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Post 4: The first 24 hours

From having the initial idea to row the East Coast of America to setting off from Miami only took a period of ten weeks. It’s amazing how much you can change your own life in such a short period of time.The journey had taken all of my focus and attention during these preceding months. So whilst it was slightly surreal to be standing knee deep in the water at Pelican Harbor, Miami with a boat packed full of things, I didn’t feel nervous or even excited, just pleased to be getting on with what I had been talking about for so long. 

I’ll be honest, I didn’t plan the trip down to the finest detail. As I began the eight hour car ride to Miami, I still had no media interest in the journey and had not found anywhere I could launch the boat from. I also hadn’t bought any of the necessary provisions that I would need for the weeks ahead. I was by then approaching Miami and whilst food and water can be picked up from a quick stop on route it was begining to dawn on me just how big a city it is. This wasn’t just going to be a case of chucking the boat in the water. And even if I were to find a ramp, leaving the boat loaded and unattended whilst I returned the car to the rental was out of the question.  

In desperation I turned up at Pelican Harbor with just one hour to spare before the car rental closed. I pleaded for their assistance and they agreed to let me leave the boat for a couple of hours whilst I returned the car. I was now in a real rush. As I busily unpacked my gear a man named Chris approached me. Chris showed a genuine interest in what I was doing so despite the lack of time we stopped to talk about my plans. Chris offered to help and before I knew it he had found a place to store the boat and had given me somewhere to stay for the night. I was delighted to have one more decent sleep before the setting off on my trip.I am generally trusting of strangers but have to admit I was a little alarmed by the number of taxidermy specimens and animals preserved in formaldehyde that Chris had on display in his house.

In the morning Chris gave me a quick driving tour of downtown Miami and then dropped me off at Pelican Harbor. Up until this point I had spent a total of 30 minutes in the boat and had never loaded it. It instantly became apparent that I had way too much junk and I doubted whether it would all fit in the boat. Things were put in dry bags with very little thought given to order. A single rope was then weaved through the handles of these bags running from bow to stern in case anything should fall overboard.

Once the boat was packed and interviews were over I had my first chance to calmly observe the water in Miami. It was not at all what I expected. The channel is very wide  – a few miles at least. It was also a breezy day and the waves were making quite a bit of swell. Hundreds of boats dart around everywhere and at great speeds, their wakes large enough to swamp my little boat. This was not going to be the gentle amble up the coast that I had hoped for. It was also not clear which way is north. It may sound silly but there are no sign posts and the channel is not as straight and clear as it was when I looked from Google Earth. A compass and map would have been really handy.

Too late now though. I am here with a boat so time to start rowing.

Waving goodbye to the small crowd I pushed off and into the choppy water. They have turned out to see someone start a 1400 mile row to New York City but as they watch me catch the oars awkwardly on the waves with every stroke and bob around uncomfortably with each wobble of the boat I cant help but wonder what they make of it all.

I spend the first mile laughing to myself as I cant really believe what I have committed myself to. The boat moves well through the water but it is hard work. It seems so strange not to have rowed before and to make such a commitment to using this particular boat. I wonder how we will get on in the weeks ahead.

I stopped for lunch on an Island. I have forgotten to bring a lighter so I approach two men who are fishing. The first is called Monkey and tells me he is one of only 40 organ grinders left in the country. This is one of those facts that is told with the intention of having a big reaction but I feel that I gave the wrong one. In truth I was surprised there are as many as 40 organ grinders in the country. After all America seems to be doing just fine with just one president, one national anthem, one Beyonce so why the need for 40 organ grinders? Surley that’s excessive. His friend is from Colombia and I struggle to understand his accent. He told me his name but I couldn’t make it out. ‘You know,’ he says ‘like in the Flintstones’. Still nothing. I can hear that he is not saying Fred and Wilma is the only other character I know from that show so I am clueless as to what his name could be.

