Rowing Towards Salvation


I like ocean kayaking. I love ocean kayaking. I’m not as good as I should or could be, but my enthusiasm carries me through.

I’m not a gym rat. It takes a celestial miracle to bring me to the gym. But when I do, I gravitate involuntarily to the rowing machine. Most people at my gym work the weights, the nautilus, the elliptical, the running machines, et al. But I love to plug my iPod in and row like mad and mentally project myself onto the Atlantic waves. My favorite work out song is “Riding the Waves” by Afro Celt Sound System.

There’s the person who likes to jog around the neighborhood. And then there’s the person who runs literally around the globe. Chay Blyth and John Ridgway, in 1966, in an open boat named the English Rose III rowed across the Atlantic Ocean in 92 days.
No small feat. In fact, a remarkable testimony to endurance, survival, character and will.


To open and push the envelope of exploration and the limits of human endurance is just stunning. The famous ones are enshrined on medals, currency, and in history books. But dozens and thousands more are buried in the minutiae of history (and Google). Fame is a fleeting comet, but their burning desire for the challenge and the test of human survival is a bright ignition that drives the passion and soul.

Blyth and Ridgway’s feat of rowing across the Atlantic Ocean is truly inspiring. They faced hurricanes, emotional hardships, and intense physical pain. But they dug down deep into their souls, and despite what was predicted as a 95% chance of failure (actually, death), they continued on. As Blyth would later say:

“Why did I do it? Because at the end of my days, I’m going to be lying in my bed looking at my toes, and I’m going to ask my toes questions like ‘Have I really enjoyed life? Have I done everything I’ve wanted to do?’ And if the answer is no, I’m going to be really pissed off.”

Rowing Song
 by Patty Griffin

As I row, row, row
Going so slow, slow, slow
Just down below me is the old sea
Just down below me is the old sea
Nobody knows, knows, knows
So many things, things, so
So out of range
Sometimes so strange
Sometimes so sweet
Sometimes so lonely

The further I go
More letters from home never arrive
And I’m alone
All of the way
All of the way
Alone and alive

You just have to go, go, go
Where I don’t know, know, know
This is the thing
Somebody said
Somebody told me
A long time ago

The further I go
More letters from home never arrive
And I’m alone
All of the way
All of the way
Alone and alive
As I row, row, row
Going so slow, slow, slow
Just down below me is the old sea
Just down below me is the old sea

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Blowing a gasket on the Atlantic City Expressway


When I was about 19 or 20, I had just dropped out of college (first time), after trying unsuccessfully to be a journalist major. What I lacked for in discipline and study habits, I made up for exponentially with buckets of recklessness and abandon. After being drummed out of the local state college, I turned to Tony’s Garage for refuge. Tony was an old family friend who owned a gas station/auto shop nearby. My brother worked there, and I was given salvation by being employed as a grease monkey (change tires, prep the cars, minor repairs). Tony can best be described as a crotchety alter ego of Jay Pritchett from Modern Family. Tony was a savvy businessman, but would repel from overcharging a kind old lady; he was the stereotypical ‘hooker with a heart of gold’.


Anyway, at the time I owned a ’77 Buick Regal. If you don’t understand cars, just understand this – the Buick Regal was a beast of a car, a relic of the apogee of Detroit’s unbridled enthusiasm for automotive power. It was an 8-cyclinder behemoth of fuel, metal, and more metal.

As I said, I had dropped out of college. My grades were sinking into junk bond status. I had recently devoured Hunter S. Thompson’s books and decided to emulate his writing style, and personal lifestyle. It’s one thing to be reckless and undisciplined. It’s another to be reckless, undisciplined and lucky. It’s quite another to be reckless, undisciplined, lucky AND talented. I was the former (the first one). I loved to write, and still do. I love the way words can flow on a page and be transported into your head by reading, and if done right, is a beautiful song without the music.


At the time, when not working on cars at Tony’s, I’d make my foray down to Atlantic City to try my hand at craps at the casinos. If I was wiser, or had some out-of-body experience, I’d tell myself not to waste my hard-earned cash on a hope to make even more money, to eventually flush down the various casinos, but to save my paycheck and use it to buy a shovel to dig myself out of this existential hole I put myself into.

