Vicki Otmani (left) and rowing partner Megan Biging celebrate their world record//Photo by Ellen Hoke
The fourth hurricane was the toughest. Vicki Otmani and Megan Biging had been at sea for six weeks and were just days away from the finish line of the Great Pacific Race, an odyssey that began on June 4, 2016, in Monterey, Calif., and ended in Honolulu.
Otmani and Biging rowed their classic-style boat nearly 3,000 miles without assistance from sails or engines, navigating by chart and sextant. Living conditions were practically medieval: no toilet, no shower, no running water. Otmani and Biging ate MREs and used a desalinator to make drinking water. They slept in three-hour shifts—one sleeping while the other rowed. It was a routine they held for almost 50 days. Then three hurricanes hit.
Agatha was a Category 1. Blas was a Category 4 that downsized to a tropical storm. Celia was a Category 2. The women received notice of the approaching storms via satellite phone, with storm alerts from race coordinators. They also had an EPIRB, a satellite-operated distress signal equipped with GPS. The boat was self-righting, and they’d practiced what to do if it flipped. But the women and the boat might be injured in the storm, and the closest rescue vessel could take 12-24 hours to reach them.
Celia was the worst, with 40-foot waves and gale-force winds. Otmani and Biging dropped anchor and retreated to the boat’s pup-tent-sized cabin, where they huddled for two days. “The stuff we went through in there is not fit for polite conversation,” says Otmani.
Two days after Celia subsided, race coordinators sent Otmani another storm alert. Hurricane Darby was headed straight for them. Exhausted, Otmani considered giving up. Many women had attempted the trans-Pacific journey, and most had quit. One made it: Roz Savage, who rowed across the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. It just so happened that Otmani and Biging were in her boat.
Otmani met Sedna in December 2014. The boat had been sitting outside, exposed to the elements, for more than a year. Plants were growing out of it, and a raccoon had taken up residence in the cabin. Worst of all was a three-foot gash in Sedna’s side, courtesy of a drunk forklift driver. But for Otmani, it was love at first sight. She’d driven from Media to San Diego to retrieve Sedna, after buying the vessel from Savage herself. “When I saw the boat sitting in that lot, wasting away, I could feel this energy that said, ‘Get me out of here. I want to be back at sea.’” Otmani recalls. “I bonded with her.”
Rehab didn’t scare Otmani—she’d been through it herself. Though she grew up on a small farm in Oklahoma, she loved the ocean. She started rowing her freshman year at Oklahoma State University and fell in love with the sport.
After college, Otmani was recruited by a private coach to train for the Olympics. She moved to Nashville, then to Philadelphia as a member of the storied Vesper Boat Club, where she met Biging, former head coach of the Radnor Girls Crew Club, who now lives in Southern California. Waiting tables to get by, Otmani trained full time, working out three times a day. In 2004, she landed a spot on the national rowing team, aiming for a spot in the Beijing Olympics in August 2008.
But during the Henley Regatta just a month prior, Otmani felt sharp pain in her back. At 26, she’d herniated three discs, two lumbar and one sacrum. Orthopedic specialists recommended spinal fusion, but Otmani refused.
Instead, she created her own rehab program, consisting of intense physical therapy, yoga, Pilates, acupuncture and massage therapy. “Once you feel the pain of herniated discs, you’ll do anything to avoid it,” Otmani says. “But I didn’t want the injury to dictate my entire life.”
Within two years, Otmani was strong enough to compete in a triathlon. In 2010, she met Christopher Otmani, also a triathlete. He proposed in St. Croix. Immediately after, they completed the Ironman. The couple married in 2011, sailing around the Virgin Islands for their honeymoon.
When Otmani turned to her husband one evening in 2013 and told him she wanted to row across an ocean, he didn’t question her. He only asked one thing: “Which ocean?”
And when Otmani called her husband from the middle of the Pacific and told him that she wanted to quit, he didn’t believe her.
“Chris said the exact right thing, which was a quote from a Rocky movie: ‘It’s not about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep going.’”
Otmani wrote that quote on the inside of the boat and kept rowing. The hurricane didn’t make it to them, and she’d learned a lesson: It’s OK to quit during a dangerous storm, just don’t quit before it even hits.
At 4 a.m. on Aug. 1, Otmani and Biging crossed the finish line in Honolulu. Sixty people, including Otmani’s husband, were waiting for them on the dock, cheering and throwing flowers. The women set a world record of 57 days, 13 hours, 26 minutes. They raised $30,000 for oceanic cleanup efforts.
The race took a toll on the women. Both had minor injuries and lost weight—30 pounds for Otmani, 48 for Biging. For days, they needed assistance to walk because the sea had altered their equilibrium.
Rather quickly, though, Otmani found her next challenge. She recently opened Evolution Wellness, a personal-training center in Chester Heights. And she has another goal planned: She’ll row 3,000 more miles from Hawaii to Australia in 2019.
This time, though, she’s taking her husband with her.