By Mick Dawson
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The heart-pounding story of rowing expert Mick Dawson’s most challenging feats on the open water, culminating in his greatest achievement: crossing the North Pacific Ocean in a small rowboat.
ALONE AT SEA
AUGUST 22, 2004. 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. Just to clarify, 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. On the rowing deck there was the same sliding-seat assembly you’d find on a flat-water rowing boat, toughened up considerably to cope with the demands of an extended ocean rowing passage. 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.
That morning, with little more than fourteen hundred 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 thirty-one boats pushed off from Tenerife in the Canary Islands in a race to Barbados. We arrived seventy 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.
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.
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 epicenter of the battling storm systems for hundreds of miles in every direction, like angry ripples racing away from two huge rocks dropped into the center 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 now my home. But this was a vast, roaring and much wetter version.
Though it is awe-inspiring to view from the deck of a twenty-one-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.
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 forty-eight hours I battled my way toward the US coast on the back of this thunderous, unpredictable, and terrifying maritime roller coaster. 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. Safely 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 twenty to thirty 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, occasionally 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.
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. I stowed them along the keel of my boat in the center lockers, where they’d be most effective in helping to keep the boat upright. I moved my rowing position further back to gain as much protection as possible from the aft cabin.
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.
I strung out a long line with a small drogue on the end. A drogue is a small canvas version of the much larger nylon para anchor I carried on board. It was designed only to slow the boat’s progress, not halt it completely like the para anchor. I deployed it from the stern. It created a predisposition for the boat to run with the stern toward the prevailing waves. That reduced my rowing speed a little but didn’t halt it. Above all, it meant that despite the huge waves crashing over the back of the boat, submerging it and me at times, the vessel remained upright, relatively stable, and pointing in the right direction.
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 honor 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. I seriously doubt that there’s a better place in the world to listen too 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. The power possessed in the song’s incredible lyrics was magnified beyond belief as I fought my solitary war of attrition against the Pacific.
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 eighteen. 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. 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.
CHALLENGES, particularly difficult ones, have been an essential requirement in my life from an early age. Arguably the toughest of them all came just a few weeks after my sixteenth birthday.
That was when I chose to swap the playing fields and classrooms of my hometown secondary school in Boston, nestling in the sleepy, flat county of Lincolnshire, for the assault courses and speed marches of Royal Marine commando training in the lung-busting hills of Devon.
As far back as I can remember, my only dream was to go to sea. That dream naturally evolved into an ambition to join the Royal Navy, before fate stepped in almost at the last minute and I chose a slightly different path, joining the Royal Marines, the navy’s elite commando fighting force. Looking back on my childhood growing up in Boston, it’s easy now to see how that ambition took root and how my future was shaped.
My parents, Derek and Joyce Dawson, both Boston-born and -bred, were ambitious and hardworking publicans, the youngest in the town at only twenty-three and twenty, respectively, when they took possession of their first pub, the Magnet Tavern. Remarkably and very proudly, five decades later they would also go on to become the town’s oldest publicans.
Over the years they ran a total of three pubs in Boston before finally buying a country pub, the Cowbridge House Inn, on the outskirts of town. It was the only pub in England with that name, as my dad would proudly inform everyone, given the opportunity.
The second of the pubs we lived in was called the Woad Man, as in the blue battle paint made famous by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart. The Woad Man was a thriving business, a traditional local pub at a time when pubs were both numerous and the social hubs of their communities. It was an incredibly demanding and full-time occupation for both of my parents, and making it a success while at the same time raising a young family totally consumed them. They loved it, though, and in very different ways both were born publicans.
When we moved into the Woad Man, I was five and about to begin my first year at school. The relocation to the other side of town meant I would have to attend a different school from that of my older and only sibling, Steve.
Rather than have us attend different schools however, my grandmother on my mother’s side, Nan, as we called her, offered a solution: she would collect us both each morning and take the pair of us to her and my grandfather’s house, which was just around the corner from the school that Steve already attended, enabling both of us to go to the same one.
It also meant lots of early-morning four-mile-long walks through Boston that remain some of my most vivid and in many ways fondest childhood memories. They’re certainly among the most significant.
Boston is a small port town on the east coast of England. About eighty miles north of London as the crow flies, it was founded on the banks of a tidal river called the Haven. The river gave the town access to the sea and provided a route for the commerce and trade that would provide the town’s initial prosperity.
A busy if small commercial dock thrived during my childhood, along with a healthy inshore fishing fleet. Indications of Boston’s original wealth, created largely from exports of wool in the 1300s and 1400s, when it was second only to London in the nation as a port, were evident in several of the grander constructions along the riverbanks, none more so than the spectacular and imposing form of its most famous landmark, St. Botolph’s Church. It is a parish church as striking as many cathedrals, possessing a single tower some 272 feet high, the tallest church tower in England without a spire, which gives the church its ungodly nickname, “Boston Stump.”
We would often walk directly by the Stump along the cobbled and atmospheric old roads that surrounded it, but whichever route we took we would find ourselves in its shadow, as the church dominates not only the riverbank and town center where it stands but also much of the surrounding countryside.
Decades later, my brother Steve and I, having successfully rowed across the Atlantic together, were invited to climb to the top of the Stump and stand at the very pinnacle of its famous tower. The public are allowed up to the second balcony, about two-thirds of the way up, but to stand on the top level was a rare privilege and a genuine honor. It was certainly something we could never in our wildest dreams have imagined doing as we wandered by as children on those early-morning outings.
Depending on the route we took across town, we’d cross the Haven, which neatly bisected the town, on one of two bridges. At the modern Haven Bridge we’d pass the river at its widest point, where the fishing fleet would be rafted up three deep when in port. The boats and the men who worked there were a tantalizing glimpse to a five-year-old of the exciting and dangerous life that existed just out of sight, where the sea and all its adventures beckoned. That river, particularly the broad stretch where the fishing boats tied up, was like an ocean to me, the widest and scariest stretch of water I’d ever seen.
The Haven carved its way through the center of town. Sometimes at low water it was little more than a meandering stream running between two huge glistening mud banks, while at high tide it became a seemingly unstoppable conveyor belt of heaving water threatening and sometimes breaching the flood walls placed at the top of the banks to contain it. It was always a mesmerizing sight to me.
The Grand Sluice Bridge, known locally as the Sluice, was our alternative and more regular route across the Haven. Built, as the name suggests, to house sluice gates and locks to control the flow of water, it marked the end of the saltwater Haven’s progress inland and the start of the freshwater River Witham. There was a narrow single lane of traffic each way and a pedestrian footpath on either side of the old and ornate bridge. Old-fashioned ironwork formed the railings along the footpath on either side. The bridge sat upon huge stone pillars that supported it and formed the locks beneath. A railway box and gates sat at one end of the bridge, with huge iron arched supports heading off at an angle forming a separate but equally imposing railway bridge. At five years of age it seemed to me like an engineering marvel.
The Sluice Bridge also held the wonderful promise that if we were lucky the lock gates might be open as we crossed and we could look down on vast torrents of roaring white water disgorging from the Witham into the Haven just beneath our feet. That was wonderfully exciting and gave a thrilling demonstration of the enormous power of the river.
Both bridges provided a feast for the ravenous imagination of an impressionable young boy, and whichever one we crossed it was the highlight of those long dawn walks across town.
In reality they were nothing more than two unremarkable bridges crossing an unremarkable river in a quiet and unremarkable Lincolnshire town. To my young and developing imagination, however, they were so much more than that; they were my first introduction to the excitement of the sea and its magnetic and hypnotic appeal. Even at such a young age I recognized that appeal, and I welcomed it, but I had no idea how that appeal would come to dominate and define my life.
If the seeds of my future maritime life were sown on those dawn walks across town, they were most definitely watered and fed at my grandparents’ house.
My great-grandmother, who lived with my grandparents, was approaching her nineties when I was beginning school. She was the daughter of Irish immigrants, gypsies who’d gone to London in the late 1800s. She’d grown up in Whitechapel when Jack the Ripper was carving his dark legend on the same streets where she played as a girl. I remember her scaring Steve and me with stories of “Jack.” She called him that almost as if she knew him, which only added to the thrill, and how she’d known the Flower Girls, as she called his victims, and the places where they were murdered. She was a formidable lady even in old age, and those Gothic stories only served to enhance that impression.
Gran’s sister would eventually emigrate to Canada, and her two brothers both joined the Royal Navy as young men. That was the beginning of my family’s connection with that great institution, sadly one that began on a desperately tragic note. In the early stages of World War I, my gran received a telegram from the king. Both of her brothers, whom she’d brought up as sons, had been killed in action on the same day. Gran had long white hair always tied neatly in a bun when I knew her as an old lady decades later. Apparently it had turned white overnight when she received that news.
My family could probably have been forgiven for having little if any time for the Royal Navy after that dreadful event. However, anyone walking into my grandparents’ home, as Steve and I did each school day morning, would have seen immediately that that was far from the case.
As you walked through the front door, to the right was the front room, or parlor. The largest room in the house, it was always immaculate and contained pretty much everything of value my grandparents possessed. A piano that nobody ever played stood next to a settee and chairs that nobody ever sat on in front of a fireplace that nobody ever lit.
