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From one ocean to another

By Domenic Genua.

I love having a chat, and the occasional and impromptu call from a friend is always welcome.

This week however I received a call that I can only say was unexpected.

Many within our boating industry family will know Michelle Lee. Michelle was a regular fixture at shows in Sydney, Brisbane, and Adelaide where she told her story of her feat to row across the Atlantic Ocean unassisted.

When Michelle first approached me with her vision, she had never owned nor rowed a boat. Whilst I was sceptical, it wasn’t my place to interfere. The best I could do is help with introductions to others who have achieved great things on and around the water.

After several years of planning and gruelling training, she set off leaving from La Gomera in the Canary Islands finishing 68 days later in February 2019, rowing 4700 km into English Harbour in Antigua in the Caribbean.

Michelle became the first Australian woman to row across an ocean unassisted. That same year, Australian Geographic made her the Adventurer of the Year.

Through my work with boat shows, over the years I have had the pleasure to meet and work with some amazing adventurers, Don McIntyre, Jessica Watson, Andrew Abrahams, Cass & Jonesy, Sean Smith, Pete Goss, to name a few. One thing I have learnt is that whilst they are all genuine and great people, each is a little ‘crazy’ in their own way. Not a bad way, just their way.

Which brings me back to Michelle. Late in 2020, Michelle called wanting to meet. She had something important to tell me. Knowing the routine, I knew I was in for news about another planned expedition. I had seen it before, the urge to do something else burns within this cohort of people. After Cass & Jonesy ‘Crossed the Ditch’, a few years later they successfully undertook their ‘Crossing the Ice’ expedition.

When Michelle arrived at my office, she did so with a wry smile that told me immediately that I was in for something big.

It took a while for Michelle to blurt it out, almost ready for me to unload my objections. The news was big, Michelle had decided that she was going to row the Pacific Ocean. Again unassisted. A journey of around 14,000 km.

The next hour or so was somewhat frantic, where all I did was drill her with dozens of questions. I knew I wasn’t going to change her mind but felt that I needed to emphasise the importance of not being complacent and ensuring she did absolutely everything to put her own safety first.

Pleasingly she made one concession and that was that whilst she would try to depart in 2021, that she would delay until 2022 if she wasn’t completely ready.

So, on the day after her 50th Birthday on the 8th of August (last month) Michelle commenced her paddle from Ensenada in Mexico to Sydney Australia, alone, paddling 14 hrs daily. The time to complete the journey is unknown, but she has planned to be on the water alone and unassisted for up to 360 days. That’s almost a full year.

The journey to get her to the departing line was enormous for Michelle and the challenges and hurdles were considerable. But typical of Michelle, she fought hard and didn’t falter on her goal.

On Wednesday this week, I received a phone call. The number started with +88 so I almost didn’t answer expecting it to be another one of the many scam calls that seem to be the norm nowadays.

I did answer and do my surprise it was Michelle from her boat ‘Australia Maid’ somewhere in the middle of the ocean west of Mexico. As casual as she can be, she called just to say “hello” and for a catch up. She spoke about the early challenges, including the strong winds, big seas, and threatening hurricanes. Nevertheless, she equally said that she had some brilliant days including one where the water was so smooth and clear that she tethered off and dove right in for a swim with the dolphins.

She spoke of her wonderful land crew who were supporting her on the journey and was focused on traveling an average of 40 miles per day.

I’m not sure when I’ll see Michelle next, but I have promised, like many others, I’ll be on the foreshore of Sydney Harbour when she arrives home.

To follow Michelle’s progress, you can download the YB Races App and look for “Great Pacific Row 2022” or equally find her on the webpage.