On Saturday, June 13, 2015 Sonya Baumstein had to make the tough decision to end her quest to be the 1st women to solo row across the Pacific Ocean. We are so grateful that Sonya is safe and admire her courage and determination to pursue her dreams. It is important to be able to utilize your experience and have the mental strength to know when to trust your instincts, which is what she did. We know Sonya put her heart and soul behind this effort and support her 100% for having the discipline to follow her passion.
Below is Sonya's recap in her own words of her 8 days on the water.
From Sonya Baumstein:
I was at the top of the precipice, staring down. It was day 8 of the Pacific crossing. The previous 7 days had been a rude introduction, to say the least, to the ocean I intended to spend the next 5-7 months of my life on. Exhaustion, constant boat traffic and run-ins, and storms weathered me more in that week, in those 200 miles, than any other 200 miles I'd ever done. I expected that, though, this is the Everest of ocean crossings - an odyssey that even the men crossing on commercial freighters don't feel completely at ease about. It's something only two men have accomplished solo, each after multiple attempts. Most recently Sarah Outen had attempted two years in a row, her first attempt met with rescue and loss of a boat in a gale along with another Brit, Mick, who'd made it a bit past her but hit the same storm. Her boat was lost, and it was a difficult journey on all accounts. Her second time met with 150 days of circling around with weather so poor, her only outlet was to row to the southernmost Aleutian Island of Adak.
These were the risks I knew I was taking both when I stepped foot into my boat to leave the dock and during all three years of blood, sweat and tears I'd put in to even get this first opportunity to try. It was not the first time I was in this position, taking a measured leap of faith backed by years of experience and preparation, yet what normally feels like cool precision and tactical problem solving was replaced by a nagging feeling that grew stronger and stronger while in Japan before leaving up until that moment in time on day 8.
It is a much longer story to tell about the amount of effort I and others put into the risk management involved in doing something like this: safety/repatriation/medevac insurance; a team of people to help me monitor weather, routing, equipment, medical and other problem solving; on-the-ground coast guard, immigration, customs and marina clearances that took myself and everyone with me on a roller coaster of emotion every time it looked like there was a weather window to leave... Suffice it to say that it got later and later in the season than expected to leave, things went wrong and they also went right, and once I left the dock I had everything I needed to survive for a little over 6 months at sea and the best boat that has ever been made for its purpose. What I didn't fully understand was Japanese boat traffic, my first major hurdle.
I had left shore a couple hours before, confident but with a soft questioning in the back of my head that I ignored and chalked up to nerves and emotion. A boat of media, my good friend Scott and wife, Barbara, who lives in Japan, and my extremely patient and supportive boyfriend, who'd bumped his plane ticket 6 times in all to stay until the day I left, followed me for about a half an hour leaving port. The boat was gliding beautifully, even though it was fully loaded with the weight of an entire expedition and there was a 10 knot headwind. It made me happy, I was finally here. The pressure of media is also something I've never experienced before with doing any of my expeditions, and truth be told, I was developing a strong aversion to it, so I was glad to not know what was on Facebook anymore, or what internet trolls were saying about me dying at sea, or telling the umpteenth person why I was doing this journey. It was an added dimension of pressure that I didn't completely understand the gravity of until getting closer to leaving.
On May 25th, two weeks before my eventual departure date and 10 days after my original weather window of April 15-May 15 had passed, I was coming around to the idea that, even though I had worked this hard to get here, the possibility that the expedition may not happen this year was becoming a reality and it wasn't completely within my control. There are always external pressures, but on every other expedition, I'd had to wait much longer than expected to either achieve the finish or to take off on the start - this was not new for me - so I decided to push through and go later into June than I would have ever expected prior to landing in Japan. My original final mental cutoff day had been June 1. It was not going to be safe to leave after June 1. Then possible weather systems kept presenting themselves and the option seemed so close at hand. I had to hang on. I had to try everything. I had so many people, family, friends, sponsors, media outlets pulling for this. I wanted to be a success story. I wanted to do this for the ladies. And I wanted to have an impact, beyond the gravity of completing the expedition, on the field of oceanography through the data collection project that had taken me two years to painstakingly put together through a variety of partnerships.
