Annika Israelsson (MSc Actuarial Science, 2018) – when a charitable Bayes alumna takes to the high seas

In December, Annika Israelsson will embark on a gruelling six-week adventure dubbed “The World’s Toughest Row”, from the Canary Islands to the West Indies. She explains the challenges she will face, how she got into rowing, and tells us more about the children’s brain tumour research charity for which she is putting herself through this huge challenge.


What brought you to study at Bayes?

I studied Theoretical Statistics at Lund University, in Sweden.  I have always loved Maths but wasn’t sure what job prospects there were with a Maths degree.  When I had graduated, it felt like a big jump to go directly into a job, and I thought a Master’s degree in Actuarial Science would help me determine if being an Actuary was right for me.  That’s when I found Bayes, and I was very happy when I was accepted.  I didn’t apply to any other programmes. I thought that the Actuarial Science programme at Bayes had everything I wanted and was the only choice for me.


Where are you working now?

I work as a Senior Actuarial Pricing Analyst at Antares Re.  I was offered my job the day I handed in my final paper at Bayes, which was great timing.  I have been working there for a little over five and a half years on a lot of different lines of business, including Motor, Casualty, Property and Agriculture.


How did you get into rowing? 

I learned how to row when I was 13 in Arizona and completely fell in love with it.  I feel like rowing is a sport that you either love or hate.  And for those that love it, it becomes a part of their identity.  That’s how it is for me anyway. I now belong to Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club.  I live in Bow, about 3 miles from the boathouse.  The club is on the Isle of Dogs, the boathouse is across the river from the Cutty Sark.


What kind of training schedule do you follow?

I try to train once a day. I would say the minimum is six times a week.  Sometimes if I row in the morning, I will do weights in the evening too.  Winter training involves a lot of steady state rowing and racking up the miles.  Steady state usually consists of an hour of rowing or going on the rowing machine and trying to keep a slow steady pace with my heart rate around 150.


How did the Atlantic Row idea come about?

I found out about the challenge from my fellow team member Molly, who wanted me to join.  I screamed yes before she even could finish her sentence. I just love embarking on unforgettable adventures and pushing myself and thought this race would be perfect.  I am also curious to see how the challenge will be mentally.  I think we can overcome anything physically, but a lot of the race is about calming the mind and trying to just push on when you are tired and want to give up.


What will you have to endure?  

There’ll be medical issues, salt, sharks, and weather! To combat hunger, I plan to bring A LOT of Biscoff spread and Nutella.  You tend to lose weight simply because of the number of calories you burn.  But the goal isn’t to lose weight and we do aim to eat as much as possible.  This includes lots of crisps and chocolates and any snacks that bring us joy.

We will be completely alone at sea so there are medical risks.  We will have first aid kits with us and have all completed the necessary training.  There are risks of sharks and other creatures as well.  There was one year where there were some issues with Marlins hitting boats and causing holes.

Weather is also a big part of it.  Some days, the water may be very calm, which means a lot of rowing and you won’t get too far.  On other days the sea will be really lively, and you’ll have wind helping you towards Antigua.  In the worst case scenario, there could be a big storm at sea making it too dangerous to continue.  In this case we will stay in our cabins and wait out the storm.


How will the race work between each team member?

It’s up to the individual teams how they want to race but the most common method is to do two-hour shifts.  So, two people rowing and two people resting every day, in total rowing 12 hours a day. The two hours off are a bit intimidating as time will quickly disappear.  You have to switch rowers, do a quick bucket bath, eat something, prepare your clothes for the next shift and then try to get some sleep.


How did you decide on your charity?

Abbie’s Army is a children’s DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma) brain tumour research charity.  The charity hopes to raise awareness of the disease and help fund research as well as provide aid to families affected in the UK.  There are over 120 different known types of brain cancer.  DIPG is the most fatal of all these types.  The average survival time from diagnosis for a child is nine months.  Roughly 40 children a year are diagnosed with DIPG in the UK.


When do you set off and how long do you expect the row to take?

The race usually starts on 12th December, weather permitting.  We will set off from La Gomera and row southwest, picking up the trade winds, and head to Antigua. The race will probably take around six weeks.  The fastest teams can take around 33 days but that isn’t our goal.


How will you deal with the pressure?

Probably cry a lot!  I tend to cry a lot anyway.  I am very happy that I feel close enough with my team to admit that. I always find a good cry can just really calm the nerves and then I often see clearly what my next steps have to be from there. Otherwise, I think I will talk to myself a lot.  One thing people who have done the race say is that the first week is the toughest.  That is when you will experience the biggest waves so far and when you realise that you are actually rowing all the way to Antigua. There’ll be tough times, but I am convinced we’ll pull together successfully as a team.

More about The Atlantic Row:

More about Abbie’s Army:

More about Annika’s fundraising: