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Between the pins – North Atlantic Solo Ocean Row is Complete

August 16, 2016

Back home.

I explained to my son Eric in a long email from the sea, that this expedition was not about ‘getting somewhere’, like a mountain summit, a finish line or an arctic village marked with a pin in a map.

This expedition was about the space between the pins, not the beginning or the end.

The space between the pins had no route, no trail, no topographic map with meaningful contours. A blank, blue space etched only with the contour lines of my imagination and my fears. The fears of the tight isobaric contours of the low pressure systems bringing the North Atlantic gales with their steep waves and the chaotic swirling valleys between the waves. The beauty of the sea life, the vistas & the sunsets were the safe valleys and gentle ridge lines of my topographic imagination.

Looking back now at the formerly blank map of the North Atlantic has it covered in scribbles and snapshots of memories from 53 days that only I can see.

The calculus of solo ocean rowing, or any solo wilderness trip, is binary. You either confront, then overcome problems and obstacles, or you don’t. Just like solo mountaineering, only the very smallest errors are forgiven.

As an airline captain, I am aware that if I have an accident and it is attributed to an error I made (which in the vast majority of accidents it is pilot error), the final accident report would be my legacy, my epitaph. This would leave my family & most importantly Janet, Andréa & Eric forever wondering: Why didn’t he…? Why wasn’t he…? Why?

Determined to never leave that legacy, there were no short cuts, no ‘I’ll just walk out there for a second without my harness’ or ‘I can row in these waves with the hatch wide open’. In aviation we call this “procedural drift”, but in the case of solo ocean rowing it could end up with me adrift.
For friends, colleagues and family who have never had the opportunity to have to perform at the limits, it may appear reckless and selfish to some. I have heard comments, either directly or indirectly criticizing my solo ocean row,  but I find it impossible to attempt to explain or rationalize. Some people thought I was canoeing, kayaking or rowing an open dory across the ocean. Others took the time to inquire about the boat itself and about how I’d mitigate any risks.

Anytime you take risks, criticism will follow. I’ll counter that if you do not look after your health, and either die early or end up spending your final decade in misery, no one will criticize the risky behaviour that may have directly contributed, it is just considered the natural course. A pack a day smoker, heavy drinker and/or a sedentary lifestyle is far deadlier, though less dramatic than a life lost in the mountains or at sea living life at the margins. Likewise, If you don’t tell anyone your dreams and goals, and never attempt to achieve them, you will not get criticized: nice and safe.

It’s very tough to express my gratitude adequately to Jim Redeker, and his team, Steve Challacombe and Rick Slater. On this team was also my good friend, outdoor athlete and underachiever Darin McBeath (professional helicopter pilot, geologist, sailor and former Canadian olympian…and an adequate skier) who backed these guys up with his sailing knowledge. These guys were with me every stroke and I relied heavily on their expertise and advise.  We were a great team, and frankly I will have trouble not sitting on a blue plastic bucket in the mornings reading a Wind Weather Waves email from Jim.

This expedition was bloody expensive (Janet is good at reminding me). Without my sponsors, this just may have been impossible.  Imagine getting an email with this subject line: Solo Ocean Row of the North Atlantic needs…(money, sunglasses, a watch, clothing, money, food, flights, money, medical advice, insurance, coffee, money, etc.). Not to mention money.  Obviously tough to not open the email and see just what the hell this was about. Somehow my sponsors believed in me and this very unique expedition. I worked hard with my team of Christina Rowsell and Amanda Schewaga to promote my sponsors; they deserve recognition and your support. I only chose companies that I knew, and companies that had good reputations and quality products, and the vast majority are Canadian and Calgarian.

Halifax would have been far more complicated without a former colleague Tasha Dalrymple, setting me up with her friend Steven Anthony, to help with all of the deliveries arriving in the final few days and even offered a place to stay. Many thanks to both of them.

The Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron was True Blue’s home in Halifax, and Wayne Blundell and his great crew allowed me to generally get in their way as I prepped and get the boat in the water. Thank you RNSYS.

Making it all possible in Halifax was Brian Donovan and his partner Lois Bourne. Brian was watching me prepare True Blue at the RNSYS, and we began to chat. After a few minutes of ensuring I wasn’t more than a semi-lunatic, Brian basically directed me to be at his house for dinner that evening and that I was staying there until I left for France, and he ended with: “…and I won’t take no for an answer, we’ll see you at six thirty, it’s spaghetti tonight.”  This hospitality and assistance extended to every aspect of the hectic preparations before an ocean row, ending with Brian and I putting the final last minute sponsor decal on the boat, MGM Grand Las Vegas, at 10:30 pm in the dark, wind and rain the eve of departure.  Janet and I are proud to now call Brian and Lois dear friends.

My final thanks goes out to the people who followed, sent me words of encouragement, shared my stories on social media, bought me freeze dried dinners and supported my family while I was away at sea. I look forward to seeing you all in the coming weeks and toasting your generosity.

So now what? What’s changed? Did I ‘find myself’?? People have always yearned for stories of adventure and adventurers. Those individuals who disappear out of sight into the mists & spindrift high on a mountain, slowly fade over an endless horizon of ocean or step into a dark jungle. What struggles, fears and drama happens ‘up there’, ‘out there’ or ‘in there’ and more importantly how is someone changed when they emerge out of the mist, waves or trees?

For me, nothing has changed & what wasn’t lost cannot be found.

I need to qualify that. After losing a child, and the resulting existential crisis, little room is left for ‘life changing’ experiences, no matter how intense.

I don’t have the skill with language to adequately answer what results from life lived intentionally at the margins, but these quotes below make a more adroit attempt than I could:

It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.
~ Joseph Campbell

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
~ T.S. Eliot

So the cliché, as they so often are, is spot on, it is about the journey and what happened between the pins.

Regrets? Absolutely.  Aiming for the blank spaces and going down into the abyss comes with some regrets.  When I see tears in my kids’ eyes as I leave for the airport on one of my trips followed by the tearful tight embrace with Janet just before walking into the terminal, it is torturous and I hate it.
I hate knowing that they are worried when I am away. I hate just not being there to do the ‘Dad stuff’ around the house, to laugh with the kids, to have a glass of wine with Janet or go for a walk. Putting Janet especially in the ‘supportive wife’ roll with all that that entails, is really not fair & eats at me. This I regret and always will on every adventure.

Whatever drives me to disappear into mountain mists or over an ocean’s horizon obviously comes with deficits and I will never be able to thank Janet and the kids adequately. There are very few things that compare to coming back from one my trips and seeing my beautiful wife and kids, impossible to describe and the very definition of Campbell’s ‘…recover the treasures of life’.

We will be having a party in the coming weeks. I will tell tales from the waves beyond the horizon, share footage and ask for you to share my story and ask friends and families for donations to the Alberta Cancer Foundation. I know many of you have already donated and donated generously, thank you very much for that, you are off the hook but still want you at the party!

I set a steep goal to cross an ocean alone and it appears an even steeper goal with my aim to raise $200 000 for cancer patients in Alberta.

I look forward to seeing all of you at the party.

Laval St.Germain

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