you come out puny and you say, “Oh, my God what am I going to do?” and everybody’s got sexier boyfriends than you, and better jobs than you, and everybody seems more focused than you, and they are earning more money than you.

It's driven by jealousy of everybody else whose purpose is seemingly a perfect life and you think I'm going to take something a bit massive on. That's what I did. It's funny because somebody some time ago said to me that happy people don't climb mountains. That was really true for me at that time. I was really looking for something to come cheer me up and get me focused. We decided to just get started right in and skip the session room.... a go. It was a complete life-changer.

Sarah: You actually made some really interesting pints there especially about not knowing what it is that you wanted to do and everyone else seemed so focused and so driven.

It's almost having like a plan in place or something to aim towards. You’ve obviously got this big challenge, rowing across the Atlantic.

How did you even start the training and the mental and the physical preparation for it?

Sally Kettle: We talked to a lot of people and I think that's really important because you only gain knowledge by asking stupid questions, and we asked a lot of stupid questions.

Actually what was fabulous about that sport in particular, if we can call it sport, was that everybody was really keen to talk about it. They’d already done it. They could share their vast amount of knowledge and experience and tell us right there the hideous stories as well as the good stories. We did a massive knowledge download to start with. That continued all the way up to the start of the race, we were asking people who would come up to support and help.

Certainly as the ocean row was in it, what would they do and how would they do it because we had never been in a boat. We had only been on a cross-channel ferry. It was a massive learning curve, unbelievable. It was like ice-climbing. It wasn’t even walking up a hill, it was a vertical knowledge download. That was the first step.

Interestingly, I work a lot now in the corporate environment through our teamwork and so on and so forth, but one of things that I've done recently was talk about visualization and how important that is to enable you to achieve your goals.

Without knowing it, during the whole process of preparation I was doing a lot of visualization. I was imagining myself on the boat and what I was doing there. I think that really, really helped me when I actually got into the boat. That was a biggie, getting the mindset right.

On the physical front I think we got it all wrong, to be honest. We spent a lot of time in a rowing machine and we shouldn’t have done, but we just didn’t know a lot of people who’d trained for this type of event. I think as things are getting more professional with ocean rowing I think that's completely changed.

At the time we thought if we start in a rowing machine we’d be really fit and ready to do it, but actually it was a big mistake because what we really needed to do is build our muscles because we were going to lose those because we would lose so much muscle mass while we were at sea.

Tom, the boyfriend actually didn’t end up coming with me, my mom ended up coming with me. She’d only got two months training so in the end it all came down to the mental rather than the physical if you want to complete a challenge like that.

I think that's the same with any big expedition. It is going to be down to be down to your physical toughness.

Sarah: Absolutely.

Sally Kettle: It does really help if you're physically fit because then you're not having to rely on your mental toughness to get you through so much because everything is hurting.

Sarah: You’d never actually been on a boat before you set off?

Sally Kettle: No.

Sarah: Wow.

Sally Kettle: Like we spent half a day just on the harbor on the rowing boats before we left.

Sarah: Oh my goodness, that's absolutely crazy.

Sally Kettle: Yeah, it was, but the funny thing is it was kind of norm. When you're right at the start of ocean rowing, and we were kind of really it was the start of ocean rowing to be honest, the people who took part in it were average Joe’s, the housewives and chaps who had just walked out a regular job and this was going to be a life-changing adventure.

Most of us came to a completely naïve to the whole process. In lots of ways it continues to be that within ocean rowing. It doesn't attract many professionals.

It attracts regular people who just want to have an amazing adventure at sea. I think that's the beauty of that sport, is that's what it does. I’d like it to continue being like that.

Sarah: Sometimes it's actually a blessing when you don't know what you don't know.

Sally Kettle: I know, it's hardly ignorance is bliss.

There's not many sailors that actually go off and do ocean rowing because they know how hideous it is.

Sarah: Were you with your boyfriend? You are planning to do this trip. Two month before he drops out and then your mom steps in.

Sally Kettle: It wasn’t even like that. We actually started the race so the boyfriend and I were out on the boat. We spend six days at sea. He had epilepsy and we had to picked up and taken back to the start because he had a seizure four days in. We were ready to go, but that six days was just hideous. I think the comparison I would make is that when you know in the running training, that first three miles or two or three miles are just hideous and we think “Why is this hurting so much, I just don't want to continue.”

After that you kind of kick through the pain and you get into the sweet spot. In ocean rowing they say the first two weeks are the worst, and I have to tell you, they most certainly are. If you can get through the first two weeks you can get all the way across. It's just a shame that we weren’t able to do that on the first attempt just because of Tom's illness so we had to go back and then come back to the UK and then we signed up to another race two months later and my mom said that she’d come with me.

Sarah: Wow, so you’d already done one week which is the hardest week.

Sally Kettle: Yeah.

Sarah: You could have actually easily quit right there and then, but it's awesome that you persevered. It's you and your mom, you're on the boat, you're rowing across the Atlantic. How was it?

Sally Kettle: It was amazing.

It was really amazing and really hideous at the same time.

