On Monday, a team of four women arrived at Cairn, Australia, in a 29-foot boat, having rowed from San Francisco, a distance of about 8,500 miles.
I love sea stories, especially those about people in dire straits who survive against all odds, but this is no survival story. This is about a team of women who spent months preparing for the trip, and began it in top mental and physical condition. They didn’t suddenly find themselves in dire circumstances. Their story is about crossing the Pacific in a small boat on purpose, and having fun while doing it.
Their boat, named Doris, was Kevlar and fiberglass with a foam core, custom-built for ocean rowing, with water-tight cabins fore and aft. It had solar panels to generate electric power to charge lithium batteries and power all the electronic gear — the desalination system, chart plotter and repeater, auto pilot, VHF radio, satellite phone, as well as the iPhones, iPads and Kindles.
The voyage wasn’t without breaks, but was done in four legs. They stopped at Santa Barbara, Hawaii and Samoa for needed repairs and supplies. The crew ranged in age from 25 to 40. Athletes all, most had rowed competitively. They had the latest high-tech safety equipment and wet-weather gear, and enough food to provide each of them with 5,000 calories per day. They boiled water for cooking their freeze-dried food. They sent and received e-mails, and regularly up-dated their Website. They plugged their iPod into Fusion speakers and played music on deck. They smeared on the best sunscreen, and wore the best sunglasses. They had Johnson Baby Powder and Sudocrem for a rash they called “angry bum.” One of their main fears was running out of “loo wipe.”
I don’t mean to imply that rowing across the Pacific Ocean isn’t a big deal. These women set two records: They were the first team of four, and the first all-female team to row the Pacific. They conquered their fears, they suffered from sleep depravation, and no end of discomfort. They battled giant waves and baked in sweltering heat. And they raised funds for two worthy charities, Breast Cancer Care and Walking With the Wounded. All that said, their voyage just didn’t ring my chimes as a sea story.
For example, they weren’t in the peril that explorer Ernest Shackleton’s men were in when ice crushed their ship, the Endurance, and left them on an ice floe in the Antarctic Ocean in November, 1915. Shackleton had only one way of letting anyone know they were in trouble: to sail across more than 800 miles of the wildest, most forbidding seas on earth in an open lifeboat.
The custom-built Doris wasn’t in the same league as the 23-foot open launch that Captain William Bligh and 18 others found themselves in when mutineers took over HMS Bounty in 1789. The overloaded launch had only seven inches of freeboard. Bligh was given 150 lb. of bread, 32 pounds of pork, 6 quarts of rum, 6 bottles of wine and 28 gallons of water. He had a compass, but no sextant or charts. To reach safety, he had to sail 4,000 miles along a chain of South Pacific islands. While these islands offered the possibility of food and water, landing on them put both men and boat at grave risk. The first time Bligh stopped at an island, natives stoned one of his crew to death and injured all the others before they could escape. Now that’s a sea story.
Being afraid of running out of loo wipe doesn’t compare with lying in the bottom of a small boat, gnawing on a bone that recently had been part of one of your shipmates. That’s what happened to the crew of the whaleship Essex in the early 1800s, after their ship had been rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in mid-Pacific. Their desperate fight to reach the coast of South America remains one of the greatest sea stories of all time.
They don’t make sea stories the way they used to, but don’t take my word for it. This is a good time of year to hunker down and read a good book or watch a good movie. “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage,” by Alfred Lansing, is an incredible book. Several books and movies have been made about the mutiny on the Bounty, as well as the sinking of the Essex. I can’t think of a better way to pass the time between now and fishing season.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.