Once I explained my journey to the two men the Colombian with a name from the Flintstones says he will join me. I said he was welcome to follow in his canoe even if he can only commit to coming along for a mile or two.

‘No’, he protests, ‘I’ll come all the way to New York with you. Just give me two days to get the money together’.

‘What money?’ asks Monkey.

‘$10 000′ he replies. ‘I can get it in two days once I sell my driftwood.’

Now, I don’t know what the market is like for driftwood in the Miami area or indeed who in their right mind is buying $10 000 of the stuff at a time. Either way it seems unlikely he will join me which is probably for the best because I don’t know how we would communicate for 90 days together.

My plan was to row to a lake ten miles north of Miami by nightfall. The lake is closed to powerboats so should be a good place to drop anchor and spend the night. I will then use a canvas canopy to sleep under. Assembling the canopy seemed so simple on land but from in the fully loaded boat whilst on the water it is tricky. Finally I got the canopy over the boat and got into my sleeping bag. How funny that this will be my new life. From wearing a suit in a London job to sleeping in a puddle in a rowing boat in just a few weeks.

My big fear is being hit by another boat in the dead of night or being turned over from the wake from somebody passing by. The idea of capsizing in the dark whilst being trapped in a sleeping bag and under a canvas is terrifying. The boat lies nicely in the calm but moves with every breath of wind or ripple of water. It is noisy too and I can hear many splashes. In the darkness every splash sounds sinister and whenever I begin to drift off another noise jolts me wide awake.
 
I can only imagine that like the rowing I will eventually get used to the sleeping on board as the days pass by. Finally I sleep.
 
Suddenly I am awoken by the sense that something has moved alongside the boat. The hull is thin, separating me from the water by just a few millimetres of carbon fibre. The shape of the hull also means that it hugs my body as I lie in it. The result is that I can feel what is going on on the other side of the hull through the sounds and vibrations that pass through it. As I lay there wide awake I could feel something large moving against the outside of the boat. Through a gap in the canvas I am also able to use the star constellations to see that the boat is rotating on its anchor. First it goes one way and then the other. A few minutes pass and the thing on the other side of the boat silently scrapes under the keel and moves to the other side of the boat. The lake is not tidal and there is not a breath of wind that evening so there was no reason the boat should be moving. I wonder what it is in the water that is brushing up against the boat and causing it to move. The more I think about it the worse explanations I reach. There was only one thing to do – try to get to sleep. This will all feel better with some sunlight.    
 

Post 3: Some final thoughts 

When I shared my plans with friends at home they were quick to quiz me on some of the details. ‘How will you sleep?’ ‘What are you planning to do about eating?’ And worst of all, ‘what are the toilet facilities on board?’ 

Originally these were all concerns to me but the dream of arriving in New York City with all those fantastic miles of rowing behind me was enough to allow me to forget these questions. So I developed a list of standard answers to give people enough confidence that I know what I am doing so that we can talk about some of the more exciting elements of the trip.

I am now in Florida and have a boat strapped to the roof of my car. Tomorrow morning I will drive it to Miami to begin a 1400 mile row. Very soon I will need to sleep and eat on board and I can’t help returning to those same questions and wondering if perhaps I should have spent a little more time thinking about them when I had the chance. At the very least I should know where I am launching my boat from in 10 hours time. 

So when I look around at my kit I don’t see the classic pre-expedition shot of piled up dry bags, coils of rope and creased maps with routes pinned into it. I think that the beauty of what I am about to do is that it could be completed by anyone. It really is true that I have no real experience of rowing or of the sea – I wasn’t even a member of a gym before I set out. However, I believe that having a good idea and the determination to see it through will be all I need to get to New York.

One of the things that I will treasure on my boat trip is a 3 foot length of thin rope. I found it outside my house when I was about 14 years old and kept it thinking that one day it would come in handy. I have stored it at the top of my kit bag. I was right to hang on to it after all; its a little piece of home and a reminder that I don’t need to be too professional in order to finish the journey.

