Today makes 1 year since completing my third week at sea.
Week 3 was really fucking hard. Like, constant battle, WTF-is-happening-hard.
Whereas Week 2 was a stretch of small wins and building routine that helped me start to relax in my new home… Week 3 forced me to abandon all routine and just do anything to hang on.
In many ways, Week 3 was the lowest and hardest period of whole row. Pain continued to spread from my hands to arms. And wave after wave of fatigue pummeled me as I fought the California Current, a vast oceanic river of cold arctic water traveling south along the west coast of North America in wide S-bends up to 100 miles across.
I felt crazy, stupid, foolish and utterly unprepared as I fought to cross the current. But because it was often pushing me back east when I took breaks, I couldn’t rest long or examine the situation with a clear mind. I just had to keep rowing and hope that eventually I would break through.
But it wasn’t all suffering. Sleep deprivation and deep fights can inspire insight and new ideas. Here’s one example. I don’t remember the day this thought came to me, but it felt true immediately.
If you remember, Day 1 of the row I was surrounded by humpback whales. I watched them launching out of the water and landing with thunderous crashes, morning to night. And I heard them blast air through their blowholes, just beside the boat when they came to inspect me.
That telltale, powerful breath – PLOOOSH – planted a seed. And over the coming weeks, I noticed that sound from all sides at all times of day. I’d look to spot a whale, but would just see a wave spilling over itself.
One day in Week 3, I hear the ploosh and I turn to look for a whale. And when I see, yet again, just another wave, it dawns on me that the whale breathing and a wave crashing area just the same event in two different moments. The ocean is breathing, the whale is breathing. Life-giving oxygen is circulating through water. Another breath, another moment, but the very same event.
Such are the understandings that arise from weeks of solitude with the ocean.
Here’s the day-by-day of Week 3:
**Day 15** — MacGyver Returns
I wake up on Day 15 to the calmest seas yet. I’m thrilled at the prospect of a day of strong rowing west. I get out on deck and onto my seat early, the morning sun warming my face.
Within minutes, I notice my seat is behaving odd. It’s rumbling along. I notice one of the wheels appears to be hobbled, rolling with noisy ga-chunks instead of a smooth slide. Just moments later, the seat grinds to a halt and I lurch to the side. I look down to see one of the wheels has completely fallen off – its steel bolt has snapped in half.
It’s a frightening sight, my rowing seat completely out of commission. But I’m surprisingly calm. The MacGyver solution to my tiller-arm/rudder situation has lasted well in the past week, and that gives me confidence that I can repair this broken seat one way or another.
I text Sonya, my boat-builder and logistics queen, to share the mishap. And I begin taking the seat apart.
I don’t yet realize that I can disassemble the seat to remove it from the tracks… so I unstrap my heavy life raft (~50lbs) and grab bag from the end of my deck, so that I can remove the rowing seat off the end of the track, which the raft and bag blocked. I hoist the raft and bag out of the way, thanking the good graces that the sea is calm and won’t toss my precious and now precariously balanced cargo into the water.
And then I begin what turns into a full day of repairs.
I brought one spare bolt for the rowing seat wheels… and I already used that one spare to repair my tiller arm in week 1. Which means that repairing the wheel will be a test of true creativity.
Sonya advises me via sat phone text that I should come up with a reliable but quick fix that can last a few days or a week. Something temporary, because any hour now I’ll hit the California Current.
The what?, I respond.
In all my preparation for this row, I never learned that there’s a massive current that rowers have to cross, some few hundred miles off the shore, which can push them back towards the continent. I’m surprised by this news, but it doesn’t change my situation: fix the seat and row.
After 7 hours of building and rebuilding the seat, testing its roll, and then improving it with different combinations of bolts, nuts and scraps of wood, I have a working solution. It’s crude, but it works.
I start to row… and realize I can’t steer the boat. I turn my footplate, which via steering lines should turn my rudder, but nothing happens. There’s no resistance.
I go into my stern cabin and find one of my two steering line pulleys has broken loose. I sand the pulley mount, apply epoxy and re-attach the pulley. I let the epoxy cure for 40 minutes, and then finally, by 8pm, I begin my day rowing again… and start what is one of the most surreal nights of my entire life.
Shortly after dark I get the sense that something is different. The boat is behaving differently in the water. There’s a slight drag that wasn’t there before. And that’s not all… the water is suddenly FULL of life.
It’s like an aquarium of wild alien creatures. Thousands of eyes staring back into the light of my headlamp. As I peer over the edge of the boat, I see wiggly blue worms and bizarre dandelion shaped gray ghost-like critters… Countless tiny fish with great big eyes glowing orange in my headlamp. Attracted by the light, they leap out of the water in mini flights towards me, before crashing into the side of my boat. I’m grateful they were just babies; their speed and interest is jarring. I later realize this is a nursery of baby flying fish.
I also see squid rising to the surface. One baby squid swims all the way up to me and my light… and then it gets spooked, spits out a cloud of black ink and disappears into the depths.
