When Kiko Matthews first decided to row the Atlantic on her own, she had never so much as sat in a rowing boat before. Not only this, she was battling Cushing’s disease and a pituitary tumour.

Yet on 22 March 2018, the former teacher from the UK finished a 4,819 km (2,602 nautical miles) journey from Gran Canaria to Port St. Charles, Barbados, having made history in the sport of rowing.

She achieved the Fastest female solo row across the Atlantic on the Trade Winds I route (open-class) and Fastest female solo row across the Atlantic on the Trade Winds I route titles, setting an impressive new mark of 49 days 7 hr 15 min. Her average speed was 2.2 knots.

On board Soma, she chose to travel the Trade Winds Route I, which meant going from any Canary Island port to any Caribbean port or northern port in South America.

As verified by the Ocean Rowing Society, Kiko beat the open-class boat record, which stood at 59 days 19 hr 14 min by Elaine Hopley (UK), and the overall record of 56 days 10 hr 9 min by Anne Quéméré (France).

We recently caught up with Kiki to find out more about her epic journey.

Could you tell us how this all began? How did you get to the point where you thought you could be in with a chance at successfully attempting a Guinness World Records title?

It started in September 2016, when I decided I needed a challenge. I know the man who had the male solo record at the time and his nephew was also a Guinness World Records title holder for ocean rowing. I had chatted to them about it and using his boat, and it seemed the right time to do it. I thought I was in with a chance because they believed I could do it, it’s a great boat and I'm crazy and strong enough.

Kiko Matthews GWR attempt

Tell us a little more about your pituitary tumour diagnoses and how that affected your decision to take on the challenge.

In 2009 there were all sorts of things going on with me that I eventually ended up going to a doctor [and getting diagnosed with] Cushing's disease, which linked with all the other symptoms I was having: muscle wasting, memory loss, mania and psychosis, facial and stomach swelling (due to the high steroid level from the tumour), hairy, spotty, osteoporosis, bruising, lump of fat on the back of my neck and insomnia. 

I wasn't in a great state. I spent a month in hospital, of which a period of that was in intensive care. 

The second-time around, I recognised the signs and was back at the doctor before my body got too bad. I actually cycled to the operation and was in hospital for less than three days.

It made me give up teaching to do something I was going to love. You never know when you may be debilitated for life or die, so why do something that you don't love? 

The second tumour was probably what made me crazy enough to put the idea [of attempting a record] in my head!

How did you first get into rowing?

I didn't row until I decided to do the row, apart from a little bit in a wooden boat on holiday!

Were there any nerve-wracking moments, or a point where you thought you might not make the journey?

There were some slightly scarier moments. I had 2 x 80-ft waves (I'm saying they're 80-ft as they seemed twice the size of the massive 40-ft ones, not because I had a tape measure out!). They were huge!

Did you have any interesting encounters with sea creatures during your row?

I saw a white whale which I've Googled and it sounds like there are only three or four known white whales in the world. That’s pretty special.

How did you feel on your arrival in Barbados and how did you celebrate?

It was good to be done – rowing and life on board becomes a little sticky and relentless. The mojito was the celebration that I’d been thinking of for weeks! It was obviously nice to see the family that had made it there and all the other people who came to welcome me in. I did feel a bit like a rabbit in the headlights though!

What do you family and friends think about your Guinness World Records achievements?

I think they are quite proud, but playing it cool! Before I set out, I'm not sure they thought I was actually going to do it!

What are the advantages of rowing, what benefits have you seen and why would you recommend learning?

It is a great full body work out and a great excuse to get fit. I had never experienced the ocean before, but being out there was amazing – looking around and seeing nothing for miles! Apparently, there were people in space closer to me than on Earth!

Kiko Matthews with her family

What advice would you give to young people who would like to attempt long distance rowing achievements?

You have to want to do it, otherwise the bad times will take over. I was doing it to raise money for Kings College Hospital, which saved my life, and I also had a lot of people who supported me in the planning both financially and with their time. 

I set out to show people that regardless of experience, money and setbacks, anything can be achieved if you want it enough. Having a purpose really made a difference. Don't just do it because you feel like you should or because it sounds cool! That won't keep you going.

What does it mean to you to be a Guinness World Records title holder?

It’s exciting to know that I have the record, but in all honesty the most exciting and important part was the fundraising (at time of writing I am over £100,000 for Kings College Hospital) and the messages I receive from people telling me the changes they have made as a result of being inspired. That’s why I did it, so achieving that, plus getting the GWR makes it all worthwhile.

Could you tell us a little more about how the challenge was funded?

I actually chose to be fully funded by women. 100TogetHER was set up and its aims were to help me get the boat in the water but also to show women that if we work together and support each other, any challenge can be achieved or overcome. I would often think about these girls and women during tough times [during the row], so the community aspect really helped me through. I think they are all part of the Guinness World Records title with me because without them, I wouldn't have got the boat in the water and would probably have been a lot slower!

We recently ran a series celebrating our female record holders for Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. What does your record mean to you as a female record breaker and do you hope to inspire other women to attempt records and push their limits?

I am very much all about being you and pushing yourself, man or woman, but I think so many women live by what the media think we should be like. Hopefully more girls and women will see what I have achieved, along with other women doing great things, and realise that being a woman doesn't mean anything and shouldn't create boundaries. It’s really only our own minds that do that. I don't think there was anything on my row that put me at a disadvantage of achieving what I did - there are lots of women who could do it, if they believed it enough.

What does the future hold?

That would be telling - but I do love challenging myself so I'm sure I won't be chilling at home for long. One day I may find a man and have babies but the rate that time is passing, I'm not holding my breath!