I felt dead set on leaving because of those reasons, but just didn't feel ready. I left anyway, expecting the doubt to leave with the onset of sea sickness. Day 1, I left at 5:10 pm, and unexpectedly a Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) cutter started following me once the small party of well-wishers went back to port. I had no idea how much I'd need them over the coming days. I rowed for about 5.5 hours straight into a 10 knot headwind, expecting it to die down then switch the following morning. After about 3 hours, I realized that JCG was going to stay with me all night, but I couldn’t figure out why. Remember, I face backward rowing so I only see what's behind me, not necessarily in front of me until I stand up and turn around. They were calling to the boats circling all around me to tell them to move out of the way. Many of them, I'd later find out, without AIS (a device that gives lets you see boats and them see you on your GPS, as well as their course, and alerts you once they are near or there might be possible collision in time to communicate with each other). The JCG was doing this for me, so kindly and amazingly, something I never expected, but definitely needed. At around midnight, I had made it to the river mouth in Choshi and it looked as though it was pushing me in the correct direction off shore and I knew I needed to sleep for a couple of hours.
I woke up at around 3:45/4 am (first light) and went outside to find my CG escort had left during the early hours of the morning, and I went about sorting out my second of thousands of shifts of rowing. For some reason, my auto tiller was refusing to work even though I'd programmed and tested it in port multiple times before setting off. I had foot steered all night, but I'd have preferred to just set a course and gone with it. This requires another level of mental acuity that I didn't prepare for, but accepted as a part of the nature of the beast. I was glad to have back-up foot steering. After 15 minutes of messing around with it, I gave up in order to get to rowing off the coast. Not more than 2 minutes after sitting down, I heard a sound that was growing louder. Yes, I had been surrounded by vessels all day, but had all of my electronics on to mitigate disaster including: Echomax active radar reflector, AIS, VHF and the Furuno GPS display that would alert me when boats came too close. It was going off constantly because I was surrounded, so I just kept a watchful eye. This noise startled me though and I stood up to do a full 360. A large aluminum Japanese fishing vessel that seemed akin to what would be a large trawler or seiner in America was headed directly toward me, dead on my course. There was no time, they were moving 15 knots at least and coming at me fast - probably ending their night shift fishing and heading back to shore.
Here's what happened in the next 30 seconds: My boat was electric green with tons of reflective tape all around, a navigation light and a small woman jumping up and down, screaming and waving on the front of it. They didn't see me. They might have been on AIS, but there wasn't time. I went down a quick checklist. Life jacket was on with a McMurdo Personal Locator Beacon in it that lasted 48 hours - I'd probably be picked up if I jumped, I was only 4 or 5 miles off shore. I could still see larger building outlines. I didn't clip into my jackline that runs the length of my deck and keeps me on board my boat. I thought I'd have a better chance of survival to be clear of my boat and dive down as far as I could. I only had Adidas training shorts and top on and the water was around 66 degrees - I'd have a couple of hours before hypothermia set in to light off the beacon, should I be able to swim clear of the wreckage. I stood there, waving, screaming, and then made one last move at the last possible moment. I reached inside and instinctively grabbed for the one red hand flare I kept bungeed at the top of my forward cabin for use in a scenario that I never thought would happen: this one. I didn't read the directions, there was no time, I pulled the bottom cover off, pulled the string and held the red flare as high as I could. The boat was less than 50 feet from me. I remember thinking nothing. No thought had crossed my mind to even grab the flare. This was only the third time I'd lit a flare in my life. I clung to Icha (my boat), the ashes from the flare landing around me on my solar panels, my seat pad, my deck. The embers coming off of it burned more than I realized, but it didn't matter at that second. The boat saw it, turned as hard to starboard as they possibly could of to attempt to avoid collision. Even at that point I was wincing as I thought it hadn't come soon enough, their huge boat was sliding to attempt to correct itself, but it was too heavy and the tail end of it couldn't pull as hard or as fast as the front. The front of the boat slid by me, maybe 15 feet away, the waves off the side of the boat rushing over my deck and a spray from wake hitting me as I saw a smaller boat (but still much larger and heavier than mine) being towed behind it. This is it, I thought, It's not going to swing wide enough. I crouched down and braced for impact, still unknowingly holding the flare above my head. A last wave came over me, and it was gone. It was over. I'd saved my boat and at the same time survived my first major coronary event. The boat redirected its course back to the same one it had been on and kept going, without radioing or stopping. Indicator one.
