WHEN Helen Butters decided to take up a new hobby she never imagined that four years later she would be spending Christmas Day rowing across the Atlantic - probably with nothing on.
Helen is a member of Yorkshire Rows - a team of four working mums from North Yorkshire who met four years ago when they took up rowing at the Guy Fawkes Club in York.
On December 15, Helen, 45, along with Frances Davies, 47, Janette Benaddi, 50 and Niki Doeg, 44, will set off from the Canary Islands, just off the coast of West Africa, bound for Antigua, in the Caribbean, some 3,000 nautical miles away.
They are taking part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge - the world's toughest rowing race - and aim to make the crossing in less than 50 days. Rowing non-stop, they hoping to set a record as the fastest women to row across the Atlantic and raise money for two Yorkshire charities.
The fifth member of the crew is Rose - their state-of-the-art vessel, which is as far away from the traditional rowing boat as you can imagine.
Rose, the specially-designed boat to take the four women across the Atlantic
"It's a specially designed boat, in a new design, that should go faster than a wooden one," says Helen. "It is made out of the same material as FI racing cars. It is very light and should fly through the waves and be very fast."
The women face a gruelling schedule - rowing for two hours at a time on a shift system; two on, two off. When not rowing they will have to fit in sleeping, eating, checking and cleaning equipment and communicating with loved ones back at home.
Sleep deprivation, seasickness and fear are just some of the issues they expect to face. They are working with York hypnotist Rachael Armstrong to develop mental coping strategies for when the going gets tough.
"We see her every couple of weeks and will have downloads on our iPods that we can listen to if we need to," says Helen.
The women have been training physically for the race, but they believe it is probably more important to get their minds race-ready. Helen said: "We are training mentally, because 70 per cent of the challenge is a mental one."
The women had a small taste of what to expect when they rowed across the North Sea in May - the first women ever to do so. It took them 45 hours, and Helen was seasick the entire time. "I rowed with a bucket next to me," she says.
Crossing the Atlantic will be a different prospect. There's the distance for one thing, but the weather will be something else too.
"It was like winter crossing the North Sea, but when we go across the Atlantic it will be hot. A lot of people row naked because of sea salt and chafing. We will sit on sheepskin because that protects our bottoms. We have some chafe-free pants and might wear sports bras, but they might chafe, so we might have to row naked. It is going to be so hot, that might be the most comfortable way to row."
The Yorkshire Rows team (l-r) Janette Benaddi, Helen Butters, Niki Doeg, Frances Davies
Naked or not, the women will be lathered in suncream and have to wear hats, sunglasses and a harness (in case of a capsize) during the row.
Their boat has been designed so the women row in an open section in the middle, with a small cabin at one end and an enclosed office at the other. Two of them can sleep snugly in the cabin; the office will house their GPS, VHF radio and the electrics. Going to the loo will be an unladylike affair - in a bucket, then quickly slung overboard.
They will need to eat a lot - consuming up to 5,000 calories a day, living off dried expedition food and high-energy snacks. Even then, the women expect to lose weight. "We do about an our of physical training every day," says Helen. "We are trying to increase muscle mass because we will lose so much weight rowing to Antigua."
As departure date draws closer, the team are making final preparations. They have completed yacht master and survival-at-sea courses and been learning the nuts and bolts of key equipment such as their water maker which turns sea water into drinking water and how to deploy the para-anchor, which would be used if they had to stop racing, say in storm conditions. This is essentially a giant parachute that goes under the boat and stops them being pushed off course. They've undertaken first aid courses and practised suturing using a needle and a pork chop.
They will keep in touch with loved ones via a weekly call on a satellite phone and by blogs on their Facebook page. The Yellowbrick app will show the position of all the boats in the race, enabling family and friends to track their location around the clock.
It costs at least £100,000 to take part, which includes buying the boat, equipment and the race fee. The team have been fundraising to pay for their adventure, and hope to be debt free before they head off, but are still looking for a main sponsor.
They will be raising money for two local charities - the Yorkshire Air Ambulance and the Maggie Cancer Care Centre, proposed for Leeds.
Helen said: "I lost my dad to cancer and Frances lost her mum. When we are feeling crap, we will remember what we are doing it for."
Despite all the potential hazards and the sheer hardness of the challenge, Helen is fiercely positive. "I think we will get into a routine. First two weeks will be hell, we will be sick, tired and scared, but hopefully we will get into a routine."
She added: "We want to get across and enjoy the journey. We will see the most amazing things, the wildlife, the whales, the sky, being out there in the middle of nowhere.
"I think it will change us when we get to the other side. The sense of achievement will be fantastic.
"Our ethos is if four mums from York can do this - if we can do this - then anyone can do anything."
Meet Yorkshire Rows
The four women met at the Guy Fawkes Rowing Club in York about four years ago. They decided to take on the Atlantic challenge after Frances read a book about it. "Why don't we do this?" she asked her friends. Two years later they are almost on their way...
Helen, 45, lives in Cawood, with husband Richard and children Lucy, 15 and Henry, 12, and works full-time as a communications professional in Leeds for the NHS.
Frances Davies, 47, lives in York with husband Mark and children, Jay, 14, and Jack, 12, and is a solicitor who runs her own law firm.
Janette Benaddi, 50, from Burn, near Selby, is a medical researcher and is married to Ben with two children, James, 18 and Safiya, 14.
Niki Doeg, 44, of Hessay, York, runs a wealth management business with husband Gareth; they have two children Corby, 12 and Aiden, nine.
To sponsor the team or donate to one of their charities, visit their website: yorkshirerows.com