Rowing through treacherous four-story swells at the beginning of an enormous boating race, Anne Miltenberger (Mgmt’07) did not know if she would be able to complete the seemingly impossible task in front of her and her teammates: row across the Atlantic Ocean in a record-breaking 33 days. In the first two weeks, she faced scorching heat, painful injuries, limited food and water and complete exhaustion.
Very few people decide to row across an ocean. In fact, at the time of finishing her 2,911 nautical-mile race from La Gomera, one of Spain’s Canary Islands, to Barbados, 26-year-old Miltenberger became one of only 29 Americans to complete an ocean row. This means more Americans have climbed Mount Everest and traveled to space.
Her venture started after her father read an article about an ocean row from New York to the United Kingdom. Her younger sister lightheartedly told her she should put it on her list of accomplishments to achieve. Miltenberger initially wondered why someone would ever take on such a feat. However, the thought stuck with her as her adventure-seeking nature and sheer curiosity took over.
“It became a joke-turned-obsession,” she says.
Miltenberger had rowed for the CU crew team for two years. She also had taken an extreme bike trip from Washington state to Maine with 12 other people from around the world immediately after she graduated from CU.
“It was an eye-opening experience and a really great ride,” Miltenberger says of her adventurous trip.
When she decided she wanted to tackle the rowing challenge, the pieces did not immediately fall into place. Faced with raising over $100,000, she had been dropped by an environmental group that was supposed to be a fundraising resource because of the large sum of money she needed in such a short time frame. Shortly after, Miltenberger lost the teammates she had meticulously gathered as they grew overwhelmed by the fundraising and large risks of rowing across the Atlantic. In order to realize her goal, she needed to start from scratch.
Rather than give up, Miltenberger met a skipper named Ian Coach who recruited teammates having trouble coming up with sufficient funds. Reluctant to allow a woman to join the team of 12, he relented when the spots did not fill up. Miltenberger became the only American and one of three women aboard the Britannia III. In November 2009 she flew to the Canary Islands where the team prepared for the intense race across the Atlantic Ocean before race day on Jan. 3, 2010. The team aimed to break the rowing record and cut the normally 90-100 day trip to 33 days, while being the world’s first 12-person team to finish the race.
“We were like the 21st century cast of Gilligan’s Island,” Miltenberger says of her teammates. “We each had something in our background that made us uniquely important to the success of the row.”
The team included two members with British military experience, a dentist, an actor, an Olympic rower and an oil rig foreman, among others. Miltenberger was the nutritionist of the team and regulated everyone’s daily food intake.
Linda Brewer, a businesswoman from the United Kingdom, was Miltenberger’s “buddy” on the team. Together they helped ensure the other was maintaining her hygiene, eating properly and staying in good mental health. Brewer had experienced similar struggles to Miltenberger in being unable to form her own team because of the large sum of money required.
“Anne was amazing,” Brewer says. “She met every challenge head on and surmounted the evils of the first few weeks with pride and courage.”
The team, aged 24 to mid-50s, did not always get along. However, they were forced to continually work together, not only to finish the race as quickly as possible but to survive. Each person rowed continually for two hours before taking a two-hour break. Miltenberger says off periods were anything but restful. Those not rowing did general maintenance, navigated, ate and cleaned the boat. The remainder of the time was spent sleeping, which usually totaled about 45 minutes.
According to Miltenberger, rowing in an ocean is one of the toughest endurance feats. Her first two weeks were testimony to this. The temperatures reached over 100 degrees during the day, but because of strict weight limits on the boat, they were unable to bring sunscreen aboard. There were no winds, currents or waves that helped the boat along. The team rationed their water, which meant the 12-person crew divided three liters each day. Meanwhile, Miltenberger suffered from pulled rib muscles and bandages covered her body. Like other teammates, she found it difficult to stay awake while rowing. As the team fell behind schedule, they had to re-evaluate their food ration, having only enough supplies for about 30 days.
“I wanted to get off the boat,” Miltenberger says of those initial days. However, after receiving a message from her boyfriend, her perspective changed. “I remembered why I had worked so hard to get where I was — there were hundreds of people back home supporting me.”
Despite the rough start, the trip took a positive turn. Miltenberger adapted to her new way of living on a boat and found peace with the ocean.
“I started to enjoy the experience of being out on the water,” she says.
Some of her best moments were late at night when she was looking at the vast, clear sky filled with bright stars. Some of the magical moments were when fluorescent algae would brilliantly light up the water. The team saw dolphins, birds and flying fish but no sharks, which could quickly become a disaster for a rowing team at any given moment because of their ability to destroy boats.
“The reality is that you have to continue,” Brewer says. “You’re not getting off the boat so you have to change your mind-set. You have to pick yourself up and start to look for the little things that can lift you at any point,” Brewer elaborates.
She says she and Miltenberger were able to help each other through the difficult times while also sharing special moments together. “I could not have wished for a better buddy,” she says.
The team remarkably finished in 38 days in February 2010. There were 36 teams and they were the only 12-member team to finish. Most teams had between two to four members. Excited family members and friends greeted them on the coast of Barbados.
Would she do it again? Miltenberger says she wants to row in a smaller team and possibly alone. She is considering a trip from San Francisco to Hawaii, a 3,200 nautical-mile trip. She also has started her own foundation, the Athletic Dream Foundation, which aims to help other athletes pursue and accomplish their own goals.
“You think rowing an ocean is hard — try getting the fundraising together,” Miltenberger says. “I want people in the future to have a helpful resource.”