Today marks one year since completing my 2,696 mile row from California to Hawaii.
Quick clarification on count: The journey lasted 70 days, 20.5 hours. In these recaps, I counted my launch-prep day as Day 1, so this writeup reaches 72 days. It’s an accounting error; the total was just shy of 71.
Now, as for the events of my last two days (herein 71 and 72)… I woke up on September 10, my second-to-last day, knowing that I wanted to make landfall before dark the following day. And that would require nonstop rowing until I reached land to cover the distance in time. No more sleep. One final hurrah.
I left California on July 3 with a 20-hour push to get away from land, and I realized I’d nearly doubled that effort with 36 hours nonstop.
It was a difficult but magical last stretch. On my final night, I saw more shooting stars than the rest of the row combined. Bright green bioluminescence lit the seas ablaze. An unexpected wave washed overboard and dumped baby squid all over my deck. It was a barrage of wildlife and sights.
Then as the sun shone over giant clouds the next morning, I watched the ocean dance like I could see every wave and ripple in the entire sea at once. A deep and indescribable respect for the ocean moved through me. Such beauty and power. Impermanence and timelessness swirled together in one watery world.
Making landfall is one of the most dangerous parts of any ocean row, and although I was exhausted from 24h nonstop rowing, I couldn’t rest or even stop to make drinking water or food. It was go-time. Currents around Hawaii are notoriously tricky and I was on high-alert to maintain course and not get swept past my bay.
And all the while, land was doing this funny thing. It looked so close, like I could almost touch it. And yet it hardly seemed to get any closer no matter how hard I rowed. I guess I finally had a visual reference for just how slow rowing really is.
With the help of a local captain who escorted me safely through the Kaneohe Bay, I arrived at the Kaneohe Yacht Club at 6:30pm on Saturday, September 11. And for a brief second I hesitated to step off the boat. Is the adventure really over? Has it really come to an end? But hesitating wouldn’t change reality. I took two wobbly steps onto the cement dock, threw my arms in the air and screamed, WHOOOO! I did it – after nearly 4 years of planning and then the expedition, I rowed across the ocean.
And so began the next journey, integrating lessons from sea. This journey is still ongoing, and can’t be shared in daily recaps but perhaps in perspectives gained and illusions lost. I look forward to revealing those stories, but for now, I invite you to join me in the final events of my 71 days rowing to Hawaii.
Photo credit to Kelli with an Eye photography and Sebastian Stewart photography.
**Day 71**– Thank You All
I start my second-to-last day sending my acknowledgment blog post to thank all the United World Challenge supporters. I’d spent 8 hours writing it over the past several days, doing my best to recognize everyone involved. It feels so good to send the blog and offer my deep gratitude to everyone. No matter what happens in the next two days, we’ve achieved so much together, and it’s thanks to a global community who made it possible.
I row through the day with Maui and then Molokai off my right (port) shoulder. They say you can smell land when you arrive from sea, but with wind at my back, I’m yet to catch a whiff. I wait anxiously for what land might smell like.
I appreciate this is a special moment, being within sight of land in the final stretch. I want to record the experience, but when I turn on my camera, it’s all business. No funny voices, no silly songs. I know from countless rowing books and speaking to other rowers that I’m entering the most dangerous part of the trip. And I keep telling myself to keep going, don’t take breaks, position myself for success. I feel like a gymnast who’s done a solid routine and now has to stick the landing. Stick the landing, Tez, I keep repeating. Stick it!
Near sunset I prepare a dinner. Little do I realize it will be my final meal at sea. And then I prepare to begin my evening rowing shift, to row into and through the night. I will not sleep before reaching land.
But when I sit down at my seat, my steering lines are loose. I can’t control the rudder. What’s the matter? I climb into my stern cabin where the lines connect to the tiller arm and rudder and discover one of the weld-mount pulleys has torn loose from the cabin wall. One last fix (I hope). No big deal… I get out my sandpaper and epoxy kit, roughen up the site where the weld mount should sit, and epoxy it on. For 10 sweaty minutes, I perch atop 70 days of trash, bags of poopy wet wipes, and all sorts of foul debris. Maybe this is what land will smell like…
While the weld mount cures I take my final sponge bath. I clean myself off and put on some essential oils. It’s my last night at sea and I’m going to make it special. “It’s you and me, ocean. Our last night together.” And then I begin rowing, having the best date of my life.