The one thing about this particular experience is that you don’t have middle time. It's always incredibly low or incredibly high emotionally. There's rarely any bit in the middle. It's so like the sea in that way, I suppose, it's a great mess. When you're feeling down, gosh you feel down. Everything’s hurting, your backside is hurting, your hands are hurting. It's never bloody ending and you think are we ever going to get there. You're creeping along at a snail’s pace and you're feeling homesick and it's just horrific and then suddenly a whale comes along. It's like, “Oh my God, there's a whale!” he sort of backs around the boat and it's so exciting and you think, “This is the most beautiful environment ever and I can't imagine being at home.” The whale goes two hours later and then and night shifts in and “Oh my God, we’re still here.” It can be exhausting emotionally, but going with my mom was the best thing ever, really, she was just as awesome.

Sarah: What would be a typical day like? How do you structure it?

Sally Kettle: The funny thing is I think my mom and I were quite unique in how we structured our day because of the relationship we had and also because of our goal. That was not to fail and to just get across.

The teams that were keen on breaking records and or getting across quickly, they would have had a completely different structure. Mom and I, we did a maximum of an hour on an hour off during the day and then we went to bed at night because neither of us enjoyed the night shift. It was incredibly lonely and extremely long and it was making us feel really depressed, so we just went to bed. Sometimes we drifted further during the night than we rowed during the day which made no sense. When we were all hands on deck it took us a few weeks to figure it out. We felt really lonely. When you're rowing as a pair you're actually rowing on your own.

If you tell anyone the way the boat is set up you rarely sit with the other person and talk to them unless you decide to row together and the other person sits on deck with you. That's pretty hard core. We both agreed that we’d much rather sit out on deck with each other and talk to each other than row during the night. That's what we did and we listened to a lot of Carol king and we talked a lot about our lives and we grew cress and it was a really beautiful experience. It was a lifestyle, not an adventure. Does that make sense?

Sarah: Absolutely, and it sounds as though you really bonded. How long were you out on the water for?

Sally Kettle: Four months.

Sarah: Four months, wow.

Sally Kettle: Just craziness, it was 106 days. Actually my mom and I got to a point where we were really pleased that we broke the 100 days because it felt like such an achievement to spend 100 days at sea. It was massive. We wanted to come in at 88 days, two fat ladies. That was never going to happen. In fact, we kind of continued on it, it was 106. It was really great for us.

Sarah: Can I ask, how old were you at this point, and how old was your mom?

Sally Kettle: I was 26 and my mom was 46, so she's quite a young mom.

Sarah: That's actually fantastic because sometimes I think people have these mentally limiting factors with regards to age and whereas I think that age is just a number. The fact that she did that, it's fantastic.

Sally Kettle: It's totally ridiculous but older people saying they can't achieve it. There's an amazing couple, the Hoffstein. I can't remember his wife’s name, but they are planning to do the row and they are in their late 60s. The one thing that comes with age is the wisdom and self-knowledge that's needed to take something like that and really look after yourself and enjoy it. Something that I learned from that very first experience is that most of the competing teams didn’t enjoy it. I just think the likelihood of you ever doing this again is pretty slim, so you may as well go out and have a great time and sit back and smell the coffee because how often will you get the opportunity to sit in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and try and touch whales?

Sarah: A hundred and six days, you're coming into the other side, what was that feeling like when you got to see land?

Sally Kettle: Slightly scary.

That sounds a bit weird but it was a sense that you've got to go back to the world again. I think there's so many French troops at least under post-deployment blues. I don’t know if you’ve heard that term where it's mostly seen in soldiers who are coming back from the field and thinking, "I want to be out there again. I want to be out there experiencing this because you feel so alive in doing it."

That's definitely true for me. When I got off both my mom and I were like, “Yeah, well we got here.” Everybody thinks that when you see land it's going to be this amazing joyous experience, and we kind of whispered. At the same time we’re thinking about, we have been rowing towards it for the last four months, it's not like it's a surprise.

We got off and we were like, “Is that here,” because you're there and every day feels like a week and every week feels like a year, and then as soon as you see land that four months is gone in a flash, it's just disappeared.

The one thing that I do enjoy about being a speaker is that you're able to relive that experience again and again and again because it was so extraordinary for us.

Also I hadn’t spoken to my mother for nearly 10 weeks before so it was a hugely emotional life-changing journey for us a mother-daughter relationship.

I suppose it's kind of doing it's my turn to pay for a holiday every year, going, "How could I be not able to do it, it feels brilliant." It's a level off for me because it gives me an opportunity to realize how extraordinary that adventure was.

Sarah: I know that you wrote a book about it as well.

Sally Kettle: Yeah.

Sarah: Tell me a bit more about the book. It's Sally’s Odyssey. Is that about your experience with your mom and rowing across the ocean?

Sally Kettle: Yeah. Did you get the odyssey, by the way?

Sarah: The ending.

Sally Kettle: The pun. Yeah.

Sarah: I do now.

Sally Kettle: That was a really tough book to write, actually. It took me a year and a half to do it, as much of anything else. I had a bit of a confidence crisis writing it. I though nobody is ever going to want to read it right now.

