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A   H U N D R E D   A N D   O N E   A T L A N T I C   N I G H T

A proud parent boasts little of a son's abilities 
and his achievements. But glories in his 
kindness, his gentleness, his quiet courage.

Pam Brown

I arrived home to a message light flashing on the answering machine. Nothing really out of the ordinary, and yet I had an uneasy sense about it. I pushed the button and listened to the devastated voice of my twenty-one-year-old son, Daniel:

"I'm guttered, Mum, Jaish can't do it!"

I gasped, feeling his disappointment and my own as well. Three months before, in the fall of 1995, Daniel's old school chum Jaishan had asked Danny to team up with him and enter the Great Atlantic Rowing Race and row from Tenerife, Canary Islands, to Port St. Charles, Barbados. He had accepted with great excitement. They paid the entrance fee, and planning began immediately.

I was excited to be able to use my background in public relations to help promote them, get the specially designed rowing boat custom built and help raise the needed funds. We had two years.

Both boys were British army cadets and needed permission for the time off. Danny's request had been accepted. Now we knew Jaish's request had been turned down. I reassured Daniel that he would easily find another partner.

"It's not that easy, Mum. I need someone who can commit the next two years to promotion, fund raising, training and skills acquisition. But mostly it has to be someone I can spend three months alone with on a twenty-three-foot boat!"

I'm not really sure what happened next. I don't know whether he asked or I offered. All I know is that at the end of the conversation I had agreed to become his new partner and row across the Atlantic with him-we were a team! 

My beloved second husband Keith had died of cancer a few years before, and my old life was gone. I was fifty years old and a widow. My life felt empty and had no direction. The prospect of spending the next two years preparing for an adventure was very exciting, and the opportunity to share this unique experience with my son was irresistible. Once I had decided, there was no going back. He was offering me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I was going to seize it.

The commitment to row the Atlantic had been made. Now came the logistics. Money was a major issue. I had a marketing job, but there was no way it would begin to finance this project. So off I went to the bank.

As the former mayor of my hometown of Chipping Norton I was fairly well known, so I did have some hopes. But when all was said and done, my presentation still sounded like a fifty-year-old widowed woman asking for a loan so she could row the Atlantic with her son. Right!

So I mortgaged my home, my two-hundred-year-old little stone cottage.

We were officially a team.

When our custom-built ocean-going rowing boat was completed, we ceremoniously named it Carpe Diem Seize the Day! We began training sessions together, mostly on the Thames. Daniel began to feel quite guilty because of the financial burden he felt he had placed on me. At one point I realized, My God, if this doesn't work, I could lose my house! But we didn't have time for thoughts like those. We each brought our own unique skills to the venture. I knew it was my job to get us to the starting line in the Canary Islands, and Captain Daniel would get us to the finish line in Barbados.

When I finally got up the courage to tell my own mum of our plans, to my delight she offered no guilt, fear or negativity. Instead her response was: "The years between fifty and sixty go like that!" and she snapped her fingers. "DO IT! And I'm utterly behind you."

October 12, 1997, finally arrived. After two years of hard work, we departed Los Gigantes Tenerife along with twenty-nine other teams. At fifty-three, I was the oldest participant, and we were the only mother-and-son team. Our boat was designed with two rowing seats, one behind the other. For the first six hours we rowed together. After that, we began the routine we would maintain for the next one hundred days. Two hours of solo rowing, and then two hours of sleep in the tiny cabin in the bow. For the first week out, Danny was sick with food poisoning, and I had to be captain and in charge. It proved to us both that I could in fact pull my own weight on the water.

Once Daniel was better, we fell into a comfortable routine that bonded us together into a wonderful new partnership. Sometimes he would be sleeping so soundly that I would row for another hour or so. Often Dan would do the same-row for another hour or so and let his mum sleep. Our obvious kindness toward each other was awesome, and I found my son's kindness toward me to be overwhelming. We were a rowing team, yes, but in the larger picture we were still mother and son, loving and caring for each other unconditionally. If either of us could have given the other a full eight hours' sleep, we would have done so in a flash.

The constant rolling and heaving of the boat, the constant dampness and humidity, the lack of sleep and comfort and, of course, the heavy rowing all began to take a toll on my body that deeply worried us both. My hands were red and raw and stiff like claws. I had boils on my bottom and I began to suffer from sciatica. There was swelling in my hip from a muscle I had torn prior to departure, and my shoulder was injured from being thrown across the boat in high seas. Danny was worried that his drive to achieve his goal was going to permanently damage his mum, and I was worried that the frailty of my fifty-three-year-old body was going to destroy my son's dream. I suddenly felt old and a burden on the venture. But then Daniel began to experience many of the same pains, and I knew it wasn't just me, but the extraordinary conditions we were living under.

