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Adventure Magazine

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Q&A
   
Jim Shekhdar
Age: 54
Birthplace: Lemington Spa, England
Achieve-
ment:
First to row across the Pacific alone and unaided

“They were unfriendly, the sharks.”

 
Jim Shekhdar, Pacific Paddler

Looking the part of a long-haired, wild-eyed castaway, Jim Shekhdar washed up on Queensland's North Stradbroke Island (map) on March 30, 2001: After 275 days alone in a 23-foot (7-meter) plywood boat, he had become the first to row unassisted across the Pacific.

A onetime professional water polo player, Shekhdar didn't take up rowing until his 50s. In 1997, as a novice, he teamed with friend David Jackson to cross the Atlantic.

On June 29, 2000, Shekhdar set out from Ilo, Peru, determined to cross the Pacific. He braved 50-foot (15-meter) waves, nearly collided with an oil tanker ("the only thing that's ever made me wobbly for more than a few minutes"), and was repeatedly head-butted by an 11-foot (3.4-meter) white pointer shark. He made friends with a school of tuna that he swears shadowed him the entire 10,000 miles (16,100 kilometers).

Shekhdar never slept more than 90 minutes at a shot. He'd rationed 6,000 calories a day, but the voyage he'd expected to take five months lasted nine; by the end, he had lost 60 pounds (27 kilograms) and was living on cold pasta soaked in desalinated seawater. The wooden toilet seat he peers through in this photo was one of his few "luxuries."

Now Shekhdar is looking ahead: "If anybody thinks of any firsts, they should let me know."

—Kalee Thompson

What gave you the idea to paddle the Pacific solo?

 

In 1997 my partner, David Jackson, built the boat, and we completed the Atlantic Rowing Race. We didn't win it, but in the last week he decided the next thing he would like to do was cycle across the United States, so I thought I should think of something that I wanted to do.

It seemed like a logical progression from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And if [David] was cycling, I'd have to do it on my own. So that's where the idea started, and then it took an awful long time to get to the starting point.

 

Describe your boat, Le Shark.

 

Well the boat was 7 meters [23 feet] long and just under 2 meters [7 feet] at its widest point. It was very deep. I had about a 2-meter-long [seven-foot-long] cabin at the back, which I slept in. You couldn't sit up in it, but you could lie down in it, and it contained all my radio communications and lots of bits and pieces.

And then there was the middle section of the boat, where the sliding seat was for rowing, and there was a little section at the front, which had a waterproof hatch, which was used for storage.

 

Would you sleep a normal schedule?

 

No. On this one basically it was dependent on the elements. If it was rough and nasty, I wouldn't row, I would lie in the cabin. If it was too hot, I would lie in the cabin. If it was too dark—because I didn't have electricity—I would lie in the cabin.

Normally I would row between a half hour and two hours and then have a break, have something to eat or something. When I slept I wouldn't sleep more than an hour and a half, and then I'd have a look around and see if there was anything about to hit me or if I was doing anything wrong.

 

Did you communicate with your family and friends on a daily basis?

 

Well I couldn't afford it on a daily basis, but I did have a telephone. And I started out with four e-mail terminals, but five of the six communications and GPS systems failed. At the end I had only one.

I would contact each member of my family, the three of them, once every week for a couple of minutes. It's prohibitively expensive, telephones on boats. But it was always there except for a couple of months when I was out of range and just restricted by economics.

 

What did you bring with you to keep from going crazy?

 

My main mental stimulus was supposed to be from the computers I had on board [which malfunctioned]. I was going to play games, I was going to write programs, write my book, and I was going to listen to music all based on the computers.

 

But you had some books?

 

As it turned out, a lady I met in Chile who owned a secondhand bookstore gave me a pile of about 14 to 15 books that she had selected, which turned out to be an extremely good selection. There was a bit of comparative mythology by Campbell and Molière and Sophie's World, which my daughter gave me, which is about philosophy but in a childish way—which suits me.

Then there were some adventure books and things by Francis Chichester and Thor Heyerdahl, who crossed the Pacific on a raft. The Brotherhood of the Rose, by David Morrell. So James Bond sort of stuff. It took me only about three weeks to read the lot, so I had to read them again.

