Giving, Receiving & Holding On

“No kind action ever stops with itself. One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed. A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.”- Amelia Earhart

As I shared in my last blog I set out to row from Green Bay to Oconto on Friday. 27+ miles to cover- an ambitious day with perfect conditions. I rowed from 4:30 am to 2 pm and only made ten miles of progress-battling winds and a current that simply did not want me to leave Green Bay.  I was exhausted from the fight all morning and so I called it a day early on. I knew I wasn’t going to make much mileage even if I rowed until 10 pm that night.  I anchored and made dinner.  The water was fairly calm by the time I sat down to eat and watch the sunset.  I thought about going for a swim but Green Bay’s water was less than appealing-not only is it bright green from all the algae, it’s also shallow and warm.

Around 11 pm thunder woke me. I climbed outside of my sleeping cabin to check in with the GPS. I wrote down the coordinates before I fell asleep so that I could check in on how well the anchor was working later in the night.  I set an alarm for every three hours when I go to bed on the Lake. I know it sounds funny (and well, terrible), but it’s a safety precaution. I never get a lot of good sleep but if I know the boat isn’t drifting, the three hours between every alarm are better hours of rest.  I checked in with the GPS and the anchor was holding.  The water was moving fast. I felt like I was on a rapid river-the water was moving but Liv was holding on to the ground.  Water was just flying past us, the nose of the boat hanging on and the rest just trying not to slip away.  White caps just feet away were pushing water so quickly. It was like Liv and I were in a bathtub and there was a fan blowing full speed. Make that a dark bathtub with no light. We held on.

Soon the waves began to really kick.  The gear inside the cabin that wasn’t secured fell on me, landing on my limbs and startling me left and right.  I tucked things away so that nothing could fall, tumble and hurt me.  When I sat up-the motion sickness got ten times worse-so I worked fast, tucking, tightening, securing. My heart was racing; my mind was going a million places. I was hot, sweaty, sick, and I couldn’t breathe.  The cabin windows had been shut for hours and it was hard to get new oxygen.  I opened the back window to let in some air and a huge wave tossed us up in the air.  I closed it as fast as I could-not fast enough-water rushed into the cabin and I gripped the handles as hard as I could to close her tight.  The bow faced the wind and with every big wave the stern would ride up and throw down into the belly of the next wave. The rudder smacked from side to side, hitting the cabin by my head. Bang, bang, toss, bang, bang. A few more moments went by and I thought I might find comfort in calling someone. I called Mark to discuss the anchor and conditions-and then called Brenda.  I apologized left and right for calling at midnight.  She told me not to worry and reminded me, “This might be your first big storm Jenn-but it’s not Liv’s first storm.”

I reminded myself to breathe and lay still, lay low, just be calm. I closed my eyes because it made it feel less real-I didn’t think happy thoughts or go to a happy place-I just closed my eyes and hoped for black nothingness. Black, entirely black night of nothing. Please, please, please stop. I laid in the cabin shaking with fear. I put on my life jacket (also Brenda’s recommendation), and it made me feel safe. While it would take a lot for the cabin to flood or for me to need the jacket to swim to safety-I just found comfort in having it on. I thought about putting on the dry suit but it was a million degrees in the cabin. Brenda and I agreed to check in a few hours later.  The storm hadn’t come out of nowhere but the winds did.  In fact, I barely got a drop of rain-but the wind was at 18 mph with gusts near 30 mph.  I felt the east wind blowing us in our dark bathtub.  Suddenly a gust from the north came.  I could HEAR the water coming, like a giant inhale before something puffed its exhale straight at the water on the starboard side of Liv.  Water spat at my cabin door and tossed Liv and I up with a huge push-a burst of water that made my heart race and adrenaline burst from my pores.  I held on to my lifejacket, put my hands on my chest and prayed for the wind to stop. I just wanted to keep from tossing.  I was tired, I was beyond hot and sick. Please just make this water calm down, please.  I thought of crying as some kind of release, but I knew it wouldn’t help. I couldn’t break down… it wouldn’t help me. If something happened and I needed to react-a state of self pity wasn’t going to solve anything.

