Oceans to explore
If all goes as planned, Sonya Baumstein will be setting out from Japan next year in a 23-foot boat, with the goal of rowing across the northern Pacific Ocean to California. And if all goes as planned, she’ll be the first woman to do so.
The 28-year-old Florida native already has:
— rowed across the Atlantic Ocean as part of a four-person team;
— ridden a bicycle from the U.S./Mexican border to Seattle;
— paddled a kayak on the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska; and
— the accomplishment that has received the most publicity, become the first person to cross the Bering Strait on a stand up paddle board, in August 2013.
Baumstein was in central Illinois in late February, talking about her adventures and her plans for the Pacific crossing to classes at Eastern Illinois University, the University of Illinois, St. Matthew Catholic School and The High School of St. Thomas More.
Baumstein rowed in high school and in college at the University of Wisconsin, until she was hit by a car while crossing a street. The injuries she sustained effectively ended her college rowing career. She became interested in ocean rowing several years ago. The idea of setting out into the unknown was appealing.
She found a race, the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, used the settlement from her accident to buy a boat and recruited team members online.
She pitched the adventure as four treks involving 10,000 self-powered miles within 400 days: rowing the Atlantic crossing, biking from Mexico to Canada, paddling the Inside Passage to Alaska and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
The row across the Atlantic took 57 days. It was the hardest thing she had ever done.
During the journey, two people rowed for two hours while the other two slept, and then they would change positions — two hours on and then two hours off every day, all day, so none of the rowers ever got more than 11/2 hours of sleep at a time.
“It’s debilitating after a while,” Baumstein said.
She lost 25 pounds during her 57 days at sea. Now, before she leaves on a journey, she packs on as many pounds as she can by eating high-fat and high-carb foods to reach her “apocalypse weight” — 30 pounds heavier than normal.
Rowing with three virtual strangers also took a toll.
“The interpersonal skills that everybody needs to have on board to make it function correctly are extremely high,” she said. “The biggest problem with having a partner is neither of you have any idea how you are going to act on the water or what the effect on your body is going to be.
“You have to realize at points you are going to be the worst version of yourself and at times you’ll be the best version of yourself.”
And as much preparation as there is for such an adventure, Baumstein said, you can’t really know until you experience it what it is like to be exhausted, to have your body covered with salt sores and to experience the gamut of emotions daily. But, she added, those emotions for her included wonder at the natural world around her and the satisfaction of working through obstacles along the way.
It didn’t go as planned.
She broke her ankle as she was leaving on the bike ride and rode with a fracture until she got to San Francisco — where her bike was stolen. She got a replacement bike and finished, looking forward to getting back on the water. She paddled the Inside Passage with two partners, eventually finishing by herself. She had to forgo the hike, but during her bike and kayak trips, she formed a new plan: crossing the Bering Strait on a stand up paddle board.
She traveled to Alaska with her equipment last summer and lived with an Inuit family while waiting 51/2 weeks for the 12 hours of clear weather she needed for her crossing. The area’s weather was extreme, with powerful winds and currents. When the opening occurred, locals transported Baumstein and her paddle board across the border into Russian waters, according to GPS calculations, and she paddled 11 hours back to Alaska.
Baumstein wants her adventures to be about more than just her own accomplishments, so she has sought opportunities to collect scientific data on her trips. She had hoped to collect data in the Bering Strait, but the equipment was too heavy.
She has formed a partnership with scientists at NASA’s Aquarius Mission, which uses a satellite to measure ocean salinity. On her Pacific crossing, she’ll have equipment on board to measure the salinity of the ocean at its surface layers — something difficult to do with larger boats because they disturb the water too much. She’ll provide comparison data for the Aquarius satellite, to test its accuracy.
“It’s not supposed to be just a journey for me,” she said.
Since setting out as an explorer, she’s also formed a nonprofit organization: Epoch Expeditions. Its aim is to inspire people, connect them with wilderness and make them more aware of their world and changes in its environment, and to help others achieve adventures such as hers. The organization is supporting four people who will row from California to Hawaii this summer and collect data for the Aquarius Mission.
The boat she’ll use in her Pacific crossing is 23 feet long, 6 feet wide and made of carbon with a Kevlar-reinforced bottom.
Baumstein said strong, steady trade winds helped with the Atlantic crossing, but winds are far less predictable in the northern Pacific. She’ll rely more on staying in a major current stream. She estimates it will take four to six months to cross.
For training, she spends a lot of time on a rowing machine, lifts weights and runs — anything to increase her endurance and “suffer time.” The key to her success, she said, is “learning how to suffer. It’s learned mental toughness.”
She is in her second year of planning for the Pacific crossing. The preparations are a full-time job. She has a support crew that includes a duty officer who is her point person on shore, helping coordinate all aspects of the trip; weather routers; scientists who will help with placing the scientific equipment on her boat and testing it; and people who are helping manage sponsorships and social media.
She found designers who built a boat for her, and she has a sponsor providing dehydrated food for the trip. Baumstein says she talks to a lot of people, follows every lead and makes cold calls, trying to line up sponsors to make the trip possible.
It hasn’t all gone as planned. She was originally going to have a rowing partner, who backed out. Potential sponsors have made commitments but not followed through. She keeps working at it, though.
This summer, she’s planning a training row up the Atlantic coastline, 900 miles from Florida to New England. She expects it to take three to four weeks. It’s a test run for both her equipment and her support staff.
Her reward for the three years she is putting into planning the journey won’t be reaching California. It will be taking the first stroke in the water off Japan, knowing her hard work has put her there.
ONLINE: More about Sonya Baumstein
Baumstein’s website is sonyabaumstein.com.
For more information on her Pacific crossing, visit npacsolo.com.
To see a YouTube video about her Bering Strait crossing, go to youtube.com and search for Sonya Baumstein.
Photos: Top, Sonya Baumstein rowing during her crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Second, Baumstein in her kayak while paddling the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska. Third, Baumstein on her stand up paddle board while crossing the Bering Strait. Bottom, Baumstein in Wales, Alaska, after her Bering Strait crossing. Bottom two photos by Dirk Collins.