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Day 50: swimming, plastic, beards

Today I went for a swim. It’s been a really hot, sunny day, and I thought I’d best make the most of this small window of weather that is calm enough. Although I love swimming and am usually one of the first to leap into icy lakes and stormy seas, it did take me a little time to work up to leaving the relative safety of Darien’s deck to plunge into the deep blue. I had a good look around for fins and for anything else that might have made for a less enjoyable swim, and took courage from the little fish that still swarm about – if there was nothing to worry them I guessed I’d be fine. I made sure I was attached to my lifeline land slid into the water. It was cool and clear, but what struck me most was how strange it was to be looking up at Darien, lying empty without me. As far as I could see in every direction, the only things visible on the surface of the water were me and Darien, and it felt quite uncomfortable to be separated from each other with nothing else around and the seemingly endless depths beneath.

Quite a few people have been asking me about what rubbish I’ve seen while I’ve been out here. Although I’m more concerned about ‘invisible’ litter (microplastics), I’ve also been keeping a sharp eye out for anything that shouldn’t be floating about in the ocean. I think on average I’ve seen something about every three days – from what seem to be old buoys come adrift, to plastic bottles, to strange shapes I couldn’t identify. Usually they’ve been too far away, or it’s been too rough, but yesterday I was able to scoop an old plastic pot out of the water. The writing on it was fading, and instead it had started to become a home for tiny sea creatures.

Ocean plastic
Ocean plastic

Finally, from what I remember of a lot of the ocean rows and expeditions that I’ve followed, one of the requirements is to arrive back home with a large and grizzled beard. I thought I’d probably better get into the spirit of such things, and have managed to produce what I consider to be a particularly impressive specimen (although I can’t promise I’ll come home with it!).

A beard worthy of the Pacific
A beard worthy of the Pacific

Day 47: Darien

Finally, I’ve got around to writing a long-overdue blog, promised sometime back in May. Having been on sea anchor for the last four days, not much has happened except for me getting progressively sweatier and more fed up and ready to row, so I thought now would be a good time to make good on that promise.

Why did I name my boat Darien? It’s been on my mind throughout the journey, and although my thoughts are probably a little convoluted I’d like to share them.

I came across the name Darien when I was a child, on first reading what soon became one of my favourite books: ‘Swallows and Amazons’. If you don’t know it, I urge you to get hold of a copy and read it today. For those who haven’t read it yet, the first chapter is mainly set on a promontory that the children have named Darien. It reaches out across a big lake, and from there they can look on the island that they are hoping to go and camp on and the lake they want to sail and explore. This is still one of my very favourite books, partly due to nostalgia, but also because it is just brilliant. In ‘Swallows and Amazons’, for me, the peak in Darien always meant hope and and possibility of future excitement. It is the beginning of all the adventures, the place where plans are made and places are first glimpsed.

Once I was older I read the poem that the children have taken the name Darien from: Keats’ ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’, which ends:

“…Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when, with eagle eyes,
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

(Apologies for errors – I’m writing from memory so the punctuation might be dodgy.)

This is a poem about new experiences, about seeing things for the first time and in a new way. Every time I say those final lines to myself I feel a shiver of excitement.

I’m seeing things out here that no one in the world has ever seen before and nor ever will – sunsets, fish, waves, clouds – they change and change again and continually re-form. It is a strange feeling to be looking at, say, a fantastic sunset, and know that no one else in the world can see it as I’m seeing it. By the time it reaches other people it will have changed into something different. This journey was also about learning to see parts of myself and my own life in a new and different way – so much time alone has offered me a lot of time to think.

Darien is of the Pacific, and for me is a place from which grow adventures and from where new things are seen. My little Darien has definitely not disappointed.