I heard Brenda’s words in my mind and watched Liv take on the waves and wind like a veteran.  Every ten minutes or so I tried to open the front cabin and check the GPS.  We were moving a bit west but not enough to be concerned about.  Sometimes the GPS would go back east, if he wind switched and brought the stern to a new location. I laid back down and took deep breaths.  The gusts were vary rare-but the banging, the noises were constant.Listen to cabin noises here.

At 2 am the gusts became very common.  The boat snapped and swung 90 degrees. My mind raced to a million negative conclusions- I instantly thought I’d lost the anchor. Visions of the boat crashing into shore (and I wasn’t far off at this point) flooded my mind.  I put my glasses on and grabbed my flashlight. I crawled to the front of the cabin to assess.  The anchor had broken free from the bow eyelet that fed it to the ground and was now being held on by a cleat on the port side of the boat.  I remembered that I tied it on well to the cleat-using a knot that Mark taught me how to tie. I very specifically remembered (at that moment) him saying, “If you tie it like this-even a hurricane won’t be able to unwind this knot.” He was right, the knot was holding and instead of Liv’s nose into the wind the port side of Liv was into the wind. She rode over a few waves but then water started flooding the rowing cabin.  Again-I knew Liv was built for this.  Water rushed in and out through the side flaps but the bilge tank was entirely full. My rowing shoes were sitting in water-20 gallons of extra weight in the center of my boat.  I wasn’t scared about Liv sinking-but I was fearful that the anchor being attached to a side might be to our disadvantage. I laid there and the winds began to build more and more.  It felt like 11 pm to 2 am was a full day-another full day without any rest. I started getting sick and threw up in a plastic bag. I tied a knot in the bag and stayed as horizontal as I could.  I closed my very tired eyes and just held on.  I kept thinking about how this would pass and I just needed to hold on.  If I could just hold on through the night the winds would die and I could row to Oconto.  I held on to those thoughts and told myself that there was nothing I could do but hold on.  I couldn’t row against those winds-I couldn’t move the boat myself. I couldn’t control anything. I just had to trust Liv and my anchor.

4 am came around and I started getting hopeful for a sunrise with less wind.  The sunrise came-but that’s all I got.  The winds picked up more and more.  I lost everything in my stomach; I was dehydrated but needed to go to the bathroom desperately.  I didn’t want to go in a bucket because I was afraid I’d be tossed off my seat and make a mess.  My bladder ached.  My mouth was dry and tasted like vomit.  I felt like I had a fever and my skin was clammy and white.

I checked in with Brenda and told her about the water in the boat and the anchor failure.  She left it up to me on what to do-but gave me the number for the local coast guard should I make that my decision.  The waves picked up more and more-and the light of day seemed to make my seasickness worse. I went out to check on the GPS and anchor and tugged on the anchor a bit.  I was over 20 miles from Oconto and 10 miles from Green Bay.  With the anchor rigged from the side of the boat and over 12 hours of digging-it was impossible for me to get it back into the boat.  I could cut the anchor to break free but I wasn’t going to be able to get the boat safely to a harbor in the strong winds. I fought all night long and I knew I was too close to shore to be able to row through the east wind-and with the anchor positioned where it was I was going to have to cut it regardless. I could ask for help then and get somewhere to replace a re-rig the anchor or I could wait until after noon when the winds were to somewhat die and row back to Green Bay for the fix.  By this time it was almost 5 am.  The sun was up, the heat began to build with the sun-and I just thought to myself, “Why are you having trouble deciding whether to willingly put yourself through 10 or more hours of this torture? What’s wrong with you?”

I was in a bad situation I couldn’t get myself out of it. I called for the Coast Guard and they came to get me around 6 am. It’s amazing really-when you call the Coast Guard they check in with you via radio every 15 minutes to make sure you’re still okay.  They ask you a series of questions to test your consciousness.  The operator even tried to make some jokes with me to see if I would laugh. Somehow having them on the line made me feel better and while I could barely sit up-I didn’t mind the radio banter. It was comforting to know they cared and were on their way.

