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Rowing the Great Lake for breast cancer

"One woman. One Great Lake. One great cause."

In her attempt to become the first person to row – yes row – the 1,500 mile perimeter of Lake Michigan, 27-year-old Jenn Gibbons will be completely self-sufficient. She’ll pack 210 dehydrated meals and hundreds of Luna bars into Liv, her bright yellow, 700-pound rowboat. She’ll sleep while buckled into an airtight and watertight cabin.

And when she returns after spending two months at sea -- with little opportunity to stand up --  she’ll have to learn to walk again as some muscles will atrophy. 

But while Gibbons is in it for the physical challenge, her real mission is to spread the word about Recovery on Water, the rowing team for breast cancer survivors that she founded and coaches.

During her trip, Gibbons will stop only to visit 10 port towns along the lake to raise funds for her charity – the team’s boats cost approximately $25,000 each -- and highlight the vital role exercise plays in the fight against breast cancer.

It’s all so survivors can “get fit, fight back and have fun,” said Gibbons, recently named one of 20 inspiring Chicago women by Today’s Chicago Woman magazine.

Gibbons leaves at 7 a.m. from Diversey Harbor on June 15; there’s a departure party for her at the Chicago Yacht Club on June 14.  Her progress will be tracked via satellites and you can find her on her website Row4Row.org.

She recently discussed the challenges related to her trip, which she’s been planning for more than two years. Among them: being ticketed on Lake Michigan for disorderly conduct.

Q: How many miles can you row a day?

A: I can do 15 miles a day, but if there’s really good weather it could be 30 miles. A storm can set you back three days of rowing, or 100 miles.

Q: How fast will you be going?

A: About the same speed as walking, about three to four knots. But I’ll be rowing 650 pounds of boat through the water. It’s not like I’m sprinting the boat. It’s important to make sure I’m not rowing at a crazy rate. But certainly there will be days where weather and wind help.

Q: Have you ever done long-distance rowing? A: I rowed in college (at Michigan State) and coach rowing. I’ve run marathons and like endurance sports. But it’s my first long rowing trip.

Q: How have you trained for this?
A: Cross Fit (at RowFit Chicago) has been a big part and helped me build up muscle around the joints to protect them and keep them strong. I row every day and do heated yoga.

Q: Where will you be stopping?

A: I start in Chicago, then to Racine, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Mackinac Island, Traverse City, Luddington, Muskegon, South Haven, St. Joe and New Buffalo. I’ll be speaking at hospitals, bars and coffee shops to just let people know what I’m doing and why.

Q: Will you have any help at the stops?

A: The trip is entirely unsupported. I won’t have people bring me things (at the stops), but if someone wants to hand me a hamburger I’m not going to say no. I have a water purifier to remove bacteria and viruses. If I were rowing in the middle of the lake it wouldn’t be as big of an issue. Along the shore, the water isn’t the best.

Q: How far from shore will you be? Will we be able to see you?

A: During the 10 stops I’ll be a mile out, but I’m trying to stay away from boat traffic and shipping lanes. I’ll be about two miles out on average.

Q: What’s the longest you’ve rowed so far?

A: On training rows, I’ve done three-day trips, 30 miles a day. But that was under good conditions, when I had a good night’s sleep and ate well.

Q: What’s your biggest concern?

A: It gets mind numbing; I wonder where my mind will go when I haven’t seen anyone for two weeks. And when I do, it will be short and brief. But my biggest concern is that I make it a successful fundraising and awareness event and allow ROW to shine. These women (I work with) are so inspiring. I’d hate for it to be all about me.

Q: What do you do during storms?

A: I’ll store loose material and fasten the oars to the boat. Then I’ll deploy a “sea anchor,” an underwater parachute that prevents backward drift and minimizes the fall between waves. I’ll take cover in the rear cabin. The boat is designed to withstand 30-foot waves and will self-right if I capsize.

Q: Will you bring music?

A: Yes, tons of it! In fact, I need suggestions. Please send me some!

Q: What about injuries? What is your most vulnerable body part?

A: My butt can get really sore. I can also get blisters, sunburn, bruises, rashes, pulled muscles and swollen joints. I’ll have bug repellent, but flies are a major issue. I’ll have an extensive medical kit on board and am certified in First Aid. I can rest for minor injuries, but if there’s an emergency I’ll activate the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon).

Q: How will you sleep?

A: I sleep inside the 19-foot boat. There are two air- and watertight cabins and I have a ventilator for fresh air. There’s a 6-foot-long sleeping cabin at one end and a food storage cabin at the other. The cabin inside is 4 feet wide and gets narrower as you get closer to the bow. My head is near the front of the boat and my feet close to the window, in front of my rowing station. I’ve slept in it on Wednesday night for the last two weeks.

Q: How did it go?

A: It’s getting better. The first time was completely terrifying with all the different noises: hearing the water hit the hull, waking up with the ducks outside. I sleep out in the lake; it’s scarier in the harbor because there are some weird people. The boat does get attention when I’m out there; I think motorboats don’t understand that I don’t have a motor and they can wake me. It’s always a little scary with motorboats coming at me; they have giant motors and my boat is so tiny. The marine police gave me a ticket on St. Patrick’s Day for disorderly conduct.

Q: Seriously? What happened?

A: I was on the river when they turned it green. (When she contested the ticket) the judge threw it out; I think the police officer just liked writing tickets.

Q: You’ll be using the old “bucket and chuck it” routine. Can you get in trouble for peeing in Lake Michigan?

A: Yes, but I doubt I will. Can you imagine the ticket?

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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