The New Challenge: Rowing from Scotland to Iceland

We've all had someone ask us how it was that we first met a good friend of many years. Often times we cannot recall. It simply seems as though we have always known them, and they us. And so it is with Northern Reach and me. I have lived with this idea of rowing from Scotland to Iceland for so long that I no longer can recall when it was that I first imagined the crossing. What I do remember is the first time I spoke of the route to Lisa, Dave Shreffler and Dave's wife Ann. We were sea kayaking a few miles south of Cape Flattery in Washington State and I was dreaming out loud about what it might feel like to just point the bow straight off shore and keep going. I think it was Dave who asked where I would go. And that's when, for the first time, I heard myself describe the route that I had been thinking about for a very long time. I suppose the idea may have occurred to me first when Shawna, Leon and I crossed from Scotland to Iceland on our way to circumnavigate Iceland by sea kayak in 2003. Or maybe it was after that trip when I knew how desperately I wanted and needed to do another solo journey. I guess it doesn't matter exactly when the idea was first formed but rather that it has matured into what it is today - a reality. To be honest, I don't recall how any of the trips I've taken really first came to me. All I know is that each one started with a vague idea, usually a question of "I wonder if it would be possible"? And from there each trip grew until the moment when I was sitting in the cockpit of the kayak and taking the first strokes to slowly bring the loaded boat up to speed. I think dreams are like that feeling of paddling a heavily loaded boat. Getting the dream started is the hardest part, but once it's underway, the boat and dream each have a momentum that slowly builds and carries one forward.

So here I am on the edge of another adventure; familiar in one sense and very different in another. The northern seas are familiar in that I've paddled around Great Britain, Ireland and Iceland so I know how tempestuous the weather and waters can be. I also know the sea birds and look forward to having them as companions. I love living that simple, purposeful life where paying attention is essential to survival. All of that is familiar and attractive because of its simplicity. The part I know little about is the offshore partů. What will it feel like to be in the middle of a 250-mile crossing, four days and four nights out? And even before that, what will it be like to row away from land for 5 hours and still see the cliffs where I know there is shelter and safe, quiet water? And still I will pull on the oars, moving farther out into the North Atlantic because that is what I came to do. I won't know the answers to any of my questions until I am out there living the dream. And that is part [Chris Duff] of the reason why I am going. I want to experience this open ocean rowing first hand. I've read a lot of books about ocean crossings but that's not enough. Lisa said it's like reading a book about dancing - she wants to dance, not read about dancing. And I agree. I know it's going to be tough and I know there will be times when all I'll want to do is get somewhere warm and dry. And I also know that there will be times when I will be speechless and awestruck by the world I am immersed in, as well as what I am discovering within myself. The questions, the solitude, the simple work of pulling on the oars and the rewards of living so fully exposed are all part of this adventure.

Sure I have my doubts. I've spent the last few months building a rowing boat that I know nothing about and then changing it because it didn't feel right. How can anything feel right when I've never done it before? I don't know. Maybe it's because I know the sea and somehow that gives me an understanding. Or maybe it's because I know myself and I know what it feels like to be in a small boat caught in high winds and large broken waves. Does it matter that it is a rowing boat or a sea kayak?

Somehow I feel that the doubts are there for a reason. I need to be cautious and to listen to myself as well as to the sea. I've never taken any of these trips lightly. And indeed I am more cautious than most paddlers I know. I am very capable but I am no match for the sea. Knowing this is essential. The sea is where I feel most at home, but it is a place that demands respect and a cautious approach. Every day from here on out will be very busy. It's all part of the adventure.

Challenges and Potential Hazards

Any crossing over five miles leaves the rower vulnerable to changes in weather, wind, and wave conditions. The north Atlantic waters are cold. The risk of hypothermia is as serious as, and directly linked to, any adverse sea condition. These risks must be minimized with proper clothing, caloric intake, and a disciplined vigilance. Boredom and the possible lack of attention during times of fatigue will be another challenge. A constant state of caution and awareness will be one of my primary and invisible tasks. Awareness of subtle wind or sea changes, listening for any unusual sounds within the working parts of the rowing rig, paying attention to how the oars engage the sea- my rowing technique, listening closely to signals from my body and being aware of any outward as well as inward changes are integral parts of holding the journey together and must be constantly and calmly monitored.

Safety philosophy

Good sound judgment and a deep respect for the sea is the greatest safety feature of any offshore venture. This is not a race or a desire to set a record. Having an open time frame for the trip is essential in not getting boxed into a situation of being on the water when I shouldn't be. My philosophy of all my trips has been to A) Have the best gear possible. B) Be as physically fit as possible. C) Be mentally disciplined and focused, yet flexible. D) Know the difference between Risk and Danger and do not let Fear rule the moment.

It is far easier to stay comfortable and safe than it is to seek the unknown in adventure. And it is surely easier to list the risks of adventure against the logic and security of staying put. But going is what I have chosen to do. Each of us are called to be individuals and I believe our greatest task is to do just that - to seek out that which we somehow know is what we are meant to do despite our own fears and what we may think is expected of us. The greatest gift we can give one another is the freedom to explore who it is we are to become - and to celebrate that. The unknown can be either frightening or exciting - and probably both. This is Northern Reach.