Matthews smashes solo Atlantic rowing record

Kiko Matthews crosses the finish line and gets the Union flag out. Kiko Matthews

Kiko Matthews, an Englishwoman who had never picked up an oar before deciding to embark on one of the most dangerous and physically challenging of all endurance voyages, was on Friday celebrating the record-breaking feat of becoming the fastest woman ever to row solo across the Atlantic.

Nine years since she almost died from a rare disease and eight months after undergoing surgery to remove a tumour, the Londoner had to self-medicate throughout her journey before reaching her destination in Barbados on Thursday night, 50 days and more than 2,800 miles since setting off from Gran Canaria on her first major voyage.

The 36-year-old, who became only the sixth woman to complete the single-handed transatlantic row, held the Union Jack aloft as she eclipsed the previous record by six days which had been held by Frenchwoman Anne Quéméré, who rowed from the Canary Islands to Guadeloupe in 56 days in 2002 to 2003.

"The thought that eight months ago I was lying in hospital having my brain operated on and now I am here having rowed the Atlantic, I guess I am a bit proud. I have shown that anyone can attempt anything given the right attitude, belief, and support," said a surprisingly sprightly and exhilarated Matthews, after being greeted by her family and a cheering crowd at Port St.Charles.

Admitting that her legs were "wobbly and weak" after seven weeks in the small boat, she added: "I have shown that anyone can attempt anything given the right attitude, belief, and support and I want to use my story to inspire women to challenge themselves."

Matthews celebrated by downing a mojito and joking that the thought of enjoying the cocktail was one of the things that kept her going on the journey.

She reckoned she had savoured the whole amazing odyssey which began at the start of February and saw her have to cope with everything from insomnia, to blisters on her hands to 80ft waves which she at first feared might capsize her rowing boat.

She chronicled her adventure on her website, earning plenty of new admirers who chuckled at her daily blogs, in which she told colourfully of long, lonely days which might feature the high drama of 40 ft waves, of on-board crises like lack of toilet paper or the hours of monotony broken by close encounters with whales and dolphins. Matthews' remarkable feat prompted congratulations from top sportsmen and women, led by former rower Dame Katherine Grainger, Britain's most decorated female Olympian.

"The whole world is full of awe and admiration," Grainger had messaged Matthews during the trip. "You're doing something 99.99999% of us couldn't even begin to consider possible."

Clare Balding, one of Britain's leading sports broadcasters, hailed her row as "ridiculously brave and brilliant".

Eighteen months ago, Matthews, a former science schoolteacher an effervescent adventurer, had never even been in a rowing boat when she came up with the idea of becoming a world record-breaker to help raise £100,000 for London's King's College Hospital, where her life was saved after she had been struck down by Cushing's disease.

Surgeons at the hospital had removed a 6mm tumour from the base of her pituitary gland - the gland at the base of the brain responsible for hormone control - after Matthews had suffered an aggressive form of the disease, which left her with severe memory loss, muscle wasting, osteoporosis, end-stage diabetes and insomnia.

"The first time I had it, I was so ill and weak I couldn't even crawl up the stairs. I had psychosis and it nearly killed me," Matthews told ESPN.

"I was in intensive care for 24 hours when my potassium levels dropped so low."

After recovery, Matthews left teaching to set up her own paddle boarding business and a charity, and paid out £20,000 of her savings to bankroll the voyage, living as cheaply as possible in London in a shed at the bottom of the garden of a friend's house in return for doing some babysitting.

Yet as she started to learn to row in preparation for her voyage, the symptoms of Cushing's symptoms recurred and she needed another operation last August to remove another smaller tumour on her pituitary gland.

Remarkably, it did not stop her going ahead with the adventure after being given the all-clear by doctors to tackle the "unknown" in the specially-designed carbon fibre boat loaned to her by Charlie Pitcher, the British rower who had broken the men's world record for a solo transatlantic crossing in 2013.

Each day, she had to adhere to a strict regimen, taking the hydrocortisone medication that her doctors had ordered. Matthews, who was facing backwards as she rowed into the waves to make the boat more aerodynamic, worked the oars for up to 16 hours a day while grabbing some sleep in two-hour shifts.

She had been planning to complete the voyage in 45 days but unhelpful weather meant she ended up behind schedule.

Still, though, having been taught to row by among others Britain's 2000 Olympic silver medallist Guin Batten, Matthews was still well inside the former record.

"I didn't get scared by the adverse conditions, I just got on with things," said Matthews. "What can you do about it? You have no choice but to carry on, like in life. It was temporary relentlessness.

"If I did ever get down, I thought of the people willing me on, I wanted to do it for them. The stories they sent me supported me incredibly. By the last two weeks I was just totally content and at peace, I didn't even listen to music."

In completing the challenge, Matthews has so far raised over £70,000 of her target of £100,000 for King's College Hospital Intensive Care Unit.