Sometime in February of 2010, after a month of almost non-stop rowing, Katie Spotz was exhausted, wondering how she could continue. More than 1500 miles remained in her attempt to become the youngest person to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. How did a young woman of 22 find herself alone in the middle of an ocean? What would she need to do to continue?
Katie started college in California, but transferred to Warren Wilson College, a four-year liberal arts college near Asheville, North Carolina. As a professor at the college since 1998, I have seen a lot of amazing young people come through with hopes and dreams of changing the world. Katie was one of those students. She majored in business and economics, taking courses across the curriculum that inspired her to make a difference. While studying abroad in Australia, Katie became aware of the crisis facing a billion people on the planet: the lack of access to clean drinking water. She delved into learning more about this problem, eventually connecting with the Blue Planet Network, a global non-profit dedicated to bringing sustainable safe drinking water to people in rural communities around the world.
I interviewed Katie to discuss this ocean-crossing attempt.
In her preparation for the solo crossing, Katie paid as much attention to the mental training as the physical. “Before I even left on my journey,” Katie told me, “I used meditation.”
I know that everyone does their own form of preparation, but for me, I would do these extensive meditation retreats. In endurance events, it’s not a matter of if — it’s when. You will reach those moments where you feel like giving up. And that’s the nature of pushing yourself, truly pushing yourself beyond your limit when reaching those walls.
Without this meditation practice, Katie may well have felt lonelier and more overwhelmed than she did. Katie anticipated correctly what the greatest challenge would be and spent many hours training her mind to cope with the solitude and pain. (Of course, Katie also planned carefully and trained hard physically for the crossing.)
Katie embarked on January 3, 2010, from Dakar, Senegal, on her ocean-crossing attempt. She hoped to reach South America sometime in March or April. Her 19-foot boat was equipped with satellite-based technologies that allowed her to row in an approximately straight line to her destination (French Guiana), to see and be seen by huge freighter ships, and to update her progress via social media. It was also equipped with some more basic technology: oars, which had to be rowed over and over, hours at a time, with little time for rest. Throughout, Katie attempted to sleep in two hour blocks but found this difficult as the swells tossed her vessel about.
For the first several weeks, things went very well and Katie had energy and confidence. Just a few weeks later, halfway across the Atlantic, Katie felt exhausted and overwhelmed, wondering whether she could complete this journey. How would she manage this moment?
I definitely struggled, there’s no doubting that; and each moment was different. Sometimes I would distract myself to get through: I would listen to audiobooks, I would listen to music… Other times I would draw on my meditation practice to get through the pain.
Katie also used a strategy similar to Billy Mills’: breaking down a seemingly impossible goal into manageable chunks: “I wasn’t sure I could row another 1500 miles, but I knew I could row a mile,” Katie explained. “I turned the 1500 miles into fifteen hundred one-mile rows.” Katie’s ability to manage the moment of fear, pain, and fatigue is a lesson in self-control. She didn’t try to manage the whole crossing, but rather confined the coping to specific challenges.
This strategy was also employed by the elite runner, Louis Zamperini, whose story is told in Laura Hillenbrand’s powerful biography Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Zamperini experienced almost unimaginable pain and suffering after crashing into the Pacific and then being detained in Japanese POW camps. He utilized a day-to-day, and sometimes moment-to-moment, tactic to survive. (Unbroken, the movie, is releasing next month.)
Katie continued to row for the next month until she approached Cayenne, French Guiana. Winds and currents off the coast created huge waves – impossible conditions for her to row through. Her support team radioed Katie and asked if she wanted to be towed in the last few miles. Katie refused saying she wanted the ocean-crossing to be entirely solo. She conferred with the team and set off for a calmer landing area, which was another 400 miles – and eight more days – out of the way. Finally, on March 14, 2010, 70 days after leaving Africa, Katie reached the city of Georgetown, Guyana, becoming the youngest person to successfully row solo across the Atlantic.
It has been almost five years since this historic event; Katie is now working on a book about the crossing. She also recently announced on her blog that she has “started a new adventure to educate, motivate and inspire youth across the country to believe they, too, can do whatever they set their minds to and make a difference for kids around the world in need.” She is partnering with H2O for Life in this important venture.
Katie is an inspiration to people around the world. Not many of us can row across the Atlantic, but she focuses on what we can do:
You may not be wearing a cape and funny suit but whether you know it yet or not, you have superhero capabilities. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. I had a hard time believing this concept until I tested the water, literally.
In 2010 I became the youngest person in the world to row across the Atlantic Ocean solo. No motor, no sails. Just oars…. I never thought I was capable of doing super big adventures but found out what is possible when you set your mind to it. ~Bring out the superhero 10-24-2014