Two WomenTwo Disabilities – One Vision

Our goal: To be the first para-double scull to row the English Channel

This in idea that had long been a dream and which first started to become reality in a muddy field at Henley whilst we were messing about with boats!

With the support, time and dedication of many amazing people along the way, we plan to achieve a crossing of the Channel in order to raise awareness of the abilities of athletes with disabilities.  We will take on this challenge to raise funds for Marlow RowAbility, to support the advance of adaptive rowing in the UK and ultimately to help other people to turn their goals into reality.

Sally Hopewell and Naomi Riches – Studland Bay

Dr Sally Hopewell

 I have always had a thirst for adventure, the love of mountains, and for the great outdoors. In my early 20’s I had an accident whilst climbing which resulted in a spinal cord injury.  That means I am paralysed from the chest down and now use a wheelchair. Despite this, my thirst for adventure remains strong and, while I am no longer able to climb mountains, I enjoy many new sports and challenges such as scuba diving, sky diving, sea kayaking and rowing.   Rowing at sea combines the two sports I love best – the feeling of freedom and space of sea kayaking and the skill and technique of rowing (although I still have a way to go to perfect the technique bit!). For me TGCR 2023 will be the ultimate challenge of strength, endurance and above all team work. 

Naomi Riches MBE.  Paralympic gold medallist 2012, and Worlds gold medallist.

At just 8 weeks old I was diagnosed with Achromatopsia along with a cocktail of other eye conditions; this means that I have no colour vision and I am extremely sensitive to light conditions.  I struggle to focus on nearby objects and miss a lot of detail.   I also find it very hard to judge distances and especially the speed of moving objects.   My parents knew from day one that this would lead to many difficulties and challenges in life.  During my years in mainstream school I was severely bullied, and my needs were not well catered for which led to my under-achieving academically and subsequently a left me with a serious lack of self-confidence.  This was hammered home when my form tutor was overhead commenting that I had not done well in my GCSE’s and that I would not achieve much in the future.

It was during my second year at Bucks New university that I was offered the chance to try out for the Great Britain Adaptive Rowing Team – pretty much on the grounds that I was tall and lived with serious visual impairment. I seized the opportunity and just 4 months later I became a World Champion in Great Britain’s Mixed Coxed Four.

Over the next 10 years, Para-Rowing developed into a full time, Lottery-Funded Paralympic Sport, making its debut at the 2008 Beijing Games.  I was later delighted to be described by my coach  as ‘key in the development of Para-Rowing over those 10 years’, in that time I won 6 World Championship titles, a Bronze at the Beijing Games and a Gold in London 2012.  

My journey was by no means easy but I was always driven onwards by a burning desire to prove that I am capable of achieving despite my visual impairment.

Throughout my career I had raced in crew boats so in 2016 I decided to switch to the exposure of a Single Scull. The challenge was to row the Navigable Thames in a single for a Guinness World Record (GWR);  I covered the 165 miles from Lechlade to Gravesend non-stop in 47hours 59minutes and 54 seconds; in 2017 I was awarded the GWR for being the first and fastest woman ever to row the length of the Navigable Thames.

I always find myself looking for challenges and when I met Sally in 2018 realised I had found a kindred spirit.  Rowing the Channel for me will be a huge adventure and with a mixed disability crew it will be both another first and a unique experience for both of us.   We each thrive on showing the world that we can do anything we set our minds to. 

Since June 2013, the French authorities have stopped all officially recognised channel rowing attempts from entering French waters. The Prefecture Maritime De La Manche Et De La Mer Du Nord is responsible for security and safety on the French side of the Channel; and in their view the persistent crossings to the UK by migrants in small boats are so hazardous that man-powered boats should not travel in the reverse direction.

For as long as this situation persists the only approved route for World Record attempts will involve us rowing from Dover, Shakespeare Beach to the Colbart Buoy (mid-point of the Channel) and then back to the English coast!  

The challenge of combining athletes with two very different disabilities in one crew means that we will employ both fixed seat rowing (rowing using arms and shoulders only) and sliding seat rowing (rowing with use of legs, trunk and arms) in the same boat.  Thus one athlete with very limited vision will partner a second with no mobility below the waist rowing on open seas in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.   

This will truly be a challenge that will require the ultimate teamwork.