A Croatian seaman once taught me about what he called the “psychology of survival” in challenging situations. Zoran Lukin had said as we were preparing to row across the Atlantic Ocean from Casablanca, Morocco to the Caribbean in 1981, “You and Curt have to think about what it means to get along with each other in a small space for a long period of time. You have to think about the challenges of rough weather and long passages at sea with no one but each other for company. It is better,” he helpfully pointed out, “to take some kind of action than wait for problems to happen.”
I looked at him, intrigued. This was something we hadn’t considered before because we were so focused on the physical aspects of the preparations for the Atlantic row. We had just spent the past year building Excalibur, our 25-foot ocean rowboat in a barn in Rhode Island and learning a variety of seafaring skills like celestial navigation, ham radio communication via Morse code, boat handling, and how to plan a high caloric diet for an ocean crossing.
The psychology of survival was something Zoran had learned about during his many years at sea as a merchantman. I had minimal seagoing experience and had only read books about long distance voyaging, and the challenges of surviving harsh and inhospitable environments before embarking on the Atlantic row. I imagined most of the difficulties would come from rowing in large breaking waves day after day and surviving our boring but economically affordable diet of macaroni and cheese meals, Minute rice, canned meat spreads and Tang, a sugary powdered drink mix. I never thought living in isolation with Curt for weeks on end on the ocean rowboat with its 9-feet of open deck space would require any special skills. Since we were best friends and loved each other, what could be the problem?
When Zoran pointed out that how we got along and dealt with adversity together was perhaps more important than the actual notion of rowing the boat, my eyes were opened to a new way of understanding what it meant to explore the world and my place in it. To do it successfully, I had to be in excellent physical health and understand that the psychology of survival was about supporting each other in any way we could to reach our goal successfully.
The action he was talking about, we later discovered, was not just deciding when to put out the sea anchor which is a conical shaped device with open ends to slow the boat in stormy weather. It wasn’t just deciding when to take star and sun sights with the sextant to navigate across the Atlantic Ocean. Zoran, we realized, was telling us how we dealt with each other and our own mental health was as important to the success of the expedition as rowing Excalibur day in and day out. Believing in us as a team and as individuals was extremely important.
I learned during the first weeks of the Atlantic row that keeping my mind focused on the formidable goal of rowing 3600 miles (hopefully in a straight line) from one shore to the other took great discipline. We learned quickly to cheer each other on as we put in long hours at the oars. When gales roiled the seas and the rowboat jostled around so much that my seasickness made it impossible to keep anything solid down, Curt would make a thin broth from a Maggi bouillon cube and feed me spoonful by spoonful. When he crawled back in the tiny 6 foot long forward cabin where we slept, soaking wet from checking the compass on the slippery aft deck, I got out the towel and patted him dry and hung up his moldy wet socks. For each action, a small kindness that we would share with each other, our team was made stronger as we came closer to our goal until on June 10, 1981 we rowed into English Harbour, Antigua 83 days after leaving Casablanca.
In the end, the biggest take-aways for me from rowing across the Atlantic Ocean and later the South Pacific were becoming a better team player and a confident self-reliant person who was able to stand on her own two feet. Zoran’s psychology of survival lesson was a valuable reminder of how important both our mental and physical health are to the challenges we take on in life.