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Author Podcast: Julie Angus

abstract:This week's author interview podcast is with the first woman on record to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean—in a row boat. She survived four hurricane class storms and documented her astounding journey in a book titled, Rowboat in a Hurricane: My Amazing Journey Across a Changing Atlantic Ocean. Named personality of the year by National Geographic, join us today as Julie recounts her incredible story and gives witness to the state of the one of the world's oceans. It will inspire you and make you think. This is the perfect gift for any adventurer or enviro-centric person in your life. Help us put Julie's book on the bestseller lists where it belongs with your purchase here today.

article:

December 20, 2008

The Interview

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  • PART I: How Julie Angus Contrived Her Trip Across The Atlantic
  • PART II: The Effects of Climate Change Witnessed On Her Journey
  • PART III: Arriving On The Other Side Of The Atlantic

Interview Transcript

BB: This is Paula Shackleton podcasting for BookBuffet.com and today I am speaking with Canadian scientist, adventurer and author, Julie Angus of Comox British Columbia whose book, Rowboat in a Hurricane: My Amazing Journey Across a Changing Atlantic Ocean (published by Greystone Books 2008) chronicles her record breaking journey 10,000 kilometres across the Atlantic ocean in a row boat with her fiancé, Colin Angus. The couple won the Adventurer of the Year award from the National Geographic Society. 2005-06 was a season of hurricanes and storms that defied both the records and the weather centers. This speaks to the great world issue of global warming, and Julie’s book chronicles both her extraordinary journey and the status of our planet’s oceans. If you yearn for adventure and you want to know what it feels like to make such a journey – stay tuned. Welcome Julie! How are things in Comox, BC?

JA: I'm doing very well. It's nice to be on stable ground. It's about three years ago that we were in a row boat right now, and we had just gone through our second hurricane actually. We were just coming out of it, so the waters were turning calm once again.

BB: You know I'm sure as you go through the calendar each year you do harken back to that time, so it is probably one of those life experiences that is always with you.

JA: You do, and especially on memorable occasions, for example our birthdays or Christmas! We did celebrate Christmas and New Years on the row boat, and our celebrations were alot different than they are now.

BB: Julie you and I met for the first time back in May of 2006 in the make-up room of a local television studio just after your and Colin’s return from the trip in this book, and I wanted to tell our listeners the story because it was so funny to me. We’re sitting in the CTV or Breakfast Television waiting room, waiting for our respective turns to go on the air, and while making chit-chat I couldn’t help but be astounded both by your story of this epic adventure and also to watch Colin, in his long hair and beard, plough through about a dozen pastries that were sitting on the table between us. As a perpetual calorie counter, I couldn’t help thinking about the carb load he was consuming and the contrast [sitting there was] to what you’d just experienced.

JA: I think you're being kind and just not mentioning all the pastries I ate. [laughs] I do appreciate that. Well, when you're on an expedition you do definitely have a different dietary demand than when you're in normal life. For example when we were on the Atlantic rowing we consumed about 5,000 calories a day. So being able to meet that nutritional need is a huge priority, and you're eating very calorie rich foods, so things that you would not eat in your normal life, lots of cookies and full fat foods, lots of oil in all your meals. So it is quite a transition going back into normal society where you have all these other commitments, working on books, etc. expending the same amount of energy each day.

BB: Julie this trip across the Atlantic in a rowboat is so inconceivable to most mortals that I think a good place to start talking about Row Boat In A Hurricane is by telling our listeners about your background as a normal though active microbiology graduate from Victoria University, and how you and Colin first met prior to embarking on this epic journey?

JA: Sure, well I think my approach to becoming an adventurer is fairly atypical. I grew up as an only child and my parents did not want me spending any time outside or becoming involved in sports because they were always worried that I would hurt myself. Things changed for me when I did my Masters Degree at the University of Victoria. I moved from Ontario to BC and I really became active in the outdoors. I fell in love with the mountains and the ocean. I met Colin, let's see, in 2003, we were both living in Vancouver, and we were going to do a race, the Vancouver Sun Run. We were at the bus stop waiting for the bus to take us downtown and we started talking and that is really where our relationship blossomed. We became engaged a year later, and then two years later we embarked on this row across the Atlantic Ocean together.

BB: Now a tremendous amount of planning went into your trip and I wonder if you could tell us some of those details, your physical preparation, the supply list, the financial ordeal, and about acquiring and preparing your vessel – the Ondine?