 

 

Post 2: Leaving London

In the past few weeks I have been steadily deconstructing my old life.

In January I was comfortably surrounded by things that I knew; a job and a house full of stuff. Now, just a month later, I am sleeping on a friend’s sofa with nothing but a spare set of clothing and a bag of sailing equipment.

The idea of rowing the East Coast came to me in late November. I needed 24 hours to research if it was possible and then told Qedis, my employers, of my plans. And with that a notice period was set giving me just a matter of weeks to get myself ready.

My focus was on what I would be doing in America. Maps would need to be unfolded, kit lists drawn up, sponsors contacted and media engaged. When I go on holiday I always struggle to get all the things I need. What this mean is that I forget to buy sun cream and have to get some at the airport. So not really much of a drama. For this trip I would need to find out about things I had never heard of before like epirbs and VHF radios. I would also need to learn about new things like tides and currents. And I would need to figure out how the practicalities of the trip would work – like what insurance policy covers being saved but the US Coast Guard?

As I prepare for what lays ahead and become emerged in the material concerns of the trip, the bigger changes that are taking place slip by almost unnoticed. In preparing this new life, what would have been big choices before become a matter of necessity. I looked around and began to discard the elements of my old life that are not required for rowing. The lease on the flat was given up and sentimental possessions were moved to my parents’ garage. The remainder was sold and that which could not be sold was binned.

And so within a month the old contours of my life, the things that defined me, have disappeared. My old flat is now lived in by someone else, my job taken by another and my possessions are for the most part are gone.

I don’t mean to overplay what this means as people give up their old lives all the time. But what strikes me is just how unknown the next step is. For all my confident answers to friends and family I really haven’t a clue what will replace my old life. My guess of what it will be like to travel the East Coast and to live on a row boat is not really anymore informed than anyone else’s. All I know is that it all starts tomorrow when I travel to Gatwick Airport. Which reminds me, I still haven’t brought any sun cream.

 

 

Post 1: Having a good idea

Why are you doing it?’is the most frequent question I’m asked whenever I decide to share my plans. And I gather that this is the same question for pretty much everyone who chooses to set out on such journeys.

‘Why not?’ or ‘Because it’s there’ has become the standard response. But it’s not really true. I can think of many reasons why not to give up my job, move out of London and box all my possessions away in my parent’s garage. ‘Because it’s there’, well, it’s not there in any real sense. If it’s coastal rowing that I want, well I live on an Island, and if it’s America that I wanted to visit, then I would stick to the Gulf Coast or anywhere else where it isn’t freezing cold.

I can’t help but think that asking why I am doing this journey is a daft question and it’s certainly one that I’ve never asked myself. There couldn’t be anything more natural in the world than to go for an explore, and the fact that coastal rowing between Miami and New York is such a rarity only adds an element of discovery to the whole undertaking.

But there are things that I hope to find along the way. I hope to feel thrill and excitement. I hope to be frightened at times too. And, above all, I hope to meet some incredible people. Too often it seems that adventures are about withdrawing from society and ‘getting back to nature’. This is not what I hope to do at all. In fact it is ‘getting back to nature’ – the treacherous weather and dangerous beasts, the crippling solitude and lack of comfort – that I am most worried about. If all goes well I will find out a little more about America; its history, its traditions and its people. And so, all I am really doing is setting out on an American Road Trip – only this one’s in a boat.

13 Comments

  1. Bon voyage.
    This nearly 84 yr old relic admires and is envious of the advenure soon to be taken by a 24 yr old. I’ll try to soon get a contribution off in support of your great cause.

