Expedition 2! World Record solo row across the Pacific for ocean plastic solutions

August 13, 2021




Today marks one week since completing my sixth week at sea. That’s 42 days on the open ocean alone.


Now, if you told me on Day 36, the first day of Week 6, that 50% of my time on the ocean before reaching Hawaii had already passed, I would never have believed you.


In week 6 it still felt like I had just started. But conditions were improving, and I was getting much more comfortable every day. And the rest of the trip was about to go fast.


By Week 6, instead of responding to (what felt like) emergencies, I began making strategic and tactical shifts to my equipment and mindset. And it was paying dividends. For starters, I adjusted my daggerboard – a removable meter-long board that slides into the sea through my deck. It provides valuable stability in rough seas, but it’s also a lot of drag. I removed the daggerboard and the boat shot forward. Simple experiences like this had me feeling more like a captain and less like some landlubber lost at sea.


The seat saga continued with new drama in Week 6. Bolts were bending and bearings grinding away, leaving thick trails of bearing dust on the seat’s track. The bearings were degrading so fast and I could tell they would soon wear out – not just because I could see the dust, but also because the seat crunched and hobbled as I slid back and forth – signs that the bolts were warping and weakening. I worried what I’d do if another bolt broke or I ran out of bearings. But I had some quiet, growing resolve that somehow, I’d figure it out.


One thing that I didn’t know how to solve was the searing pain in my lips. The sensations that appeared in Week 5 grew wildly intense, as my lips went from just swollen and sensitive to bloody and bogglingly painful. I’m plenty accustomed to physical discomfort, but the vortex of hell that consumed not just my lips, but entire lower face… it was shocking. Who knew lips could this hurt so bad? At least I finally figured out what caused it, even if I couldn’t make it go away! (Story below)


On the upside, weather continued to improve, getting more dynamic and beautiful. Cloud deities formed above me, dancing across the horizon and occasionally gifting me with sweet, fresh water. The short rain showers felt delightful on my skin and especially my lips. And when my mindset was right, the clouds’ presence was deeply humbling.


I felt like I wandered onto some larger-than-life stage, where I was surrounded by these celestial beings dancing all above me. The clouds seemed to look down towards me and almost scoff, like, what is he doing here? And from my perspective, looking up at these magical clouds gave me imposter syndrome, like I accidentally appeared on a set where I  share the stage with divine savants, yet I don’t even know my own lines or why I’m here. Moments like this quieted my mind and made me forget all about my lips.


Plastic continued getting more common. Bottles, fishing buoys and discarded nets, miscellaneous floating pieces of degraded material. Plastic all day long, although nothing like I would see in the coming weeks.


I also saw new wildlife: Janintha janintha, tiny pelagic snails similar to Velella velella – they drift on the surface currents and prey on Man O’ War jellyfish (badass little fuckers – that’s how they get their blue color!). Also little purple crabs – yes, crabs on the surface of miles of ocean. And weird, gray dandelion drifters suspended beneath the surface – they looked like some ghostly creature from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.


But the most surprising wildlife I saw in Week 6 were moths. Seriously – moths from land. THREE moths in one day, 900 miles from shore, and none any other day. The moths defy explanation. And yes, I have photos. They’re simple pics, but they’re some of my favorite from of the whole trip, because the moths were so completely inexplicable.


Here’s the day-by-day recap of Week 6:



**Day 36** —  What Have I Done?!


Today I realize why my lips have been hurting so bad. That chapstick I stashed in a mesh bag on my deck last week? It got completely ruined by salt, from waves washing overboard and seeping salt into the chapstick. For  a whole week I had been using it dozens of times each day… and coating my lips in salt.


Today I connect the dots. Fuck, I shout! Fuck! I immediately throw the chapstick into a trash bag, but the damage is done… it will take me weeks for my lips to heal.


In the meantime I begin applying globs of Aquaphor to my now chapped and splitting lips, providing some much needed moisture.


So much for my great idea to store my chapstick on deck. I thought I was being clever; turns out I was creating a disastrous trap.


Total distance: 970 miles (42 today)


**Day 37** —  Set Up for Disappointment


I wake up motivated to row hard and cover good ground, but the day had other plans. I spend four hours in the morning on a seat repair.


Remove the seat from the track and take the pieces inside the cabin (10 mins). Adjust the tightness of the bolts. Adjust the bearings (15 mins). Reattach the seat to the track (10 mins). Test the solution (5 mins). No good. Repeat… For 4 hours.


Finally I begin rowing, but I’m feeling frustrated by the tedious repairs. The sky is cloudy with occasional blasts of rain squalls. Sometimes the rain’s a welcome relief from the sun, but today it just dampens my mood more.


And it feels especially frustrating, because I began today with a big goal: reach 1,000 miles total distance rowed.