I did a self-check afterward, I was happy with how I had handled it, given the limited amount of time I'd had to process. And I wanted to get the hell offshore. I immediately got another hand flare out of my kit and positioned it directly at my hip. For the entire rest of the day, I was incredibly wary. It was exhausting. I called everyone I could to request awareness that I was there, reaching into my cabin while rowing to call, but 70% of the fishing fleet were not on AIS. It was mostly the larger freighters and tankers that were making their way out to sea that I could contact, vessels that would have no chance of avoiding me with the same precision of the smaller fishing vessel. I rowed all day, and as the day progressed, realized I was being drug pretty steadily northward by some local current. The wind was also moving me north. I decided to take a break to try to relax if possible, and put out a quartering smaller sea anchor to see if it would help me angle out to sea and avoid the route the wind was pushing me toward North. After putting it out, I noticed a pretty large tanker that seemed to be stopped, as they were moving at the same speed as I was with the current per my GPS. I radioed to them to be aware of my position and change course if possible as I couldn't move nearly as easily as they. The man who responded was Russian and informed me that their engines were out of commission and that they could do nothing. Thus began the slowest game of ocean chicken that's ever happened. I drifted slightly more quickly closer to them in the same direction, as they moved slightly less. I was still two miles off of them, but couldn't rest until I figured out a solution. I pulled in the anchor which didn't seem to have any effect and evaluated the situation. I had maybe 4 hours to come up with something. About an hour in, the wind slightly shifted and it seemed like I could angle the boat downwind to cross behind the behemoth vessel. At the time, it seemed like I was a little over halfway down the side of the ship on course to hit it squarely about two football fields down from its main tower. North wasn't where I wanted to go. I wanted to get out of the shipping lanes and away from the constant threat of being blown on shore, but I had no choice. I rowed with the southeasterly wind northward back toward Japan to avoid collision.
Two and a half hours later, I was clear, and still exhausted. I hadn't gotten any restful sleep and hadn't had an appetite at all since leaving. I drank water and turned on satellite communications to get a weather update. A gale was coming, predicted 15-20 knots. I readied my drogue and threw it out to slow northern progress to monitor the wind. If it stayed at or below 15 knots, I'd stay on drogue, and hopefully it would pass quickly. Day one officially ended as the wind topped out over 15 knots a started gusting north of 20 knots. I pulled in the drogue and put out my 9 foot sea anchor, a pretty beefy tool for such a small boat, but the wind was blowing me directly on shore. For 18 hours I was paralyzed, getting hammered by waves of 10-15 feet and a wind that gusted over 30 knots. Trust me, getting tossed like a ragdoll inside of a small cabin for so long induces a high level of anxiety to say the least. Sea sickness decided to rear its ugly head at that point, too, something I had been surprised had not come on before that point. I guess I'd put my time in on the ocean after all. Then came the knockdown - while not a full capsize, it's still rouses you immediately from whatever headspace you'd been filling and problem solving mode begins again. The small vent that allows some fresh air to come in had been on the side of my cabin that was pushed down by the wave. The boat, predictably, popped up with ease as soon as the wave passed and corrected its course, but now I was rolling in water. I wouldn’t find the water that flooded my clothing hatch below deck for a couple of more days after that. The salt water immediately ruined my handheld back up solar battery and its connection ports; thankfully I had another backup Overland Solar panel stored in a dry bag. The water ruined a few other things, but at the time I couldn't be concerned with them as I was just trying to do damage control and close the vent without opening my hatch door too far to invite a game-ender wave in to flood my cabin. I closed it as best I could, forgetting that there was also one on the aft cabin that I'd later find flooded, as well. I got what I thought was some sleep and woke up again at 5 or 6 pm the next day to find the wind had died down below 15 knots and I could attempt to move off shore again. My course over ground on my GPS looked like it had formed a question mark with a very long tail. The nagging feeling I'd had before leaving was getting stronger.
