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Volume V Issue XXXVII

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Seattle Washington USA


A ROW IN THE DARK
Part II - The Race
by AERIALGILBERT                 Editor's note: if you missed Part I Click Here!
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Carey Chenoweth, Aerial Gilbert and Perry Heffelfinger

At 7:00 a.m. we left the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge behind with two shells and six oars atop the van fully loaded with four people, and one Guide Dog. We arrived in Los Angeles in the peak of traffic with a boat which extended five feet beyond the car in front and back, trying not to impale the cars ahead. At the California Yacht Club , sponsor of the race, all the rowers, escorts, and organizers met to plan and discuss the upcoming events. Rowers met with their escorts to discuss schedules and the logistics of transporting their shells. The highlight of the evening was meeting Charles Hathaway, the originator of the race, who twenty-three years ago, for his fiftieth birthday, he made the crossing in a low-tech rowboat in seventeen hours.

 

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Aerial and Perry's double shell is prepared for the drive.

Saturday morning we loaded our double along with another onto the Sly Lady, a 46-foot sailboat owned by Tom Head. At 11:00 am I gave Deanne, my Guide Dog, a female German Shepherd, a big hug and handed her over to my mother who would dog-sit her for the next twenty-four hours. It took four long hours to motor to Catalina Island. The reality of how far I would be rowing suddenly hit me and my anxiety grew as the boat bounced over the swells. As we anchored in Catalina’s Fourth of July Harbor, I could hear the sounds of the water breaking against the shore and reflecting off the sheer walls of the island.

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All packed up and ready to head for Santa Catalina Island.

The pre-race meeting began at 6:00 p.m. and covered compass headings, start times and details of the start. We all nervously ate the high carbohydrate dinner and returned to our boats to try to get an early night’s sleep. We met the owners of our escort boat, the Melee, where Perry and I would sleep the few hours until race time. Our gracious hosts, Bob, Beya, and Julie Shaffer, and Blazer, the family dog, helped us feel at home and Blazer had to endure my constant attention because I missed Deanne. I followed Perry’s suggestion and wore my rowing clothes to bed so I wouldn’t have to change in the morning and quickly fell asleep with the sway of the boat.

At 12:30 a.m. I awoke to the sound of howling winds and the rough rocking of the boat. I couldn’t imagine rowing in conditions like this - there must be whitecaps! How could I get from the sailboat down to the rowing shell? Will they call off the race? I listened to my book-on-tape and hoped I would fall back to sleep. I awoke again to the sound of Perry crinkling the wrapper of a Power Bar at 3:15. It was time wake up and do this thing.

Thankfully, the winds had completely died down and the water was calm. With some help I lowered myself down into the dinghy and we motored over to the Sly Lady where our double was being lowered into the water. The oars were quickly put into the oarlocks to stabilize the boat. Then I shifted my body on to the sliding seat in the stern position and Perry followed into the bow. We donned gloves, and began securing bottles of Cytomax (an electrolyte replacement drink), cell phone, walkie-talkies, flares, and a flashlight in the boat. I could hear voices coming from around the harbor as other rowers and escorts were preparing for the start of the race. Chemical lights, activated by snapping and shaking, were taped to the riggers - red for the port side and green for starboard - as well as to the bow and stern.

It was dark and the air was cool with a smell of grasses and brush coming off the island. We slowly made our way toward the race committee boat, a 75-foot yacht that Perry described longingly, picturing herself as she thought she would rather be, sitting on board sipping a cup of coffee.

 

The Melee, our escort boat, was assigned to follow both Carey in his single shell and Perry and me in the double. Typically an escort boat would only responsible for one rowing boat or team, but there simply weren’t enough escorts to go around. It was decided that our two boats would row at similar speeds so one escort could stay with us both. When our turn finally arrived to come to the start Carey and Perry and I lined up our two boats with Melee directly off our stern. We removed the long-sleeved shirts we wore to block the chill of the morning and got our oars ready at the catch. From the starter’s boat off our port I heard 10, 9, 8….1, and suddenly all the nervous energy of anticipation was translated into the first explosive stroke of the race.

Only 30 minutes later we were rowing with no one within sight or sound. After an hour we stopped long enough to drink a half bottle of Cytomax and try to raise Melee on the cell phone several times without success. The sun began to rise and we remained alone with the exception of the occasional seagull. The seas were calm with only the rise and fall of ocean swells. We were both quiet, rowing in unison, keeping to the compass heading of 175 degrees.

For the next few hours we made occasional thirty-second stops to drink and then resumed rowing. As I began to tire and feel the pain from the sliding seat, blisters under my gloves, and other aches, Perry would announce, "break time in two minutes." Within moments of drinking, the aches and pains would fade into the background again. I entertained myself by thinking of puzzles to solve, projects for work, and many times just clearing my mind and experiencing the smells, sounds, and feel of the boat.

