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Authors: Julie Angus

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Rowboat in a Hurricane

BOOK: Rowboat in a Hurricane
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rowboat in a hurricane



my amazing journey

across a changing

atlantic ocean


Douglas & McIntyre Publishing Group
Vancouver/ Toronto/Berkeley

Copyright ©
by Julie Angus

08 09 10 11 12 5 4 3 2 1

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the publisher or a licence from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For a copyright licence, visit
or call toll free to

Greystone Books
A division of Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.
Quebec Street, Suite
Vancouver, BC
V5T 4S7

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Angus, Julie
Rowboat in a hurricane : my amazing journey across a changing
Atlantic Ocean / Julie Angus.
Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN-paperback 978-1-55365-337-0
ISBN-ebook 978-1-926812-25-0

1. Angus, Julie—Travel—Atlantic Ocean. 2. Atlantic Ocean—Description and travel. 3. Boats and boating—Atlantic Ocean. 4. Marine ecology—Atlantic Ocean. 5. Rowers—Canada—Biography.
. Title.
G530.A52A52 2008      910.4
092      C2008-903327-2

Editing by Susan Folkins
Cover photographs courtesy of author
except image of clouds: Gerald French/Getty Images

Distributed in the U.S. by Publishers Group West

We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts,
the British Columbia Arts Council, the Province of British Columbia through the Book
Publishing Tax Credit, and the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing
Industry Development Program (
) for our publishing activities.

my partner in life and in adventure


Taking the Plunge

Rowboat Preparations in Lisbon

Leaving Land

Our First Day at Sea

A Near Miss in Busy Waters

A Sea of Molten Metal

Our First Hurricane

Through the Canary Islands

The Great White Shark

Encounters with a Lovestruck Turtle

Our Second Mid-Atlantic Birthday Party

A Blue Christmas

One Hundred Days at Sea

Magnificent Frigatebirds and Flying Fish

A Caribbean Paradise in St. Lucia

The Final Leg to Costa Rica




eleven, my parents gave me a pet. It wasn’t the dog I always wanted, but a fish—a guppy that swam between plastic fronds in its aquarium home. Glass separated us so that its watery world could exist in mine, and I used to imagine what it would be like if the situation were reversed and I existed in a fish’s world.

Two decades later, in September
, my face was no longer pressed against aquarium glass. Instead, I watched an expansive ocean unfurl before me. I stood on a craggy cliff that was Europe’s second most western point—two hours west of Lisbon, Portugal, by bike—with Colin, my husband-to-be, and together we stared at an ocean we hoped to cross in a rowboat. For the last forty-nine days we had cycled west from Russia’s capital, Moscow, and finally we had reached the end of the road. In two weeks we would trade the security of land for volatile waters and begin a ten-thousand-kilometre journey across the Atlantic Ocean to North America.

More than a yearning for adventure had led me to this moment. I was drawn by the opportunity to experience the ocean from the intimate vantage offered from the deck of a rowboat. I had completed my graduate degree in molecular biology and had gone on to a career in developing therapeutics, but my personal interests now leaned towards ecology. My bookshelf sagged under the weight of volumes by Carl Safina, David Suzuki, and Sylvia Earle; it was the magnitude of the environmental issues facing our oceans that captured much of my attention. The problems of climate change, acidification, overfishing, and pollution were well documented, yet little progress was being made to solve these issues. And in a way it was easy to understand why. When I kayaked in the Gulf Islands or hiked in the Coast Mountains, I admired the Pacific Ocean for its vastness and permanence, its obliviousness to its own fragility and to the changes occurring beneath its surface. Ignoring the unseen was easy, and the very vastness of the ocean made it difficult to accept that minuscule actions on our part might have a profound impact. Through this journey I hoped to shift my understanding of the ocean to get an intimate sense of the life and dynamism that comprises it instead of viewing it as a vast, impenetrable expanse. I wanted to watch turtles as they migrated across the ocean and pelagic sharks as they hunted for tuna, to see pods of dolphins swim by and whales surface for air. I wanted to experience this environment in technicolour detail. At the same time, I wondered if I would see all the environmental perils I had read about.

waves growling and slurping metres away, I began to feel nervous. My mind teemed with all the things that could go wrong—running out of food, succumbing to botulism, being attacked by sharks, encountering pirates, colliding with tankers, and contending with hurricanes and a plethora of medical emergencies. Then there was my relationship with Colin, my fiancé; he seemed like the perfect guy (which is why I said yes when he proposed), but would I still feel the same way after five months of confinement in a space the size of a closet? Would he?