Day 3 had begun. I rowed for 3 hours and made maybe 10 miles of progress offshore. I decided to have a go again at my auto tiller and crawled into my stern cabin to find an inch or so of water had made its way into the cabin during the knock over from the passing storm. It covered the entire berth, sloshing from side to side among my spare items. It was the beginning of the trip, I still had so much equipment, I could barely squeeze into the cabin, I had to crawl in on my stomach to access the tiller and the drive arm. After fooling around with it in choppy seas for 5 minutes I managed to successfully pull the drive arm directly into my right eye, or maybe a wave pushed the boat at the "right" moment, who's to say. I gave myself a moment to whimper, but couldn't manage a tear because it would affect nothing. Anger turned quickly to a bit of panic as the knot above my eye started pounding. The damn auto tiller was still beeping "no navigation data" then when I corrected it, it would flash "no drive." It was infuriating. I turned the system off and back on. Now my wind data wasn't coming through and the drive arm couldn't be found. I turned it on and off 3 more times with no effect. Then turned the GPS on and off to find it that it couldn't get a fix on my location. I was falling down further down the rabbit hole, feeling panicked, which doesn't happen often, and realized my heart rate was going up. I felt completely out of control. I sat back, took some deep breaths. The feeling that this was all wrong was subsuming me. I called my duty officer, Simon, and we talked it out. I didn't need any of those electronics; ultimately, it was just a focal point for me at that moment because I was so physically exhausted. I still hadn't eaten. Normal as your body adjusts and you're awareness is so heightened from being solo. I was told that rest would solve all, and after a few hours of radio calls to other vessels, fell asleep for 4.5 hours.
I woke up on Day 4 feeling much better and immediately got on the oars to pull a 6 hour morning shift and get the hot hours of the day in the cabin. I hadn't listened to music or had any real period of relaxation or happiness yet. I was consumed with anxiety and took a low-dose anti-anxiety medication that I and my medical advisor had agreed upon taking due to the unknown situations I'd be in and the necessity of having high mental acuity at all times. I took the medication, turned on comms and received the day's weather. Another gale was coming in and, intuitively, something didn't feel right. I got out my iPod to listen to an audiobook while I rowed for the first time. I needed the respite. As late afternoon turned to evening, I saw the stars for the first time at sea. I searched for familiar constellations and it brought a smile to my face for the first time. This is what I had been missing. I looked down at my oars, slipping in and out of the water rhythmically with ocean-rowing-style strokes...they are the ones you develop after a long time of having taking the same mismatched chances at full slide each time, with a 50% chance of missing and hitting yourself somewhere with a painful sting and bruise following shortly thereafter. I looked down and realized I was covered with bruises and cuts, but didn't feel any of them. The skin on my hands was tearing off and some of my blisters were crusted with blood, but neither did that hurt. It was so different than my Atlantic crossing, where I still remember the piercing pain of falling all around that boat and getting hit in the ribs. It was like I was numb to it now.