It was a warm spring day. My car was full of leaded gas, but my wallet light. I was travelling west along the Atlantic City Expressway when I noticed in the lane next to me were 2 nice looking girls in a small quasi-sports car. It must’ve been a Mazda or maybe a Nissan something. They looked over to me, and I to them. They raced a bit and I put my foot down on the pedal and roared back. We played this little game for a while until I decided to show them what this beast could do. My exit was coming up soon, so I floored the Buick and propelled like a Saturn rocket headed to the moon. The gauges all reacted and all the engineering gods of Motor City were shining up on high. But I went no more than 1000 feet than did this horse throw a shoe. “Houston, we have a problem.” A series of loud pops ensued and the gauges careened back. Life was beginning to be sucked out of this machinery. My exit came up and I pulled off onto the ramp. The cute girls passed on by, probably to some debutante ball or something, maybe even back to their college to study for an exam.


The Buick died not long after I exited the off-ramp. Tony had to come on by to tow this damaged heap back to the shop. Under examination, the diagnosis was a blown head gasket, a serious matter. A repaired engine later, the Buick was restored, but my servitude to Tony even greater.

I eventually worked off my debt, and gained some insight along the way. Reality had appeared at my front door, as if dressed in a fine Italian suit and presenting me with a bill. Choices had to be made. That fall, I re-entered college, enrolling into a new major (art), changing colors like a chameleon. The Buick was restored, and so was I.


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The Lost World – thru stamps (Samoa)

Western Samoa_3d

Read more about Samoa at:

Western Samoa_1d

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Famous Explorers Series – Cavorting and Fear at Mir Samir


Following in the footsteps of a previous essay on also-rans, ( I feel it’s necessary to mention a book that was recommended to me whilst on a laborious trek through the arduous jungles of the South Pacific. While we rested along the shore, blisters sprouting upon our feet and with the clear waters lapping at our bare legs, my “guide” told me about a “must read” book. Upon return to western civilization (actually the internet) I went onto Amazon and ordered Eric Newby’s “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush”.


Eric Newby has a colorful history, more so than most writers of travel. He served during World War 2 in the British Special Forces (the Black Watch, no less), and after the war worked in the women’s fashion business in London. But eventually the spirit of adventure, as often happens in some people, burned brightly and the candle refused to go out. So, upon the urging of a close friend and British diplomat Hugh Carless, they decided upon a ridiculous journey to climb Mir Samir in Afghanistan in 1956.


The technical problem for these men was the fact that neither was really a seasoned mountain climber. So, in preparation, they practiced in Wales. Bringing along a reluctant spouse, and seeking the comfort of a reliable guide, they set across from Turkey in a battered station wagon over land, through the badlands of Iran (with some comic misadventures) and eventually arrived in Afghanistan for the climb.

Despite its nefarious reputation, it has been recorded and reported over and over that the countryside and scenery of northeastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan is truly a heavenly delight. Some describe the landscape as closest to Switzerland in view, temperature and climate as in any other place on the globe.

I won’t provide too many spoilers, for Newby’s travel book is definitely worth the time. It reads quick and entertaining. Unfortunately it seems to have lost its resonance through the decades. It doesn’t have the dramatic action of Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air”. But it does weave a brilliant tale of exuberant ambitions tempered by the reality of the local customs and the daunting physical requirements of serious mountain climbing.

Great adventure stories don’t always have to end with some glorious accomplishment. Sometimes, the minute details and the travails of the journey are enough to capture us, and bring us that much closer to the summit. Eric Newby went on to write several other books on travelling, and his unique viewpoint and humor is a treasure. He died not too long ago, and I for one fondly miss him.


A lot has definitely changed since Newby, Carless and their entourage attempted to scale the mountains of Nuristan in the late ‘50s. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The Mujahedeen repelled them. The Taliban established a nefarious theocracy, backing a murderous Al Qaeda. The US invaded Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai and his corrupt cronies bled the nation. The Taliban re-emerged in the southern strongholds. And so on and so on, and so on. But the beauty and splendor of the northern Afghan mountainside, in its timeless wonder, continues to amaze and mystify us all.