Shooting stars streak across the sky. I’m not sure why, since I have more light pollution now since I did 70 days ago, but I see more shooting stars than the rest of the trip combined. And down below, the bioluminescence is lighting every wave. It’s like rowing through outer space with shimmering lights glittering from all directions.
Total distance: 2633 miles (66 today)
**Day 72** — A Stranger in Our World
I use sunrise on my final morning as an opportunity to take a break. I stow my oars and just admire the beauty. The sun paints the sky orange and pink, and its rays pierce the ocean all colors save blue. Am I floating inside a painting? An overwhelming sense of unity washes through me. I sit in awe, watching every ripple and wave in all the world’s oceans dance together.
I would love to admire the view all day, but my break must stay short. I pull out my phone and send one final blog – an appeal to followers to donate. We’ve raised $52K so far, just $23K shy of the goal. I remind my followers that anything is possible and invite them to help us reach $75K before I make landfall tonight.
My hands are a blistered mess from 24 hours of nonstop rowing, and I have a full day ahead of me. I can see Oahu 30 miles in front of me. It’s close but not straightforward, as powerful currents could sweep me off course if I waiver in the final miles. I tape my hands to lock the blisters in place, put my head down, and begin to row.
Normally I enjoy the morning rowing shift, but today it’s hell. My body’s a wreck from lack of sleep and the heat quickly overwhelms me. I row for just three or four strokes, then take a few deep breaths, and then take another few strokes. Rinse and repeat, recovery breathing for hours.
I’m drinking water with electrolytes and constantly checking my forehead to ensure I’m still sweating. Hot and sweaty is fine, hot and dry could signal an emergency. Thankfully despite feeling exhausted, I can tell I’m not at my redline yet… I’m still sweating.
But it’s so darn hard. In all my races, all my events… whether racing Ironman triathlons or running 145-mile ultramarathons, I’ve never had to dig this deep. There’s no escape. In a race, I can lay down on the side of the road under a tree… but here, there’s no shade. Taking a break in the cabin would feel even worse than on deck where at least I can enjoy a breeze. And either way, I have to keep rowing to make landfall before dark. Keep. Going!
While feeling my sweat, I coax myself into believing I’m OK. I repeat, “My body is hot, but I am fine. I am rowing to the finish.” I’m so hot and depleted that I can only utter a few words at a time and then take a deep, powerful breath to blow off heat and CO2. “My body is hot…” Breath…. “But I am fine…” Breath… “I am rowing to the finish!” Pant, pant, pant.
I repeat this mantra again and again. At first it’s a faint whisper broken up by deep breaths. But slowly over 30 minutes, the mantra grows into a shout. I pull on the oars and erupt, “I am rowing to the finish!!”
Finally after 71 days at sea and four years preparing, I am nearing the end! And either my body begins to cool down, or my mind just stops worrying. Either way, I don’t need as many breaks and I can finally row with all my might, soaking up the last views of the beautiful deep blue ocean while cranking on my oars towards Oahu.
A couple hours later I’m just 15 miles from land, and I notice a fishing boat on the southern horizon. A ship! My first vessel since the first month. I’m amazed to see it, until my excitement morphs into anxiety as I watch the boat turn north and motor my way. Five minutes later it heaves-to and the skipper looks over at me and shouts, “Hey there!”
I’m stunned. “Aloha, man” is all I can utter. I look at him and his big, powerful vessel in disbelief. He looks like an alien, and his voice so intrusive and foreign. His boat looks like a spaceship.
“Mokapu Point is 15 miles that way” he points towards shore. I look towards land then back at him, nod and flash the shaka.
“You need anything?” he asks. I shake my head “no” and flash the shaka again. He gives me one last once over, hesitates a second, and then motors off. I’m sure he thinks I’m crazy. Maybe he’s right. I feel crazy. I can hardly speak to another human.
Once he’s gone, I turn to my camera and without skipping a beat, pour my heart out about weird it felt to see a person. I feel totally comfortable talking to my camera, but speaking to a human weirds me out. Then I realize how lucky I was to practice talking with someone before I arrive to Kaneohe Yacht Club; I’ll probably be expected to say a few words.