Changing conditions

One thing I’ve learned about the ocean is that no two moments are the same. Even though, in theory, I’m doing the same thing every day, the changing weather and light and waves means that no two days are indistinguishable. Sometimes the difference is subtle – a shifting of some clouds or the brightening of the sun – sometimes the contrast is more stark. Yesterday morning I awoke to a pink dawn and a flat calm sea, so still that I could see Darien reflected in the water and at the same time watch the fish and the rays of light reaching down into the deep. There were two determined biggish fish, intent on hunting the little ones that had gathered around the barnacles on my rudder, and their bodies slapping the side of the boat as they pounced was the only sound I could hear. This morning I was greeted by the howl of strengthening wind, crashing waves, and the sharp impact of my elbow and shoulder with the cabin wall when I tried to sit up.

Fish!
Fish!

I’m now lying on sea anchor and expect to be here for two more days before I can row again. It feels a bit like I’m back in the earlier weeks of the row, with waves crashing over the boat and battering us from all sides, but at least I’m not cold. The hours in the middle of the day are hot and airless in the cabin, and I lay with a wet cloth of my forehead and my eyes closed, bracing myself at the impact of waves trying to let my head accustom itself to being thrown around so much again. Even with the sea anchor out I’m losing ground to the south – ground that I will have to make up again – but far less that I would be without it. Even after Friday, when the winds should calm down to a sensible level, the forecast doesn’t look good for the next week. Although I generally haven’t got headwinds, I have a lot of crosswinds and some complicated currents to navigate – still a few hundred miles of difficult rowing to go.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about forecasts. I’m so much more aware of them out here, and I try to anticipate what is expected by rowing in a particular direction, or pushing myself extra hard while the winds hold. At home I’d generally look at if it was going to rain, how warm it was going to be or if the sun would shine. With the forecasts I’m receiving I never know to expect those things – I don’t have any idea if I should expect rain, or clouds, or sun, or warmth, or cold, but I do have a pretty accurate expectation of wind speed and direction. Along with currents and wave height, this is the only forecast I’m interested in, and the only change that makes a significant difference to my rowing, for better or for worse.

Finally, I just wanted to share a little triumph I had yesterday. I’m not particularly practised at DIY, and especially anything to do with electrics, so when I found my satphone earpiece not working my first reaction was that there would be nothing I could do. Things with lots of wires worry me, and I’ve never been excited about the idea of taking them apart and looking inside. The earpiece has been one of my favourite pieces of kit on the boat though – the satellite phone is plugged in right in the corner of the cabin, under my electronics panel, and the earpiece is extendable, meaning that I can lie back and speak on the phone rather than huddling into the corner with my head under the panel (I could unplug the phone, but the signal is not so clear unless I go outside, and I’d rather not risk the one thing that brings me messages, voices, emails and weather forecasts) Knowing how useful I find it, I decided to open it up and see if there was anything to be done (although I confess that I did put it off for about 12 hours before tackling it). I found one of the wires dangling free, having been pulled away from the spot it had been soldered to. Solder! Suddenly I was excited. Before I left, Steve had been keen that I add a soldering iron and some solder to my tool kit, just in case, and he’d found a portable one that plugged into the sockets I have in the cabin. This was my chance to use it. I lay everything out, using an empty expedition meal packet as a workstation and did my best not to burn my fingers or ruin the delicate wiring with the hot melted solder as the boat rocked and bobbed around. After waiting for it to cool down I tried it out – it worked! I know this probably sounds like a ludicrously little thing but it made my day, and I still feel a thrill of triumph every time I use it.

Soldering achievement
Soldering achievement

Land Ho! (ish)

If you’ve been following my tracker you might have noticed how close I’m getting to Isla Guadalupe. When I woke up this morning I could see a low dark smudge on the horizon, which looked like a cloud. Although I’m still about 40 miles away, it has been grown larger and clearer all day as I’ve pushed toward it. Guadalupe is the rugged remains of two ancient volcanos, and towers high out of the water, so I’m really looking forward to seeing it become even clearer tomorrow.