The same stars above my head streamed like ribbons from each oar stroke, the bioluminescence creating small universes in the water around the puddles I was creating. I'd never seen anything like this. I stopped, got up and studied the water. It looked as if the water had the advantage of the one thing that the stars in the sky didn't: depth. Layer upon layer of bright sparkling organism shone down through the water, it was as if the astral heavens didn't end at the water, but increased with intensity as they rose with the swell of each wave under my boat. It wasn't a reflection of the night sky; it was something much deeper and more tangible. As I stared into it contemplating, a cloud of light bounced 20 feet off the starboard side of my boat, then calmed, then another. I realized fish were disturbing the biolums and creating bright green clouds in their wakes. Suddenly, a full school of fish swimming in a tightly packed group, each one individually outlined in bright green, shot underneath my boat. They were being hunted by something much larger. Back and forth they moved as I tried to make out what it was that was chasing them, straining my ears the sound of a familiar mammal. Dolphins were all around me. Incredibly fast with dorsal fins much sharper than the ones I am used to having grown up on the Atlantic Ocean in Florida. I was told before I left that there was a super pod right off shore, a rare formation of multiple pods of dolphin with a population over 800 at the time converging on Japan to mate and have their young. It was otherworldly. It was what I had been missing the most, feeling like I was an unobtrusive onlooker, a part of nature. I stood for another hour, watching. I decided that was the time to stop for the day, when I felt so full of life. Although, I curiously still had no appetite, I ate half an apple - some precious fresh food I'd brought from shore to help me weather the seasickness.
I made 60 miles the previous day as I finally pulled into the Kuroshio Current, but there had still been a never-ending headwind of 8-12 knots I was pulling against. Day 5 came and went, much hotter than I'd expected, but I still didn't feel right. The typical crosswind weather was still present, but I was in the current and had the assist in going the right direction. I was anxious about weather pulling me too far north, as all of the major systems would pass Japan then get much bigger the more northern the latitude. I was passing longitudinal degrees quickly now and had changed my local time clock back by an hour. Things seemed to be going well. I was told by Lee, my router, to expect that weather would be picking up over the next 18 hours and tested putting out my drogue before going to sleep. It didn't work well when the wind wasn't high enough because the boat was too light and moved at the same speed as the current--meaning that the anchor had no grip. I was anxious and didn't feel right; I tried to steady myself by sorting line on my boat and preparing for the wind increases that night. I was attempting to take care of myself more cautiously as Sarah Outen had suggested via sat phone message - she was on day 27 of her North Atlantic Crossing on the other side of the world. Maybe I was missing a definite routine? Although I had been creating a basic one of 4.5-6 hours rowing in the morning starting around 4:30 or 5 pm, hot hours off for sat comms and rest, then 3 pm - 8 to 10 pm depending on how I was feeling. The stars hadn't been out often enough to make me want to night row, and complete darkness over the ocean with no moon meant a bruised body, so I chose to get all my hours in during daylight at that point. It was time for a rest and I set my anemometer (wind) alarm for 15 knots in case I didn't wake up before the wind did. I fell asleep in front of my chart plotter, gazing at my course and the changing wind. The first alarms started going off around 2100, at first just gusts then consistently at 15 knots and rising. I drug myself outside in my cabin underwear, unwilling to change at that time, throwing on a lightweight Adidas windbreaker just in case. As I was feeding out the line behind the boat, being cautious to avoid it fouling on my rudder, I thought about the swivel shackle and how I should put a line around the pin to make sure it wouldn't fall out. I was tired, however, and relied on the fact it was fine the other three times I'd put it out previously. The Fiorentino shark drogue hit the water and performed perfectly, slowing my north progress down against the direct 20+ knot wind from the South driving me North and allowing me to still move West with the current. I fell back asleep and turned off the alarm. At 3 am, I awoke to 25 knot gusts and higher which continued on for most of Day 6.
Day 7 began. Flat water. Calm. Of course, a headwind, but no clouds in the sky. It had been really overcast the past few days and not enough good sun for my Solbian solar panels to top up my Lithium Batteries. Good thing they were very big, as they barely felt the effects of two days without charge and stayed around 13.3V with me managing them closely. I got up directly and pulled in the line from the drogue which curiously was directly below my boat. I quickly discovered the reason: there was only a shackle left on the end. It also explains my semi-erratic course pattern for the last few hours of weather. I tried to put it out of my mind as soon as I found it, but cursed myself for not putting a line through the pin. I rowed from 0430 to 1000 to try to shake the debilitating feeling that something terrible was going to happen. I made some water, drank as much as I could stomach, and picked at a snack pack. By this point, day 7, I had eaten a total of one Backpackers Pantry meal, two apples and two cucumbers. I lay thinking and called one of my best friends, medical coordinator and campaign manager, Andrew to talk this situation out.