I row on… past midnight, into the early hours of the morning. I’ve been up for 20 hours now and rowing for the past 12, and things are making less and less sense.
I see more squid. Now they’re bigger, rising to the surface and smashing it into white water as they make smaller squid into their dinners. I hear these attacks all around me in the faint light of the dark night… I’m anxious to get a good look at one of these strikes near me. And when I finally do, I realize I’ve just been watching waves break on the surface. Were there any squid attacks, or was I hallucinating the whole thing?
At 5:30am the clouds part and the moon makes her first appearance. The waves and wind had calmed even more over the past 24 hours. And it feels like I either only touched the edge of the current overnight, or maybe I’m not fully it in it yet. In any case, I’m exhausted. I climb into my sleeping bag for a short rest, moonlight gently streaming through the cabin door.
Screenshot: The dots show my route as I fixed my seat… the edge of the current starting to spin me around
**Day 16** — Dreamscape World
I wake up after 3 hours sleep to find the most surreal view I’ve ever witnessed: flat, calm, dreamy seas. Not a lick of wind or edge of a wave. Just tiny seams of light reflecting the blue and white from above. So gentle, it’s near impossible to tell sea from sky. I feel like I’m floating in space.
Stunned beyond words by the scene. There’s no wind. There seems to be a light current against me, but it’s faint. Where am I? Is this real? It feels like the set of the Truman Show. Surely this isn’t the ocean, hundreds of miles from shore.
The clouds continue to part and for the first time in my 16 days at sea, I feel the full strength of the sun. I have my first “oh shit” moment as I realize the heat I would later endure.
Sonya encourages me to cool off with a swim. I’m scared to jump in. Will a squid come eat me? The show last night is still top of mind. But I muster the courage, strip off all my clothes except my harness, tether myself to the boat and leap in.
WOW! Holy SHIT!
I’m suspended in a jewel. The bluest blue with piercing rays shining down.
I look all around me. Sharks? None. Fish? None.
The seas that just hours ago were teeming with life now look like a blue desert. I soak up this incredible color. But I’m still scared to be in water miles and miles deep. After just a few minutes, I climb back onto the boat refreshed and ready to row again.
With no wind or waves, the silence is deafening. I hear everything with refined senses. I could almost hear my own heartbeat.
I play some music on my backup phone during my first evening rowing shift. (My primary phone died on Day 3, but I had a backup phone, which had a small selection of “just in case” music.)
The music helps me feel a little more at ease in this surreal world. But the music feels wrong… I keep getting the sense I must be disturbing someone with all that noise. It’s just me out here, but I feel far from alone.
**Day 17** — Row 3, Sleep 2. Rinse, repeat.
I wake up to find I lost significant ground overnight. The current is picking up and pushing me northeast. Fuck!
One of the main reasons I chose to row solo is to have autonomy over my schedule, to row in the daytime or when I feel like it, and rest at night.
Buy Sonya is encouraging me (rather, imploring) that I switch to a new schedule: row for 3 hours, sleep for 2. Around the clock. Never sleep more than 4 or 5 hours, so I don’t lose ground.
I’m reluctant but today decide to give in. And I absolutely hate it.
But there’s still beauty and mystery all around me.
When I first get outside this morning, I find an eye sitting on my deck. The size of a pinky nail, it’s not from a big creature, but wow, what color?! It looks like a Hamsa or Eye of Fatima. A dark blue pupil, surrounded by a light blue ring and a deep blue iris. I stare and wonder who it could be from. The waves are picking up again, and I can’t get a camera to focus clearly enough to get a good photo. I just hold it in my mind’s eye, and then let it go… because I have to fight this current.
I’m frustrated that I feel so unprepared for this current. I had no idea it even existed. As I sit and row for hour after hour, I ask myself, had i known about the current, would it have made any difference? Would I have prepared any differently? The answer is clear: I did everything I could to prepare for this adventure, and knowing about all the obstacles in advance wouldn’t have dissuaded me from attempting it or changed my prep. I just have to accept where I am, and keep taking stroke after stroke through my deep fatigue.
**Day 18** — Upping the Ante
Wind and waves are now back in action. I have to work harder to fight the current, and even if I wanted to swim, I can’t take a break to do it.
While rowing through the night of Day 18 I notice lights appear far away on the horizon. I check my chart plotter to identify the ship and see if it’s coming my way.
Most vessels share their information via a satellite registry, so we can see and understand each other in the event of crossing courses. But this vessel’s name, type, destination, speed and anything else is absent.
I watch as more and more lights appear along its hull, a string of bright white spots that looked like they cross the whole horizon. It moves so fast and stretches so long, I decide it must be an aircraft carrier.
The ship provides a welcome point of focus. Otherwise rowing through the dark, cloudy night is pure drudgery.
With rougher seas, waves coming from the side (instead of behind, as they will later on in the row), and no light from the sky, rowing at night is the stuff nightmares are made of.
