By Susan Ronaldson on March 3, 2019
“You must be so proud”
“What an amazing achievement”
These are all lovely things I’ve been told in the last 48 hours alone - and we’ve had so many more kind and incredible messages since we arrived back on terra firma two weeks ago. I’m personally so grateful and moved by these as I think they reflect how involved people felt in our journey and hope it means that they got something out of it themselves. The trouble for me right now is that in all honesty I don’t feel those things. There is a saying that if you want to row an ocean you must have the courage to lose sight of shore- but the truth is the ultimate challenge is having the courage to return to shore… To come to terms with the end and the return to ‘real life’.
From the moment we had the idea to row the Atlantic I knew we would do it – my gut told me we would make it to the start line and if we started then we would finish. That core belief never left me, including through the row, even when our seat broke on day 3! But… in La Gomera, in (large) part fuelled by the free Talisker cocktails, I found myself dribbling on to Imogen and Keryn (‘the Rowettes’) and Charlotte (Atlantic Campaigns social media supremo) about what makes me think ‘I can actually do this???’. After all, I was not the kind of person who rowed oceans. Despite considerable improvements, I was still not that fit or strong, I had zero experience and hadn’t really shown that much previous inclination to adventure and none to endurance, and in all honesty I was a bit lazy and a bit of a coward. Despite lots of people saying we were inspirational, I’d done nothing yet to earn that - was I delusional in my belief I could row a whole ocean? Was I about to be found out??
It didn’t take long at sea to feel the pride grow - of myself and the team. We’d worked enormously hard to even get to the start line and I could see that setting off into the vast ocean and unknown on our own did take a certain amount of courage. A few days in, when we probably had the most helpful seas of the entire trip, I had my first solo night shift in ‘big’ conditions – it was a dark night so you couldn’t see the waves coming in; you just had to learn how to respond and control the boat. It gave the illusion of speed and almost felt like flying as you’d be picked up and carried along. I found I wasn’t scared… I was thrilled! And at the end, when I returned to the cabin, I could see on the GPS that I’d even managed to steer the boat on a pretty straight line (we were rare (unique?) in only having foot steering and no autohelm). Ok, I thought, I don’t feel like an imposter anymore.
That first week was in many ways the honeymoon period. As the adrenaline started to subside, the weather lows set in, and the routine became monotonous, the real challenge began – how do you manage your mind to keep yourself going through a day, knowing it will be exactly the same unpleasant, tough experience tomorrow? And the day after… and day after that… and so on for weeks and weeks. I said at the finish, it became particularly difficult for me as I realised early on that with the seat problems and conditions, we were not going to take the 50 days we talked of for a year… 50 days was becoming 51, 52, 53… and the finish seemed to be getting further away not closer. I had no inclination to quit, I didn’t not want to be on the boat- it was just that I found I needed to feel we were making good progress – something, however hard we tried, was in large part down to Poseidon. In one of life’s great lessons, those relentless days which seem never-ending do end and you find yourself ashore once more. You can hug your friends and family, make a million more choices about what you want to do, enjoy wonderful food and drink and get clean! It’s completely overwhelming and sensory overload. The finish is incredible- truly the best day of my life and completing the challenge makes all the pain and sacrifice worth it in a moment.
So, why two weeks later do I not feel the sense of achievement that so many people see for me? I think in part it is because the human mind does a fantastic job of erasing pain and unpleasantness – as so much of it was painful and unpleasant I think that helps to explain why it feels so unreal! And when you return home, so much is the same as before you left – so did it even happen? Probably more importantly though, it turns out, quite unexpectedly, that I am the kind of person who rows an ocean. But if that’s the case then really anyone can, the only difference is that I decided to do it. And, while I’m pretty sure I did the row to prove something to myself, that’s not actually enough. The real meaning comes from the impact on others. For example, there has been no greater feeling than hearing the story of an 11 year old who ran into the sea fully clothed to retrieve a plastic bottle, because she had been inspired by us (let alone the beach cleans she and her sister have taken part in as well). Wow! I want to do as much as I can now to continue using our experience to make a difference.
So now ours is over, I have two challenges for you. Firstly – the ocean is truly magnificent and beautiful. Please feel inspired to protect it and think about how you use plastic in your life. And secondly, if you think what we did was pretty amazing- take that and know that you can do amazing stuff too! It doesn’t have to be anything like rowing an ocean (although it could be!) – maybe it’s doing a 5k, taking that trip to a place you’ve always wanted to visit, learning a language or a musical instrument, asking that person out…! Something you’ve wanted but didn’t think you could – because all of us can be courageous and overcome and achieve more than we ever imagined.
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