  2. WE ARE PROBABLY NOT THE FIRST TO ASK YOU THIS: ARE YOU NUTS??? WE THINK YOU SHOULD HAVE SOME SEA FARING EXPERIENCE AND HOPE YOU CAN SWIM ALONG WITH A TAG A LONG BOAT FOLLOWING YOU. THAT IS UNLESS YOU PLAN TO STAY SO CLOSE TO SHORE THAT YOU WON’T HAVE ANY PROBLEMS GOING INLAND IF YOU HAVE A MAJOR PROBLEM. PLEASE RECONSIDER THIS.
    ARE YOU DOING THIS ON A DARE? OR WHAT MOTIVATED YOU. HOPE YOU LIKE SHARKS? ALSO WE PRAY THAT YOU DON’T MEET ONE IN PERSON. REMEMBER THEY ARE CALLED GREAT WHITE SHARKS. ALSO ARE YOU A BORN AGAIN CHRISTIAN AND HAVE OUR LORD ON YOUR SIDE? I SURE HOPE SO. PLEASE RECONSIDER!!!! WE ARE FROM AKRON, OHIO WILL BE PRAYING FOR YOU SHOULD YOU DECIDE TO GO AHEAD WITH THIS.

  3. We wish you all the very best Lewis! I only wish that we would have known when you were leaving so we could have hosted in our Miami condo prior to your departure and helped you provision your boat and give you a propper send off.

    We wish you all the very best and will be watching for your daily updates!

    Barbie :)

  4. Lemme know if you want paddling, or rowing, buds on the water!! There are a bunch of us that would love to join up with you at various points, from Miami to Maine (if you decide to overshoot NYC–and it is worth it!!).

    Have fun, good luck, and never count on getting rescued (although our Coasties do kick ass and have been known to save a sorry self-propelled mariner on occasion….). You will, more than anything, be constantly amazed-by the goodness of people and even the wild beauty that the ocean still has.

  5. Words absolutely fail me Lewis – you are amazing and I’m proud to know you. Just wanna wish you good luck on your journey and a safe return honey.
    Patti x

  6. Wishing you all the best of luck and the wisdom to know when you may need a day or two on land to regroup, repack, whatever! Be SMART and have a blast!!! The ocean is AMAZING in so many ways. Don’t take her on in a duel though. Again, wisdom is the key.

  7. Congratulations on rowing all the way up Florida! Yes it’s only one state, but it’s the longest one on your journey. The states get smaller as you head north.

    And about your fear of alligators: Our South Carolina kayak club sees many alligators, but they don’t bother us and we don’t bother them.

    Have a safe adventure.

  8. How wonderful to spend time with you this morning on our boat in Georgetown, sc at Harborwalk Marina. Blessing to you And praying god will be at you side all through this journey!!! Captain Rod and Fran

  9. Lewis stopped at my neighbor’s house in Snead’s Ferry, North Carolina for some needed repairs on his rowboat. It was my pleasure to meet him and talk to him. Lewis is a very polite and honest young man who feels passionately about Alzheimer’s Disease. I offered him a check but he said it would be more convenient if I would donate on the website which I will do today. I would like to challenge everyone reading his blog to do likewise. It would be sad if he rowed the 1400 miles solo and didn’t reach his $50,000 goal for Alzheimer’s research. As Lewis said, “When I get old I want to recognize and enjoy my grandkids and want everyone else to be able to do the same.”

  10. Hi Lewis. A quick note from a broad. Ha ha. The apple tree is thick with blushed blossom. The grass almost floureses. And the rain it raineth every day. I will keep to my bad full of cats and marvel at your adventure. Well done. So proud. KATHARINE

  11. Best wishes and safe travel to you with your journey to New York. I know I myself have been hoping for a cure to Alzheimer disease seeing as how my grandfather has been affected by it. I look forward to your updates on Twitter and here as well. 😀

  12. really enjoying following your adventures everyday, I check in first thing with a cup of tea – going to miss it, so where you going next?!! you’ve done so well, and loving the Robinson Crusoe look, just don’t get shipwrecked!

  13. You are almost there Mate! Keep focused on your goal.
    Look foward..you have so much to see!

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