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333jrnlThe author rode low even in calm waters in his single scull as he crossed Lake Superior.
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The First Scull Row Across the Big Lake
The Lake Superior wave hit my tiny craft with the force of a hammer blow. My narrow, single scull shuddered under the impact. The bulk of the icy-cold water cascaded down my back, sluicing over the boat, washing through the small waterlogged cockpit over my feet.
This long sleek craft and my two 9-foot sculling blades were all I had to keep me from the depths of the world’s largest freshwater lake.
Floating just above water level with 3-1/2-foot freshwater waves smashing head-on into my little scull, I might just as well have been a cork bobbing in 30-foot ocean swells. Unlike on the ocean, on Lake Superior cross waves complicated rowing while the next series of waves gathered strength for a repeat performance.
My blades, so close to the surface, became useless as the waves hit. Forward propulsion was possible only when the waves didn’t break over my boat, when I could mount a wave and surf down the other side.
This was mid-July 2005, yet I remember it clearly. I was near Michigan’s Au Sable Point, roughly 370 miles into my rowing odyssey and just 30 miles from my goal. I was trying to be the first person to row a scull from Duluth to Whitefish Point.
The local press had – quite correctly – dubbed me “The Crazy Irishman,” since I hail from Northern Ireland and, quite frankly, was attempting something “crazy.”
As I battled these waves, I felt all of my 58 years. Every muscle ached, my body shivered uncontrollably, my teeth chattering like a machine gun and a tendon on the back of my right thigh shot extreme pain – but these are aches that I recalled much later.
At the time, I had only my fear in mind. Fear drove me. Not fear of dying – though I was fully aware of the risks and dangers – but my fear of failure and of letting down all the people who had helped me and all the children who would benefit if I made it to Whitefish Point.
I was rowing to raise funds for the Fields of Life Charity in East Africa and BBC Children in Need.
I was not a novice, having rowed, among other journeys, along the equator on Africa’s Lake Victoria for more than 200 miles in the company of crocodiles and hippos. That was, I have to say, no picnic.
Yet my eight days and 21/2 nights on Lake Superior – averaging 38 miles a day – was some of the scariest and most incredible rowing I’ve done.
A day or two before my misadventure, I had been blown into port at Munising by a tricky summer storm (likely caused by a troublesome spirit of the deep, a friend there speculated later).
When the storm subsided the next day, I rowed out, heading past Pictured Rocks, on a day when the wind hadn’t seemed too bad – at first.
I fell into a rhythm, keeping parallel to Twelvemile Beach, when Frank Johnson, captain of my chase boat, Seneca, told me he’d have to lay off at Au Sable Point to avoid hitting rock. He sent co-pilot Norman Southard in a small aluminum safety boat to shadow me.
Then the wind picked up. The very worst happened quite suddenly.
The wind changed direction.
One minute it came from my stern, the next it sent waves of increasing size into my stroke side – rowing parlance for my right side.
I wasn’t going to last long before being swamped or drowned, but I couldn’t board my safety boat so I shouted to Norman to head for the beach. I’d meet him, climb aboard his boat and we could tow mine.
The theory was great; the practice disastrous. Norman took the lead, but what had seemed like a harmless beaching from my seat on the churning Lake became a surfing nightmare. The waves upturned Norman’s boat unceremoniously.
To my horror, I realized as I accelerated into bigger breakers that the sand below me wasn’t sand at all, but sand-coloured rocks rising toward the bottom of my fragile shell boat.
Panic-stricken, I backed water rapidly with one blade and rowed as hard as I could with the other, desperately trying to spin the boat. Fear lent strength, though only God knows how I managed to turn in time as wave after wave crashed over me. With all the force I could summon, I rowed into the fury of the Lake. I pressed the button on my small radio transmitter, calling for help.
Then I caught a glimpse of Seneca. As I reached deeper water, I snatched hurried glances at this magnificent tugboat – the Stars and Stripes streaming from atop its wheelhouse – as it dashed to my rescue.
My throat caught at the sight of it and at the thought of my dear friends risking all to help me. Encouraged, I pulled harder than the hardiest Viking oarsman ever did.
On July 30, 2005, I became the first person to complete the almost 400-mile water journey east on Lake Superior in a scull. Thanks to a lot of dear people in the United States and the United Kingdom, I made it safely to Whitefish Point and raised $92,000 for those charities.
As any Lake Superior sailor might tell you, I also received a bit of charity myself. Yes, the Big Lake was ultimately charitable with this crazy Irishman in his tiny scull.
This issue’s Journal writer: Ian Harvey was Irish Schools Eights Rowing Champion in 1964. A broadcaster of radio and TV farming programs for BBC Northern Ireland, Ian retired in 1999 as a senior producer. Today he works as an independent video producer and voice-over artist and writes a two-page rural feature series for Farm Week. A member of the board of directors of the Irish-founded Fields of Life, he has helped raise $294,000 through his three rowing marathons, which built a hospital wing and three primary schools in East Africa. Sadly, the 94-foot Seneca, damaged in a December 2006 Lake Superior storm, had to be scuttled.