My first week at sea was the hardest week of my life.
Each day the ocean challenged me to drive forward and surrender. It’s a contradictory balance that’s hard to achieve… holding tight to your vision, while feeling like everything is crumbling.
**Day 1** The Most Amazing Day of My life.
With no other boats in sight, I watch humpback whales breach into the sky, launching out of the Pacific Ocean and smashing back down with thunderous claps.
I watch as they bubble-net feed on herring. Superpods 1000-strong of pacific dolphins play beneath me. And at the end of the day, a family of humpbacks swim right next to my boat, circling with curious eyes.
I row from midnight until 7pm, upon a red carpet of smooth seas that helps me break away from land – one of the hardest parts of any ocean row from North America. It was a true gift of picture perfect conditions.
I cry while I admire the ocean’s beauty and row in deep, humble gratitude for all the people who helped me get here.
But by that evening, an ominous feeling overcomes me. “I’m going to pay for this” I think to myself. “The ocean showed me the magic that I can experience… if only i can hang tight… and now comes the test.”
After the first day of high after high, I crash to the lowest low, sensing that I’m about to begin the scariest week of my life.
**Day 2** Entering Mordor
Towering, breaking waves stretch as far as I can see as I near the continental shelf, where the ocean drops from just a couple hundred meters deep to thousands.
As I crest each wave, I look over my shoulder to try to spot a break in this terrifying scene. But I only see more of the same. Huge waves, gray skies, ominous views in every direction. I begin to realize, I’m in way over my head. It feels like rowing into Mordor.
The red carpet is long since gone. A powerful system is drawing near that will soon force me into my cabin. For now, I can still row, but I don’t push myself, because after 19 hrs rowing on Day 1, my hands are a blistered mess, and my hair follicles on my butt are all infected. It aches terribly to sit or row.
**Day 3** The Gift I Never Wanted
I chose to row an ocean alone to experience true solitude… and the ocean made sure I got it.
On day 3, my iPhone factory resets in my pocket. Gone, deleted, no ability to restore. I had loaded it with music, audiobooks, photos and videos of friends and family. And now, it’s all gone.
I lost the videos of humpback whales on day 1. And I lost the photos of the biggest waves on days 2 and 3.
Discovering that my phone reset begins a mental cycle of trying to find some reason, any reason, to quit the row and go back to safe land. I can’t imagine spending months at sea without the music that fills my heart.
I’m tormented by what feels like a rookie mistake, keeping my phone in my waders while rowing. And this kicks off a destructive, consuming pattern of extreme doubts and negative thinking that dominates the rest of the week.
And the weather is quickly deteriorating.
By the afternoon, winds are reaching 30mph. Towering waves toss my little boat to and fro.
First I deploy my drogue. A small underwater parachute that you tie from the stern (rear) to slow the boat down in fast seas.
Immediately after deploying, my lines wrap around my rudder, tanking and tugging on the boat, and putting dangerous pressure on this key piece of equipment.
I think about Angela Madsen, an experienced ocean rower who died at sea just 2 weeks prior while rowing to Hawaii. She had gotten into the ocean to fix an issue with her lines, and she never got back into her boat.
‘I am NOT getting into that water’ I promise myself, as I grip the boat’s spare-oars-as-railings in the pitch and roll of the sea.
The lines could destroy my rudder and end the trip, but after 30 minutes i manage to untangle them, using a plastic broom handle while holding onto the edge of the boat, leaning over and poking the lines loose from the rudder, while doing my best not to get tossed overboard.
I retrieve the drogue, which was no match for the powerful seas, and I get out my para-anchor.
With only 3 days training – and never any time in the open ocean or rough conditions – this is the first time I am using this equipment. The para-anchor or sea anchor is a larger underwater parachute, deployed off the bow (front), with two separate 180-foot lines (one to secure the anchor, and one to collapse the chute so you can more easily retrieve it).
I manage to deploy the anchor, and the boat turns perpendicular to the waves, just as I hope. And then the rodeo begins.
Standing on deck feels like riding a bucking bronco as the boat gets lifted high by rising waves, then suddenly jerks back as the tight ropes yank the boat down.
I secure my oars and loose equipment and retreat into the cabin. I put on my helmet and strap myself down onto my bunk.
I begin rationing my water, because I can’t produce drinking water in rough seas, and these conditions are forecast to last another 4 days.