Throughout the trip, there were many things that made us think about giving up. There were the hard days when we blamed each other. "How could you do this to your poor mum?" I would shout. "This is all YOUR fault!" And Daniel would yell back, "I didn't expect you to say 'Yes!"' But in truth, we decided that the only thing that would have really made us give up was if a whale had smashed our boat. Daniel laughs now and says, "And oh my God, how many times we prayed for that!"

We were astonished as to how something as small as a rainbow, or a fish leaping out of the water could instantly cheer us up when we were low. In addition, before we left, we had all our friends and relatives write poems and letters to us, and seal and date them. That way, we had mail to open on each day of our journey. The humor and love in these letters picked us up and carried us when times got really rough.

We also had on board a radar beacon that allowed us to be tracked exactly. Each night the positions of all the boats were posted on the Internet, and our friends and family were able to track us. My own sweet mum rowed the Atlantic with me every night in her dreams. My stepfather drew a map to scale on the wall, and each night friends would call and report our position to my mum. They would then plot our course on that map. In a way, it was three generations rowing the Atlantic.

Both Daniel and I took a careful selection of books and taped music along. If you think rowing the Atlantic is boring, you should try not rowing! After a while, for variety, we began to trade books and listen to each other's music. Daniel began to appreciate my classical choices, and I began to enjoy listening to his reggae and UB40!

Every team in this race had its own reasons for participating. Some were committed to winning. We, however, were doing it for the challenge and the opportunity to spend this unique time together. Knowing we would not win, we took two hours off each night, and sat and enjoyed dinner, and talked. We told each other the stories and anecdotes of our lives, things that might not otherwise have been shared over a lifetime. One night over dinner I said, "This is a little bit like Scheherazade, you know, the story of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights!" Daniel replied, "Yes, Mum! Perhaps we should call our book A Hundred and One Atlantic Nights!" By complete coincidence (or was it?), that's exactly how many nights it took to cross-101!

On the night of January 22, 1998, we were approaching Barbados, thinking we still had twenty miles to go. We were loafing, savoring the last night of our long adventure together. One last time, my son began to make me a cup of hot chocolate and turned on his headlamp for a few moments. Suddenly the radio began to squawk. It was an escort boat, and they were looking for us. When we identified ourselves as Carpe Diem, we heard a lot of screaming and shouting on board: "It's them, it's them, they're safe!" They had seen Daniel's light for those few moments and were hoping it might be us. Then they told us to our shock and delight that we actually had only six miles left to go! Daniel rowed the first four, and allowed me, his aching but ecstatic mum, to row the last two. I would be the one to take us across the line of longitude that was the official finish line.

To our amazement, an entire flotilla of waiting boats carrying family and friends began to cheer. They then set off fireworks, lighting up the night sky, accompanied by the triumphant cannons of the 1812 Overture to welcome us and celebrate our safe arrival. The thrill of our accomplishment filled me in that moment, and I burst into tears and cried out "We've done it!! Oh Daniel, we've done it!"

Because of the heavy headwind, and our great fatigue, we chose to board the waiting escort boat, while our own weary little Carpe Diem, half filled with water and listing to one side, was towed in behind us. We were almost two months behind the winning KIWI team and thought that everyone would have forgotten about us-after all, we were the last boat in. But we were surprised and truly overwhelmed at the enormous welcome we received upon our arrival! Everyone wanted to meet and congratulate "Jan and Dan," the British mother-and-son team who had successfully rowed across the Atlantic and completed the race.

Aboard the escort boat we had an emotional reunion with my daughter, Daniel's sister Becky. And there was one more lovely surprise! Waiting for us on shore with tears and hugs was my own sweet mum, come all the way from her home in France, to welcome her jubilant daughter and grandson.

When I try and put into words what we will remember most, my journal entry from day sixty-nine speaks most poignantly of the things only my heart would know. I wrote:

I don't believe it is the beauty, the dolphins, whales, dawns and sunsets, although they will be with me forever. The brilliant night sky, stars, delicate new moons, brilliant full 'bright as day' moons. The power and the glory of the ocean.

No. It is finding out how one's body and mind learn to cope. Seeing how Daniel bears up. I have found such pride in his unfailing good temper and optimism-his intrinsic kindness and thoughtfulness. I have loved the baby, the child, the boy, I have been proud of them, but now I love and admire the man, Daniel, with all my heart.

For the rest of our lives, no matter where they may take us, we will always have the memory of this special time together, and the pride in the spectacular accomplishment that was ours, and only ours.

We did it. Together.

Jan Meek with Daniel Byles
As told to Janet Matthews

  1983-2001 Ocean Rowing Society

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