Reflections after the finish from Mauritius

JJ Rowers
Jamie Facer-Childs and James Thysse
Sun 9 Aug 2009 10:43
Reflections from Mauritius
(on a beach nowhere near Naples)

The days since Southern Cross completed the 2009 inaugural Indian Ocean Crossing have been more than a little curious. What an opportunity to reflect on a whole host of issues fuelled by a wide range of emotions. JJ’s sponsors at 20 Degree Sud (the luxury hotel that has ensured they experience the full contrast between boat and dry land) organised a press conference at which they were asked to explain who they are, why they did it, how they managed it and what happened on the way. Both families were delighted to get this opportunity to hear their story (which they present differently to the outside world). Needless to say, the answer to the biggest of all these questions – why – is still shrouded in mystery. The traditional answer "because it was there" does not really satisfy and our two intrepid explorers are still at the stage of living on the adrenaline. Their partial answer is "we wanted a challenge; something different, doing something for charity" etc.

However, the role of observer is also an interesting one. All of us have also been challenged by their journey. The experience has stimulated multiple emotions and prompted many new questions. This is rich ground for contemplating meaning and significance beyond the event itself. I thought I would share some of my own confusions that have surfaced during this period.
The last 3 months have been focussed on an imaginary and arbitrary line drawn at 20 degrees south and 59 degrees east – the finishing line for the 2009 Indian Ocean Rowing Race. The final day when they "crossed the finishing line" transformed its significance for me from being "the point of safe return" to being "a symbol of human endeavour." This has prompted me to consider the challenges we face in our journey through life – some that we choose and others we do not.

But to begin at the beginning – or is it an ending? The arrival in Grand Bay set off a cocktail of emotions, which stirred many old questions and new thoughts. As I watched Jamie and James re-emerge after all these months – first as a dot on the horizon and, gradually, as a boat with oars and eventually as a boat with two people aboard, the emotions raced from joy, pride and relief to curiosity and concern. Their rowing appeared erratic, their course was uneven and I found myself speculating about their condition – weary; anti-climax; broken? What would "re-entry" be like for them? Having had such a challenging range of experiences, how could they share these with us, mere mortals "who could never really understand"? I experienced some trepidation at the process of reconnecting.

And then their human form became recognisable to the naked eye. The crowd on the quayside (family, Ferkins, locals, holidaymakers) was noisy and jubilant. The boys told us later that they could hear our cacophony from a good mile out to sea. The atmosphere was intense. Their progress was erratic making us concerned for their condition (only to discover later that this was due to their larking about and making preparations for landing such as putting shorts on after 103 days naked and lighting flares). It was a surprise and joy to discover that they were far from being broken men. They were all smiles and good cheer. Of course, their first steps on dry land were a little wobbly but the diet of 2000 calories per day had not left them emaciated. They were smiling, proud, tired, and happy. The outward appearance had changed – they were thinner, hairier and weathered – but far less than I had expected. The far greater curiosity now is the change on the inside, which has yet to be disclosed.

On that quayside and still in the grips of powerful emotions, I remembered the difficulty of drawing lines to demarcate emotions. I was experiencing both curiosity and disquiet at the reconnection process. These two boys were now officially "Ocean Rowers" going through an adjustment from sea, wind, waves and each other to the noise and demands of lots of people. How would they fit back into their lives and relationships that they had left more than 3 months previously? I was also feeling something else – something akin to sadness and yet I wasn’t feeling sad! Was it a sense of loss? Was it that the hopes and fears, the pride and concern, the roller coaster was coming to an end? This was an "ending" that signified completion and achievement – but I was all too aware of how it could have been a different story of disappointment, failure and sorrow. I sensed my own feelings about endings and parting was being brought into play.

I also observed, from the moment of landing, a clear difference in J and J’s interactions with the "land-lubbers" compared to their interactions with Guy and Andy (their fellow competitors known as the Flying Ferkins). It has been marvellous that these competing pairs could finish within less than 24 hours of each other – less than 1% difference over the whole journey. It not only enabled both teams and their entourage to celebrate together but also for the four rowers to talk and share this experience that has been so inter-twined all the way to the finishing line. And the need to talk and share with "people who know" was very evident and the mutual respect between them was a joy to behold!

One image that keeps recurring in my mind is the line in the sand as the tide comes in. We all draw lines in the sand. We all set targets and rules to help us, guide us and discipline us. They are often arbitrary – such as when a kid decides not to step on the cracks in the pavement or not to eat his/her sweets until reaching the front gate. Some of our lines are more important since they are drawn to guide us in how we want to live our lives – such as doing our homework before going out to play or not eating chocolate during Lent or always telling the truth. Such lines can be highly symbolic and serve to give shape and purpose to our lives as well as becoming an essential part of our identity. What does the line at 20 degrees south line signify now – and what will it signify to J and J in a few years time? I wait with interest as its meaning slowly unfolds through their lives to come.

But for now, they have passed a true rite of passage. They are very clearly now young men. I admire the challenge, the hope, and the adventure of youth. I am also old enough to recognise that these achievements which build identity and consolidate the ego are lines in the sand. As the tide comes in the greatest challenge is to shift the focus on "self" to an increasing focus on "others." The best metaphor is parenting which, when done well, converts individualism and confidence into generosity and humility. I now recognise some of the reasons for my mixed emotions and disquiet. It is the combination of admiration for this achievement with the question of what they have/will learn from it. I am sure that it is helping them to build their identity and confidence. They chose a challenge that many of us would never dream of. However, it is not the experience that is paramount, it is what they do with the experience. The next big question is how the experience is assimilated into the hardest journey of all – the road to generosity, respect, humility and wisdom. Even ocean rowers will find that hard.

But I do not want to take away from the achievement of the moment. Let me end on a less reflective and more concrete note. They crossed the finish line at12:26 GMT 31st July 2009 and reached land as the sun set about 19.00 Mauritius time. This was an incredible achievement for the youngest ever pair to successfully row an ocean. Not only is this a world record, which is likely to be held for many years to come, it is also a world record as the lightest and possibly the shortest pair in history. Congratulations.

And here is an Audio blogg conducted with Sonia from the Maidenhead Advertiser talking to Jamie 1 week after the finish.