canterbury’s own lifestyle magazine / a great local read

As I sit here and type away, I’ve been back on land for less than the 70 days I spent at sea, but already I’m dreaming of how to get back out there. It’s funny, people talk about getting seasick, but for me I guess in a way I’m land sick.

I miss the serenity, the peacefulness, the sunrises and sunsets, watching the swells and trying to latch on to a wave so I could surf down the other side. They’re all things that made the two and a half months I spent rowing across the Atlantic Ocean on my own some of the best times of my life. Equally, being out there on my own there were times that challenged me mentally beyond my wildest dreams. Coping with the physical demands of propelling yourself over 5,000 kilometres across the ocean was nowhere near as taxing as what my mind went through.

I’d already rowed the Atlantic as part of a group of four, six months earlier, so in a way I knew what to expect. But on your own it’s different. If I wasn’t rowing, then who was?

Isaac in his boat, which was his home for 70 days as he rowed across the Atlantic Ocean. Photo Robin Skjoldborg.

I had no ability to rely on anyone else, no one to make me happy when I needed a pick-me-up or to share the decision-making with. No one to share a story with to help take my mind off the fact that my arse was sore from sitting down for 12-plus hours a day or that my hands were covered in calluses from hanging onto the oars. Getting this 7-metre boat to move was solely down to me and me alone. At least out on the water anyway. I had loads of support back home, but out there it was just me. 

I took on the challenge for two reasons. One, I’d had two good mates and an aunty overcome by their own demons and commit suicide when I was growing up, and this had stuck with me ever since; it still saddens me to know they took the option they did. New Zealand is in the grip of a mental health crisis and more awareness around the situation needs to be created, so setting up The Blue Rower to try and raise some awareness around this issue is something I feel compelled to do. 

The other reason was, I wanted to know more about myself and what made me tick. I wanted to get to know my own demons, and what better way to do it than in isolation, where things change in an instant and for long periods, you’re adapting to what’s thrown at you, rather than being in any sort of control.

Not so surprisingly I came to feel those suicidal thoughts myself while out at sea. I’d had a rough few days and it was hard to see a way forward, a way out. As scary as it was it’s given me an even greater understanding of what my mates and aunty must have been feeling. 

But instead I reached out, talked to my sports psych John Quinn (via my satellite phone) and developed some tools to help bring myself back on the level. I learnt to not only see the glass as half full but overflowing with goodness. I found ways to enjoy those little moments. Quite often when I needed a wee pick-me-up, I’d fling out a fishing rod and just take it all in. Sometimes I’d just lie down for a 20-minute nap to try and refresh that way too. A couple of times I splurged and had a longer shower than normal, taking the time to wash my hair – heck, who cared if I made it there in 72 or 75 days rather than the 70 it took. My objective was to finish, not to be the fastest, so removing the expectation and self-imposed pressure was key to me feeling better about myself.  

There were days with no wind to speak of, and overnight, while I was sleeping, the current would push me back up and around. I’d wake in the morning to find myself in a similar position to where I was the morning before. But what could I do about it, other than choose to accept my position and row forward? 

Isaac had to eat up to 8,000 calories a day to keep with up the lost calories. Here he is surrounded by his packets of dehydrated meals.

I quickly came to realise what winning truly is, without all those imposed pressures from other people. Winning wasn’t necessarily about being the first person across the finish line. Winning to me was having the chance to see another beautiful sunrise or sunset, catching a fish, meeting a turtle or seeing some wildlife or just learning more about the environment I was in. 

Some people talk about the 10,000-hour theory. That you need to do something for 10,000 hours to become an expert in it. So, the way I looked at it was the quicker I reached landfall the further I was from becoming an expert in ocean rowing. 

When I broke it down, one of my goals was to be the first Kiwi to row the Atlantic solo and to prove that it can be done. And in order to achieve that, you don’t have to be the fastest. You just have to get there. Let the next person worry about doing it faster.  

Since arriving home my goals haven’t changed; I’ve got more time available to create awareness around our mental health crisis and, through creating history out on the Atlantic, I can now do that by sharing my experience with schools and organisations around Canterbury. 

I’m proud of what we’ve achieved so far and am looking forward to taking my story even wider. 

Life’s not a race; find your own pace. 

Words & IMAGES Isaac Giesen, as told to WeAreCanterbury