As you might have guessed from the title, Guadalupe is not my destination – I need to row past it and then on for several hundred miles more to mainland Mexico. It would have been a hugely exciting place to land, but unfortunately not ideal logistically. It is still pretty awesome to see it though, and anyone who has been at sea for a long time will know what it’s like to first look on land again (even if it’s just a small island). Suddenly my horizon does not stretch out the same distance in every direction; it is not an unbroken circle all around me. My eyes can’t help but be drawn to the lumpy shape in the distance.

Guadalupe Island in the distance
Guadalupe Island in the distance

Tonight it is cloudy, but I’ve been lucky most of the last week to have clear night skies. Last time there was a run of clear skies at night, a few weeks ago, there was also the brightest moon I’ve ever seen – breathtaking in itself, but not good for stargazing. This week I’ve been rewarded at night with the most fantastic night skies. The stars reach down to the flat horizon in every direction, every single one visible and unobscured by hills, trees or houses. It’s like being upside down in a star filled pool. There are just so many of them, and the whole sky seems so much busier out here. Stars are twinkling on top of each other, shooting stars flash across the sky, and the whole sky shifts gently and the boat bobs around. I’ve caught myself with my mouth hanging open on numerous occasions, completely unaware of myself as I gaze upwards.

A thank you from Elsa

To all Elsa’s kind supporters who have sent messages of support and helped with costs so far:

I just want to say a huge and special thank you to all of you have supported and are continuing to support me out here.

Having to change destination has meant that all our careful planning for the arrival and subsequent logistics have had to start again, leaving us facing numerous unexpected costs. Poor Steve is busy running around making arrangements, while I’m focusing on pushing out the miles without being dragged too far south.

I’m so grateful for all of your donations, and touched by the messages that have come in with them. We’ve closed new mile dedications, but have seen a massive jump in oar strokes being donated – fantastic, as there are a lot of strokes happening out here at the moment! The last couple of days have been long, hot and hard work, but the email that Steve sent through to me with all your messages and donations honestly made my day today.

Thank you so so much.

THANK YOU!
THANK YOU!

 

Please continue to spread the word on Facebook, Twitter and by email – Elsa still has a way to go to cover costs and reach her funding goals for the three fantastic charities she is supporting.

Bring Elsa home!

Support Elsa’s journey home – donate as many oar strokes as you wish at £0.10 each!

Donate oar strokes

Pushing east, seat repair, turtle visit!

These few days are all about trying to make as much east as possible without losing too much ground to the south. There are some stronger winds on their way so I’m trying out get into as good as possible a position before they arrive. Although I’d love to visit Antarctica I’m not too keen on going in a rowing boat, and in any case I’m looking forward to Mexico! You’d think that now I’ve turned around I would be rowing with the wind, but although it’s far better, I still have to negotiate crosswinds, contrary currents and changeable weather to make safe landfall. No headwinds yet though, thank goodness 🙂

My rowing shift was interrupted this evening by one of the wheels falling off my seat. Digging out my tools and spares kit, I set to work changing it over for a new one. While I was working on it I noticed another couple that looked rather worse for wear, so changed those as well. There was nearly an unfortunate incident as I scrambled out of my hatch, all the Allen keys I possess in one hand, just as the boat was knocked by an unexpected wave. Luckily I kept a tight grip on them… The last hour of rowing today was noticeably smoother, and I’m looking forward to testing it out again tomorrow.

Fishy update:

The little fish still crowd around the bottom of the boat, although no one seems to be eating them at the moment. Today also saw a return (or a friend?) of the turtle. He’s really keen on looking at my rudder up close, probably because there are a few barnacles on it, but maybe also because it moves back and forth independently of the rest of the boat? Saw some dolphins in the distance this evening. This group didn’t come too close to the boat, but it seems that early evening is the time for dolphin spotting out here.

T.U.R.T.L.E. Power!
T.U.R.T.L.E. Power!

Bring Elsa home!