I sold 1,000 copies and that's really weird that people have read it and know my life quite intimately, really. I got the book. Again, another crazy interesting journey on that as well.

The publisher went bust about a week after it hit the shelves and he ran away to Australia. I had to re-engage the deal with people who were selling books.

For the last few years I've been selling them on my own which has been really empowering in lots of ways. Anybody who’s done any book writing and attempt to sell it suddenly realizes that actually that is a lot tougher than it's portrayed. The selling of the book as just as tough as the writing of it.

Sarah: Absolutely, and you can get your book on Amazon and also from your website,

Sally Kettle: Yes, that's so, look it up. I signed it too so if you want to send me an email, anybody who wants it, I'm happy to sign it to them.

Sarah: Fantastic. You're rowing across the ocean once and do you 106 days and then you decided to do it again.

Sally Kettle: I know.

Sarah: How did that come about?

Sally Kettle: That's a story in itself.

Came back from the first row. It was an amazing experience and raised a quarter of a million pounds for a charity that deals with sporting. In that process, because it had taken so long I lost my flat. I’d been renting out to a chap and he didn’t pay the mortgage, difference on the mortgage that go in on the dole, and moving into my parents, which was a bit kind of crappy.

I came back from this experience thinking oh my God the world is my oyster, and I was thinking, I’d been listening to news on a mini-disc player, it wasn’t that long ago, and I was thinking, “I can't hear something less to music, and because I've read the Atlantic, I'm sure, they're going to invite me to one of their concerts and it's going to be great.” Things that you think in your head because you think that this is such an amazing achievement and everyone’s going to love you. Then you come back and the dark reality is you're on the dole.

I thought,"Well this is just the particulars. Sometimes I don’t understand how we've gone through this entire process and got so many people to support the project and so on and so forth and then I'm left in this kind of pickle really.” I thought what I wanted to escape the first women because there had never been a women’s sport before. The feminist in me certainly though “This is as a sport for women as much as it is for men,” so I wanted to get together a team of three other women to do that.

Also, to go on an expedition that was caring of the rowers that were participating and not leaving them in the shit at the end financially. I had two goals really, one to reinvest in the sport, get a world record, and two to create a structured expedition that was financially viable. We only managed to do one of those and that was the financially viable.

The first one was a complete nightmare because unfortunately we went into the West Bay Atlantic for 200 years. One of the girls slipped and hurt herself and she decides to jump the boat and disqualified us from the race.

Unfortunately, our world record dreams were completely trashed and certainly they were when a shark missed attacking the back of our boat. It was definitely an interesting journey the really, really tested all of us on board.

Sarah: How do you cope with things like that? Sharks attacking the back of the boat and there is somebody dropping out and dashing your dreams at the same time. You carried on though, didn’t you?

Sally Kettle: Yeah, God yeah, absolutely. The funny is at the time I've not really been in a position of team leadership sports so this is a real test for me, and at times I'm that person that's incredibly lonely and also began to feel a little bit paranoid about how I was being perceived by my team mates and whether I should be doing more being better. That was really, really tough. I think lots of people go through that when they are a team leader but not always that honest about it which is quite interesting because I think that is part of the challenge really, and that is to feel confident in your own ability. It not only comes from doing it.

It was a really long struggle to stay positive after Joe got off the boat, but Scarlow's humor is an amazing way to get through these things. We did actually spent a huge amount of time laughing and listening to Robby Williams and singing and just being realistic about what we could achieve.

At that time survival was the realistic choice, and to try and keep going. To the end of it it took an age really to realize the power of that journey. That came from talking to the girls and finding out that actually my goal was to get the world record and to reinvest in the sport, but their goal was just to row across the Atlantic in the end all of them managed to achieve even Joe because she went out and she did it again and I was so proud of her for doing that.

That's not a message I tend to give out to the people that I speak to and that is just because you fail once it doesn't make you a failure. That's something that really important and it's very easy to lay score that those who have not achieved. In doing so you enable them not to achieve and you really got to support those that are struggling so that enables them to go out and do it again.

Sarah: Absolutely. You obviously learned a lot from that experience about leadership and motivation. What would you say were the top two to three things that you learnt from that that you could share with us?

Sally Kettle: Did you watch The Island with the Bad Girl Island?

Sarah: Yeah.

Sally Kettle: Yeah, and the women’s group. It was very interesting to see how they pulled themselves together, to start with.

They really wanted a democracy, and that is something that I've seen a lot with women’s teams in particular is that they don’t like to be led by one single individual, or they don't want to put themselves forward as the leader.

That's something that I was really struggling with as well because I’d been it before I kind of nominated myself to the skipper because of my experience and the girls said, “Yeah, yeah, you're the skipper.”

Actually when we were out there I was defaulting a lot to a democracy and waiting, defaulting as a team to a democracy which didn’t always work. It's interesting to see that dynamic happen in The Island as well for those who haven’t seen it that actually it really didn’t work for them at all. In the end the girls had a massive argument ion the island and decided that they needed a leader.