I row on, and land is finally getting closer. The green cliffs develop texture. Steep ravines slope down to sea. Earth’s curvature still hides the beaches, but I can tell I’m getting near. In fact, land’s first scents reach my nose. It’s pungent a smell, like a mix of trash and cheese. I don’t have much time to ponder that, because shortly after I reach the surf break, which demands my full attention.
Here the ocean rises from 500 meters to just 10 meters deep and creates a minefield of wild breaks. I surf them towards land and laugh as the waves lift and toss my boat forward. Thank goodness I’m working with them rather than against. After 10 minutes of whitewater rowing, I reach the far side, and just a moment later I see a booby land on the water. Birds have been circling my boat for hours – I assume they’re mostly accustomed to fishing vessels; perhaps they think my pink unicorn may bear their lunch. But this time, the bird almost becomes lunch. A looming gray shape rises out of nowhere and surges towards the surface, and at the last moment the booby takes off.
I realize I just saw a shark and do my shark dance – fists in the air and singing “Shark shark shark, I see a shark, I love that sharks are hereeee!” Hawaii is feeling vibrant and inspiring.
Just a moment later I spot another boat with a group of people looking my way. I wonder who they are, but when they wave and shout at me, I realize it’s my escort boat captained by LJ Benson, a local skipper and guide, who Sonya and my sister were referred to for help, and who agreed to help me navigate the tricky Kaneohe Bay. Aboard the vessel is LJ’s wife Lehua, a videographer, and my brother and sister in law. Family! People!
Thank goodness I had practice talking to someone else this morning. Aloha, I shout! Hey man! my brother shouts back. You did it!! It all feels so surreal. I’m stoked to see them, but also sad. Some of our crew are missing… I covered so many miles the past few days that I beat my family’s and Sonya’s fastest estimates of my arrival by over 24 hours. Only my brother and sister in law could change their flights to meet me.
I row on with the escort boat bobbing alongside, and just an hour later around 430pm, I cross the edge of Kaneohe Bay. Although I haven’t reached land, I’ve technically crossed the ocean. I celebrate by lighting my flares and capturing some celebratory mission-complete footage. It feels performative and sort of false to shout and wave my flares, but it makes great footage for storytelling and future fundraising, and it’s a customary part of finishing an ocean row. I give it my best, but erupt into laughter between shots. I can’t take my own victory shouts seriously; I just want to look at the water for more sharks, and stare at this weird thing called land.
But we have ground to cover – there are still 10 miles to row to the Yacht Club, and LJ explains that the bay is laced with cross-winds, is just 1-2 meters deep, and features over two dozen submerged reefs. We’ll need to navigate carefully.
I’m now close enough to land to see homes, buildings and roads. At one point a leaf in the water floats past me. A leaf! I point it out to the people in the boat; they laugh that it’s something I’d notice. Even this simple sight makes me want to slow down and soak up my first land foliage experience, but I need to keep rowing. It’s late afternoon and the sun will soon set.
Now inside the Bay but before the cross-winds pick up, there’s one last thing to do before the final push the Yacht Club. My brother brought Moderation’s sculpted unicorn horn with him from California, and LJ pulls his boat up to mine. My brother extends the horn and I grab the far end. We pull the boats together and my brother extends a fist. Nice work, man! We bump fists and attach Moderation’s horn, and then I’m off rowing again, now with Moderation in full unicorn regalia.
We pass through the main channel of the bay and make a hard turn to the south towards the Yacht Club. As soon as I turn, winds whip down from the mountains and across the bay and begin pushing my boat sideways. We have a narrow lane of safety to avoid the reefs, and there is no time to rest now. I’ve run out of water and haven’t eaten in hours, and I begin one of the most intense hour-long rowing shifts of the whole journey. I heave on the oars and forcefully breathe, push the water, push the air…. Until finally we pass out of the cross-wind and into flat, calm water.
The sun is now down and twilight is upon us. I make my way through the yacht club’s docks. Members are lined up on either side, enjoying beverages upon their boats. Horns blare and people shout as I row past them, Congratulations! Welcome! Thank you, I reply, teary-eyed and a bit overwhelmed.
I pull up to the dock at 6:30pm HST, 70 days, 20.5 hours after leaving Monterrey. We tie up the boat and the club president Rick and his wife Patti offer me a lei. My brother shoots champagne all over me. I share a few words while still standing aboard Moderation, and then the time has come to step off. I hesitate for a brief second, then embrace the change. Two wobbly steps and I’m ashore, a washed up wave on land. My legs don’t know what to make of it, and the soles of my feet grip the concrete dock like a baby inspects a toy by putting it in its mouth. With every sensation, my whole body is asking, what is this?
