Liv and Jenn vs. Lake Michigan: Round 1

“Don’t be discouraged by a failure. It can be a positive experience. Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true, and every fresh experience points out some form of error which we shall afterwards carefully avoid.”

This Saturday I went out for my first training row on Lake Michigan.  The optimist inside of me was hopeful and confident.  I’d row 30 miles, maybe run into a few hiccups, learn some lessons and at the very worst—be sore the next day.

Saturday morning my “shipmates” Mary Ann, Brenda and I headed out to Waukegan, with plans to row into Chicago that afternoon. Mary Ann is my business mentor—an amazing, successful woman that keeps me accountable in many ways.  ROW member Brenda offered to ride with me while Mary Ann followed us, trailer in tow.  I was so excited to have Brenda on board for my first row-she’s organized, thoughtful, and a tech guru. Perfect! I even wore a shirt for Cindy, a ROW member that recently passed away. At her funeral she wanted to remind everyone that every day is a good day. This shirt seemed entirely appropriate.

I had trouble getting the rudder on, which I steer with manually. I don’t keep it on the boat because the rudder itself rides about a foot and a half lower than Liv. On the trailer all we would need is a good bump or a steep hill to damage the rudder in transport. The bolts that hold it on are tricky to adjust, and after buying new tools to make it easier—I was still really struggling.

We loaded the boat with food, gear and put her in the water around 8 am. As I started to paddle out, motorboats were coming in. They said I would be crazy to go out, that they were coming in because the water was getting really rough.  I’ve been called crazy before. I assured Brenda that Liv had been out in rough waters crossing the Atlantic, and that it might be rocky but we’d row through it. Bless her heart; she didn’t abandon ship right then and there.

Video as we leave the harbor.

Rowing out of the harbor, we got into the thick of the waves and wind, and 4 foot swells started smacking, pushing, and rocking Liv up, down, sideways, all ways. Rowing through the waves was unreal. I would dig one oar in, and a wave would push the other in the opposite direction. I’d reach out to take a stroke and a wave would kick the handles into my ribs. I found myself protecting my body with short strokes, keeping better control of the boat (and staying on my seat) this way. The wind was against me, and the waves just hit, one right after another. I’ve been told that the waves on the lake might be in some ways worse than the Atlantic, that they aren’t “long”. They just keep coming, nonstop. No breaks, no time to catch your breath, you just react. I felt really frustrated, I thought…is this what it’s going to be like every day next summer? I was going nowhere. So I dug deep. I started rowing as hard as I possibly could.  I became obsessed with my compass and getting south of one pier, and then the next. You know when things just aren’t working out, and you find this rage inside of you that says “forget it, all bets are off…time to muscle through this shit”. Yep, I went there.

After our traumatic exit out of the harbor, Brenda started to look ill. I asked her if she was all right, and she bravely replied (various times), “oh, I’m fine”.  She played around with opening the window, using the ventilator, and taking medicine for motion sickness.  Before she could get in my bag to get meds, she asked me what she could throw up in. I felt terrible. Here’s this brave person and I’m making her sick. “I think I feel better since I threw up, I think I’m feeling better”, she said, all with a smile on her face.   I started getting a rhythm and making ground (finally), but Brenda looked so, so sick. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words “I’m sorry” so many times. The waves weren’t letting up and I was thrilled to be moving, but I knew that if I didn’t get Brenda on land it was going to be a long day for her stomach.  I looked ahead and saw a beach area a half mile away. Perfect. I’ll drop Brenda off, she can meet up with Mary Ann, and I’ll keep going.  I rowed her in and she was able to hop out, back on solid ground.  I pushed out to row away and realized I wasn’t going anywhere.  When I brought her in I passed over three sand bars.  Not a problem going in with the wind and waves helping you, but near impossible to get back out.  I got out of the boat, into the freezing water, and started pushing. I couldn’t get the rudder over the sand bar.

Push, push, push, hop in-row as hard as I could. Stuck on a sand bar. Shit. Push, push push, get deeper (water up to my arm pits), hop in the boat-row as hard as I could, stuck. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Getting tired, very cold (legs are blue) and angry. Every time I tried to push her out, my climb back into the boat was getting more and more labored. My legs were so cold that when I stepped onto the deck to throw my body on board, I couldn’t feel them well enough to know if I was actually going to make it in.  I couldn’t tell if I had energy or if my energy was moving me in the right direction. I was getting numb. I pulled Liv back to the sand and tried to remove the rudder. Not going to happen. Obscenities and frustration aimed at the rudder begin. Brenda listens, offers to help, and I don’t want to give up. I imagine it was like watching a five year old going after an impossible task, failing and throwing a fit-over and over. A freezing, soaking wet, pissed off five year old with a very expensive toy (and impressive knowledge of swear words).

I wanted to break down. I wanted to cry. I wanted someone else to fix it.  There was a time in my life where I would have just become a sobbing, uncontrollable mess.  But I wasn’t her anymore. Sure, I was depressed, I was shivering, and I was really mad. There was no way to fix this, and I needed help. I was getting really cold, I started feeling frantic and scared. I accepted the fact that I needed to call for a towboat.

For the next hour Brenda and I were pushing Liv away from shore, trying to keep her in the water and off and rocks that could cause damage. Brenda started losing feeling in her toes and reminded me, “if you are going to fail, you may as well fail fantastically”. All that trauma and she was still trying to make me laugh!

Unlimited towing service? Best money I’ve ever spent. I talked with the towboat driver when he arrived and he said that he couldn’t get in close enough to Liv, that the water was too shallow.  I told him that if he could come in as close as possible I would swim out to his boat to get a towrope. Once again, I was being told I was crazy.  I got back in the water and hooked Liv up to the tow. Brenda met up with Mary Ann and I rode with Liv back to the harbor. I know I didn’t have to go with her, but after what we had been through, I really didn’t want to leave her side. Riding back to the dock in the wind, I was blue, wet and shivering.  The only redeeming moment was when the towboat driver pulled me in and said, “you know, you’re not the warmest or biggest fish I’ve ever caught, but you sure are the prettiest”.

It was a long day.  At the end of it (and now), I am thankful for the support of my crew. I don’t think I could ask for better friends.  Lessons learned and alterations to be made, Racine to Milwaukee is my next row in June.  Liv and Jenn vs. Lake Michigan: Round 2. Bring it.

2 comments on “Liv and Jenn vs. Lake Michigan: Round 1

  1. Jenn, Yes, you are crazy, but it’s a great kind of crazy. You see things to be done and figure out ways to do them. You are such an inspiration to many, and I’m NOT even on ROW or a cancer survivor. Keep smiling, (and swearing, good for the soul). June is here and you’ll be right out there again, but hopefully with less waves!

  2. Jenn, Remember, Lake Michigan does warm up, you happened to go out after a historically cold and rainy spring. But, remember to be respectful of the lake, it is it’s own animal! You and Liv have just experienced the first of many adventures!! You rock and with your determination and spirit you will succeed!