Mick Dawson on the Pacific ocean (Chris Martin)
Article 17 September

A 'confused sea': rowing across the Pacific ocean, from Japan to San Francisco

Mick Dawson spent 440 days at sea, rowing 7000 miles across the Pacific ocean from Japan to San Francisco. Here, he recounts the moment that nearly broke him and how he found strength to go on…

 

That morning, I was having the time of my life. By the end of the day, I was fighting to save it.

I’d been at sea, alone, unsupported, and without regular communications for 109 days in a rowing boat. This was not the familiar type of rowboat that might be used on a lake or pond. This was a specially designed, totally self-sufficient ocean rowing boat. It was twenty-one and a half feet long and six feet across at its broadest point. A sealed bow section and a cabin at the back where I could sleep and shelter from the big storms sandwiched an open rowing deck in the middle. 

I had rowed more than four and a half thousand miles across the North Pacific in that boat, departing Japan early in May. My goal was to become the first person to row across the North Pacific, finishing beneath the span of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.


Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco (Dreamstime)

That morning, with little more than 1400 nautical miles between me and the finish line, I allowed myself to believe that success was within my grasp. But not for the first time, nor for the last, the North Pacific had other ideas.

Although it was the most challenging of my ocean rowing adventures, the North Pacific wasn’t the first of them. That had been three years earlier, in 2001, with a three-thousand-mile voyage across the Atlantic with my brother, Steve.

We were both former Royal Marine commandos (the Royal Navy’s elite amphibious soldiers), and both of us were desperate for a challenge. Rowing the Atlantic seemed to fit the bill. We built a boat, learned the basics of rowing, and along with another 31 boats pushed off from Tenerife in the Canary Islands in a race to Barbados. We arrived 70 days later.

It was a life-changing experience for the pair of us and a pivotal one for me. I thirsted for ever greater challenges. Few people had successfully rowed any ocean at that time, but none had successfully rowed from Japan to San Francisco. I wanted to be the first.


Mick rowing in pleasant conditions (Mick Dawson)

Two years later, in April 2003, I put together a solo challenge to the North Pacific route. It came to grief less than a thousand miles off the coast of Japan. Dreadful weather had forced a delayed departure that had put me directly into the path of three major storms. The third had left my boat crippled with a smashed rudder. With no prospect of reaching North America, let alone San Francisco, I returned to Japan. My introduction to the brutal realities of the North Pacific was over.

As harsh as that introduction had been, though, there was nothing that persuaded me that my goal was impossible. My boat would have to be refitted to cope better with the severe conditions of the North Pacific. I would have to make sure I escaped the Japanese coast earlier in the spring. But I knew it could be done. 

My return to Japan the following year and my subsequent rapid progress toward San Francisco had justified that belief. But now that progress was about to come to a halt.

Over the previous two days, I had been rowing in mountainous seas. As I would learn much later (but suspected at the time), two massive storm systems had collided a couple of hundred miles to the south of me. That collision in the middle of such a vast ocean had in turn created an enormous swell, which radiated out from the epicentre of the battling storm systems for hundreds of miles in every direction, like angry ripples racing away from two huge rocks dropped into the centre of a pond.

The ocean around me became a watery version of the rolling countryside of the Sussex downs on the south coast of England, which was my home. But this was a vast, roaring and much wetter version.

Though it is awe-inspiring to view from the deck of a 21-foot boat, a huge rolling ocean isn’t necessarily a threat to such a vessel. I’d rowed through similar conditions before as I’d skirted typhoons, and I’d learned how to cope with them. Once I’d come to terms with the intimidating scale of these seas, I had developed and mastered a technique that kept me safe, while still allowing me to make forward progress. 

The added problem on this occasion was that because of the relatively close proximity of the two storm systems, I was also being hit by large, flat breaking waves. Those waves were almost independent of the huge swells roaring toward me.


Freezing cold and soaking wet (Mick Dawson)

Large breaking waves capsize small boats, especially small rowboats. To make matters worse, the waves were coming at me from a chaotic variety of directions. In sailing terms it’s what’s known as a confused sea, but this was 'confused' on an epic scale. Still, there was a discernible trend in the direction of the swell toward the east, where I was headed.

Whenever it was feasible to make headway toward the east, I rowed relentlessly, regardless of conditions and despite rain and wind, protected only by my knowledge and experience. 

Despite the challenging weather, I stayed on the oars. For 48 hours, I battled my way toward the US coast on the back of this thunderous, unpredictable, and terrifying maritime rollercoaster. I gritted my teeth and pushed my fears of the hostile environment to the back of my mind. A stubborn determination to gain every mile to the east was my only focus.

I set the boat and myself up to deal with the daunting, yet undeniably exhilarating, conditions as safely and efficiently as possible. Safety is, of course, a relative term when you are talking about a small plywood boat in a near hurricane.

I would watch the colossal mountains of water rearing up behind my tiny boat, carrying on their backs rows of deadly breaking waves 20 to 30 feet high that tumbled down toward me one behind the other. The noise was as terrifying as the sight, a thunderous roar, as if Heaven and Earth were competing to see which of them could shout the loudest. 

