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
|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 Catalinas 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.
|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 nights 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 Perrys suggestion and wore my rowing clothes to bed so I
wouldnt have to change in the morning and quickly fell asleep with the sway of the
At 12:30 a.m. I awoke to the sound of howling winds and the rough
rocking of the boat. I couldnt 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 werent 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 starters boat off our port I heard 10, 9, 8
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
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 oclock.
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 didnt hear from you," Beya replied,
"we assumed that you had hooked up with another escort boat that was moving at a
"Well, its 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 cant see the breakwater. Im not really sure what I am
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 didnt 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 didnt want us to
go out of our way during the final stretch.
|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
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 wasnt
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to know more about Guide Dogs for
the Blind, visit their website at: http://www.guidedogs.com