A Miracle Landing in Racine: I Got Liv, and Liv’s Got Me

I write this post with mixed feelings and thoughts in my heart in mind. This adventure requires risk and learning along the way. It also requires me to be safe, smart and for my pride to take a back seat when it’s appropriate. It’s really hard to gauge how accurate my judgment is when I’m excited and scared at the same time. I don’t know how else to explain it…but it’s like I go between telling myself to calm down and be smart…and then the next moment I’m calling myself a wuss for having a single doubt in my mind.

Monday morning I left Kenosha with a pit in my stomach. I woke up on my bed in Liv, the cabin damp from condensation. It was cloudy and fairly breezy but nothing Liv and I hadn’t rowed through before. I listened to the radio for weather and heard that a small craft advisory was out for the afternoon. I thought, “I only have 11 miles today…I can get in before afternoon.” I packed up my gear and pushed out from the harbor. A concerned older gentleman on a small fishing boat followed me, saying “Put on your life jacket!” As I did, my stomach turned.  I was terrified. But I assumed that I could get it done, get it done fast. It was only 11 miles, after all.

I got out of the harbor and the winds began to push me south.  When I’m rowing I normally glance at the GPS and the decimals of latitude and longitude that it reads.  Sometimes I can get the decimal to move one digit of a degree in the direction I want to go. When the wind picked up I was moving 6 knots: the decimal was jumping not one number, but 5, 10, 15, numbers north and east. I was FLYING. The south wind was warm and the west wind was cool. They both hit the hull and pushed us out…at a speed I had never experienced before. It was exhilarating; heck, it was fun! Outside of the numbers that were changing, I had no reference for how fast (how dangerously fast) the boat was going. Before I knew it, I was approaching Racine. While my GPS gives me a good idea of what the harbor entrances look like, it’s honestly very hard to see them if they aren’t marked well.

15-20 mile winds were sustained now, with gusts up to 40 mph. The gusts would pick us up and throw us down. Suddenly, I lost control of the boat. The west wind hit Liv and I like a ton of bricks, spinning us in one direction and then the next. For the first time, I could not control the boat. I began to frantically adjust the rudder in hopes of using it as a buffer for one or both of the winds to get some kind of grip on steering. It wasn’t working. I looked at the GPS and I knew I had to get west. It was the only was I was going to make the lip that allowed me into the harbor. But the lake was pushing me east, and pushing hard.

I devised a plan (and no, I don’t know how I got the brains or guts to do this at the moment) to head due west. I had to act fast. If I headed west too early, I would crash into jagged rocks lining the harbor. If I headed west too late, I would miss the harbor entirely…and there was no was I could make it back, rowing against the winds that were throwing me 6 knots north.

I imagined myself crashing into the shore, and the trip ending four days after it started as a complete failure. I told someone this yesterday who responded, “you had time to think that?” and I said, “yes, I went there.” I did. And I don’t know what I grabbed onto inside myself to get through, but I just knew I had to row as fast and hard as I could.  I was screaming into the sky “Let me go west, you B*&%^!!! WEST!!!” at the top of my lungs. The sun was beating on my skin, the flies were biting at my legs (a few obscenities may have been directed at them as well). I was backing with one oar and rowing with the other against 20 mph winds. Winds that I could not compete against…but I had to. I couldn’t give up. I wasn’t going to end my trip like this.

So I backed, I rowed, I backed, I rowed…until my compass said “W”, and then—that’s when I took the hardest rowing strokes of my life. After a few strokes in the right direction the wind would whip Liv and I back in the wrong direction. And so again: back, row, back, back, row, West…all right, GO! I continued, terrified my efforts weren’t going to get me there. I know this entire episode probably lasted for 30 minutes, but it felt like 3 hours. I began to make my way, digging and screaming and clawing my way.  Soon I could see the entrance, and I was doing it. I was getting west and clear. When I got into the first wall of the harbor I wanted to cry. I wanted to stop rowing and call Brenda and tell her that I was okay: I had made it.