It was Saturday afternoon and here's what fact was:
1. I had a growing bad feeling - I wish I could explain what it was beyond the continuous string of small "bad luck" items, it was purely intuitive. It wasn't adrenaline fueled, it wasn't hunger fueled, and it wasn't exhaustion. It was everything and it had been there the entire time. I'd felt small bouts of this before when on expedition and making certain decisions. Every time I had gone forward while having the clear intuition that I shouldn't, I put myself in very scary survival situations that could have been avoided had I listened to my gut instincts.
2. I was not physically healthy in the way I was processing. I still do not know the reason for it as it's continued to plague me after leaving the boat.
3. The weather was categorically not in my favor for the first 7 days of the trip and coming up quickly on the docket was another 25+ knot storm Sunday and a 50 knot typhoon and possible game ender less than four days later. And I had just lost the key device to make it so I wouldn't be tossed like a ragdoll again, as I had close to shore on a sea anchor, rather than control my drift and movement with a strong drogue. This was unsettling.
4. I was getting further from a reasonable rescue. Between my rowing and the Kuroshio Current’s drag, I'd likely be out of Coast Guard range at over 400 miles when the big one hit. Then I would be dependent on a commercial vessel rescue.
5. If something did go wrong, I would be putting my life and others at risk and the vessel I'd spent years of my life to build and that others had invested so much time and energy into would be left at sea. This was something that is a measured risk every time you go out to sea in a small craft and something I well understood, but it's a fact that, when coupled with all of the above, was overwhelming.
A commercial vessel named Naraweik from Panama came onto my AIS and it was on course to pass less than 5 miles from me. The vessels during the last few days as I got further from shipping lanes had become fewer and fewer. I talked all these things out with Andrew as I watched it get closer on screen. He anecdotally told me a story about when he was 18 and on Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America. He was just 400 feet from the summit and his toes felt cold and something just didn't feel right. He told the two people he was hiking with that he was going back and then went back to camp. His two friends both ended up losing fingers and toes to frostbite. He said it was the best decision he's ever made in an expedition scenario.
Because of the lack of sugar in my body, I drank a Vitargo starch supplement, hung up with Andrew and got my glycemic index right before making the decision. The pressure of disappointing others was overriding, but I, as an experienced outdoors woman, someone who's done other expeditions in mixed settings, especially ocean scenarios, made the decision to call it when it was the safest for all parties and when I had given due process to the journey. I was on the "mountain" and something didn't feel right. This was supported by a loss of key equipment I needed to navigate. I knew it was going to be hard to live with this decision and I immediately wrote down the following words in my journal,
"I made the decision.
I can live with it.
This doesn't feel right,
I don't feel right."
I stared at that and called Andrew back. I was calling it. I called Simon. He supported the decision as a highly experienced duty officer and ocean rower. It wasn't made hastily or under duress (yet). I called the Naraweik and she rerouted to me. The next 10 hours were spent on board a Panamanian registered freighter with a Japanese owner carrying American goods by a very friendly Bangladeshi crew, they were headed to America but the Japanese Coast Guard decided they wanted to bring me back to Japan. A cutter was close by and they sent one over to get me. They also graciously, and because the weather allowed, agreed to tow my now proven strong vessel Icha behind at over 6 knots for the 40 hour trip back to Fukishima's port Onahama. The ease with which this all fell into place reinforces in my mind my decision. Not one thing had been simple or easy up until this moment, but this process was.
Here's the thing at the base of it all: I don't want to be a disaster story, I want to do things that make me feel alive and contribute something to a greater body of knowledge. I am an able seaman and this was, in my opinion - the one that is most paramount to me, the best decision in the scenario. I want to provide inspiration, not fear. This isn't a period, it's an ellipsis until another year and I can live with that and hope that everyone who has supported me will trust me in this and can do the same.
AUTHOR: John Long
PHOTOGRAPHY: Scott Hancock