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Man to try solo row from Chiba to Golden Gate Bridge

June 11 2005

By MARIE DOEZEMA Contributing Writer


Imagine being so alone that your breathing sounds loud. Companionship comes from wind, rain, dolphins and whales. Eating, sleeping and even peeing become luxurious breaks instead of physical necessities. The expanse of sea and sky is broken only by the routine of rowing, rowing and more rowing.

Welcome to the life of Emmanuel Coindre. This week, the Frenchman will push off from Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, and begin his journey across the Pacific, hoping to reach San Francisco within four months. Means of transport? His two arms and a small yellow rowboat named Somewhere.

Coindre, 32, isn't the madcap sportsaholic one might expect. Though he chases world records almost compulsively, it's not because he feels the need to prove himself, but due more to a sense of humanitarian duty.

"I have the good fortune to be in good health, and this is a way I can share that with others," he says.

While Coindre has significant corporate and government sponsorship for his voyages, he refuses personal donations, asking instead that individuals donate to Necker Hospital, a children's facility in Paris, and the European Leukodystrophy Association, an organization that supports those with genetic, degenerative diseases that impair nerve and brain function.

In addition to raising money, Coindre makes visits to kids in the hospital, and aims to bring increased media attention and awareness to both causes.

Though Coindre's winsome grin and bulging biceps often elicit predictable responses-at a recent Tokyo press conference, one giddy female requested that he remove his blazer for the sake of better ogling-talking with Coindre reveals that it is less a lust for stardom and more a desire for introspection that drives his solo journeys.

"Rowing is a beautiful sport. It's a beautiful movement. That's where I belong," he says. "I've had the chance to do ocean crossings on bigger boats, but that seemed too comfortable. I craved something physical."

To date, Coindre has crossed the Atlantic Ocean five times, and considers the Pacific to be the next logical challenge. If he succeeds in rowing to the Golden Gate Bridge-his desired point of arrival about 9,000 kilometers away-he will be the first person to row across the Pacific without assistance.

Coindre interprets "no assistance" in the strictest sense. There's no vessel trailing behind, doling out prime rib and dry clothes, and not even an occasional plane swoops by to refill supplies.

For four months Coindre will be fully autonomous, ensconced in his boat, with enough high-energy food to last the duration of the trip. "I have everything I need when I leave," he says. And if the chocolate runs out? "As a last resort, I fish."

Though making the trip without assistance is precisely the purpose, no assistance does not imply no contact. Thanks to satellite telephone, Coindre expects to remain in daily contact with his land crew in La Baule, France. Communication is both psychologically and pragmatically essential, Coindre says. "We exchange emotions and weather forecasts, and choose the best, quickest route to follow."

Coindre considers staying in touch with family and friends a necessity, as well, but tries to limit phone conversations to 10 minutes per day. Mutual reassurance is beneficial, but can potentially distract from the trip's purpose. "I don't have the right to make my loved ones suffer or impose worry on them. I don't want to put them in a difficult situation," he explains. "But I also must keep my distance. This is really a personal project, and I have to stay concentrated and introspective."

Coindre is honest about the difficulties, and says that occasionally succumbing to loneliness is inevitable. The loneliness, however, is not of the mind-numbing, hair-tearing, panicky variety, but actually functions as a source of strength. "It's chosen and anticipated," he says. "It's not at all like an imposed solitude, like that of sick people or those on the outskirts of society. The point of the project is solitude. It's chosen and lasts only four months."

With all of the potential threats a human in the middle of the ocean faces-typhoons, sharks and killer whales, to name only a few-Coindre cites stillness as the eeriest thing he has encountered. "What's scary about the ocean is when all is calm-no wind, no waves. I saw that only twice, when I was crossing the Atlantic. The sea and the sky didn't move at all. It was very strange. No wind. There wasn't a single sound or single breeze," he describes. "There was no life, except me."

Moments like these make mammalian visits a welcome relief. Being surrounded by spouting whales is a rather magical source of companionship, as are the chirps and splashes of the dolphins that occasionally travel by his side. At times, though, whale-sized curiosity can prove intimidating.

"If the animals get to be too much, I go in my cabin," he says, referring to the capsule-sized space that runs along the bottom of his boat.

Encounters with fellow seafaring creatures are almost always positive, Coindre says. Evidence of humans-in the form of plastic refuse and other litter-is the contrary.

Music, too, plays an integral role in the journey. "I listen mostly to French music. It helps to keep me in touch with my origins," he says. "The emotions in the music are completely natural on water," he says.

Though Coindre doesn't have time to read-he rows between 16 and 18 hours a day and sleeps only a few hours per night-he has plenty of time to think and writes on a regular basis, as well. As for his emotions, he lets them flow freely. When you're in the middle of an ocean, why practice restraint? "I shout. I sing. I cry," he says.

Coindre's voyage across the Pacific will mark his longest solo journey to date. "I have no experience being alone for four months-not yet," he says. "The longest I've gone is three months."

While some might consider four months of waves and rowing to be monotonous, Coindre insists that each day is distinct. "Every day is a little bit different, mostly because of my geographic position. Of course, the days do resemble each other somewhat, because each one has the same routine. Every day requires certain things I must do, like communication, physical and technical repair," he says.

Coindre reconsiders. "For me, it's all one big day."(IHT/Asahi: June 11,2005)

  1983-2005 Ocean Rowing Society

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