A new start after 60: I had to make my life count before it was too late – so I rowed across the Atlantic

When she was 61, Sian Davies decided to row across the Atlantic Ocean. In March 2021, the retired sports and leisure manager was one of 12 crew members who set out on the 3,000-mile journey from Tenerife to battle sun, salt and fierce currents. “We would row in three-hour shifts and only sleep for an hour or so every six hours,” she says. “For the first 15 days I was seasick, so I didn’t eat a thing – I was just rowing and collapsing. I went through some pretty dark times.”

But she didn’t give up, and after 42 days on the water, she reached Antigua to become one of only six women in the world over the age of 60 to have rowed across an ocean. “I was exhausted and I was also so proud of myself,” she says. “It was empowering to push the limits at my age and find out just how much I could do.”

The crew on their voyage across the Atlantic. Photograph: Courtesy of Rannoch Adventure

Davies began rowing when she was 53, after spotting a Cornish pilot gig (six-oar rowing boat) in Bristol harbour. Fascinated by its size and distinctive appearance, she spoke to the crew and was encouraged to do a trial run. “As soon as I got on the water, I was hooked,” she says. “Feeling your whole body working and the fresh air on your skin is amazing.”

It wasn’t until 2017, though, that her Atlantic plans were born. She had experienced back pain sporadically since her teens, and then one day, while at home in north Devon, she was suddenly unable to walk. Diagnosed with a herniated disc, Davies spent months in pain; she was only able to crawl out of bed. “I knew I needed to keep myself sane, so I began thinking of things I could look forward to after I had surgery,” she says. “I was reading about women adventurers and became fascinated by ocean rowing. I decided that once I was better, I was going to row across an ocean myself.”

Davies had retired a few years earlier, when she moved from Bristol to the coast to help look after her elderly mother. As sole carer, Davies had to put her retirement plans on hold as her mother’s health deteriorated. “Every time I decided to go on holiday or leave, I’d get a call to find out mum was in hospital. Eventually, I stopped making plans,” she says. “But as soon as I was incapacitated myself, it made me realise that I had to do something to make my own life count before it was too late. It’s your experiences that are important, when you’re older, not what you own.”

After successful spinal surgery, Davies began driving around the country to meet other women who had undertaken endurance rows. Hearing the experiences and advice of athletes such as Lesley Foden, who had rowed around the UK at 61, and Sarah Outen, who had rowed solo across the Indian Ocean, gave Davies the confidence she needed. Soon after, she heard that a new boat manufacturer was recruiting a team for a maiden voyage across the Atlantic.

With most of the crew’s ages ranging from 18 to 40, Davies began intensive training, even adapting her garden into a gym during the Covid lockdowns. When it was finally time to set off in 2021, her mother had become incredibly frail. “I felt she was likely to die while I was on the Atlantic, but I knew I had to finish what I had started,” she says. “I said goodbye and thought, I may never see her again. Yet, when I returned, she was there waving a union jack flag and smiling. I think it gave her a sense of pride, and kept her going.”

Davies: ‘It’s your experiences that are important when you get older.’ Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Empowered by her expedition, Davies was motivated to increase the visibility of women in endurance sports. She has spent the years since planning new feats of athleticism. “In June, I’m planning to break a few world records by rowing around the UK when I’m 64, and I want to motorcycle through the Himalayas later in the year,” she says. “Women don’t always have the opportunity to do what they want to do when they are younger, but, post-menopause, it’s their time. We can fight the stereotype that adventure is only for blokes with beards!”

Since Davies’s mother died in July 2023, she has been inspired to keep pushing the limits. “I know my body is changing and the physical challenge is greater, but that just makes me want to achieve even more,” she says. “My mum used to say, ‘I’m living on my memories,’, so I need things to look back on. I think she would be delighted.”

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