March 14, 2010
Woman Is the Youngest to Cross an Ocean Alone
By CHRISTOPHER MAAG
Katie Spotz completed her mission Sunday, becoming the youngest person to row an entire ocean solo, and the first American to row a boat without help from mainland to mainland. After 70 days 5 hours 22 minutes in the Atlantic, Spotz, 22, arrived Sunday in Georgetown, Guyana, in South America.
gYoufre in a situation that you canft escape, so you really have to dig deep,h said Spotz, who left Jan. 3 from Dakar, Senegal, on the west coast of Africa.
Her 2,817-mile journey raised more than $70,000 for the Blue Planet Run Foundation, which finances drinking water projects around the world.
The trip could have ended eight days ago. But as Spotz approached Cayenne, French Guiana, the wind and currents grew so strong that she would have needed a tow for the last few miles, said Sam Williams, who rowed the Atlantic in 2008 and communicated with Spotz via satellite phone during the trip
Determined to make the entire crossing under her own power, Spotz kept rowing to Georgetown, 400 miles to the northeast, where currents are milder.
gIfm just impressed by the way shefs got on and done it,h Williams said. gShefs had such little drama. Most people would be scared out of their minds.h
Spotz had packed enough food to last 110 days: half a million caloriesf worth of mostly freeze-dried meals, granola and dried fruit. Her crossing took much less time because she had help from the trade currents, and was fortunate not to face any major weather or technical problems.
Her 19-foot yellow wooden rowboat was broadsided by 20-foot waves as she approached South America. It was a frightening ride, even though the boat was built to withstand hurricanes and 50-foot waves, said Phil Morrison, the British yacht builder who designed it.
Spotz said in a telephone interview after the trip, gI was worried the boat might capsize.h
Early in the trip, Spotz broke the cable that allowed her to steer with her foot as she rowed, forcing her to use a cumbersome hand steering system. A day before landfall, Spotz smelled smoke. Her GPS tracker, which she used to update her position on her blog, was on fire. Spotz extinguished it. Her GPS device for navigation was not affected.
Most important, the boatfs solar panels, batteries, water desalination machine and the iPod she used to play audio books on Zen meditation remained functional.
Her equipment was a vast improvement over that of the first ocean rowers, the Norwegian immigrants George Harbo and Gabriel Samuelson, who traveled from New York to France in 1896 in an open boat.
gI wouldnft go on a trip like this without all the safety gear and technology I had,h Spotz said.
Even so, the voyage remained a grueling test of endurance. Spotz developed painful calluses and rashes from rowing 8 to 10 hours a day.
Spotz could have cooled herself at night by opening the two hatches of her watertight sleeping cabin, but doing so would have made her vulnerable to large waves. So she kept both hatches closed.
As she slept, her boat bobbed erratically in the waves. To keep from being thrown around the cabin, Spotz used clothes and gear to wedge herself on a thin foam mattress. The padding helped, but not much.
gSleeping was a real problem,h Spotz said. gIt took a toll to put out that much physical effort on very little rest.h
Spotz grew up in Mentor, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Her career as an endurance athlete began when she ran her first marathon at age 18. Later she cycled across the United States and became the first person to swim the length of the Allegheny River.
Before leaving for Senegal, her biggest boating experience consisted of a 40-mile practice row on Lake Erie that ended with her boat being pinned against a cliff by wind and waves. The boat was nearly destroyed. Many people asked Spotz how she could row across the Atlantic if she could not even row on Lake Erie.
The answer, she said, is that the biggest danger in ocean rowing besides hurricanes is coming too close to shore, where the current can overwhelm the rower and push the boat into the rocks.
gThe last day of the trip is always the most dangerous,h Williams said.
Landing safely is a major accomplishment in the sport of ocean rowing. In the last decade, 110 rowboats have successfully crossed an ocean, according to the Ocean Rowing Society. Nearly as many rowboat crews, 102, tried and failed. One American, Nenad Belic, attempted to row solo across the Atlantic in 2001. He was lost at sea.
It took Spotz two years to plan the trip and to raise $100,000 to pay for it. Spotzfs parents tried to persuade her not to try such a dangerous adventure.
gAre you nuts?h Dan Spotz, her father, said when she told him about her plan. gWhen she rode a bike across the entire country, she didnft have to worry about sharks or pirates.h
Spotz did see sharks. She was splashed by dolphins as big as her boat. Fish leapt and slapped her in the face, and exhausted birds nestled beside her as she rowed.
Rather than thinking about how far she had traveled or how many miles she had left, she tried to notice her surroundings.
gFor this journey I really couldnft think that far in advance because otherwise it would be overwhelming,h Spotz said. gIt allowed me to focus on what was happening in that moment.h