Water crashed into the aft of my boat, smashing over her and me at times, passing beneath us at others, lifting us up on a surf-edged magic carpet ride of speed. It would be an adrenaline-fueled couple of days.

Even as the boat and I were pummeled by waves and battered for hours on end, an almost unbearable drain on energy and morale, I kept going by doing what generations of sailors, and for that matter Royal Marines, have done: I concentrated on what was in front of me, the small but crucial tasks, taking my mind, if not my body, out of the storm.


Mick Dawson (Chris Martin)

I stowed everything on board securely, attached the safety leash that connected me to the boat around my ankle, and ballasted the vessel with gallons of seawater in heavy-duty black trash can liners, tying a simple knot in the top to secure the water inside. 

In everything I did, I kept the weight of the boat low and central, with a bias toward the back to make her additionally resistant to broaching (going side on to the sea) and capsizing. In particular, the threat was from the sideswiping rogue waves that were broadsiding me on a regular basis in the confused sea.

Even when racing in the surf at the top of the occasional passing wave I was able to harness, my boat, Mrs D, named in honour of my long-suffering mother, Mrs. Dawson, remained, much like her namesake, defiantly rock solid. That allowed me to keep heading east toward that beautiful California bridge as swiftly and safely as possible, despite the dreadful conditions.

One of the things that kept me going, as it does for many long-distance sailors and rowers, was music. Music can play an extraordinarily powerful part in an ocean row. With the around-the-clock rowing schedule, it’s your only constant companion, apart from the ocean. With nothing to distract you hour after hour, you find new meaning and emotion even in songs you’ve heard a thousand times before.

My brother and Atlantic rowing partner, Steve, had a much more in-depth and eclectic knowledge of music than I had, so when I had been preparing for this row, I’d asked him if he’d create a playlist for me. I wanted not just the standard stuff I’d chosen but other music I might not normally find time for. I’d never have a better opportunity to discover it.

Steve’s musical playlist took on increasingly greater significance once I lost communication on Day 12. I listened over and over to the Beautiful South, with their layered lyrics and addictive melodies, the Blues greats, even pop songs from my youth. They were my only connection with home and normal life. The emotional impact of some of the songs was enormously powerful. 


Sunset in the North Pacific (Chris Martin)

I seriously doubt that there’s a better place in the world to listen to and appreciate Louis Armstrong’s classic What a Wonderful World than from the deck of an ocean rowing boat, particularly beneath a full moon on a cloudless, star-filled night. 

Whereas the Atlantic route is based on the usually light trade winds blowing steadily toward the Caribbean, the North Pacific crossing from Japan to the United States offers no such assistance. The winds and currents conspire constantly to prevent or slow any east heading. Every mile gained on the North Pacific is vulnerable to the next weather front or rogue stretch of current snatching it back. There was a reason nobody had ever successfully rowed from Japan to the Golden Gate Bridge.

As weeks turned into months, the mental challenge of fighting through the constant battles was taking their toll. Alone with my thoughts as a result of the satellite phone breaking in a storm, I only had the music from the deck speakers and a camera to record my adventures to distract me. I rowed for as many hours a day as possible, sometimes up to 18. I ached all over, and the constant chafe on my body was painfully uncomfortable. All that, combined with the seemingly endless loss of miles, was mental torture.

I found myself screaming out in frustration at the constant and seemingly unwinnable battle with the conditions. Ludicrously, and in typically British fashion, when I did so, I remember always looking behind me first in case anyone could see me making a fool of myself.

I was exhausted physically and mentally, rowing every possible hour I could to make progress against my relentless foe. Then, at a point when I felt I was at the bottom of an emotional well, drowning in self-pity, a song from Steve’s playlist came on. I’d never heard it before, but it transformed my mood and mental state beyond all recognition.

I was as near to feeling defeated as I’d ever come when out of the deck speakers floated the words of a song comparing life to being on a raging sea in a rowboat, exactly as I was, and fighting a constant battle against the waves that are trying to stop you achieving your goal, as I was. But most crucial of all were the final two lines of the verse:

"Never, never, never, never, never give up 

Those waves will see you safely to a friendly shore."

It was the last two lines to a verse in a Divine Comedy song called Charmed Life. It is a wonderfully uplifting melodic homage to songwriter Neil Hannon’s baby daughter. The whole song had resonance for me, as I’d always considered I’d lived a charmed life. The impact of that verse, though, shook me. It was as if somebody had whispered those words into my ear:

"Never, never, never, never, never give up.

Those waves will see you safely to a friendly shore."

Those words seemed to me to have been created specifically to drag me through that moment of despair. My morale and my strength were miraculously renewed: I would never, never, never, never, never give up, and those waves would see me to a friendly shore.

  

This is an extract taken from Rowing the Pacific: 7,000 Milesfrom Japan to San Francisco by Mick Dawson. The book is published in paperback by Robinson on September 21. You can buy it HERE

Main image: Mick Dawson (Chris Martin)