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Famous Explorers Series – 800 feet from “There”


History is kind to the winners. But it’s not so generous to the also-rans. Abraham Lincoln is one of the most famous US Presidents – his mug adorns the five dollar bill. But how many people know who lost to him in the election of 1860 or 1864? Michael Jordan was an athletic icon of the ‘90s. The Chicago Bulls won 5 NBA titles. But can anyone recall any of the teams that almost won the championship during that battle?

The lore of exploration is like some magnet with a pull on a select few, with the power of a Black Hole. Explorers always want to be the First. The first person to…(and fill in the blank). The first person to reach the North Pole (Robert Peary). The first person to fly solo across the Atlantic (Charles Lindbergh). The first person to land on the moon (Neil Armstrong). But can you name the second person to set foot on the moon? Was it Buzz Aldrin or Pete Conrad? Nevermind who was the 3rd, 4th or 5th person on the moon. There’s something deep and psychological about wanting to abandon all hope and family and stability in order to get that golden ring of being the first.


Mount Everest, also known in local terms as Sagarmāthā in Nepal and in Tibet as Chomolungma is the world’s highest peak. It was named Everest after, of course, wait for it, Sir George Everest, a Briton who surveyed it in 1865. In that golden age of exploration in the turn of the 20th century, which sparked such journeys as those to reach the poles, was the attempt, or rather, rush to be the first person to ascend the peak.

Cut to 1924 when an expedition led by George Mallory, with partner Sandy Irvine launched an effort to be the first to reach the summit. When asked by the New York Times his rationale for trying such a ridiculous endeavor, his now famous retort was – “because it’s there”. These simple 3 words encapsulates the spirit of adventure for all people, and for all rash journeys. It’s an irrational amplification of one’s Id. It’s this pleasure principle to fulfill a need, sometimes a void, in someone’s soul.


In the end, the expedition of Mallory was presumed to have neared the summit of Everest, but the fact that they never returned discounted any claim, and fame. It wasn’t until 19 years later that Sir Edmund Hillary reached the summit, survived, and returned to document his travels. I’ve read that 80% of climbing fatalities occur during the descent. Driving towards a destination, or desire, is one thing. Facing the consequences and returning alive (or unscathed) is quite another.

Nothing was ever heard again from the Mallory expedition. History had logged it as a close, but failed attempt. That is, until recently when forensics and geo-spatial technology had discovered the frozen body of George Mallory buried in snow, preserved by the cold, some 800 feet from the Everest summit.


800 feet is .15 miles, or 9,600 inches. It’s a miniscule distance when comparing the journey to the summit of the world’s highest mountain (0.000034% of the distance). If you started at the tip of Manhattan island, at the front entrance of the Staten Island Ferry terminal, and walked all along Broadway to reach 72nd Street on the east side, it’d be like taking that long journey only to be forced to stop on 69th Street – 3 short city blocks. Unfair.

So lets raise a glass to those who have tried, and tried in vain to reach that pinnacle of success. They worked hard and were driven by the spirit of adventure. It’s just that someone got to the prize first.



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The Public Opinion Trial of Captain William Bligh

Bailiff: “All rise for the judge, his honorable of Public Opinion, John Cleese”


Judge Cleese: “Please be seated. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you’re about to hear the concluding arguments in the case of History v. William Bligh. At the summation you’ll be asked to provide a verdict. We’ll begin with the defense. Representing Captain Bligh will be Sir Patrick Stewart, Esquire.”


Defense Counselor Stewart: “Thank you your honor. Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ll begin with a case that is mired in deep historical distortions. William Bligh has been unfairly slighted through modern history as the tyrant of the ship HMS Bounty. It’s difficult to be cast as the protagonist in the 1962 film against Marlon Brando.


ANYONE cast against Brando at that time was at a severe disadvantage in pubic opinion. Despite these slanderous slights, the facts remain that Lieutenant Bligh was an admirable sailing master under the famous world explorer, James Cook. In 1787, Bligh was hand picked by the British navy as commander of this vessel to sail to the southern Pacific to collect breadfruit plants and other flora as part of an expedition to collect horticultural samples for the British Royal Society directed by Sir Joseph Banks. Yes, breadfruit plants. Because of the structure of the ship and the necessity for space to store the exotic plants, the normal compliment of marines to act as security detail was abandoned. This decision by the British Royal Society was to effectively doom this trip.”

