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Shirl's Atlantic Row: A courageous local begins record-breaking journey

In the next few days, Grasse resident Shirley Thompson will depart from Puerto de Mogán in the Canary Islands in her blue row-boat Amigo and embark on a long and treacherous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Her goal is to arrive in Saint Bart’s in the Caribbean by February. No help, no support team, no engine—just pure endurance. If she does complete the crossing, she will break two world records: the first Irish woman to row any ocean solo and the oldest woman to row any ocean solo.

Shirley describes the challenge as a 60th birthday present to herself, which may be the most unusual, most dangerous, and possibly the most rewarding present one can give. Clearly, Shirley (who goes by Shirl) is not your ordinary woman. She has a hunger for adventure and personal challenge that goes beyond even the most active. One friend, commenting on her Facebook page, called her ‘bonkers’, but professed her Atlantic Row is the most incredible thing a 60-year-old woman can do.

She describes her motivation for this challenge as personal: “I want to prove to myself and others that someone ordinary can do something extraordinary.” It is this sentiment that has been inspiring many people in the region with her massive undertaking.

Speaking with Shirl, one gets the impression they’re speaking with a 20-year-old about to set-off on the journey of a lifetime. With a positive, almost bubbly voice, she reveals her grueling training schedule of rowing 14 hours a day and lists off the unimaginable obstacles and dangers that she will face. From massive winter storms to the very real threat of smashing into container ships in the night, the odds are definitely stacked against her completing the challenge.

“Rowing is the easiest part,” she says.

So where does she find the courage for such an undertaking? She chalks it up to her childhood in Northern Ireland, explaining that everything seems easy after you’ve grown up in a war zone.

Shirl has devoted a lot of her life to giving back, including volunteering for two months every year in the Amazon. But moving from land to sea was a big jump.

“I’m not a woman of the sea,” she admits--adding that she only recently learned to swim--but she has been training since the beginning of the year and feels confident of her ability. “I realise it’s a difficult challenge, [but] I’m mentally and physically prepared and hope my training has covered many eventualities. I will start the crossing only if I feel I will have the best chance possible to finish. If sadly I don't, then it won't be from any lack of preparation on my part.”

Her main goal in this crossing?

“Getting across safely and enjoying the journey,” she says, “The world records will be a bonus, and if charities can benefit from it then that’s wonderful too, but it’s 100% a personal challenge.”

Her Atlantic Row is 99.9% self-funded and she has chosen two local charities, Mimosa Matters and French Riviera Animals and the WWF to benefit from any fundraising. She has recently started a Go Fund Me page to collect donations for the three charities. Find her page here.

Shirley initially told us: “I have paid to purchase and refit a boat, and I have paid for all training, all equipment, food and gear. Despite huge efforts, sponsorship has so far proved almost impossible apart from a very negligible amount. An old bird rowing across an ocean is not big news these days!” However, since Riviera Insider's original interview with Shirl in early September, she has gotten a lot of coverage, including a front-page splash in London's Mirror newspaper, a segment on the BBC and the local channel France 3 has done a special on her as well. This coverage has brought a great amount of support and several new sponsors to help on her journey. 

Shirl has departed from France and is now in Gran Canaria, rearing to set off on her big adventure, though capricious weather is keeping her on call. 

Shirl’s courage and drive are impressive. Regardless of the obstacles facing her, she’s excited to get started. Our best response is to quote a comment from Shirl’s Atlantic Row Facebook page. Supporter Tatiana Rezvaya-Crutchlow writes: “Long live the spirit of adventure. "Good luck, Shirley Thompson!” courageous 

Follow Shirl’s amazing journey on her Facebook page: Shirl’s Atlantic Row.