Last Friday made one year since completing my fourth week at sea.
Week 4 was a period of paradoxes and wide swings in emotion.
One one hand, rhythm and routine returned after I crossed the Cali Current. Now with calmer conditions and no longer fighting to keep from going backwards, the ocean felt more beautiful and inviting. I began taking countless photos of the ocean’s surface in hopes of capturing what I saw and felt. (But as I shared in a video last week, I had already begun to realize the futility of these attempts; the only way to bring the ocean’s magic back to land is through me, not with me.)
In certain moments of presence, I thought to myself, more people should experience this. Ocean rowing – what a special way to meet the ocean! What a gift!
But at the same time, I was wildly distraught over my broken wheel and what felt like an irreparable situation. Storms raged inside me. I sometimes spent entire days envisioning absurd, creative “fixes”. Things like cutting apart my spare oars to create rollers to replace my wheels (a very half-baked idea). Or using my inflatable fenders (stored aboard for when I would hopefully dock in Hawaii), and suspending the fenders on ropes slung between my two cabins (an even less baked idea).
I would later realize that the best solution to creating a fully functioning seat would be to keep my existing seat in motion, somehow. I couldn’t see it then, but the solution would require space and time away. To mentally give space to the issue, and return with more creativity and play. But in Week 4, I mostly lacked the patience or confidence, and obsessed over the seat night and day.
The week had some special highlights. I had seen just a handful of fish so far – 4 pacific sunfish, Mola mola – but otherwise just birds and whales. But in Week 4, the first members of a crew of pilot fish appeared. They were so cute and shy, and they just made me feel good.
I also began having auditory hallucinations. Dogs barking, women chatting, unintelligible conversations and voices. They felt super real, but alas, I was all alone.
Except one day when a massive tanker and I were on a collision course – another highlight. With just minutes to spare, I radio’ed the ship’s bridge and heard another human voice. It was startling to hear someone, and what’s more, that when I made a simple request (adjust course to avoid collision), they did what I asked. What a human experience – this interaction, this shared reality.
Physically, my hands and arms continued to ache. I was also experiencing heartburn, although thanks to advice from my on-call physician and dear friend Ethan, we were sorting out the drivers in my diet and supplements, and the heartburn began to subside (although in some form or another, it stayed with me the rest of the trip).
One of the best highlights was taking my first bath… using delightful fresh water to clean my skin. What bliss! After a month of only baby wipes and constant drenching by the sea, a freshwater sponge bath felt like magic.
Here’s the day-by-day of Week 4:
**Day 22** — Near Miss
After spending the entirety of Day 21 working on my seat and failing to come up with a functioning solution, I begin Day 22 with more repairs.
The small bolt I used to replace the original long bolt is bending under my weight. When I slide the seat without rowing, it works. But if I row and put any pressure on the seat, the bolt flexes and the seat grinds to a halt as its frame bites into the acetyl track. I’m reinforcing the small bolt with bits of scrap wood I cut with my hacksaw and jammed into the seat’s frame. But the pressure and moisture is compressing the wood and allowing the bolt to move, and I need something more robust.
I decide to take drastic action, and I cut apart the carbon foot plate that covers the foot well inside my cabin. It’s made of 1/2 inch foam core (porous but not easily compressed) with 2- and 3-layers of carbon fiber on the outside. I know that considerable time, material and love went into creating this part by Spindrift Rowing, and I hate to cut it apart. But I feel it’s my best option, and put aside my bad feelings and saw out a few pieces. I jam them into the seat frame, and suddenly the seat holds tight. Not perfect – still some give and sway – but it works for now.
I then row 3 shifts in the daytime (about 9 hrs), but stop before nightfall. I’m babysitting this precious seat, and I decide to skip rowing at night when I can’t see waves approaching, because I need to avoid getting the oars stuck on waves, which exert big pressure and could break my hobbled seat.
On my final shift, I hear a strange noise. Amidst the splashes and shhhh of the wind and water, something seems amiss. Is that beeping, I ask myself. I turn around and peer inside my cabin door to see an alarm flashing on my chartplotter. It’s my AIS going off, indicating I’m on a collision course. I stand up and peer around to the horizon, and there over my right shoulder, rapidly driving towards me (but out of my field of vision while rowing) is a huge tanker.