The Racine Water Police were there waiting for me, they said “we heard you were coming; would you like a tow to the yacht club?” I thought that since I got into the harbor myself I didn’t need a tow, and refused it. But after I got in, the north wind kept pushing—straight into a huge barge within the harbor. Shortly after I denied their offer I yelled, “HELP!” They came back and brought me over to the yacht club where my adrenaline and heart rate eventually slowed. The Racine Yacht Club gave me a warm welcome, and I sat down with the officers that helped me, thanked them and even got in an interview with a local newspaper.

It was a wild landing. Yes, it was fun to ride the waves like that. Yes, it was beautiful in so many ways: but I never, ever want to do that again.

Lessons learned on Day 4:

  1. Don’t go out in a small craft warning, no matter how badass and brave you think you are.
  2. Call for help if the boat can’t be controlled and help is needed to come into a harbor because of the conditions.

The overarching life lesson: There’s no numerical cut off or perfect understanding of a storm (or problem) that determines when to tackle it and when to back off. You have to be smart and brave and sometimes take on things bigger than yourself before you know they are. And that next time, you might need to ask for help to make the right decision or move.  There’s also no shame in asking for help. Even if you have to literally scream for it.

I learned a lot yesterday, and I haven’t lost a single ounce of faith in Liv. We were up against something we could not fight. I shouldn’t have put her (ahem, or myself) in that situation…but she didn’t fail me, and I didn’t fail her. We’ve got a lot more rowing and cancer ass kicking to do and we both proved that yesterday. So stay tuned!

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.  GO ROW!!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jenn. 2 Comments

The Adventure Begins

I’m writing from Kenosha, Wisconsin–and I apologize for the delay in posting until now. It’s been a rough three days. I was very seasick for most of it and the idea of sitting down with a screen in front of me made me want to throw up (even more so).

Let’s back up a bit. Thursday night was the Send Off Party, hosted at the Chicago Yacht Club and led by Fran Tuite and Michele Willmott.  These women threw an amazing party! We raised over $24,000 for ROW. The exact grand total is yet to come, but one thing’s for sure…we did some major cancer butt kicking that night. I was amazed and inspired by everyone Thursday night. It was certainly a night to take with me on Liv, one I will never forget. Thank you Fran and Michele…you ladies are rock stars.

Friday morning we had NBC, CBS, FOX, ABC and WCIU come out to the dock and see me off with interviews and appearances. Every boat I’ve seen since Friday has cheered, “I saw you on TV! You go! GO JENN!”. I’m assuming that affiliate stations picked it up as well, because the folks in Wisconsin know how I am too! I haven’t had a steady enough internet connection to see any of the interviews…so I hope I did all right!

The overwhelming amounts of support has gotten me through these last three days. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to get texts, emails, Facebook shout outs from all everyone. There have been moments in the last two years where I’ve thought this trip wouldn’t happen. There have been times since I stepped into the boat on Friday that I would fail, but I haven’t given up. And you can’t either! Even if it feels like the change you’re trying to make is like trudging though thick sludge…you’ll get there. And hopefully all the news stations will be there to catch you in the act :)

I’m feeling positive today and trying to remember this feeling.  The first few days were really hard, I got really discouraged and at moments–terrified. My first night on the lake I threw the anchor and it took some time for the anchor to hold us in place.  I stared at the GPS for an hour to make sure we weren’t moving into shore before I went for a swim. Even after that I couldn’t keep my eyes off the GPS.  The thought of waking up to crashing into shore terrified me.  I wasn’t extremely seasick during the day because when I’m rowing I see the horizon and my body is working hard to move us along. I don’t have time to be sick. But at night the cabin is so small…and the waves toss us around. I couldn’t eat after 11 am on Friday…and didn’t get anything solid in me (besides electrolyte chews) until Saturday night.

But I’m becoming familiar with Liv…I’m becoming familiar with the lake.  My stomach is even acclimating!

Now, when giant waves come in my path, Liv and I ride them and row through them.  I used to be so scared of giant waves…now I see them as a way for Lake Michigan to say hello. It’s almost like the lake is cat….and I’ve just entered her environment. I’m the new species. She’s splashing herself into my boat to sniff around to see what Liv and I are up to.  We are getting to know each other and working together.