Support Elsa’s journey home and her fantastic charities – donate as many oar strokes as you wish at £0.10 each!

Donate oar strokes

Day 39: Sampling, weather, dolphins and a turtle!

Today I took one of my water samples for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. Each sample needs to be a full litre, and we have been given special bottles to use for sampling. As well as taking the sample itself and labelling it, I need to fill in a form with as much data as possible, including the wind speed and direction at the time of sampling. Once back on shore I will send off all the samples I’ve taken to be tested for microplastics (the tiny, insidious particles into which plastic pollution breaks down).

Microplastic Sampling
Microplastic Sampling

I’ve been noticing that I’m either more sensitive to the weather out here than I usually am, or I’m just more aware of it because there are so few other influences/stimuli. Yesterday was a really close, brooding sort of day, overcast and hot. All day I had a bad headache. A little rain came along late afternoon, clearing the sky and the atmosphere, and with it my headache, leaving behind a fresh, brilliant evening of bright sunshine. Looking back through my log book last night, I noticed that this is the third time I’ve had a bad headache since I’ve been out here; each time the weather has been similar, and each time the headache has cleared with the freshening weather. Maybe it’s coincidence, but it doesn’t feel like it.

Fishy updates:

– Yesterday evening after the sun came out I heard a splashing sound and looked around to see that I was being approached by about eight bottlenose dolphins. They came right up to Darien, and swam under and around us for quite a few minutes before continuing on their way.

– Just as I was having my lunch today I saw something to Darien’s stern, very near the rudder. Looking closer, I saw it was a turtle! It hung around all through lunch, watching me and splashing about. Although I’ve seen turtles at sea before (when I’ve been diving), it seemed really unexpected and out of place today, hundreds of miles away from land and swimming about on the surface all alone. I said goodbye after lunch and we went our separate ways.

Day 37: thanks, waves and guests!

From Elsa, in the Pacific. Please see her statement about her change of destination if you haven’t read it yet.

Wow – thank you so so so much to everyone who has sent messages of support following this change of direction. It means a huge amount that you are all still being supportive, and will really help with this push towards land. I really agonised over taking this decision, and although there are inevitably still questions and concerns. I feel so much lighter now that the decision is made. I’m strangely excited about the adventure of the unknown as I head towards a previously unplanned harbour, and can’t wait to see what the rest of the journey will bring.

Beautiful sunset
Beautiful sunset

Over the weekend I had been secretly hoping that I’d get some nice rowing with the wind for a change, now that I’m headed in a easterly direction, but the Pacific continues to challenge me. We’ve had some really strange weather today. Following big winds and seas over the weekend, the wind had now lightened, but has also turned around, meaning that the seas are very confused. I’ve got big, rolling waves coming towards me on one side and on the other small choppy waves also coming towards me and meeting each other beneath me. I’m not sure which way to look to keep an eye on approaching waves!

The good news is that I’m now managing to make progress in the right direction, even though it’s quite slow. Initially it felt strange to be celebrating, rather than mourning, eastward progress, but already it feels completely normal.

Fishy tales, and more:

– A couple of nights ago, while I was sitting on para anchor, a bird I haven’t seen before came and landed on my bow cabin. It stayed overnight, hanging on with difficultly as the boat pitched and tossed, and leaving behind a lot of unwanted presents on my solar panels for me to clean up. It was black with a white stomach, and straight pointed beak. Can anyone identify? I’d love to know more about it, as it’s the only one of this species that I’ve seen. It seemed totally unfazed by me – watching me when I came on deck, but not in the least inclined to move.

Elsa's guest
Elsa’s guest

– Yesterday, as the wind fell and the waves became wide and smooth, I saw two groups of pilot whales, heading in a similar direction to each other. They came really quite close to me, and I was able to watch them all the way into the distance as I prepared myself for rowing. It felt like the sea was coming alive again yesterday, after a weekend of everything hiding out of sight or below the waves; as I was watching the pilot whales, I also saw quite a number of different birds skimming the surface of the waves.