I scramble into my cabin and get on my VHF radio and make contact with the ship’s bridge. “I am in a rowing boat under human power alone. I cannot navigate out of your way. We are on a collision course with 11 minutes to contact. Please alter course to starboard to provide sufficient berth.”
And then I hear it, a human voice! The friendliest Indian voice I have ever heard. And I watch with amazement as I see this massive vessel turn on a time. Suddenly I see not its front, but its long broad side. It’s the closest vessel I’ve seen since leaving port 3 weeks ago. And as it passes me 1/2 mile to my stern, I stare at it in wonder.
I think of the glorious amenities on board. A full bathoom. A real bed. A proper kitchen! And functioning engines. There goes this tanker, a behemoth of the fossil fuel era. In the past I would have thought it an ugly ship, but from my small and precarious position, it looks like a thing of beauty.
I watch it pass, staring intently at its deck and bridge to see if I can spot a human. I can’t, but it feels special to know people are so close.
The near miss was a frightening moment, but it was also a welcome distraction. I write in my blog, “I’ve caught myself thinking, ‘if only the seat weren’t bothering me, this would really be fun. I could do a better job with media, or be making better time across the ocean.’ But this kind of thinking is a trap. I am here now, and this moment is the only thing we are promised, so what will I do with it?”
Total distance: 556 miles (23 today)
**Day 23** — Struggling
I make more repairs and tweaks to the rowing seat from 0830-1100 am. Then I row from 1200 – 0830 pm.
In the first few weeks I found it was not helpful to focus on distance covered. I was going so slow that it was disheartening to check my mileage and then calculate how many months (4, 5, 6?) it would take to reach Hawaii.
But with conditions improving, I start paying more attention. But still, I’m struggling.
I write in my journal, “In AM, very depressed. Want to stay in bed all day. But seat fix went well. Good day rowing. Tomorrow i hope to reach 600 miles.”
Total distance: 577 miles (21 today)
**Day 24** — Good Day!
I’m getting into a groove. Tasks like running my watermaker, a desalinator powered by a lithium battery bank and my SunPower solar panels, are getting easier and more streamlined.
And I get the bright idea of getting my 5 gallon shower bag out from the stern cabin, and keeping it on deck. I fill it with freshwater from the watermaker, so I can now rinse my hands and face without using my drinking water. Small tweaks like this give a huge boost to my quality and comfort. And they boost my morale as I get momentum with creative ideas, even if they’re totally obvious in hindsight.
On my small backup phone, I begin a “next time” list of changes to equipment, setup, and things to bring on a row. Not that I’m already thinking of another row, but just to document learnings. This represents a huge shift in my mentality… Instead of suffering from or resenting what felt like setbacks, I begin to look for lessons learned and write them down to share with others.
And I write and send a blog to my followers and send back audio samples for the podcast. Documenting and sharing the journey is a heavy lift and takes attention away from the moment, but it’s always deeply worth it.
In my journal I write, “Good day! Rowed only ~9 hours, but oh well. Wrote stellar blog post in evening. Sent podcast samples. Doing the media thing. Feeling more upbeat. And excited to go to sleep. Always tired!”
Total distance: 601 miles (34 today)
**Day 25** — Breakthrough
I’m getting into a groove with writing. I spend 8 to 11 hours on the oars each day, during which time I think about what stories I wish to share. Not just the tactics and events of the crossing, but also what’s happening inside my head… As I think about my blogs and spend my lunch breaks and evenings writing them inside my cabin on a tiny iPhone, I tap into an enormously valuable outlet.
Given all the challenges with early conditions and my rowing seat, I thank the good graces that I haven’t lost communications, because writing and sharing the story real-time with others is incredibly helpful for me.
And while I’m on deck, conditions continue to change for the better. The waves are now coming from N/NW instead of W/NW. This means less resistance against my desired course. And every so often, a wave nudges me forward, hitting me from the quarter instead of the side. Thank you! I shout to the ocean. Thank you!
I’m getting used to my ocean environment, but my mind seems to be still trying to make sense of it. I begin hearing voices today – women talking, dogs barking, shouts and laughs. I sense my mind is attempting to create some familiarity in this wildly new world. The noises are so convincing that I often turn my head to see who said it. Of course, it’s just the ocean…
In my journal I write, “‘Lazy day’ – woke up at 8. Rowed 9-12, 1:30-4:45, 5:15-8:30. 9.5 hrs total. Seat still working – 2 days without repairs! And thought of a great fix = lock the wheel down and lube the acetyl track! YES!”