 

Were sharks a threat?

 

They were unfriendly, the sharks. But there wasn't any danger as long as they stayed on the outside and I stayed on the inside.

One shark I saw as a great annoyance because I couldn't go swimming to keep cool, and he wouldn't generally come close enough for me to poke him with my homemade harpoon. It angered me more than it threatened me.

I had this same white pointer shark following me. He would come back every week or ten days for one or two days. He'd head-butt the boat or hit it with his tail or make a general nuisance of himself. And he also upset the tuna that were following me, which offended me.

 

How could you tell it was the same shark and the same tuna?

 

You can identify them by their injuries. The shark had a little hole in the top of his head where I had stabbed him, and his dorsal fin had chunks out of it. The shark was very recognizable just by his size, shape, and demeanor. I'd be surprised if there were two sharks that looked like him.

The tuna—I couldn't recognize them all, but the major players I could recognize.

 

Why do you think the fish followed you?

 

They didn't follow me to keep me company or anything. They followed me because my boat produced food for them.

The fish that are the prey of the tuna are attracted to the underside of the boat because they think it's a safe haven. So they swim toward what they consider to be a reef, and the tuna are just waiting there to eat them. So I think it's a food trap for the tuna more than a friendly place to talk to me.

 

Did you eat any of your tuna friends?

 

No. I had the means to fish, but I didn't have the need to fish. I practiced without hooks, just in case I needed to fish, but the only fish I ate were out of tins.

The tuna were big, about 35 to 40 kilos [77 to 88 pounds]. They would have certainly gone bad after a couple days, so I wouldn't have eaten much of them if I had caught one. One jumped into the boat once, but I put him back after taking a photograph of him.

 

You had some run-ins with big ships, didn't you?

 

Whenever I managed to talk to a ship [via radio], they told me I was invisible, because they couldn't see me on radar. They couldn't see me visually until they were very, very close.

I had one fishing boat hit me in daylight, a glancing blow. They saw me. I think they were messing about, but they miscued. I was asleep and was awoken by the crew shouting at me. It was very annoying because I was only about 500 miles [805 kilometers] outside Peru.

And then I had an encounter with a tanker, which was scary. It was the only thing ever in my life that disturbed me for longer than the moment. Every time I went to sleep for a few days after that, I would wake up startled, thinking I was hearing engines.

 

How did you awaken to your encounter with the tanker?

 

It was about half past three in the morning. I thought it was thunder that woke me up, but it got louder and louder, and it turned out to be the engines of the boat. And by the time I looked out of the hatch it was about 50 meters [55 yards] from me, coming straight for me.

It was doing about 15 knots, so there wasn't any chance of getting out of the hatch by the time it would have hit me, but about 15 to 20 seconds later it just missed and went past the front of the boat. That was the most dangerous situation that I've been in in my life.

 

Did you ever consider giving up?

 

It's not an option really when you're in that situation, because there's nowhere to go except forward. There were times when I was in danger of being blown onto islands, etc. But that was only on a couple of occasions.

I think it's pretty irresponsible to get the rescue services out for you, unless you're in desperate need. And I was never in desperate need.

 

What was it like to finish?

 

I've never felt quite so emotional or happy in my life, because the family was standing on the beach. They came into the sea to try to help me because I fell over at the end. It was absolutely fantastic to finish, yes.

The start and the buildup are just a series of frustrations. The main problem is raising the money to do it, and that is a soul-destroying job. It's tedious. The actual trip had highs and lows, but the finishing of it was extraordinary. It was wonderful.

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Read more on Jim Shekhdar in the July/August 2001 Adventure's Journal department.
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Related Web Sites

Gallery: Sailing the "Liquid Himalaya"
Covering the Whitbread Round the World yacht race, sailor-photographer Rick Tomlinson hitched a harrowing ride. See for yourself.

Pacific Challenge 2000
Read personal postings from Shekhdar, news of the crossing, and more at his official site.

Adventure Q&A: Catherine Chabaud, Captain Courageous
What does the first woman to circumnavigate the Earth alone, without stopping, do for an encore? She does it again.

 

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