JA: It is, you're right, it's a huge amount of planning and preparation. First of all gaining the skills you need to as safe as possible cross the Atlantic. Learning how to row, creating the muscle mass and the endurance. Learning about off-shore travel in a small vessel, and then finding a boat that can do the job, and getting the money to buy the boat. Both Colin and I come from, I guess, working-class background. We put all of our savings into the expedition. At first we were not very successful in our sponsorship quest. Eventually we did have more and more sponsors come on and eventually we had a title sponsor come on while were on our journey. So that really helped out. But really it took a great deal of personal commitment and being willing to max out our credit cards and lines of credit in order to buy the boat, which itself was a $30,000 purchase. And then being able to prepare the boat with everything that you need for a five-month journey. That's a daunting task. Not only do you have to consider all of your food requirements, but you have to prepare for any kind of medical disaster or any other emergency. We were entirely self-supportive. So once we left land in Portugal we would not step onto shore until crossing the Atlantic. So you want to be sure you have everything you need with you for the journey.

BB: So let's break into the story at the part where you have met up with Colin in Moscow after Colin has just pretty much single-handedly cycled, skied and canoed half-way around the world from Vancouver up over Alaska, through Siberia in winter, and where the two of you then cycle together the 5,000 kilometres through Europe to your launch point at Lisbon, Spain. You’re standing at the Lisbon marina before dawn, just about to launch your boat with the waning tide and currents, what were you thinking at that moment?

JA:It was an incredibly exciting moment. So much work had gone into preparing into that moment. There were a lot of times that we were not sure that we were going to be able to achieve all the things that we had to in order to depart. We were also very exhausted. We'd been awake for long days in the two weeks we were in Lisbon just preparing the boat. So it was a very happy time. At the same time we couldn't help but be nervous. Once we pushed off from shore there was really no turing back. You are committed to that row, and we had to faithfully cross the Atlantic and deal with anything that we might encounter.

BB: Along the way your book chronicles both the day-to-day routines and the aquatic friends you meet, and it is peppered with details both scientific and oceanographic that make the book both entertaining and informative. Tell us about your routines on board and how you incorporate your journal writing and research in order to produce such a highly readable, often humorous as well as harrowing, text.

JA: Our day was divided into rowing and those activities that we would do when we weren't rowing. We rowed in 2-hour shifts and there would be someone at the oars for 20 hours a day to 24 hours a day. When we weren't rowing there were a lot of things that we needed to do keep life on the boat going. Things like: minor maintenance, navigation, communications and of course keeping very detailed notes for our books as well as photography and filming. For us it was very important to record the journey in a way we could share it with a broader audience when we returned to land. And to me particularly, I never thought of writing a book. It wasn't until I was on the Atlantic, and I really became enamoured with the beauty of it, but also realized the fragility of the ocean and seeing the impacts of polution, of climate change, of over-fishing. That is what made me want to chronicle this journey in a way that would allow people to see the beauty of the Atlantic, but also to realize that the ocean is at risk.

PART II: The Effects of Climate Change Witnessed On Her Journey

BB: I’m curious to know if any of your documentation of this trip has either spurned or just confirmed, new scientific knowledge or areas of investigation into how the ocean is becoming more acidic and how the warmer temperatures – ostensibly from global warming – are creating havoc on our global weather systems?

JA: It seems almost every day there is new research coming out talking about the different perils the ocean is facing and talking about the concrete studies that confirm these things. One of the things that we noticed most visibly was the polution. The most polution we saw was on the Caribbean Sea. Prior to that we would see odd pieces of garbage, perhaps about once a day. Some of it was quite large. We saw a container that had fallen off of a ship as well as a cable spool, but on the Caribbean Sea we saw a line of garbage that was about two to three feet wide and it stretched into the horizon for as far as we could see. It was mostly plastic and it had been collected there by converging currents and it had pulled trash from miles and miles around and drawn it together in this line that was a visually unappealing site, but much worse than that is the impact that it has on the animals in the oceans. For example animals like turtles who rely on jellyfish for sustenance often mistake plastic bags for jelly fish and then eat them and that has catastrophic consequences.

Those types of things have been documented in other areas as well, for example in the Pacific Ocean there's an area known as the great garbage patch and it's a similar region where currents converge and that area is much much larger. But I hadn't heard about that in the Atlantic. And I guess I could go on and on. With the hurricane, as you mentioned in your introduction it was the worst hurricane season in all of history. There are a number of studies that have been published in peer review journals about how the intensity of hurricanes has increased, how the duration has increased, and how there are more hurricanes now than ever before, and that is due to climate change, and obviously we had the unfortunate experience of having felt that first hand.

BB: Talking about the anticipation of a hurricane, you mentioned that the first one you encountered was way farther north and east than it should have been, can you tell us how you felt when you knew you were coming into a hurricane and what some of the signs were, than then how you prepared and endured the hurricane, and then the progression to the next storm and the next storm.

