Less than a week into an event that was expected to last well into July, Seattle climate rower Eliza Dawson is back on land.
All are safe, but strong Pacific winds ultimately thwarted her four-woman team’s attempt to travel 2,400 miles across the Pacific, on human-power alone.
Dawson and her team, Ripple Effect, faced steady high winds and waves for five days. They traveled more than 150 nautical miles and were among the top two teams when they ran into trouble.
A lot of their time on the ocean was actually spent waiting for better weather, using a safety device called a parachute anchor. It’s a large canvas sail that keeps the boat from capsizing by holding it in place, turned perpendicular to the waves.
Great Pacific Race director and founder Chris Martin says the team had spent nearly three days sitting on that anchor in the waves.
So, on the fifth day, when the winds eased up a bit, the team went all out, with three women rowing and only one resting at a time. Martin got a call when they decided to retire.
“They’d pulled their hearts out all day and got wet and cold and tired and demoralized a little bit by the end of the day, when things started to not turn to their favor,” he said.
Ripple Effect’s skipper had fainted at the oars. She had not been able to eat enough to keep up her strength. Many on the crew suffered seasickness. And after hours of fighting hypothermia, with Dawson at her side, warming her and checking her vitals, the skipper ultimately decided she couldn’t continue.
“They’d obviously worked incredibly hard, But, this is a multi-day, multi-week event and it will take everything that you’ve got to give to it and more,” Martin said.
He says there was discussion of the rest of the crew continuing, but they decided it would not be safe with only three left. Ripple Effect is the second team to retire from the event out of five teams competing.
Two days earlier, a two-man team, Attack Poverty, capsized and retired from the race, even though they were experienced ocean rowers who had previously crossed the Atlantic.
On her blog, Dawson notes “the Pacific is proving very fierce this year” and writes of what was “an extremely difficult decision” to pull out of the race. At one point she says she rowed 12 hours straight to try to help her teammates get some rest.
Dawson, 22, was rowing in an effort to raise awareness for climate change before she heads to graduate school this fall for a Ph.D in climate science. She raised $20,000 to support her campaign and had hoped to beat a Guinness world-record for speed crossing the Pacific Ocean, which currently stands at 50 days for an all-female crew.
She was also the youngest person racing this year and stood to break the record for youngest finisher had she completed the event.
Race director Martin says Ripple Effect’s retirement clears the way for 22-year-old Michael Prendergast, a British rower on Team United Nations, to take that title. (Prendergast is just a bit older than Dawson.) His team is among the three still racing.
Regardless of the defeat, Martin, who himself holds a Guinness World Record for being part of the first team to row across the North Pacific and has also rowed solo across the Atlantic, says attempting any ocean row is a life-changing experience.
“Ocean rowing reveals characters and develops them. It makes ocean rowers some of the most interesting people that I have ever met – and some of the most reliable,” he said.
And even without making it through those savage winds off the coast of California to the Pacific garbage patch and ultimately, Hawaii, Martin says those who attempt it still come away with new appreciation for the power and vulnerability of the ocean.
“When you’re out there living it, on a small vessel, it’s inescapable,” he said.
You can see the progress of the remaining teams in the event at The Great Pacific Race website.