• Heather Taylor

The other type of ending

Today is my last day in Monterey. I have actively been avoiding writing this blog for the last month as I genuinely haven’t had the words. When I woke up this morning it felt like something finally broke open. Perhaps prompted by a conversation with my sister yesterday in which she said it’s ok to just say you’re disappointed and thank you.

And I am disappointed. It’s felt like it was over before it began, for the second time. I didn’t get a chance to share things with you – the dolphin stampede or size of the waves during the ‘big’ week – and then it was over and that was the news.

When I left Monterey this time, I thought I would make it. I was able to make arrival plans in Hawaii as things had stabilised with COVID restrictions. I felt comfortable in the boat and was ready to get in a routine knowing what to expect. Last year, I was just so relieved to get onto the water and I knew the situation in Hawaii would be completely different when I arrived. It felt much more like I was rowing into the unknown.

Looking back, even from the first night this year I was just being ping ponged across the water, seeming to have little control over where I went. I’ve analysed well beyond the point of painful to figure out what I did differently from last year. Was the boat set up differently? No, if anything it weighed less overall which should have helped and it was balanced and weighted properly. Everything on the boat was functioning well, but what was forecast as a little wind seemed to push me around as though my efforts had no effect. I could not make the boat go where it needed to. The ocean was in control. I did nevertheless make some progress the first week, and then it got crazy.

Full disclosure, I did not write the first trip blog. My sister pieced it together from my updates and conversation. I read it a couple weeks after to know what to say next. She got everything right, but I laughed out loud in the cabin reading it because she was WAY more positive than I would have been.

That week was fairly horrible. I don’t think I had a moment where I thought I would die, but when the anchor came off the second night I did think, I need to tell someone about it just in case things go bad and I need to set the ERIPB off. I was prepared to see the part of the back panel of boat torn off when I looked out in the morning – took two days until I could safely open the hatch to actually look for a few seconds. Stuck my hand out the day after and felt the attachments points still in place at least. The harness straps inside the cabin got use for a few nights that week so I didn’t move so much when a wave hit. I felt pretty bad physically, but it helps if you just lay there.

When it calmed, I had a day to make the back-up anchor operational (everything takes 4-5x longer at sea) and then took a recovery day to eat and clean up before the weather hit again. Should I have rowed the second day to hold ground? Probably, but I felt pretty weak by that stage having not had a proper meal in six days and I needed to wash essential items and prepare for another week of rough seas. Then it was back inside, hopefully with the anchor slowly my progress south.

I was feeling pretty frustrated and that I wasn’t brave enough to get out to try to row by the end of the second week. I didn’t yet know the rudder wouldn’t work, making my painful mental dilemma over those days somewhat pointless as I couldn’t have tried to fix it in that sea state any way.

By the time the winds died down enough to try and then fix the rudder, I was parallel to southern California. Each day of frustrating zigzagging had an extra element of slow growing low-level panic knowing I was going south without getting west. The encouragement “you can do it” became both irritating and saddening, because I couldn’t and it had nothing to do with my efforts. High school vector math had taught me that much.

I forever have to live with the decision I made. Given the information I had at hand and my experience in the conditions until that point, it looked impossible to get west. I spoke to someone this past Sunday who thought I would have made it, as I would have turned west at some point with the large scale currents and winds to the Pacific. The day before the tow boat found me I was tracking slightly to the west even. I had made the call while I was still well more than a hundred kilometer north of where Angela had made her miracle right hand turn around Isle de Guadeloupe. How she did it, I do not know. My only conclusion is that the conditions were different (or she was super human).

Conversely, my British friends, Endurance Limits, who arrived in Hawaii last week (congrats!) said that they spoke about how a solo would have never made it in the sea conditions they faced. Another friend in California who has watched that coast for a while said similar and that the conditions were off compared to other years. Whether I could have made it or would have been too far south to hit Hawaii I’ll never know. I’m finding this the hard part to live with now. I will never know and I will have to make peace with that at some point.

Is there solace in the fact that no one else made it this year? Maybe? But it still leaves the whole expedition unfinished. Yes this was always a possibility, but I guess I thought I’d increased the odds with two tries. Unfortunately, the good weather was combined with equipment failure and the bad weather with everything on the boat humming along perfectly.

Is there a comeback story out there? Not that I can see at the moment. I chose to smile at the comment “Are you giving up?” No, it’s a calculated decision of what I am willing to sacrifice for what I would gain. I would get the euphoric joy of arriving in Hawaii, hopefully raise more funds, and look back on this with a sense of triumph and completion, but it would come at a high cost and the possibility that there could be a third time out on the water where I face that same moment of realising I won’t make it. It might put it into perspective to say the safer option would be to just row the mid-Atlantic.

One thing I am grateful for is that despite having failed it has not translated into me feeling like a failure. That part of my identity is thankfully shielded by an impenetrable layer which protects my core. While the chisel cracks through the outer layers breaking hopes and dreams, it can’t get through all the way. I do thank God for his gift to me in that regard, making me his own and giving me room to fail. It is well with my soul and the core of me. But I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t still sting. Even now, I hold my head in my hands and squeeze my eyes shut in frustration at how things have gone.

I think what I’ve found most frustrating is that so many people have invested time and money into this and I didn’t do it. I didn’t get to Hawaii, but the greater consequence was that a shorter trip meant less time for fundraising and building momentum. We live a world that pays attention to someone who finishes something big not one who gets partway there (more to be said on that but still true for media coverage). I do realise that those who have invested don’t necessarily feel this way, but I do feel bad for not having much for show for all the effort. I couldn’t bring myself to taking the names off of the boat when I was packing it up; it’d be too final.

The boat is being stored near Santa Cruz, 45 minutes north of Monterey. I had help getting everything squared away from Larry who owns the place. It’ll stay there until it sells. It was sad to say goodbye as I won’t see the boat in person again. It would be same if I had made it, but there was a much greater bittersweetness to it.

There was one thing I made sure I did do before I turned back, was the only thing I knew I would feel sad about not having done out on the water. I’m sure there are more bad things that could have happened out there, capsizing for instance, but I did get a good show of wildlife and saw stars a few nights. The celebratory flare on arrival was the only thing I would miss out on. So after checking there were no boats around...

Lastly, thank you to everyone who helped, sponsored, sanded, painted, photographed, repaired, trained, towed, housed me, cheered, followed, shared and prayed. This really has been a journey of one girl trying to do something big and everyone who helped along the way.

There are more stories and photos to share which I will hopefully in the coming months. Planning to head back to Australia after visiting a few people in Canada and US. No idea what's next after that.