Row Across the Atlantic


By Zach Schepis

Photos courtesy of Katie Spotz.

No matter which way you turn there is only endless horizon. Not a human being in sight, not a breath of life except for what thrums beneath. The waves toss and turn alongside your thoughts.

You are utterly alone.

This stark (and borderline terrifying) image of isolation in open seas may come across as far-fetched to readers who have a hard time imagining time spent without a smart phone–let alone human contact. For Katie Spotz, however, this scene once marked a daily occurrence.

On Jan 3 of 2010, the then 22-year-old American adventure-seeker set out from Dakar, Senegal in a 19-foot canoe built to withstand intense storms. Her mission? To be the youngest person ever to solo row across the Atlantic Ocean.

Seventy days, five hours, 22 minutes, and 2,817 miles later, Spotz successfully completed her journey. Aside from the physical victory of perseverance, her accomplishment also helped raise more than $150,000 for safe water projects in Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Kenya.

Spotz tells BTR that prior to the trip, the longest amount of time she’d ever spent alone didn’t amount to much more than a day. Embarking on the oceanic journey posed more than a challenge of endurance.

“It’s that feeling of wanting to be somewhere you’re not, and wanting not to feel the things you feel,” says Spotz. “It’s not the waves, it’s not the sharks, it’s not the fires; it’s really asking yourself, ‘how am I reacting to it?’ That’s the real challenge.”

Spotz was a bench warmer growing up but never believed that she’d be capable of any staggering physical feats or moments of athletic prowess.

Nonetheless, she was born with an adventurous spirit. As a child, she was always climbing up trees and jumping on anything she came across–far from the easiest kid for her parents to look after.

The real note of affirmation arose when she was 18 years old and completed her first marathon. She realized that people from all walks of life can accomplish seemingly insurmountable challenges.

The marathon inspired Spotz to bike across America. After her land-legs were well-versed, the water became the next logical step (or stroke, for that matter).

While looking for a long distance swim, Spotz heard about a Slovenian man named Martin Strel notorious for swimming the lengths of the Amazon and Mississippi Rivers. Spotz began researching a way to accomplish her own journey. Enrolled in college at the time, she knew there would only be one month of time available to swim a chosen river.

The Allegheny River runs between New York State and Pennsylvania, coalescing with the mouth of the Monongahela to form the Ohio River in Downtown Pittsburgh. The river also happened to be next to where Spotz attended school in Ohio. In late July of 2008, accompanied by safety kayaker James Hendershott, she became the first person ever to swim the Allegheny’s entire 325-mile length. She accomplished it in less than a month.

Spotz saw she was capable of feats similar to what legends like Strel had accomplished. Moreover, her swim helped raise awareness towards clean water resources–an issue very close to her heart. Her next move was to take this kind of adventure to an even higher level; a far longer journey, with greater stakes, and more potential to help fund the cause.

There are streams, there are rivers, and then there are oceans. Spotz knew she had to traverse the latter. More people have walked on the moon–and there are certainly no copies written yet of Ocean Rowing for Dummies–so resources were scarce. She consulted the few ocean rowers she could find. Phil Morrison, the British yacht builder who created the specially equipped 19-foot canoe Spotz employed for her adventure, also proved to be a wealth of knowledge.

She is quick to point out that her journey was not an attempt to triumph over any forces of nature.

“I didn’t want to play that game of conquering nature,” says Spotz. “I knew that, at the end of the day, life is going to take me where it wants to. That illusion of control–you have to let go of it or you’ll end up driving yourself crazy.”

Meditation became an integral force in maintaining willpower and sanity during her solo row. She spent most of her preparation submitting to 10-day meditation retreats, in which she wasn’t allowed to read or write–just meditate for 12 hours a day. Even while aboard the canoe, Spotz frequently listened to Zen meditation recordings when she wasn’t busy communicating with former Atlantic rower Sam Williams via satellite phone.

It was important that the canoe remain as lightweight as possible, so although she had enough food to last 110 days, the majority of it was of the powdered astronaut variety. The half-a-million calories worth of dehydrated meals, granola, and dried fruit rendered her vessel significantly lighter than it would have been with liquid sustenance.

Spotz was also able to fit 300 chocolate bars on the 19-foot rowboat.

“The only thing I ran out of was my Snickers bars,” she laughs. “It was not a good day for me.”

There were some more serious obstacles. In the very beginning Spotz broke the cable that allowed her to steer with her foot as she rowed, forcing her to muscle a demanding hand steering system.

The trip was also meant to end a full eight days earlier than intended, when Spotz unexpectedly encountered turbulent winds and currents off the coast of Cayenne, French Guiana. Her GPS tracker caught fire, and she struggled against 20-foot waves that forced her on a new route, nearly 400 miles longer than was originally planned.

Despite nature’s final hurdle, Spotz completed her solo row on Mar 14, 2010. In the process, she raised more than $150,000 for safe water projects including $70,000 for the Blue Planet Run Foundation. Her adventure also inspired her to become Ambassador for the non-profit organization H2O for Life, dedicated to inspiring youth into becoming global citizens.

Back on her land legs, the returning to a world over-ripe with stimuli proved more than overwhelming. The different colors, sounds, and smells ensconced and filled her to the brim.

“The first time I went grocery shopping it took me hours because all of a sudden I had choices,” recalls Spotz.

“That idea of constantly choosing; from when you wake up to when you go to bed, you’ve made hundreds of small choices and you don’t even realize it. That was what took me a while to adjust; just processing and thinking ahead, because I was very much in the moment out there.”

To hear the rest of our interview with Katie Spotz, tune into this week’s episode of Third Eye Weekly.