I’m having to constantly adjust my footplate steering to keep the boat pointed southwest, as the current is stronger than ever and always attempting to spin my boat around. And waves coming from the side knock me further off course.
I stare at the small screen on the other end of my deck, which without stars is all I can use to tell if I’m pointed the right direction. If I adjust too late, I have to heave on the oars to correct… but it’s so hard to read the screen in the dark night as the boat is being tossed all over.
It’s like reading an iphone from across a room, but the room is bouncing all around… and meanwhile, I feel my oars are long jousts, and I’m jousting an invisible enemy, who is constantly sending waves at me that grab my oars and smash them into my legs and crotch. In the daytime, I can see waves coming and time my strokes to avoid the worst moments, but at night, it’s just a gamble. And every few minutes, I shout in pain and frustration when the oars turn against me.
Several times throughout the night, I correct the course of the boat and get it pointed the right direction. But after the umpteenth time, I notice I’m pointed 180 degrees opposite where I want to go. I didn’t even notice I was being spun around before the turn was complete.
Disheartened, I give up, stow the oars on deck, and climb into the cabin with my wet clothes. I know I’ll lose ground by sleeping, but I have no more will to fight. I sleep the rest of the night.
**Day 19** — The Only Way Out is Through
I so deeply wish I didn’t decide to do this row alone. Humans are not designed for this, I think to myself. We’re not supposed to go on epic adventures. To take such impossible risks. To fear for our safety.
I text my brother and tell him I wish he was here rowing with me. If someone else were here and we could row in shifts, we wouldn’t lose so much ground during rest periods.
I text Sonya and ask her to please tell me I’m going to make it through this. She’s doing an amazing job routing me through the calmest edges and shortest tangent of the Cali Current, and this crossing could be so much worse without her navigational support, or with harder wind and weather conditions. But it still feels like this fight will never end.
You’re doing amazing, she tells me. Words I so badly need to hear.
I share the following on my public blog at old.unitedworldchallenge.org:
“I keep reminding myself, the only way out is through. It’s a simple mantra, but it keeps me going. Helps me accept the situation. It doesn’t deny my reality by pretending this is easy. It just reminds me to accept it and keep going.
There are moments it feels like I’ll never get to Hawaii. Moments where I’ve never felt so alone. When I wake up from an afternoon nap in between shifts, and remember where I am. Sometimes then I begin to cry. And while rowing, the tears flow easily, as I look out at the open expanse and imagine just how far I have to go.
In these moments, and especially at night, I remind myself to look for the beauty. It’s all around me (perhaps it’s all around you, too?) and it can be a massive inspiration.”
**Day 20** — Final Day of the Fight
I am finally adjusting to the shifts… Or, maybe not adjusting, but at least completing them.
Sonya tells me I’m nearing the edge of the current, and I give it my all.
I row 5 shifts: 1am-4am, 9am-12pm, 2pm-5pm, 7pm-10pm, 12am-2am — 14 out of 25 hours. The other 11 are for eating, sleeping, navigations, communications, and blogging/social media.
**Day 21** — Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire
I am finally across the current! I breathe a huge sigh of relief. That was the hardest week of my life, and I am so relieved it’s over.
Now it’s time to deal with my rowing seat, which over the past week became incredibly loud. It screeches and squeals. It grinds and rumbles as I slide back and forth.
In the past week I pass hours, probably entire days, envisioning what solutions could make a permanent fix to the seat.
But things do not go as planned. I spend the day taking the seat and wheel assemblies apart inside my cabin, trying different solutions to reinforce the tiny replacement bolt and keep the loose wheel firmly in place. I test each one out on the track, but none seem to work. By 6:30pm, I realize to my absolute horror, none of my ideas are any good. I stayed calm all day, but now I am losing my cool.
In the lowest moment of the journey, I get out my satellite phone and call my brother. I break down in tears and explain that my solution wasn’t working. The seat hardly rolled. And I don’t know how long this will last or what I will have to do next. I keep imagining having to be rescued at sea because my seat can’t be fixed. And this far from shore, I won’t get to tow my boat back to land. I’ll have to abandon her at sea… and all the investment I made, everyone’s support will all be lost. I’m beyond myself with fear, disappointment, and sadness.
My brother helps me calm down and promises to do anything he can to help me figure this out. And he suggests i try rowing as best i can for the evening, and begin thinking creatively about what I could do next. But my well of creativity is empty. Not a drop left. I try to row, but the seat gets stuck… and I just go back into my cabin. The only thing that lightens the heaviness inside me is to share the story with all my followers and supporters.
I write in my blog: “It feels crazy to be rowing farther and farther from land and rebuilding my rowing seat, an essential part of this boat, with more and more precarious solutions. But I also know that most ocean rowing expeditions fail either because of technical issues or because of an unwillingness to solve them, and I’m doing my best to stay in this game.
I have plenty of food. My power system is great. I have no shortage of electricity. I can produce drinking water. I am completely safe. I’m just scared and worried about how I’m going to row another 2000 miles. But I’ll leave that question for tomorrow.”