Total distance: 622 miles (21 today)
**Day 26** — Eureka!
I begin Day 26 executing the fix I thought of yesterday: locking my tiny replacement bolt down and lubing up the acetyl track. This way the tiny bolt won’t further flex, which solves two issues: first, the seat itself works better. Second, it reduces the risk of other bolts bending and my bearings wearing out, which has started to happen as they compensate for the tiny bolt flexing.
I brought several cans of lubricant, more than enough to keep the track nice and slippery for the rest of the trip. I begin by using WD-40, a tiny can that I can easily stash on deck or in my pocket to re-apply throughout the day.
It feels SO GOOD to think of a solution that works. And one that I can repeat, hopefully, to other wheels if necessary. I’m back in the game.
My mood soars even higher later in the day, when I look over the edge of my boat today and see not blue, but black and white. Fish! At first I call them Zebra fish for their black and white strips, but I later learn they’re pilot fish – so called because they followed pilots (i.e. captains) of ships on voyages throughout history. Towards the bottom of the food chain, pilot fish take shelter beneath vessels to avoid predation.
These little beauties follow me for the next several weeks, until predators appear, and the pilot fish disappear immediately. But for now, I’m thrilled to have them and imagine them accompanying me for the next 2000 miles.
Total distance: 645 miles (23 today)
**Day 27** — Mindfulness and Presence
I’ve been doing my best to stay attentive to my thoughts and mindfulness throughout the trip, but today things start to feel easier. For once I don’t spend the ay fussing over the seat fix. I’m learning to be aware and listen for cues that something may need my attention, but to also stay present to everything else around me at the same time.
Giving space to the issues I face, instead of trying to tackle them head-on at once, actually becomes the most effective approach for problem-solving at sea. It’s a lesson that goes on to change my life later in the row and integration since. But today, it’s just a seed that’s starting to sprout.
In my journal I write, “Rowed ~11 hours, covered big miles. 20 minutes west. Dreamed up new ways to grow reach and impact of this campaign. Rowed naked. So fun! Wind under 5 knots most of the day. No waves, amazing.
Total distance: 674 miles (29 today)
**Day 28** — Slow but Happy
I cover the fewest miles today of the entire trip, just 15 in all. But I have a fantastic day.
I take my second swim and once again am amazed by the color of the water. Despite a totally gray, bland sky, the water still holds the most amazing blue. It’s such a rush to dive headfirst into the ocean, and it requires all my courage to make the leap. I’ve heard of other ocean rowers sticking a GoPro under the boat before jumping in to make sure there aren’t any predators around, but I just get naked and dive. The feeling is unlike anything else.
Perhaps the only better feeling than diving into the ocean is taking my first bath at sea. It’s a humble sponge bath, but the fresh water feels like kisses from God. A month of salt dissolving off my skin. YES!
And it gets better still when two pilot whales visit me shortly before sunset. I hear them before I see them. Not their exhales, but their vocal clicks. They’re shockingly loud – dominating the soundscape over the creaks and groans of my seat, even over the Bob Dylan I’m playing. (I had a small selection of music on a backup phone, which I brought “just in case,” and was occasionally experimenting with playing).
When the whales surface beside my boat and circled me, I turn off the music in hopes they stick around. But they just do a lap around the boat and keep moving. (Side note: pilot whales are actually one of the largest species of dolphin, hence their clicking rather than sing-song vocalization, although sperm whales also click. And just like the pilot fish, pilot whales were so named for their common presence around ships.)
In the last week or two, even when the ocean was all quiet around, I sensed a sneaking feeling that my music was disturbing someone. Or that I shouldn’t be playing it. Today when the whales visit, it reinforces that idea. Music is not something that belongs out here. Just listen. Be present.
I row into the evening, feeling blessed by the magic of these two curious whales. But I’ve also begun noticing something else in the water: plastic. Nothing compared to what I’ll find later, but I’ve already seen water bottles, ketchup bottles, bags, and degraded plastic from who knows what.
I think about these whales and the ocean’s other citizens whose world is getting trashed. And I row into the night, grateful for the moon overhead. After nearly a month of mostly overcast conditions, the clouds are parting more each day, and I welcome bright moon like a friend.
Total distance: 689 miles (15 today)