My iPod died today which left me with a lot of alone time with the lake in silence.  I know it sounds weird, but with no one to talk to I told Lake Michigan about why I’m doing this trip. I hope she understands…I really need her help to make this happen.  I’ve been really lucky with weather the last three days. Let’s hope this luck continues, my blisters begin to heal, and my butt miraculously gets less sore. It’s going to be a long couple of months.

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.  GO ROW!!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jenn. 2 Comments

Guest blogger: Bonnie Cortez

During Jenn’s trip we’ll be posting writing from various friends in Jenn’s life. Today’s post is from Bonnie Cortez, who has been a member of ROW for a year.

There are many people who would argue that we are essentially alone. we are born alone and we will die alone, they might say. Having worked as a doula (childbirth coach) for over a decade, I would argue that in birth, there is no alone. It takes a village. It takes two to create us, we are in partnership with our mother as she carries us and we work with the innate wisdom of the body as well as a team of support personnel to bring us into this world.

Death, I’m not as sure about having not yet experienced it, but as with many other cancer survivors, I’ve come close. Death’s unwelcome arm was draped presumptuously around my shoulder during chemo, a cocktail of drugs meant to bring a person as close to death as possible in order to kill the cancer cells and allow the body to rebuild anew.

There were many times during my fight with cancer that I felt more alone than I had in my life. When chemo had weakened me to such a state that I lay on my bed unable to hold the phone to my ear in an attempt to reach out for help for the first time. I lay there aching to be held, hungry for someone to tell me I was going to get through this. My cancer diagnosis came 6 months after my divorce and the nights when my young boys were with their father and I was alone in my bed were desperately lonesome. I lay on my bed with my pink cashmere hat over my smooth, bald head feeling hopeless and spent, a feeling that rarely came in my life before cancer. At these times I felt scared and undeniably alone.

As a 35 year old woman who was blessed to enjoy the admiration of others prior to my diagnosis, I felt invisible one night post diagnosis when I went to meet friends and listen to a band. I watched as my friends flirted and danced, laughed and mingled, feeling like a ghost blending into the fringes of the room.

But there were countless times during my journey when I felt buoyed by the support of friends and family.

My sister, Joy, rented a condo across the alley from me so she could be nearby to take me to doctor’s appointments, sit with me while that red poison dripped into my veins, and cook delicious soups for my boys who were so young and in need of healthy, loving, joyful experiences.

Joy also organized a hat party, secretly emailing friends to surprise me with a tea while wearing silly hats for my send off into the newly shorn world of total baldness.

My 1st through 3rd grade students in the Montessori classroom I was teaching in at the time flocked and fawned in various ways. The younger ones shyly rubbed their hands over my head. One older one said, “Bonnie, you look good bald!” Others processed the changes in their teacher without comment while asking for help editing a sentence for proper capitalization and punctuation.

Friends made warm, soothing comfort food and delivered it with care.

And then, years later, I found ROW. Now, after a year of being on the team, I’m in awe of our strengths, challenges, humor and vitality. I have never been part of a team, but as one of my dear ROWmates observed, cancer made us take a second look at our stubborn independence. This characteristic served me well in my fight, but cancer’s gift was to remind me of all the love that was looking for me if I opened my heart to let it in. Whether I chose to open my heart a crack or break it wide open, I found that letting in comes with responsibility. Once, during my first time on the water, I had gotten hit in the chest hard with my oar while “catching a crab” or losing control of my oar. It hurt and I stopped rowing and began tearing up a bit. Jenn Gibbons, my dear coach, rowed up beside me in the launch and said enouragingly and matter-of-factly, “Bonnie, you have to keep rowing.” My teammates were counting on me.Teammates in various stages of recovery, some in the midst of chemo, some a year out, some many years out. Wherever we were in the world of cancer, as a team, we make up Recovery on Water and we have to keep on rowing.

When I think of Jenn out there on Lake Michigan, I know she’ll be alone for a long, long time. She’ll be pushing her body to do things she never fathomed she could do. She’ll have her team holding her up during calm water days and as she’s riding out storms. At times, she may want someone to hold her, for the company, the comfort and the physical proof that she is not alone. I know there are times she will feel her team, family and friends around her. Jenn is doing this so cancer survivors know not to give up the fight. You keep on rowing, because you’re not alone.

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.

Go ROW!!

Posted in Uncategorized by Brenda. Comments Off