I’ll also aimed to cross 130°, (there are 35.5 degrees longitude between Cali and Hawaii, and so far I’ve just crossed 8, so these westward degrees are very meaningful). I want to cross these thresholds by early afternoon, but since missing out on my morning shift, I have to work hard to arrive before dusk.


While rowing through the afternoon, I daydream about how it will feel to reach the milestones. I make a plan to record a heartfelt video for all my supporters, thanking them while crying about how hard it was to get here, and that I couldn’t do it without them. Tears well up in my eyes as I imagine what I’ll say in the video.


And to reward myself for the occasion, I decide I’ll treat myself to a can of coconut water and one of my 3 crème brûlée dehydrated deserts. I deserve it, I say! And it will feel so good to celebrate!


But when I arrive at 1,000 miles that evening, lo and behold, there is no sudden delight. The water and waves look exactly the same as they did at 950 miles and 900 miles. I didn’t get out the coconut water or prepare the dessert in advance. And now that I look at the same scene all around me, I don’t feel like celebrating anything.


I don’t make a video or give myself any special treat. I’m completely overwhelmed by how fucking hard I worked to get here – and how far I still have to go.


I have no clue that in five short weeks the row will be over. In my mind, I might still have two months on the ocean, and with just 1,000 miles rowed, I feel completely defeated by what I’ve experienced and what I expect is ahead.


In my journal I write, “Feeling helpless, like I’ll never get to Hawaii.”


Total distance: 1004 miles (36 today)


**Day 38** — Mastering the Daggerboard


With yesterday behind me, I got up this morning and committed myself to making today a good day. Whatever it takes to have a good day. And if having a good day feels unrealistic, just start with the morning, I tell myself. A good morning. Then try the afternoon.


Winds are calming down and the weather is getting crazy hot. Clouds and coolness one day means nothing for tomorrow; one day might be comfortable, then the next it’s an oven.


The upside to calmer winds (and winds coming from behind instead of the side), is I think of removing my daggerboard today. I don’t need it with these more supportive, coherent conditions. I haven’t removed the daggerboard since leaving California, and the process takes me about an hour to remove and stash it on deck. But it’s immediately worth it. The moment I draw the daggerboard out of the water, the boat lurches forward. It’s like I removed a parachute from behind the boat. Yes!


I spend hours and hours rowing in silence. Despite downloading music last week, I don’t need or even want to play it. I keep thinking to myself, the music is already on. Can’t you hear it? In this cathedral of infinite sky, is there any music that a human could make that would be fit to play here? I’m beginning to doubt it.


In the evening I take a sponge bath and treat myself to a special meal. I write in my journal, “Made today my biggest day yet. Feeling much better. Low yesterday, but OK today.”


Total distance: 1049 miles (45 today)


**Day 39** — Scholarship Update


I decide to dedicate today’s blog to my scholarship campaign. I launched this row, the United World Challenge,  to raise $75,000 for scholarships to the United World College of the USA. And in solidarity with BLM, I decided in May 2020 that all funds will go towards helping BIPOC students attend UWC-USA with full scholarships, hopefully diversifying the American students who get to attend UWC, just like I did in 2004.


But now 6 weeks into the trip, we have a long way to go. We’ve raised around $25,000. My team is doing a great job sharing the story on social media, and I’m adding links and requests to donate to all of my blog posts, but donations aren’t coming in as fast as I’d like.


I keep getting notes from my team that we receive great comments on social media, and people are loving the story I’m sharing. So today, rather than continue giving away the story for “free”, I write a special blog to appeal for donations now. (You like the story? Donate!) This also is a nice break from spending 2+ hours writing a detailed daily recap, so I welcome the change in content, although it does feel kind of cerebral compared to the reality of my life at sea.


In my journal I write, “Seat repair – 90 mins. Rowed 10 hours. More is exhausting. I want to row just 6-8 hours then look at the stars… hoping for a clear night soon.”


Total distance: 1091 miles (42 today)


**Day 40**– What the Actual FUCK


While rowing in the morning I notice something strange floating in the water. It’s a rusty orange color and shaped like a triangle. It catches my eye for both reasons. First, most plastic in the water is white or a very light color from the sun’s bleaching rays. Second, there are rarely corners on plastic; the ocean’s rolling surf wears the edges down until the plastic pieces are fairly smooth.


But the orange, inch-sized bit floats by far enough away that I don’t get a good look. A few hours later I see a second one. That one looked a lot like a moth, I think to myself, but surely it can’t be. I let it go.


Now, bear in mind I haven’t seen another ship in weeks. And I know every inch of my boat. There is no room for stowaways. If there were insects on my boat, I would have noticed by now. And these 2 floating items were in the water in front of my boat, and then drifted past (behind me). They did not come from my boat.


Then later in the day, during my final daylight shift or rowing, I see some object flittering in the air. I first think it’s a flying fish. But they cruise in steady, smooth flights. This thing was flipping to-and-fro with an erratic, confused pattern. What could it be? As it got closer I realized, holy fuck, it’s a moth! Another moth?!