It had been much easier to embrace the concept of rowing across an ocean while ensconced in the comfort of my Vancouver home. There, I could convincingly explain why moving at a turtle’s pace across the sea provided unparallelled opportunities for observing the ocean, and how the months of toil would help toughen me up. But now those justifications were edged aside by a feeling of unease. As I stared across the sea, I wondered if I was making the right decision, and I struggled to distill the chain of events that had led me here.

a quick and easy answer like
It came to me in a dream
A fortune teller told me,
or even better,
I’m a world-class rower and I thought this would really challenge my athletic skills.

No, my answer is more convoluted, as many things in life are. I am not an adventurer or an athlete, and I am most certainly not a rowing protégée (my first time in a rowboat was only a year earlier). In fact, for most of my life I considered the outdoors a place where unknown dangers lurked, a place best avoided. I grew up a “base brat,” an only child with an air-force father and homemaker mother. We moved every four years or less and lived mostly on military bases in rented
s (private military quarters). My parents shunned uncultivated wilderness, and they considered sports unnecessary distractions from academics that would expose their only child to wanton dangers. I grew up a timid girl whose biggest risk was a collision with a telephone pole as I walked home from school with a Stephen King novel pressed against my face.

It wasn’t until the age of twenty-one, when I moved from Ontario to British Columbia for my graduate studies, that I became interested in the outdoors and athletic pursuits. I went on my first real outdoor adventure in
, during my inaugural spring in Victoria. A friend said, “We’re going to climb Warden Peak. Do you want to come with us?”

The trip was much harder than I expected. For the first time in my life, I wore crampons, gripped an ice axe, rappelled down a sheer wall, and, while climbing that same cliff, nearly fell to what would have been a very messy landing had the belay rope not saved me. I was alternately terrified and mesmerized. For the first time I truly felt the allure of nature and the stillness of a place devoid of people. But most of the time I just thought,
Please just let me get out of here alive.
To my surprise when we emerged from the forest, the first words out of my mouth were “I can’t wait to do this again.”

And so the seed germinated and sprouted. It grew slowly, spindly at first and with many offshoots. I liked being in the mountains, snowboarding on groomed slopes and travelling with alpine touring skis in the backcountry. I trudged up Mount Baker, crossed its glacier while roped to a team member, and climbed its sulphurous peak. I tried rock climbing, kayaking, and surfing with little to moderate success. My repertoire of outdoor skills grew, but to be truthful, I lacked the coordination and grace that accompanies those who are athletic from a young age. I didn’t really care though. I was just happy to be outside enjoying the wilderness.

When I first heard a news story on ocean rowing, I thought the rowers must be insane, bordering on suicidal. It was a sport for adrenaline junkies and lifelong athletes, not me. I couldn’t row. Sharks scared me. I lived in an apartment and worked a nine-to-five job. How could I even contemplate such a journey? Yet I did, eventually. I couldn’t help myself. I just kept returning to the thought—like an annoying song you can’t get out of your head—of a little boat slowly crossing the ocean alongside whales and dolphins. I knew I was romanticizing it, but as these daydreams became more frequent and compelling, I couldn’t stop myself from further exploring the possibility. I was hooked by the sea’s wildness. Its promise of unknown adventures drew me in. As the narrator in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Secret of the Sea” says, “my soul is full of longing / For the secret of the sea, / And the heart of the great ocean / Sends a thrilling pulse through me.”

So I started collecting stories on small-boat adventures and began journeying vicariously across oceans. In
I voyaged the Pacific Ocean with Thor Heyerdahl on a balsa wood raft. Between the pages of
I suffered with Steve Callahan after his boat sank and he endured seventy-six days in a life raft lost on the Atlantic. In David Shaw’s book
Daring the Sea,
I rowed alongside the two Norwegian fishermen who, in
, became the first people to row across the Atlantic.

Between that first transatlantic rowboat voyage from New York to England and my planning in the summer of
additional rowers had succeeded in crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Six people had died trying, and dozens had required deep-sea rescues. The number of successful ocean crossings is low, especially when compared to other extreme endeavours such as climbing Mount Everest and skiing to the South Pole. Most oar-powered voyages connect the Canary and Caribbean islands, a distance of about
kilometres. A handful of journeys have been longer; most noteworthy are those of Sidney Genders, who in
kilometres from Britain to Miami in three legs, and John Fairfax, who in
kilometres from the Canary Islands to Miami. As in many extreme sports, women still tend to be a minority, but our numbers are increasing. Before I planned my attempt in
, eighteen women had rowed across the Atlantic Ocean. However, none had yet crossed the Atlantic from the mainland of one continent to that of another, a distance of nearly

BOOK: Rowboat in a Hurricane
5.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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