“Without this security detail, Bligh was forced to deal with discipline matters, with an unruly crew. Ladies and gentlemen, imagine the predicament of being a sheriff in an unruly western town, with no guns to defend yourself. This was the situation Bligh was faced with.”

“Tensions rose high during the voyage, and when arriving at Tahiti, the men of the Bounty rejoiced, and took full advantage of the area, and the women. And the women. Fletcher Christian, born of poverty and despised any of class, tested the leadership of Lt. Bligh at every moment. Lt. Bligh had to resort to harsh measures to keep these unruly sailors in line, all along the mission. After many days at Tahiti, Lt. Bligh finally ordered the Bounty to resume sail to continue its important mission.”

“After 23 days at sea, Mr. Christian, drunk with passion (and lust) for the Tahitian women and mad with revenge instigated a mutiny, a penalty under British maritime law punishable by death, and forced Lt. Bligh and five other men into a life raft with meager provisions in the middle of the south Pacific. This was, in effect, its own death sentence.”

“However, your honor, what Mr. Christian forgot was the fact the Lt. Bligh was an expert navigator and seaman, learning many of these qualities under Mr. Cook. Using just dead reckoning, a quadrant, pocket watch and navigation by stars, he was able to steer his 23-foot open boat 3,918 miles over 47 days to Timor. The longest open boat navigation in human history!”

“Upon return to England, Bligh was tried, and acquitted by the Royal Admiralty. He was even promoted to the rank of Captain in the British Navy.”

“In 1806, Captain Bligh was promoted as Governor of New South Wales in Australia. He sought to prevent the exploitation of farmers by the monopolistic traders, who smuggled liquor to enrich their pockets. His actions promoted a counter-action, known as the Rum Rebellion. His honorable actions brought forth the ire of the sinister mogul John MacArthur, who saw a threat to his empire, and had a campaign launched to arrest Mr. Bligh and remove him from Australia.”

“In closing, William Bligh is often misconstrued as a tyrant. In reality, he was a noble and dedicated servant of the British Empire, who valued order and mission and the keys to stability in an otherwise chaotic world. This concludes my statement.”

Judge Cleese: “Thank you, Sir Patrick Stewart. We’ll now hear from the defense, Sir Ian McKellan for the prosecution.”


Crown Prosecutor McKellan: “Thank you your honor. Ladies and gentlemen, this is clearly an open and shut case of the image and posterity of a man who ruled with such tyrannical powers. Mr. Bligh was indeed chosen as commander of the HMS Bounty. While he did lack a security detail, he made up in spades with a legion of harsh discipline and fear, due to his lack of effective management. His inefficient leadership and lack of empathy towards his men drove him to such harsh punitive measures as to cause such resentment amongst his crew. The documented tales of retributive punishment for the most trivial minor offenses is well known to all. It is no wonder, then, that the crew saw safety and security in the lush islands of Tahiti. And when ordered to set sail, the crew, under the situational leadership of Mr. Christian, saw an opportunity to escape and took advantage. Rather than outright killing Bligh and his loyal servants, Mr. Christian offered mercy and allowed him to sail open the vast seas.”

“Bligh was indeed a privileged and comforted member of the British upper classes. He was eventually rewarded with the title of Governor of New South Wales in Australia, and sought to impose his distinct views upon a land completely foreign to him. Governor Bligh imposed his strict values, and disregard for the economic conditions which allowed for the barter of alcohol for the market sale of livestock and grain. His tyrannical controls over the regulation of stills, and his outright hostility toward those in economic powers were characteristic of his myopic views and inflexibility. He was a coward who, when faced with arrest, hid under a bed rather than openly face his accusers”

“In short, William Bligh is, and was, a bully and a man of horrible management and leadership skills. His name is synonymous with merciless rule and tyrannical fear. History has been correct in judging him in a negative slant. I propose we maintain this perspective.”


Judge Cleese: “Thank you, Crown Prosecutor and Defense Counselor. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury of Public Opinion, you have heard the summation of arguments for and against William Bligh. You have before you reference materials for further examination. I ask you now to take leave and return with a verdict on the historic fate of this man. Was he in fact a cruel tyrant and ineffective governor, or an expert sailor and a man who sought justice and dispensed it as best he could? Please provide your answer to the court. Thank you.”


