Crossing Oceans of the Mind

On Jan 3, 2010, Katie Spotz planted her seafaring feet onto solid ground. The occasion marked a fateful moment; she hadn’t walked a single step for an unbelievable 70 days, five hours, and 22 minutes.

Supporters waited along the shoreline to sound their triumphant calls of joy and support. In their eyes, the grinning blonde maven who emerged from the break of waves and sea spray marked more than a symbol of perseverance. Alone in her specially designed rowboat, Spotz set the world record for becoming the first woman to solo row across the Atlantic Ocean.

More importantly, through doing so she raised over $150,000 for safe water projects in Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Kenya.

“The publicity after the row was great for the cause, because the majority of the fundraising happened as a result,” Spotz tells BTR. “But it wasn’t the best time to reflect. It took a while to discover the mental space where I could find meaning.”

With stormy waters cleared, Spotz nonetheless continued to endure a different kind of turbulence.

Initially, the trip required her to establish a newfound mental fortitude. Searching for inner stability led the 22-year-old adventure-seeker to retreats, where she meditated for stretches of 10 days but wasn’t allowed to write a single word.

The practices were committed with earnest, to help better prepare for her departure. It was a mental elasticity born through necessity; accepting complete abandonment required conviction of both thought and emotion.

After so many days in solitude, her reintegration into society demanded a different, yet equally impactful, kind of adaptation. Walking into a grocery store at noon flooded Spotz with total awe. Cornucopias of bright light flickered overhead, and the endless aisles frazzled her senses. Varieties of forgotten colors melted together. Strangers gathered and disappeared again.

The initial shock eventually faded and left Spotz calm enough to sift through the memories. Still, she felt a dissonance barring access to insights that once carried her like sails from the sunbaked beaches of Dakar all the way to Guyana.

“I just didn’t have the mental energy to go through the depth of that experience,” she says.

“During the row I could see, but it took a while, months really, for everything to settle so that I could explore my own thoughts. But then it took years to process everything. Seventy days of rowing, followed by years of prep and reflection.”

Even so, the desire to share her experience with the world kindled a new ambition that called upon all the force of the introspective acumen she had cultivated at sea. This time, however, the motivation was not rooted in yearnings for success. Spotz understood that the pearls of wisdom she gathered along her journey far outweighed any trophy earned. They needed to be shared, to inspire others to strive toward even their most outlandish dreams.

She put pen to paper. Yet the words refused to come.

Spotz admittedly thrives off of her voracious sense of self-reliance, but even when pitted against the daunting 2,817 mile stretch of the Atlantic, she knew better than to embark completely alone. Instead, she sought the help of a small team–including former Atlantic rower Sam Williams, who remained on standby via satellite phone for the duration of the journey.

After nearly a year writing and little progress to show for it, Spotz admitted that she needed help once again. As many non-writers often do when faced with the task of tackling a memoir, she sought guidance from a partner better versed in the craft.

Working alongside several accomplished writers over the course of a few months, Spotz was startled by the resulting lack of chemistry.

“There was one writer that I was working with for a while, but it just wasn’t connecting,” she says. “I couldn’t see myself in his writing. It’s weird to read something about yourself and suddenly realize, ‘whoa, that’s not me.’”

Then she met Mark Bowles, a Professor of History at the American Public University. In a simple twist of fate, the two wound up in a Twitter conversation together shortly after Spotz posted about the process of her ongoing narrative. She forwarded Bowles some excerpts, and the latter suggested they get together soon to discuss his ideas for potential direction.

In the fall of 2004 they finally met in person. Bowles arrived with a plan: Spotz would fill her book with 70 lessons that she learned, one for each day spent at sea.

The beginning proved to be the hardest–which coincidentally became a pivotal lesson in the narrative. Establishing momentum is a principle of physics, but it also serves as a pillar for the wayfaring mind.

Form established, the pages flowed effortlessly.

“First steps can often be the most challenging,” she explains. “But it does get easier and it does get better.”

The philosophy of endurance emerges as the central theme thrumming beneath the pages of “Just Keep Rowing,” published in the final months of 2015. She writes that it’s never comfortable; it’s painful, it’s boring, and most of us would rather avoid the struggle than embrace it.

Spotz and Bowles urge the reader to bear in mind that quitting often results from a culmination of strong emotions, but that it is in the very moment when we want to forfeit most that real growth occurs. Those are the moments, she believes, we should seek out in our lives.

The art of enduring endurance is no small feat, but the writers argue how it illustrates the power that choice plays in the realities individuals create for themselves without even knowing it. Dreams, fears, pain, longing–the ceilings and limits to capability aren’t innate, but rather created by those who wish to build them.

In this respect, even word choice became a crux in Spotz’ construction of epiphanies. A conscious eschewing of words like “should” and “couldn’t” from both her daily vocabulary and writing liberated her mind from binding limitations.

The little girl who started out as a benchwarmer, who’d never spent more than a day alone, underwent a metamorphosis that transfigured her into a woman of athletic prowess—all because she chose to.

If “mind over matter” sounds like a tired and recycled notion, then it can be churned over and used as the compost for change.

“It’s not the waves,” Spotz writes, “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.”

Feature photos courtesy of Katie Spotz.