I spin around from my rowing seat, tear open my cabin door and grab the SLR camera stashed just inside. I search the air for where I thought the moth would be. Nowhere in sight. I’m partially disappointed, but mostly puzzled. Where could it be? Then I see it: floating in the water several feet in front of my boat, about to drift past.


I shoot several shots and am pumped and wildly confused, because to me the photos clearly show a triangular, orange moth. Antennae, wings and all. Could it be that this moth flew 900 miles from land, just to fall into the ocean from exhaustion as it reached my boat? What does this mean? Why did I see three moths today and none any other days? So many questions. I text my land team to see if anyone can turn up any answers about moths flying out to sea, but the search doesn’t turn up answers. I’m left wondering what’s happening. But for sure, I trust the experience and know what I saw, even if I can’t explain it.


In my journal I write, “Dead calm. No wind, no waves. Open, big sky. The stillness and vastness is disarming. Makes me want to stay and stare. Pulled plastic, crabs and snail from the water. Rowed til 11pm. 3 moths.”


Total distance: 1130 miles (39 today)



**Day 41**– Lemme In!


Wind and waves continue to calm, and I want to swim so badly. I suspect the water may hurt my lips, which shout with pain when anything (even just a breeze, or a bit of food) touches them. But the blue is so beautiful. I have massive FOMO everyday I don’t get into the water and just look down.


So I strip down to nothing, fasten my harness to a tether and leap in. And last just seconds later I immediately regret the decision. My lips begin to burn… first a little sizzle, then a full blaze. I leap out and look for something, anything to sooth my lips.


It’s like a tornado wrecking total havoc in my face. The pain churns from my lips back into my checks. Then it moves down through my jawbone and up into my teeth. It’s feels like a fire demon blazing through my face, dragging talons through my flesh and bone. For fuck’s sake. Who knew chapstick could cause so much pain?!


But there’s not much I can do. Just keep applying aqauphor. Pull a buff over my face to protect my lips from sun and wind. And sit with it. It’s just pain. Sit with it.


In my journal I write, “Slow, slow conditions. Wind from NW. HOT! pushed thru and rowed well in heat. Midday swim. Hands hurt, but not as bad as my lips. Constant pain.”


Total distance: 1163 miles (33 today)


**Day 42** —


I begin getting more strategic about using my daggerboard. When I’m rowing, I remove it and move faster. But with winds now coming from the NW, I put the daggerboard in during breaks to keep from drifting south and hold a more westerly bearing.


It feels good to have more control over the boat. My boatbuilder Sonya texts me to tell me I’m the only customer she’s ever had who uses the daggerboard as it’s meant to be used, adding it or removing it depending on conditions. It’s nice to get a little recognition for what I’m learning, even though it’s a simple maneuver. And I’m getting faster now – I can remove or insert the daggerboard in just a few minutes.


I also find some relief for my lips and begin taking Tylenol every 4 hours. I’m not a fan of painkillers but this feels completely necessary. I’m grateful for my friend and physician on call who helped me navigate this issue, as Tylenol does not conflict with the naproxen I’m taking daily for my arms and hands.


I make decent progress and reach 133 degrees, but I’m still waiting for strong, consistent trade winds. I thought by now, six weeks in and this far west that I would be making good miles everyday. I’m definitely faster each week, but disappointed I only cover 36 miles today. I still feel so slow.


Total distance: 1199 miles (36 today)


I combined this week’s 3 video clips into 1:

  • Part 1 – Fixing the seat. I’m becoming VERY efficient. Learned weeks ago not to unstrap life raft and grab bag… and just unbolt the seat directly from the track. And I learned to turn this frustrating chore into a game. Based on whatever fix I needed to make that day – tighten a bolt, adjust the bearings, etc. – I’d give myself a time target. Could I get the seat fixed and back to rowing in 1 hr? What about 30 mins? Just focus on making a clear, solid repair and get back in motion ASAP. Don’t focus on the annoyance of stopping – make it fun instead.
  • Part 2 – Rowing naked – When the waves were small and not breaking overboard, and when there’s cloud cover, I would strip down and row naked. It felt so liberating. Notice the small details… 1) black shower bag strapped onto life raft. This was so helpful! Because my deck slopes downwards from aft to fore, I ran the shower’s hose down to the lower portion of the deck and, voila, a flowing hands-free faucet! 2) fishing gloves tucked under the straps on the shower bag and 3) my handmade net tucked beside it all. I was slowly tidying the deck, bit by bit, to keep my desired items within arm’s reach, while keeping things clean and simple. Making the place “homey” in my own way.
  • Part 3 – Sunset – After a long day rowing, often in very hot conditions, the evening sunset was always a welcome relief. The sky would lighten into pastel shades from end to end, and I would soak up the beauty while putting in some final daylight miles. Moments like this, it didn’t matter if I was fast or slow. Was just grateful to be here.