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Welcome to Africa – Epilogue (How Much Does an Aircraft Weigh?)

To read this, you really should read the previous post:

So, in the infamous travel jargon “there I was…”

My guide had driven me to the airport terminal at N’Djamena airfield in Chad. We departed the truck parked askew in front of the entrance to base operations. I exited the back of the Land Cruiser with bag of cash in hand, carefully counted and accounted for based on the ridiculous fees negotiated over. We walked amidst the silence of the base; air traffic into this desolate location is few, far between, and only occurs due to travel miscalculations or planned surreptitious business.


Traversing through the abandoned corridors of the offices, I was struck by the pungent stale odors of musty furniture and mysterious herbs cooked from obscure kitchens. My guide, who knew this place all too unfortunately well, walked brusquely to the main office of the airfield manager. It was there that we were to negotiate and offer tribute to this country.


As I walked into the manager’s office, 2 things struck me. One was the overweight and seriously lethargic secretary that sat on an overstuffed tattered sofa, looking at me with indignant apathy. She sized me up much like my cat who casually looks at me when I return from work, evaluating me as to how I can be of any use. The other vision was the immense and oversized portrait of the Chadian President, about 4 x 6 feet (at least), framed and hung prominently on the main wall. I am of the age that I know my limits of knowledge and wisdom, but one thing I know for sure: that picture has been changed and replaced so many times yet the fading shadows of the paint has not effected the texture of the structure behind it. Presidents and dictators are always evident in public places. They change frequently but their residue spot on the wall remains the same.


Anyway, after waiting for what seemed an eternity, the airfield manager finally came in and greeted us. The secretary continued to sit and watch us with benign interest. I walked up to the main desk and began my business of payment for landing at this austere destination. We ran through the laundry list of costs: air stairs, dry ice, fuel, emergency equipment (we didn’t need this, but had to pay in case we did), and so forth.


But the best part came when this seasoned bureaucrat turned his head towards us and asked me in a casual sort of way, “How much does your aircraft weigh”. He was trying to calculate the costs for landing, using some antiquated formula. “Geez, how much DOES a cargo jet weigh?” I thought to myself. I hadn’t expected this question. I was just there to dump cold US cash onto his lap to pay for the transport fees.

I stumbled about and finally confessed I had no idea how much a huge US military cargo jet weighs. Tons? 1000 tons? 10,000 tons? I’m not an aviator and never dreamed of trying to figure that out. It’s like someone asking “How many jelly beans fit in a 2003 Honda Accord?” Quick. And then stare at you awaiting the response.

So, in my befuddlement I confessed I could only WAG it, and WAG it very hard. So, my Chadian bureaucrat fished around and finally came about an old aviation book, much like the old Bell South White Pages and thumbed through some torn pages to try to figure out a weight. The best part was when we finally negotiated on a weight of tons, and then had to figure the calculations into metric. My limited knowledge knows that multiplying kilometers by .54 gets you nautical miles, and I then dug deeper into the well of trivia and cranial depths to remember that dividing pounds by 2.2 gets you kilograms (or is it multiplying?). The best part was when my Chadian counterpart shoved a cheap Casio calculator under my nose to figure out the math, and the ransom. So there I was, putting my best guess into a $2 pocket calculator, figuring the math to pay thousands of dollars to a corrupt official in a hot steamy room on a desolate terminal in the middle of the Sahara. I’ve done haggling, and have haggled my way through Souks in the Mideast and bazaars in southern Africa, but at this point all I wanted was a reasonable number that would pass muster and avoid the threat of AK-47s in my face.


I can’t remember what I told them a US heavy cargo jet weighs, but it must’ve seemed reasonable because we all agreed on a landing fee price. I got a receipt from the secretary cat and had a strong desire to leave the airfield ops at N’Djamena as quick as humanely possible.

After the payment was made, my US Embassy guide walked me out to the White Land Cruiser, and as I jumped into the back cabin, splattered with human blood and spinal fluid from a dead Libyan pilot, we drove across the tarmac back to our jet. The image of the US flag on the fuselage brought me back to a comfort level. I climbed back aboard the aircraft and sat down, empty canvas bag, head swirling, and wondering exactly what had just happened. So many bizarre moments, so many unexplainable situations. Yes, “Welcome to Africa” indeed.

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