Lisa Farthofer split image rowing and on board boat

An inspirational sportswoman battled icy temperatures, frostbite and sleep deprivation to become the first woman to row on the Southern Ocean.

Now, she’s hoping others will follow in her footsteps – even if they are a bit cold and soggy.

Lisa Farthofer (Austria) rowed 407 nautical miles (468.3 mi; 753.7 km) on the open waters in Antarctica from 11 to 17 January.

The 31-year-old professional sailor and rower was part of an expedition alongside Fiann Paul (Iceland), Mike Matson (USA), Jamie Douglas-Hamilton (UK), Stefan Ivanov (Bulgaria) and Brian Krauskopf (USA).

The team – on board rowing boat Mrs Chippy – set off to row 1,500km (932 m) from the Antarctic Peninsula, past Elephant Island, and to South Georgia.

Lisa takes a selfie as she arrives in Antarctica after one week of sailing

They were retracing the steps of a 1915 voyage carried out by Ernest Shackleton and his crew from Elephant Island to South Georgia.

Sadly, due to illness and injury within the crew, Lisa and the guys had to abandon their mission at the half way point.

But the abrupt end of their journey didn’t stop them earning an impressive string of Guinness World Records titles.

As well as becoming the first woman to row on the Southern Ocean, Lisa is also the first woman to row on Polar open waters.

Lisa Farthofer in her rowing boat

As a team, they earned a further eight records:

First human-powered expedition in the Southern Ocean (meaning it was the first open-water human-powered expedition completed entirely within the boundaries of the Southern Ocean) 

Fastest row on the Southern Ocean

First human-powered expedition on the Scotia Sea

First human-powered expedition from the Antarctic

Fastest Polar row

Longest distance rowed on the Southern Ocean

First human-powered expedition on the Southern Ocean (South to North)

Southernmost start of a rowing expedition

So that’s eight record titles each for the boys, but 10 for superwoman Lisa!

Lisa poses with Mike Matson, Brian Krauskopf and doctor David Fretes outside oldest fully standing house of Orcadas Base

Sitting down with us for a chat after returning to her hometown of Attersee am Attersee, located next to one of the biggest lakes in Austria, Lisa said: “Everybody asks me about how beautiful it was, and I don’t have the words to describe it.

“If you’re on the water and see these huge blocks of ice it’s just indescribable – it’s enormous.

“I can’t find the words, it’s something you just have to see for yourself, and it’s moments like this that will stay in my mind forever.”

So why did it take until 2023 for a woman to head out on the Southern Ocean?

Lisa said: “I think nowadays you have so many more possibilities and you can see the physical evolution of women, you see it in high performance sports as well, gymnasts for example are doing tricks that no one would have imagined they could do.

Lisa Farthofer rowing

“It’s also emancipation. Back in the day I don’t think any woman would have thought about going to Antarctica, it was seen as a man’s world.

“Sailing was also a very male dominated sport - and still is - and there are still some issues about attitudes towards women not being aggressive enough to steer and things like that.

“But things are changing and I think it also shows in which direction the evolution is going, so I’m happy to be able to show this to the world.”

Lisa and her team were rowing for seven days and six nights, 24 hours a day.

Lisa inside the cabin of Mrs Chippy with Stefan Ivanov

In teams of three, they’d row for an hour and a half before switching out.

That means they’d have just an hour and a half at a time to cook, eat, sleep, wash, relax and recover.

It’s an impressive feat that most couldn’t imagine being physically capable of.

And things got tougher when crew members began suffering illness and injury.

Lisa suffered from frostnip, which is a stage of frostbite.

Lisa looking after her frozen feet

She also broke some of her toes but didn’t even notice at the time because her feet were so frozen she didn’t feel a thing!

“Maybe it’s a good thing my feet were so cold,” she laughed.

“I had no feeling at all in my feet and also lost a bit of skin.”

She added: “I would love to describe how cold it was, but I can’t, it’s totally different to the kind of cold we’re all used to.

Lisa takes a picture of a glacier at Laurie Island

“If you look at the numbers it’s not that cold, like maximum -5 degrees but it was so humid and everything got so wet, it was disgusting.

“And there’s no shelter.

“When there was a glimpse of sun, it was warming up so nicely and then you could really feel the difference when it got cold again.”

Lisa thinks her toes may have been broken due to the pressure put on rowers’ feet to keep the boat from capsizing.

Lisa rows past the Arctowski station

She also lost weight during the expedition as she ate so little out of fear of becoming seasick.

All members of the crew suffered frostbite to some degree.

And poor Mike was struck with seasickness from the beginning of the journey, with his teammates working together to try and keep him as stable as they could.

But at one point, he became so sick that the crew had to re-evaluate everything, and he had to be evacuated.

Lisa explained: “We would have had to carry on without him as a team of five. It’s possible to go on if you’re in the right conditions but as we were expecting headwinds and really tough conditions, we had to consider risk and reward.

Lisa resting inside Mrs Chippy

“We had to think ‘what does it mean to go on and what does it mean to take the safe option and be happy with what we’ve already achieved’.

“It wasn’t safe to carry on because if we had got to a point where we were too far into the open sea, it would have taken too long to either get back or to get to the end. It was very difficult.

“It’s scary to think about.

“I got my problems on the last day so if we decided to carry on, I could have ended up going home with major issues.”

As amazing as the expedition was, Lisa admits it was incredibly tough at times.

She fought through the exhaustion by meditating, listening to music, sneakily pinching bits of teammate Brian’s chocolate and by looking out of the boat to take in her incredible surroundings.

Lisa said: “I saw some really amazing things.

Lisa finds some penguins happy to pose for a picture

“It was rough and difficult at times but there were some astonishing moments like being in the middle of a pack of fin whales, and it also felt like there was always a pack of penguins with us.

“They never seemed to be far away.

“We only had two or three hours of darkness but when it fell dark you could hear them making noises and as soon as it got light again you could see them watching us.

“A project like this really gives you a taste of how beautiful our world is and how little we know about it, so it does make you want to see more. And knowing that we didn’t fully fulfil our project, it is hard to leave it at that.”

Back at home for now, Lisa is enjoying taking hot baths and tucking into some traditional Austrian food after living on freeze-dried meals on board the boat.

After working as a professional sailor and rower, she said an extreme expedition like this was never something she thought she’d do.

But now that she has, and especially since they couldn’t complete the journey, Lisa admits she’s thinking about getting back out on the water.

Lisa poses with penguins

She would do things a little differently though.

“If I was going to do it again, I’d definitely take more chocolate with me, that’s for sure, and more shoes,” she laughed.

“Getting frostnips was actually caused by having wet shoes, if I could have changed into dry shoes, I wouldn’t have got it.”

Lisa also spoke about the huge respect she has for the people who carried out that original expedition more than 100 years ago.

“It’s amazing that these people managed to survive. It’s crazy and I have huge respect for them. They had a wooden ship and none of the technology that we had available to us. We had a navigation system, but they used a compass and watched the stars – I could not imagine how it worked. It’s such an amazing thing.”

Well Lisa, WE have huge respect for YOU! 

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