Winter Park alumna leads row across Atlantic

Rowing for 56 days

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  • | 10:44 a.m. February 1, 2012
Photo by: Brian Finke - Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge - Team Epoch includes Jonathan Crane, Christopher Crane, Sonya Baumstein and Oliver Levick. The team finished eighth in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge on Jan. 30.
Photo by: Brian Finke - Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge - Team Epoch includes Jonathan Crane, Christopher Crane, Sonya Baumstein and Oliver Levick. The team finished eighth in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge on Jan. 30.
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To learn more about Epoch Expeditions and Team Epoch’s 400 Challenge, visit Follow them on their website, Facebook and Twitter to see how their journey is going. For more information about the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, visit

A team of four rows a 29-foot-long boat. It’s a speck in the Atlantic Ocean, minuscule compared to the three-story waves and 50 mph winds it battles. Saltwater smacks the team members’ skin, and the only space they have for refuge from the penetrating rain, blistering sun and incredible work it takes to steer and propel their oars through the wild ocean, is a tiny cubby not large enough to sit up straight in.

It’s taken 56 days, but that speck has navigated the 2,550 nautical miles — nearly 3,000 miles on land — that it takes to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Team Epoch, led and formed by Fern Park resident and Winter Park High School graduate Sonya Baumstein, set off on the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge (TWAC) on Dec. 5 in La Gomera, Spain, and arrived eighth of 17 teams on Monday, Jan. 30, in Barbados.

The TWAC was created in 1997, and since then, fewer than 200 people have crossed the Atlantic. Team Epoch is the first mixed gender team of four to complete the race, and were the only Americans to participate this year.

Baumstein joked that they were, out of 17 teams, voted least prepared. She hopes her team can inspire others to take a chance on adventure. While Baumstein had been a rower for Winter Park High School and passionate about the sport, she had no idea what she was in for at the TWAC. Longtime friend Ashley Frasier said she never expected something like this from her.

“It surprised me,” Frasier said. “She had never come off to me as this hardcore, outdoor girl.”

And she isn’t.

“We’re like an everyman if you will,” Baumstein said. “We’re showing everyone you don’t have to have rowed the ocean before, you don’t have to have climbed Mt. Everest to be an adventurer.”

Two weeks after this challenge, Baumstein and her team will embark on the next three legs of what she calls the 400 Challenge. They plan to complete 10,000 self-powered miles in 400 days. Team Epoch will bike along the West Coast, kayak the Inside Passage from Alaska to Washington and then hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

Baumstein’s goal with the 400 Challenge is to help promote her nonprofit organization Epoch Expeditions. She’ll tell her Challenge tale along the rest of her trip, educating adults and students on the environment and its wonders. This is the beginning of the organization, and when she gets back, she plans to connect people to their environment through expeditions and adventures, though less epic than her own current journey.

“I was aggravated with how impossible it seemed for somebody to get outdoors,” she said.

Baumstein said she didn’t like how expensive it was becoming to set out on a real adventure: the cost of taking time off work, buying equipment and traveling to an exotic location. She just wanted to offer people — particularly those older than 40, whom she said have become landlocked at home and behind desks — with an affordable way to explore the outdoors. Her expeditions will range from three days to 100 or more, with the 400 Challenge as a model for the future trips. She wants people to take these trips and turn them into a passion for conservation that lasts.

“This isn’t supposed to be a one-time experience — this is supposed to be the beginning of their experience,” she said.

Tougher than Everest

While she and her team have a long way to go, nothing will compare to what they endured on the Atlantic, Baumstein said. The team took shifts rowing, two hours on, two hours off. There’s no breaking for a night’s sleep, these three men and one woman row for a couple hours, change into dry clothes, eat some ramen noodles and sleep for a little over an hour, 24 hours a day. The pain in their arms never goes away because there is no rest.

Some days it rains for hours and it takes days to dry off. Another day, instead of rain, it’s a shark as big as their boat that follows them from hours.

Many say this expedition is tougher than climbing Mt. Everest, because there’s no precedent for any trip; every day is different. And the ocean has no base camps.

“Adventuring is not easy and that’s why not everyone does it,” Baumstein said. “It’s our Everest.”

But Baumstein said it’s her team and her determination to finish her goal that keeps her going. She’d been working on this trip and forming Epoch Expeditions and nothing else for nine months. When she’s feeling down, she gives herself the same pep talk.

“This is my baby,” she said. “I’m achieving this, something that people said I couldn’t do.”

But her friend, Frasier, said anybody who knows Baumstein knows she would never give up.

“She’s probably one of the most headstrong and motivated people you will ever meet,” Frasier said. “When she came to me and told me she was doing this, I knew she could do it just because … when she has her mind set on something, it will get done.”

And she’s got a great team backing her up. Their spirit of adventure connects them.

Michael McGovern, an Orlando resident who didn’t take part in the TWAC but will join starting on the bike leg, said he’s drawn to the challenge.

“The things that most people might shy away from, the challenges that are part of this 400 Challenge, are sort of the things that interest me and being able to overcome those obstacles,” McGovern said. “I’ve always had a strong sense of adventure and I’ve always been driven to sort of escape, and I’ve never been able to really satisfy that desire.”

Baumstein’s own desire might not be for the wicked days on the water, but it definitely is for the beautiful ones. On some nights, she and her team could see the Milky Way and Orion’s Belt because there wasn’t a cloud, or light, in the sky to compete. The wind was perfect and the waves would push the boat just right.

“You could feel the boat gliding on top of them and it was just light and easy … and that was incredible.”


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