Rower with incurable cancer breaks Atlantic challenge world record

·5 min read
Kat Cordiner (right) with her ExtraOARdinary team Abby Johnston and Charlotte Irving (centre). Kat is battling cancer and the team has chosen to support Cancer Research UK, Macmillan and The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity
Kat Cordiner (right) with her ExtraOARdinary team Abby Johnston and Charlotte Irving (centre). Kat is battling cancer and the team has chosen to support Cancer Research UK, Macmillan and The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity

Kat Cordiner spent her 40th birthday in hospital, having radiotherapy for incurable secondary cervical cancer. But her 41st birthday in January was very different: she was on a rowing boat in the middle of the Atlantic, four weeks into a record-breaking race to cross the ocean.

Ms Cordiner, along with teammates Charlotte Irving, 32, and Abby Johnston, 31, landed on Sunday after 42 days, seven hours and 17 minutes at sea: a full seven days faster than the previous world record for a female trio in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

The 3,000 mile journey from La Gomera in the Canaries to English Harbour in Antigua is one of the most gruelling ocean races in the world. The trio decided to take it on after getting a taste for adventure on previous endurance challenges: Cordiner and Johnston met while sailing legs of the Clipper Round the World Race, while Irving, a school friend of Johnston, previously walked the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail.

Ms Cordiner, who is thought to be the first cancer patient to take part in the race, faced challenges above and beyond the average competitor. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in March 2019 and after treatment was told there was a five per cent chance it would return. But in July 2020 she was told the cancer had come back, and spread to her ovaries. Although she had treatment to slow the cancer, it is not curable.

In November 2020, doctors also found a tumour in her heart, and Cordiner was ordered to stop training until May 2021, leaving her just over six months to train.

Miss Cordiner said: "It floored me a bit initially and more than anything I was peeved because I couldn't exercise. But when I got back in the boat, I was quite strong - I knew I could do it!"

The trio rowed in shifts of two hours on, one hour off, from 5am every day, with sleeping breaks stretching only up to four hours overnight
The trio rowed in shifts of two hours on, one hour off, from 5am every day, with sleeping breaks stretching only up to four hours overnight

Just before the race began, Cordiner was diagnosed with an infection resulting from complications from her cancer treatment, meaning that she had to take antibiotics for her first four weeks on board.

The group broke the record for the fastest female trio to cross the Atlantic from the Canaries to Antigua, which was previously held by another British team: Mo O’Brien, Bird Watts and Claire Allison, who made the journey in 49 days, 13 hours, 49 minutes in 2020.

Cordiner says the relief of landing in Antigua and seeing her parents and best friend on the shore was “lovely”, despite having “wobbly legs” on land.

The trio, who gave themselves the team name ExtraOARdinary, rowed in shifts of two hours on, one hour off, from 5am every day, with sleeping breaks stretching only up to four hours overnight. They each ate 5,000 calories a day, with meals of rehydrated powdered food like scrambled eggs or spaghetti carbonara.

Their 23-foot boat, called Dolly Parton, was so small that the crew barely stood or walked for six weeks. “You might only walk five feet from one end to the other, so your calf muscles waste away”, Ms Cordiner told The Telegraph.

They slept in a small cabin which reached temperatures of up to 40C (104F), used a bucket as a lavatory and had to cut infected calluses from their hands with a scalpel.

Race organisers told Ms Cordiner that if she had a medical emergency during the race, rescuers would only be able to reach them within 200 miles from either coast, with no help available in the middle 2,600 miles. “[My doctors] thought I was mad”, said Cordiner.

To prepare for the race, the three completed 200 hours of training in their boat before setting off. They also trained six days a week in the gym, on rowing machines and lifting weights to build the strength needed to battle the waves at sea. “When you're rowing in a strong sea and against the current or against the wind, it feels like deadlifting 100kg”, said Cordiner.

To keep spirits high during the expedition, the three listened to crime podcasts, music or audiobooks. “Charlotte listened to Harry Potter and would fall asleep with it blazing out with Stephen Fry narrating it”, said Cordiner.

For Cordiner’s birthday at sea, Irving and Johnston had collected gifts from her friends and family – with the stipulation that they must be small, so they didn’t take up precious space on board. Her birthday was “really nice”, despite Cordiner not getting what she asked for: a day off rowing.

“I was really choked, I couldn't quite believe the [change from the] previous year…last year I was having radiotherapy with a sash on”, said Cordiner.

Miss Cordiner is now in remission and only taking drugs to deal with the effects of being plunged into an early menopause.

She said: "The doctors have told me I don't have decades, I have years, so I really want to make the most of them. I don't want to muck around doing stuff that doesn't matter - I want to do things that are challenging and fun.

"I don't know how long I'll be in remission. A lot of people think cancer/chemo/death. But today the drugs are so much better - you can live your life with cancer. People live for years on treatment."

The three are raising money for three cancer charities – Macmillan, Cancer Research UK and the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity – and are two-thirds of the way to their goal of £100,000.

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