Smooth seas
Smooth seas

PS:
A couple of people have asked about oars – I’m still using my ‘repaired’ oar, and plan to use it all the way to Mexico. It’s heavy and a bit frustrating, but I’ve been getting used to it and its little quirks. I think of it as a friendly baby Frankenstein’s Monster – a bit bodged together but  perfectly capable and eager to do its best.

Elsa’s new route: Q&A

“I am full of admiration for Elsa, not only for the tenacity and determination that she has exhibited over the last five weeks as she battled persistent headwinds, but even more for her wisdom and maturity in deciding to change course. I applaud her decision, and look forward to congratulating her in person when she returns to Britain.”

-Roz Savage MBE FRGS, holder of four ocean rowing world records.

 

Elsa will continue to post updates on her blog – please check it out for the most up-to-date information. You can view her current position on the race tracker.

Some information about Elsa’s amended plans, in response to the questions and coverage that have been coming in:

  • What have conditions been like for Elsa?
    • Heading out of Monterey Bay, Elsa experienced strong onshore winds that blew her back into the bay every time she stopped rowing. She countered these by resting on sea anchor in the day and rowing at night when the winds dropped.
    • As she started to head out to sea, strong winds pushed her south east down the Californian coast. She experienced waves up to 20ft breaking over her boat.
    • Later on conditions improved slightly, but persistent winds meant making headway westwards was challenging. Elsa headed further south to seek more favourable wind and wave direction.
  • Why has Elsa chosen to change her route?
    • Elsa has experienced unexpectedly challenging wind and wave conditions right from the start of the row. These pushed her far south of her intended course, into areas with increased risk of hurricanes, with unpredictable promise of improved weather. This, and the fact that the further she headed from land, the more dangerous an emergency recovery would be (for Elsa and any rescuers), tipped the balance of risk. Read Elsa’s statement here.
  • How far off her intended course did she reach? How long is her new route?
    • Elsa ended up around 100-150nm east of her ideal route. By the time she completes her journey she will have rowed the best part of 1,000nm.
  • Why do the courses of all of the boats in the race differ from the direct route?
    • With the prevailing winds and currents in the Pacific, following the direct line (visible on the race tracker) is effectively impossible – even for the four-man crews. Rowers aim to push through the Californian coastal stream and make it to the trade winds, at around 125 degrees west. The ‘ideal’ track sweeps south and west.
  • Could Elsa not just row longer/harder?
    • Elsa has trained for years for this challenge. Out of the four solo rowers in the race (two men and two women) she was the last remaining by over a month. Her three broken oars (unheard of before) indicate how tough the weather was for her, and the statistics showing that she has rowed the furthest ‘miles per rower’ of any of the classic-class boats – even compared with the four-man crews – are testament to her efforts.
  • How long will it take her to reach land?
    • This is variable depending on weather, but we estimate around two to three weeks.
  • How is Elsa feeling about the diversion?
    • Elsa is in good spirits. She is confident that this was the correct decision to make, and to continue further would be dangerous to her and irresponsible to any rescue crews she would also be putting at risk. Please see her statement.
  • How are supporters responding?
    • Since she announced her diversion, Elsa has received many hundreds of messages of support from sponsors, supporters and fans – overwhelmingly positive. Many have said that they admire the courage and discipline that Elsa showed in making this decision.
  • Will Elsa re-attempt this challenge?
    • Elsa and her team have not discussed this yet, they are focusing on a safe and effective return to shore for her.
  • What do other experienced rowers think?
    • Roz Savage, world-record holding ocean rower says: “I am full of admiration for Elsa, not only for the tenacity and determination that she has exhibited over the last five weeks as she battled persistent headwinds, but even more for her wisdom and maturity in deciding to change course. I applaud her decision, and look forward to congratulating her in person when she returns to Britain.”

Media resources