Once the Coast Guard boat arrived we collectively decided it was best to cut the anchor from the boat.  I heaved at it for a few minutes pressing my thighs into the bar below my oars.  The anchor would come in for a moment and then the waves would pull the anchor further underneath the boat. It’s dangerous to bring an anchor in from the side and the wind wasn’t letting up or giving me any help. I reached for the knife in my life jacket. It felt good to use a giant knife-a very powerful feeling (a very “bad ass-I just cut this rope with a giant knife” feeling). I came lose and the winds knocked me into the safety of the coast guard boat.   It felt good to be safe. We tied up Liv for the tow and I climbed inside the coast guard boat.  I didn’t cry, I just sat silent in my life jacket.  The jacket made my core warm but the morning air was cold and made my limbs shake.

The man driving the boat said that with the winds it would take them 4 hours to tow me to Oconto.  Those facts really hit me hard.  You mean to tell me that with your motor-the horsepower of a giant engine-it would take 4 hours to get to Oconto?  When they told me that I knew I made the right decision.  Liv and I would have had our work cut out for us had I not called for a tow. Not only work-but safety would have been a huge issue.  There were three Coast Guard men on the boat-two younger and one older.  They wanted to learn about my row and Liv and were intrigued about my journey.  I learned that two of them were reservists and one was a volunteer auxiliary Coast Guard member.  They reservists explained that they serve three months a year-and live in a hotel in Green bay during their deployment.  The other 9 months of the year they get to go back to their “normal” lives.  One of them is a state trooper.  The other is a dish washer at Applebee’s.  To me-they were heroes. The older gentleman driving the boat who was the auxiliary volunteer explained that he does it to be of service to others.  To protect and to serve.  They were all on call and because of my situation-they were up by 5 am and on a boat to protect and serve me.  The concept was overwhelming-I felt so thankful for their service.  I wanted to hug all of them but it didn’t seem appropriate or professional. Maybe I should have done it anyway.

They brought me to the Suamico River –a little river that was very close to my anchored spot.  I passed the river on Friday but had no idea it was a safe place of refuge from my charts or GPS.  It didn’t seem to be advertised-but the coast guard knew it would be a good spot for me to tuck in to.  They dropped me off at the dock for public launching and I thanked them. I shook their hands-it seemed more fitting than a hug.  I know they probably left and had breakfast and talked of their morning adventure as not a big deal-but it was a big deal to me. It meant the world to me.

I laid down inside the cabin and took a deep breath.  I reached for my phone to let Brenda know I was safe.  I hadn’t been docked for more than three minutes when this email came through my inbox:

Good morning Jenn,

Good looking craft. I am across the river from you in the blue sailboat/toast canvas. Can I get you anything? Do you need any repairs or spares?

Gary Sarns

Again-I was amazed at the generosity and kindness of complete and total strangers. I spent the morning tidying up my cabin-rearranging from the wild night that tossed all my belongings around and about.  A few minutes later a photographer showed up to capture my entrance to the river. After that I called Gary and he and his wife, Ellen helped me dock next to their sailboat in front of their home.  They went to the website, found out what I was up to and wanted to help.  They offered me a shower and anything I might need.  Almost immediately-I took them up on the shower. Last night the Gary and Ellen took me and the photographer sailing-it was beautiful.

We talked about life and watched the birds in their garden-and I did nothing stressful or scary or heart racing-and my heart could not be happier. I slept through the night and woke rested and relaxed. I slept until 6:30 am-a late morning compared to my regular 4 am wake up call to hit the water. Today I am rested. I am relaxed. I feel good. I feel like eating, talking, sharing, breathing deeply.

I had coffee and sat on the porch and mapped out a few more things on my charts. I’m in very good hands. Today I chatted with Mark and Grant about a new anchor plan. Mark will arrive tonight and we’ll work on the boat tomorrow-with hopes to leave Tuesday morning for Oconto.

I’m thankful for people who care. I’m thankful to be in a place in life where I’m able to accept these kinds of gifts-to understand how rare and beautiful they are.  To have moments like Friday morning- when I left Green Bay…to have an exchange with a survivor and have her say “Thank you for doing this”, and to be in a place where that doesn’t make me bashful, I can just say, “You’re welcome”.  And in the same way-I will leave here Tuesday morning and tell Gary and Ellen, “Thank you for doing this,” and they will say, “You’re welcome.”…and the world will just keep giving and receiving in the beautiful way that it does.

Thank you for your continued support of ROW and this trip. Please consider sponsoring a mile of this adventure for $100 or making a donation online.



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