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Post 4: The first 24 hours
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 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.
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.