JA:Well we left Portugal September 22nd, and the reason we left then was we wanted to leave before the stormy season hit the coast of Europe, but we didn't want to reach the hurricane belt until well after the hurricane season, so the timing theoretically should have been perfect. But we were on the ocean for just over two weeks when we started to experience very unusual weather. At first, it just became very calm. The predominant winds and currents stopped, and we started to get gentle winds from the opposite direction. And that was quite unusual for that area of the ocean. And then, very strangely as well, we saw a couple of insects. We saw a small moth, and we were hundreds of miles away from land, and these were lad insects. So that was very unusual as well. And then the weather started to escalate, the winds increased, the height of the waves grew and we knew we were in for a storm. But we did not think it was a hurricane. We were very far North, very far East in an area that has never before had a hurricane. It was when I spoke with my father on the satellite phone. He said "Julie there's a hurricane that has formed several hundred miles away from you and it is tracking towards you."

So then we began monitoring the progress of Hurricane Vince very closely. There is nothing you can do in a rowboat to get out of the way of the path of a hurricane. All the other boats clear the area, so any sailboat or motor boat, they're gone, so you are pretty much all alone. We prepared our boat as best as we could while we were still able to be outside. We secured everything on the decks, tied down our oars, made sure we had our safety grab bag ready with all the provisions we would need in case we needed to abandon the boat. We brought the life raft inside because we were worried that the waves might rip it off the deck of our boat, and then once the waves grew to a height where we couldn't row anymore, this was probably about fifteen feet high, we went inside the cabin of the boat. And the cabin is very small, it's like the [space] underneath of your kitchen table. It's padded inside, so it does provide some protection. We were inside the cabin for three and a half days in total.

BB: Ooooh. Long time!

JA: It was a long time. And the ocean grew - we were estimating wave heights of about fifty feet. So that is just enormous, and these are breaking waves, and they break against our boat and on top of our boat and every time that happens it is just this huge impact, this huge mass hitting the boat and rolling it onto its side, rolling it from one end to the other. And were just being really shaken around inside, doing our best not to get too banged up. And you're worried that your boat is going to break. It is supposed to be self-righting and very sea worthy but at the same time, I'm not sure that any other rowboat has survived a hurricane, so we did have our doubts.

It's very uncomfortable. It's very hot. The cabin is completely airtight, which is good because it prevents water from coming in, but it also prevents air from coming in. So you constantly have to open the hatch to allow air in. And whenever you do that its a huge risk in case you get your timing off and a wave hits when the hatch is open. So it was a very difficult time.

BB: Well it sounds very challenging, and the fact that you could overcome it, is as you say is a mental discipline that is probably something that you bring from your own personal character in order to survive that. And any sort of story that you hear about personal conquest between man against nature, you see the same qualities in those people [of personal determination] just to be able to survive. So its a fascinating story.

I want the listeners to know about Ted and Ned and some of the - almost friendships - you had with the creatures that shared your journey most of the way!

JA: There were so many remarkable times that we had out there, and a big part of it was the wildlife that we had the opportunity to observe, and to interact with. I think my favorite part was Ned and Ted and Fred and Oscar which were these fish that followed us for much of our journey. We first started having fish follow us about three to four weeks into the trip. I think it was the barnacles that grew on the bottom of our boat that attracted them. And we would scrape the barnacles off the boat periodically because they of course slow the progress, but not all that successfully, and so we had a population of fish that ranged from just a handful, to over eighty at other times. They were small Trigger fish and Pilot fish which are known to follow larger objects or animals across the ocean getting their food from them, either the debris or things that grow on them. So these are fish that are used to following objects, and we are basically moving across the ocean so slowly that they don't have any difficulty keeping up with us. Some of these fish became our pets and we did name them and feed them, just giving them bits of scrap from our meals. It was quite meaningful for us, I guess, because you are alone out there. A lot of the time the ocean is very, um very monotonous. [both laugh] There's no landmarks, you're just looking at blue sky and blue water, so having a little aquarium surrounding the boat really gave us a great deal of pleasure.

BB: Ok, so you've travelled across the ocean now, you've reached the coast of Costa Rica. How many days was that all together?

JA: It was a hundred and forty-three days.

BB: So after a hundred and forty-three days on the sea, here you are, you're about to arrive and you're going to be met by the Discovery Channel film crew, the officials from the Canadian Embassy, the customs and immigration authorities and all of the local media. What did it feel like to be on land, physically and emotionally amidst such attention after so many months of complete solitude on the open ocean?