The small crowd disperses after I share a few words and Lehua, a native Hawaiian, asks me if I saw any mermaids at sea. I reply saying there were plenty of things I couldn’t make sense of; I stopped trying to understand what I saw. She smiled knowingly and looked out to sea. That’s the simple truth. So many of the things I saw, I cannot explain. Flashes of color. Things catching my eye then disappearing. I don’t know what I saw, but I saw unexplainable things everyday that left me wondering.
A few members of the Club help me tie up the boat and stow my oars, and I ask Rick where I can find a bathroom. Past the pool, he replies.
I look down at the ground and say, a pool? My brother smiles at me and asks, sound good?
My brows wrinkle. Confused and disheartened, I reply, You can’t cage water…
It breaks my heart to think of the wild ocean locked in a concrete cage. How we force nature into boxes and bend it to meet our every desire. But such is life on land. The convenience of bottled water and temperature-controlled pools. Of planes and cars and climate-controlled homes.
After a couple hours of friendly chatting with my family and the amazing hosts in the Kaneohe Yacht Club, I climb into the backseat of my brother’s rented minivan. We drive past strip malls and grocery stores. So many places you can buy anything you desire. How strange to have unlimited access to anything you want.
We arrive at our AirBnB. I peel the tape off my hands, strip down, and take my first shower in 71 days. Hot water running from an overhead tap! Such luxuries in our modern world.
I go to sleep to the sound of waves crashing out my window. I did it – I’m back on land. The first-ever novice to row California to Hawaii on their first attempt. And the 8th person ever to row mainland USA to Hawaii. I fall sound asleep for the next 12 hours.
Total distance: 2696 miles (63 today)
**A Note on Integration and Writing these Recaps**
First, about a week after the row ended, we successfully raised the $75K goal. In fact, we raised $76,675 total, which supported 3 students of color from the US to attend UWC-USA with full scholarships. They began school along with 200 other students from 85 countries last month in New Mexico. How cool is that?!
If you’re feeling inspired to help UWC create young leaders for a peaceful and sustainable world, your support is still welcome here: https://www.uwc-usa.org/united_world_challenge/
Second, although crossing the ocean took 71 days, integrating lessons from life at sea has taken a whole year – and that journey is ongoing. The hardest part of returning? Feeling my heart open up at sea, and then returning to land and feeling heartbroken by what’s happening in our world.
We all learn to carry armor that protects us as we navigate the seas of life, and I felt like the ocean disarmed me. When I returned to society after surrendering my shell, it felt like my soft skin was being cut by everything it touched.
There are ways to toughen up again. For example, compartmentalizing and desensitizing is really effective for coping with the challenges of our times. But it severs our connection with our hearts, and the ocean taught me my heart should be my guide. So I’ve been navigating how to stay open and sensitive, while also finding ways to function like a normal person again.
Nine months passed post-row before I began feeling normal(ish)… Synchronistically, it was exactly one year after the row began, July 3, 2021, that I finally felt comfortable in social settings. And in the ten weeks since, the process of writing these stories has helped me integrate further.
But these blogs have been difficult to write. Each day on Moderation was so dense, that whatever I wrote and shared these past 10 weeks felt like the tiniest fraction of the story. I hoped to use these recaps as a catalyst to review my records – especially sat phone text threads and the 10 hours of voice memos I recorded during the journey. But I’ve barely opened any of those at all. They’re all still holding their treasures, undiscovered.
The juiciest moments – and all the details for the small stuff, which really made the bulk of my daily experience – are best captured in the voice recordings and text threads. And I didn’t get a chance to mine those yet. The perfectionist in me was never satisfied with these stories. But I’ve had to remind myself, these recaps are still worth sharing. And I intend to go back in and add the juicy details later.
Just as important as the details, are the themes and distilled lessons learned that I felt were all missing. I recapped events, but didn’t tie in the biggest lessons to weave common threads across the entries. That’s for future tellings, too. So stay tuned. And if you ever want to hear more, reach out – I’m available and excited for public speaking. I’ll be honored excited to share more with you.
Onwards into the great blue. With love,