The oars became extensions of my fingers, and my feet, which were attached to the boat by stirrups, were fluid with the movement of the boat. The speed, strength, and stamina that Perry and I had cultivated over the past year were paying off as we moved across the water. 7:00 a.m., 7:30, 8 o’clock.

At 8:30 we tried to make contact with our escort again. Ring, ring, ...Hello. It was Beya on Melee. Evidently they had not had their walkie talkie and cell phone on when we first tried. Now that we could hear another voice I realized how isolated I was feeling. If communication was possible then I knew we could eventually make it to shore.

"We got separated," Perry explained. "We tried to catch up with another escort, but we soon realized we were alone."

"When we didn’t hear from you," Beya replied, "we assumed that you had hooked up with another escort boat that was moving at a faster pace."

"Well, it’s OK now," said Perry. "We will check back with you when we get closer to shore."

It was surreal to hear her voice after hours of silence in the rolling seas. Perry and I both felt relieved with the contact and it lifted our spirits. I heard a noise to starboard.

"Dolphins, fifteen to twenty of them, are passing on their way to Catalina," Perry exclaimed.

As they leaped out of the water I could hear them blow puffs of air as they went by and could picture their streamlined bodies moving through the water. Later several whales surfaced off the stern of the boat. One advantage of having lost our escort was experiencing the wildlife and the ambient sounds free of engine noise and smells.

I continued to experience the perfect rhythm of exhaustion and pain right on the half hour, just in time to be relieved by a brief break and a drink, followed by the rejuvenation I felt within minutes of the break.

At 10:30 I knew we should be getting closer to the coast but the visibility was still minimal and we began to wonder about finding the breakwater and the entrance to Marina Del Rey.

"I see the coast," cried Perry, but nothing looked familiar. "I can’t see the breakwater. I’m not really sure what I am looking for."

In the ten years she had participated in this race she never had to navigate, always rowing in the company of an escort boat. Were we too far north or south? It was time to call in again. After many calls and readings from the GPS, we determined that we had overshot our mark and were too far north. We asked for an escort to come out and meet us to guide us into the marina.

As we neared the southern entrance to Marina del Rey the water was very rough. I could smell the stench of pelican poop that was a noted landmark of the breakwater. My hands were incredibly tender and every little movement magnified the pain. It took a lot of extra energy to maintain the balance of the boat.

Suddenly the water smoothed out as we entered the marina. Our excitement grew knowing the end of the race was near, hearing familiar voices, and realizing we were only two miles from the finish line.

"This is where we put on the power," declared Perry, "and put out whatever we have left."

I picked up the pace and the thought of the end inspired a burst of energy I didn’t know I had. As I pulled and strained I thought Will anyone be there? I am sure the race has been over for a long time, and everyone is probably in the showers. What will it feel like to stand up again? I began to wonder how I was going to get out of the boat at the end of the race, how Deanne, my Guide Dog, would react and who else would be there to see us over the finish line. My hands were screaming with every catch, all my muscles burned and I had to keep my mouth open to get enough air. The last two miles seemed like ten.

Our escort hollered to the sailboats crisscrossing the marina, "Get out of the way. These women just rowed 32 miles from Catalina." I felt very proud as I heard them make this announcement repeatedly. They knew we had rowed extra miles and had done the race without the help of an escort, and they didn’t want us to go out of our way during the final stretch.

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Perry and Aerial, along with Deanne the guide dog, have exhausted smiles at the end of the race.

When Perry announced, "I can see the finish", tears welled up in my eyes as I heard the cheers coming from the dock. The horn blew, indicating the end, and we both stopped rowing slowly gliding to a stop - six hours and thirty-seven minutes we had started. Barely able to lift my weight and stand, I hugged Deanne.

The postmortem row would last for the next two days, dissecting the details of the race, how we got separated from the escort, and how we navigated the crossing alone.

At one point during the morning when the lonely ocean seemed to stretch forever and our pain and uncertainty seemed overpowering, Perry had announced she would never do this race again. On the drive home, about midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, she began to talk about if she did the race again. As we arrived home, still exhausted, but exhilarated by our achievement, we both knew this wasn’t the end.

We had to do it one more time.

 

Aerial Gilbert is an R.N. and Director of Volunteers at Guide Dogs For the Blind, Inc. in San Rafael, CA. Please take a moment and email her with your comments at: gdbdeanne@yahoo.com.   If you would like to know more about Guide Dogs for the Blind, visit their website at: http://www.guidedogs.com

 

  

Hope      Courage     Determination      Compassion
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