It’s just day 3, and my worst fears are coming to life. Using my “just in case” bunk straps and helmet… being careful not to overuse my water supply… What was I thinking?
I try to think straight, to stay positive… but it’s very hard to do anything – let alone think clearly – when you’re inside of a washing machine tumbling down a never-ending staircase.
I would have loved to put on an audiobook to finish this day, but all I have are my thoughts. It feels like a curse, but over the coming months, I learn to see the loss of my phone was one of the biggest blessings of the whole journey.
**Day 4** The Best and Worst Idea of My Life
Inside the cabin, bouncing, waiting. I ration my water and eat little food… It’s short-sighted: I don’t want to go onto deck to poop. But this strategy works against me, as my mental edge and resilience cannot be sustained without adequate food or water. I will have to play catchup later.
**Day 5** Spiraling Down
I’m a total failure. I’m an embarrassment to myself and everyone else involved in this stupid project.
I have no business being out here. WTF is wrong with me.
Minute after minute, hour after hour, these thoughts cycle through my head.
With nowhere to hide and nothing to do, I spend the full day just wrestling with my inner demons. Mostly, it feels like they’re winning.
At night, I dream of being on land. In the morning, I wake up crying as I remember where I am.
**Day 6** Losing My Grip
I wake up to find one of my oars snapped overnight. Just one week in, and I’ve lost a spare oar. How long can this go on?
I write in my journal, “Another full day on para-anchor. Getting harder. Feeling sad. Why am I here?”
I spend 2 hours retrieving my para-anchor, neatly piling the huge coils of rope on deck. Then I sit down to row.
Seas had calmed down, but for some reason, I can’t turn or steer the boat. I heave and heave, but the boat won’t move.
Dejected, I return the para-anchor to sea and climb back into my cabin, dripping wet.
**Day 7** Perfect Excuse to Quit
I discover why I couldn’t turn the boat yesterday: my tiller-arm is broken, snapped in half. (The tiller-arm is carbon tube attached to my steering lines that controls my rudder).
I actually feel relief: this is the perfect excuse to quit. I don’t have a spare tiller-arm, and this is an essential piece of equipment which I can’t continue without.
It was a total rookie mistake… I didn’t properly secure a pelican box in my stern cabin. Rough seas sent the box flying sometime in the prior days, and it snapped the carbon tiller-arm.
But that’s besides the point. It’s a technical error – not entirely my fault, right?
I could get a tow back to land from the coast guard (since I was less than 200 miles from shore), and I could choose to re-attempt the row next year. And I could save face, quitting because of some technical error, not my own lack of commitment.
I get out my sat phone and call Sonya Baumstein, my boat builder, duty officer, morale queen and logistics boss.
Bad news, I tell her: the tiller-arm is broken.
“No problem, we can fix it. Get out your epoxy kit, your spare bolts, and text me when you have it ready. It’s going to be MacGuyver, but we can do it.”
Fuck, really? That was not the answer I wanted. But I follow her instructions, tears in my eyes as I imagine crossing an ocean with some shitty MacGuyver fix.
I take the longest threaded hex bolt I have – the only one of its kind in my kit – and i epoxy the hex-bolt end inside the broken tiller arm. When it cures, I then send the threaded end of the bolt through the rudder and secure it with a two washers and a lock nut.
Unfortunately, I forget to sand the inside of the tiller arm before epoxying the bolt… and when tightening the lock nut, the bolt spins loose inside the tiller arm.
The tension of the whole setup might keep it all in place, but to be clear, this is a very rough fix. I am highly skeptical it will last another 2500 miles…. especially when the seas turn to follow me, and waves begin breaking over the rear end, smashing this very poor fix I cobbled together.
I call Sonya back. “I fixed it” I tell her.
“You don’t sound very happy” she replies.
And we begin having the first real-talk… It’s OK to want to quit, she tells me. And it’s OK to choose to quit. Just admit you want to, put it in the open, don’t pretend you don’t. But first, see if you can take things one day at a time. And keep an open mind. That’s all – just keep an open mind.
I think about her advice as I row for 2 hours, and then call it a day. I’m depleted, sad, frustrated, scared, and doubtful that my shitty repairs will survive the ocean.
The farther I get out to sea, the more I feel like I’m headed for disaster.