At the heart of the room, on the center of the dark polished wooden sideboard next to the silent piano, was a large black-and-white framed picture of a young man with matinee-idol good looks smiling broadly, resplendent in his Royal Navy Warrant Officer’s No. 1 uniform and cap.
That was a picture of my mum’s brother, my uncle Peter. He’d joined the Royal Navy right out of school and in doing so had banished the legacy of grief and loss that connected my family to the Royal Navy and replaced it with an enormous sense of pride. He was on display at the center of the room because he was the center of my grandparents’ world. Not only had he gone on to bigger and better things outside of Boston, he’d also laid the ghosts of those two lost brothers to rest. The story of the Royal Navy and my family no longer ended with their tragic loss; my uncle had now effectively continued that story and in doing so had given meaning to that loss.
Once inside my grandparents’ home, seeing that picture as the focal point of their most cherished room, the message was clear: if you wanted to be admired and respected in my family, you joined the Royal Navy.
As long as I can remember, my ambition, fueled by all the time I spent at my grandparents’, had been to join the Royal Navy and go to sea. Although the marines are very much part of the Royal Navy, joining them was a considerable departure from that goal. My brother, Steve, gets the credit for that change of direction.
As I entered my last year at school, Steve decided to join the marines and was going through the long and highly selective application process required for acceptance for training. Everything about that process—as it’s designed to be—was exciting and increasingly enticing to an impressionable fifteen-year-old such as myself. So much so that ultimately I decided to follow in my brother’s footsteps and enlist.
Within weeks of blowing out the sixteen candles on that year’s birthday cake, I found myself embarking on what is regarded as the hardest basic military training in the world. It would certainly feel that way to me.
Although tougher challenges would follow, Royal Marine commando training remains to me the most difficult challenge I have ever undertaken. After that training I would never again, no matter how daunting the task, be as unprepared for what I had to face. I would also never again encounter such a steep and unforgiving learning curve. Training was a nine-month trial that would ultimately turn me from a snot-nosed schoolboy into a Royal Marine commando.
Be it brainwashing or conditioning—depending on whether you consider the process a bad or good thing—Royal Marine training works. It has to work because it needs to produce young men who when required can deal with the most unimaginable and terrifying situations and deal with them instinctively and with a calm professionalism. In the 1980s, Royal Marine training was a meat grinder, a highly effective one, that produced the required product at the end.
On August 3, 1980, sixty-three strangers and I stepped off a train together at Commando Training Centre Royal Marines Lympstone (better known as Lympstone Commando). A sixty-fifth guy didn’t even get off the train. We had departed from every point in Great Britain, and the only thing we had in common as we stood on that arrival platform was our shared apprehension at what was to come.
Together we would form 268 Troop. None of us was older than seventeen. We were the latest batch of meat to be fed into the grinder. Nine tough months later, fewer than a third of us would emerge as fully fledged Royal Marines.
Initially I adapted well to training. With the advantage of a brother who’d recently finished the course, I knew to a large extent what to expect. Many of my colleagues had no idea; they tended to be the ones who left first. I was fit and reasonably capable, and despite the hardships, I mostly enjoyed the experience.
As training progressed and intensified, the mental and physical pressures increased for all of us. Commando training is meant to be many things, but one thing it’s not meant to be is easy. Alarmingly for me, and adding to that pressure, I began to develop increasingly painful knee problems. After any kind of major physical exercise, of which there’s a lot in Royal Marine training, both my knees would swell and hurt like hell.
I took copious amounts of painkillers and hoped for the best, but the condition continued to plague me as the weeks passed and the workload increased. The last thing I wanted to do was go to sick bay but eventually I had to, if only to get some more effective painkillers. The doctor took one look at my knees, wrote me a prescription for anti-inflammatory pills, and painkillers and said, ‘No phiz for two weeks and no boots.’
To my mind it was a death sentence for my ambitions to become a Royal Marine. It’s probably a good indication of my age and emotional maturity (or lack there of), that I remember almost bursting into tears as he said that.
“No phiz” is Royal Marine shorthand for “no physical training.” The troop had major tests to complete in just a few days. If I didn’t pass those, tests I wouldn’t progress any further with 268 Troop. There were no exceptions; you made the grade, or you were out. In the ruthless and unforgiving process, I would be “back-trooped.”
Being back-trooped meant being taken out of the troop you had joined with and, after a rehab period to recover from your injury, being placed in a troop coming through behind, joining the new troop at pretty much the same point where you had left your old one. Everybody was terrified of the prospect of being back-trooped, and I was no exception. At best, you end up being an outsider in the new troop you join; at worst, you’re hated and seen as a weak link.
- On Sale
- Aug 22, 2017
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