For the past two years, Jenn Gibbons has been planning an epic journey around Lake Michigan. The feat: 1,500 miles around Lake Michigan in a 700 pound single-person rowboat designed to double as sleeping quarters and storage for her equipment, a journey that she predicts may take her from June 15th until August 15th.
But even though she’s rowing solo, she’s not really going alone. She has the support of a whole team of people who are working behind-the-scenes to make this happen, her family and the women she’s affected (and been affected by) through the program she founded in 2007, Recovery on Water (ROW).
ROW is a program that encourages breast-cancer survivors to get fit through rowing. ROW’s operating mantra says “breast cancer survivors who exercise regularly can reduce their risk of cancer recurrence by 50 percent.” Gibbons is rowing to raise money and awareness for this cause; she will be making a few stops to speak and take part in organized fundraising events along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Find out more about ROW in the video below.
Over the phone, Gibbons was catching her breath talking about how exciting and nerve-wracking everything has been so far. She feels like even if she didn’t leave for her trip, her life would be changed already. “There’s so many things about it, so many life lessons…” Gibbons said. “Everything from being able to ask people to help you with things to just having an understanding that you can’t control everything that happens to you on a daily basis.”
This is an amazing commitment considering the fact that Gibbons has never been personally affected by breast cancer. Her idea to start the group came after a series of events over years. She spent a lot of time volunteering with survivors in high school and college. College is where she also started rowing then she went on to coach in Chicago after graduation. “I basically found that this is the best way that I could give to something that gave me so much,” Gibbons said. “Rowing really taught me a lot about myself and made me who I am today.” And when she started coaching in Chicago, she found that there was interest in starting a group.
“I think that if there is one point where I definitely had the inspiration or it touched me personally, it would have to be with those first five women,” Gibbons said. “Because I really didn’t have an understanding of what it was that I could give to other people or what ROW could be for other people until I worked with them… I felt like this is the first time I had something extremely unique to give that I loved sharing and people really appreciated it and it really changed their lives.”
For her own life-changing journey that Gibbons will depart for in a few short weeks, she will be traveling and living in her boat, Liv, a futuristic-looking vessel, much unlike traditional row boats. The boat was built by Rhode Island Boat Builders and designed by accomplished rowboat designer Phil Morrison. Liv is made to self-right in case it capsizes, and it can stand up to 30 foot waves and hurricanes. It’s 19 feet long and has enough cabin space to store 70-100 days of food, gear and also has sleeping quarters for Gibbons where she can strap in when the weather’s bad.
“I’m not afraid of the boat not being able to withstand the conditions,” Gibbons said. Then she talks about the things she has learned during preparation, but has still yet to experience, “[the experts say]’you will fail your boat before you’re boat fails you.’… I’m a rower, I can row all day long, but I don’t know all that much about the Great Lakes or a big body of water. That’s been a big learning curve. I think a lot of stuff I just can’t know until I get out there.”
Typically, single-person rowboats weigh about 60 or 70 pounds, according to Gibbons. But they don’t include storage space, high-tech navigational gadgets and enough space to sleep. Her mammoth boat will weigh about 700 pounds when all is said and done. That limits her in the distance she can cover in one day. On a good day, with perfect weather and water conditions and no stops to make along the way, Gibbons predicts she will be able to row up to 30 miles. Gibbons even has a schedule roughly illustrating her schedule on her website for the event, ROW4ROW.org.
She has left her job in order to have all the time she needs to focus on this event, to train (which she does diligently through yoga and on-land rowing) while she also prepares to say goodbye to her friends and family for the summer. “I’m a very big family person, I’m very close with my family and when I decided to do this trip, I had to find a way to tell my family. And of course they were very supportive but also very concerned.” Gibbons said her mom will be worried sick every day that she’s out rowing, but after all, it’s for a good cause.