Rebecca Berger (age 41) and Leanne Zrum (43), both Canadian, are competing in the Open Pairs class in this year’s race.
Rebecca and Leanne met at the gym – they joke that real rowers can recognise each other because they are the only ones who know how to use the gym rowing machine. The two women went on to row together in dragon boats and outrigger canoes, and knew that they shared the same level of commitment and the same kind of work ethic, so to pair up for the Pacific was the natural choice.
Their boat is of the Rannoch model first pioneered by Charlie Pitcher in the 2009 Atlantic rowing race. The design was considered controversial at first, as it flipped the traditional ocean rowboat back to front, having a small stern cabin and a large fore cabin that acts like a sail in a tailwind, giving an undeniable advantage in terms of speed and directional stability. Charlie Pitcher, rowing solo, won the 2009 race ahead of even the pairs and fours.
Yet Rebecca and Leanne state convincingly that they chose the boat because they believe it is the best available and ergonomically it feels more like the canoes that they are used to, and not because winning is their goal. They were in the fortunate position of having full sponsorship for the purchase of the boat, when Rebecca’s company Clearly Contacts came on board as title sponsor. (Note to aspiring ocean rowers: we all know it’s tough to get sponsorship, so you could do worse than work evenings and weekends for 8 years for an adventure-loving boss if it means you get your boat for free.)
But the Canadians’ secret weapon is less their boat, and more their meticulous preparation, backed up by some powerful common sense. They have had the luxury of time – Rebecca signed up for the race the moment registration opened on 1st June 2012 – she ordered the boat in December that year, and it arrived in September 2013. So they have had plenty of time to source kit and pack carefully.
They are also both very experienced paddlers. Rebecca took up dragon boating while she was living in the British home of rowing, Henley-upon-Thames, and very quickly excelled in the sport. She went on to represent Great Britain in three Dragon Boat World Championships winning gold, silver and bronze medals, as well as obtaining a world record.
Leanne is no stranger to Hawaiian waters, having been a member of the all Canadian OC-6 crew that won the 2010 Queen Liliuokalani (the largest canoe race of its kind in Kona, Hawaii) and placing 4th in the 2011 Na Wahine O’Ke Kai (Molokai to Oahu, Hawaii). These races involve water changes, where the departing paddler jumps overboard and the incoming paddler is in the waves waiting to grab the boat and jump in as it shoots past at 12 knots. Yikes.
On arrival in Hawaii Rebecca is looking forward to a bottle of Fat Tug by the Driftwood Brewery, and some fresh fruit and veg. Leanne is going to start more slowly with a Coke before moving on to a huge bowl of Mai Tai.
Chances are good that they will get there as they hope – safely and enjoyably, with a good race position being no more than a welcome bonus. As Leanne says: “We want to be able to control what we can control so that when something we can’t control happens we’ve prepared for it as best we could.”