"When you’re stripped of everything, you learn what you’re all about”

Julia Immonen is now a double world record holder after rowing across the Atlantic Ocean with an all-woman crew. She tells Claire Musters how her passion to see an end to human trafficking helped her face tough challenges during her 45 days at sea

I love sport and so when I heard about human trafficking a few years ago through the A21 Campaign, I started Sports Against Trafficking as a positive way to raise awareness. My first idea was to run a half marathon, but when I heard about the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge – the world’s toughest rowing race – I knew it was the perfect way to increase our profile and raise money for A21 and ECPAT UK, both anti-trafficking charities.

I believed God was definitely calling me to take up the challenge. At our church holiday last summer, they prayed for me and before anyone even knew I was planning to row the Atlantic, they had a picture of me in a boat with real authority over the storms and a path of angels clapping across an ocean. That was such confirmation that I was to carry on.
It hasn’t been easy though. Over 18 months, I was joined by four fellow teammates, but to get the sponsorship just to get to the starting line was a labour of love for each of us – and our skipper pulled out just two days before we set off. My mum had a complete mental breakdown as well, so it was a challenging year. But to see the dream come alive has been incredible. Tough things come our way, but if you down tools nothing will ever get done.

It was amazing – the best and worst thing I’ll ever do. When you’re stripped of everything, you learn what you’re all about. It’s shown my faith at its rawest and, rather than going quiet, I found myself running to God and standing firmly on his promises. It was a real baptism of fire going out into really high seas. Experiencing 40-foot waves was really frightening, especially at night and getting into the routine of rowing two hours on, two hours off was physically exhausting. We experienced sweltering heat, terrible sores and chafing, bad seasickness, boredom and loneliness.

Spending 24-7 with five girls on a seven-metre boat brought its own challenges. I’ve learned patience and perspective. We literally lived and breathed on top of each other. It was like playing Twister at night during changeovers – staying low to keep stable and safe. Bucket and chuck it was our toilet routine! Learning to sit on a bucket in 50ft waves was certainly challenging – I feel I can do anything now!

My rowing partner on board was Kate Richardson, who is also a Christian. Kate said: “It’s not going to get any worse is it Julia?” after the first thing broke, and then it got ten times worse. Everything that could go wrong did: our hatches flooded and spoiled much of our snacks and food, on day two our automatic steering started to fail and by day six completely broke, which meant we had to foot steer the rudder for nearly the entire crossing. When the water maker caught fire on day 15, it meant hand-pumping water round the clock. No other team has ever hand pumped water for a month! When it got tough, I reminded myself that I had the option to get off the boat at Barbados and there were 27 million who didn’t have that freedom. Kate and I prayed at night together whilst we were rowing. I suggested we prayed for those 27 million each night and we did – that kept it real for me.

I knew the journey wasn’t going to be easy, but I never expected to be so plagued with problems. I learned to embrace them and knew God was fighting for us. My cabin was literally plastered with pictures of my friends and family, and Bible verses. I also had my iPod, which was a real saving grace. When I was feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge, I found listening to praise and worship music – filling my head with good stuff – was so helpful and could change my mood instantly. I also listened to an audiobook by William Hague on the life of William Wilberforce. I learned how he was a man of perseverance and his faith was so central to his life. The transatlantic slave route was the very water that we were rowing in and it really hit me how symbolic it was. It was so poignant that we were rowing through the same waters that were used to transport slaves to Barbados.

It’s funny how God uses the very things you are fearful of, to your good. At first, I was afraid of the nights because they seemed to go on for so long, but I learned to love them. When I felt a spirit of fear rising in me, the only way to get my peace back was to declare God’s promises aloud. When the steering broke in the middle of the night and waves pounded over the boat, all I could do was pray while two of the girls were fixing it. I believe prayer is what got us across. We had an army of people praying for us and I often felt carried by the prayers.

I think the mental side of it was the biggest challenge for me. While it was really tough physically, for me, breaking down the enormity of 3,000 miles and potentially 50 days at sea and taking it step by step was really hard. I was overwhelmed, but when things are of God you must put your heart and soul into it and it has been the most thrilling adventure to be on a God-ordained journey.

Coming back onto dry land has been tough at times. Being tested and pushed to extremes on the boat meant I learned to have a 24-hour conversation with God. Coming back to the busyness of London life has been a big shock and I realise how hard it is to make time for God. On the boat, it was a very basic life, but it was so rich because there wasn’t ‘stuff’ to distract me from God’s presence. I miss that intimacy dreadfully and feel I have to make a conscious decision daily to set aside quality time with God.

I’ve learned the importance of staying in God’s will. People were already asking me what I was going to do next when I was still on board, but I couldn’t answer because I don’t want to do anything he hasn’t called me to do. I do believe he is behind Sport Against Trafficking and some amazing things are already opening up. One of our fantastic sponsors, Manpower Group, have said they will sponsor our next event, which is amazing! They are passionate about the abolition of human trafficking and are actively leading the way in ensuring their supply chain is ethical, and encouraging other companies to do the same. To have such a great partnership is a huge blessing.

The girls all want to continue working together and our next challenge will be another route symbolic of human trafficking. I am currently researching routes and thinking of following the journey of a girl who was trafficked – possibly running, cycling and rowing it. An epic run through a desert is on the cards so far! I'd really like to get a mixed team for this challenge, as it’s important to get men involved too, and we’ve already had some enquiries. I love how sport unites! The best is yet to come, so watch this space!

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