A staff nurse and an illustrator plan to be the first two women to row the Atlantic. The six-week journey will test their endurance to the limit. Why are they doing it? Jojo Moyes reports
Kate Dawson and Mandy Clarke often have to repeat themselves when they tell people they are about to row the Atlantic. "I guess it's not something you would expect a woman to do," says Kate. "Then again, they laughed at Tracey Edwards when she said she was going to sail around the world."

The strength and endurance required for a feat some would judge as foolhardy is not what you would associate with a staff nurse and an illustrator, neither of whom would stretch a tape measure much past 5ft. But Kate says: "We're following in that great, honourable tradition of women who have done mad things before."

There are no obvious indicators in either woman's history that she might attempt such a feat, except, in Mandy's case, a recent divorce and her 30th birthday, both of which left her pondering the notion of freedom. Kate, 29, says simply: "I've never wanted to conform. I've always wanted to do something different."

Kate and Mandy will be the only female British pair to enter Chay Blyth's Atlantic Rowing Race this October, and plan to be the first women to row across the Atlantic. Chay Blyth and his friend John Ridgeway were the first men to row the Atlantic in 1966, and three decades later the former soldier has now organised the largest rowing race ever, with teams from Spain, Germany and the US.

Kate, a veteran sea rower who came second in the Celtic Challenge across the Irish Sea, and had previously undertaken expeditions to the Himalayas, was crewing a yacht off the Galapagos Islands when she first heard of the race, and faxed a request for an application form the same day. When her initial partner was forced to drop out, she turned to Mandy, a former flatmate, whom she had met while studying at art school in 1985.

Mandy, one of Britain's first female RNLI lifeboat crew members, and a long-term sea rower, needed little encouragement. "When Kate told me, it somehow got stuck in my imagination. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I knew I had to do it," she says.

The two are now already in training, using rowing and bicycle machines to build themselves up for the challenge, which is likely to take a minimum of six weeks, rowing 12 hours a day, from Tenerife to Barbados.

The biggest strain is obviously going to be physical. The two are considering rowing at night, as competitors are not allowed to row under cover, and that would save them from the fierce rays of the sun. Mandy is also consulting her hospital colleagues to determine which parts of their bodies will be most under stress. Initially, she says, it will be the knees that suffer, and problems with salt sores - blisters that won't go away, because of the wet environment.

Spending six weeks under pressure and in such close proximity might be expected to test even a 12-year friendship, but the two women are confident that they will see it through. "We know each other so well. I could tell Kate to be quiet for a while. We know that everyone needs some quiet time," says Mandy. Kate adds: "I'm used to living at close quarters, through sailing. I think women do tend to accommodate each other. I don't think it will be a problem at all."

Kate has also been consulting Tracey Edwards, who successfully led her all-woman sailing team in the Round the World race in the Maiden. Edwards, she says, "has been a great help", both in terms of motivation, and in pursuing sponsorship.

The two women have secured limited sponsorship from the outdoor clothing company Wild Roses, but admit that they are desperate for help from elsewhere, not least to secure their boat, which will be supplied in plywood "kit form" and then assembled professionally.

"We want the boats to be identical, to ensure that the pair who win the race do so due to their rowing technique and courage, not because they have managed to raise suitable funds to build a state-of-the-art rowing boat that gives them an unfair advantage," explains Chay Blyth.

All the teams meet in June, when they will be hoping to get some advice on securing funds for other equipment, such as water filters, medical supplies and specially prepared food. By means of their epic journey they are planning to raise money for breast cancer research. Kate's grandmother died of the disease. "It's totally unnecessary, and it's one of the biggest killers of women. We thought it was quite appropriate, as we're doing this race."

Both women will admit, if pushed, that the prospect of rowing the Atlantic is a little mad. Such seemingly pointless but heroic endeavours are most commonly associated with men, and they make the point that they have none of the "responsibilities" - ie children - that usually prevent women's involvement. Or, in the case of women such as the late climber Alison Hargreaves, earn them condemnation for leaving them behind.

Kate says that in doing something so radical, they are hoping to send a message of encouragement to other women. "Taking part in the Atlantic Rowing Race will give me and Mandy a chance to be part of history, and to continue the successful participation of women in the world's toughest races, started by Tracey Edwards and her Maiden crew. Their achievement inspired me terrifically." They are not just taking part in this to complete it, she adds. They want to win.

"When people ask why I want to do this, I can only tell them of my desire to be tested to the limit," Mandy says. "To do something so radically different"n

Anyone interested in contributing towards Mandy and Kate's competition sponsorship should contact them via Matt Exley (0171-734 0063).