PART III: Arriving On The Other Side Of The Atlantic

JA:It felt great. At the same time it was very overwhelming. Moving from water to land was difficult because you're used to the motion of the water. You're used to not walking, so simply standing on solid ground is hard. You don't have a sense of balance, it feels like the earth is moving underneath you, and you really stumble around, almost in a drunken haze the first few days. It's difficult to walk. So that was challenging. And just being people. I mean we'd been in this small boat for such long period of time with only ourselves for company and suddenly there's this attention and there's lots of people around us. But at the same time we had dreamed of being on land for so long, and suddenly we had crossed the ocean, we had achieved this goal that was so enormous. There were times when we didn't know if we would be able to make it. And suddenly did, and that was incredibly satisfying. We had all these dreams we wanted to do on land - most of them revolved around food! So, yeah. It was an incredible experience.

BB: You arrive on land, but that is not the end of your journey. You've got 8,500 km of bicyle riding through Central America, Mexico, the United States before you arrived home on May 20th, 2006.

JA: Yes, so there was still a bit of journey ahead of us. We put our boat into storage at the port in Limon, and two friends who were on vacation in Costa Rica brought our bikes with them. So we got onto our bikes and started cycling. Even cycling, after being on a boat for such a long time was quite a challenge at first. Eventually we got our milage up and we travelled through Central America and Mexico and, yeah, all through the US to return home to Vancouver, as you said, May 20th, and that was an amazing feeling. For Colin that was the completion of his human -powered circumnavigation. That was where he started, seven hundred and twenty days earlier. You know, he just "went West" and made his way back to Vancouver eventually, just using human power.

BB: So when you think about this trip and the trip you've taken subsequently and the fact that all of these trips are human powered, would you say you're inspired about a sense of adventure, or are you making a message to the world about global warming and the environment?

JA: I love exploring the world, through human powered travel. I just like that connection to nature. I like moving slowly through my landscape and I like experiencing it as I move through it. I feel that when you move by foot or by bicycle or a slow method where you have to work to gain your forward momentum you experience it much more deeply. So I think that is what drives me. At the same time, spending time in nature makes you develop more of an appreciation for it and a desire to want to preserve it in any way you can. And part of that of course is treading more lightly on the earth, reducing our carbon footprint, and of course one of the ways to do that is by using more human power instead of motor travel. So yes that is a message that we try and promote through our adventure in the books and films and when we talk to audiences.

BB: I went to your website www.angusadventures.com and people can sign up to receive newsletters from you and more information on trips that you've taken and trips that you're going to take. And also, I was intrigued that you're getting into the business of producing Angus Rowboats. Can you tell us about that?

JA: Well that started with an expedition we just completed two months ago, and on that trip we travelled from the northern tip of Scotland to Aleppo, Syria in the Middle East using rowboats that we had designed and built ourselves. The reason that we designed and built these boats is because we couldn't find anything out there that matched our needs. We wanted a boat that we could travel on rivers and canals, but that we could also travel on coastal waters so it would have some seaward linus, and a kayak would have been ideal for that but the other thing we wanted from this boat was to be able to carry a bicycle and a trailer. So in case we needed to travel on roads because we were restricted in our travel on river or other bodies of water because of constraints, we would be able to travel on land. So a kayak is too small to fit a bicycle and transport it. So we decided to build two rowboats. They worked amazingly well. The journey was just over 7,000 km and we traveled on some beautiful rivers: the Thames River, the length of the Danube River, we travelled on the Black Sea, we crossed the English Channel on these boats and through out the journey, and before, we got a lot of requests. People wanted to know where could they get these boats? Or, could they build a boat like this themselves? So we decided that we would produce these boats and at first we thought, maybe we could have them manufactured. But we just weren't able to set-up a company to do that. So what we're going to do is we're going to make plans for the boats and people can purchase the plans and then make the boats themselves like we did.

BB: How much does it cost to make one of these boats would you say?

JA: I would say it would probably cost about $2,000. I think that's what it cost us, maybe, around there. The boats are made out of plywood and fibre glass and epoxies.

BB: So you make these completely from scratch, you don't start with an existing canoe that you adapt with a cover?

JA: No completely from scratch. It took us about six months to design and build the boats. It's quite challenging. I didn't know much about boat building at all. Colin had a bit more experience. We had a lot of research to do prior to starting this project. But the boat handles amazingly well. We were really really pleased with them.

BB: Well, it's been such a pleasure speaking with you and talking about your book, Rowboat in a Hurricane. I just want to say "All the best" for your future ongoing journeys, and thank you for speaking with BookBuffet.

JA: Thank you so much for having me, Paula.

BB: So if people want to get in touch with you they should go through the website www.AngusAdventures.com

JA: And we have a contact box and they can email us, or they can sign up for our monthly newsletter.

 

 

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