Aerial Gilbert and Perry Heffelfinger
The fog was dense and the sun would not be up for
another hour. Somewhere behind us was Catalina Island, somewhere in front the California
coast. Just moments before my rowing partner, Perry Heffelfinger, and I had put our oars
in the water for the start of the 1999 Annual Catalina Crossing, a 33- mile race across
open ocean. Perry tried to keep Melee, our escort boat, and her husband, Carey
Chenoweth, rowing his single scull nearby, in view, but with the fog and the ocean swells,
it became increasingly difficult. I felt the fog on my face and the only sounds were our
blades entering the water, the creak of the oarlocks, and our nervous, rapid breathing.
Soon I could feel Perrys oars chattering on the water, and her voice became
increasingly tense. "Lets try the walkie-talkie and see if we can raise Melee,"
I suggested. No response. Next we tried the cell phone and again there was no response.
Perry saw lights from other escort boats and decided to chase down one of them. We
increased the power, but after a few minutes it was no use; our escort was out of sight
and seemingly unreachable. Shut in as if in a shrinking room, walls and ceiling closing
in, Perry and I suddenly were on equal footingbecause I am blind.
We now had to rely on our navigation equipment: a compass and the
Geographical Positioning System, or GPS, which we were not very familiar with. We set our
compass heading for Marina del Rey and rowed on alone.
In the silence I thought about when I first began rowing in college.
I had participated in other sports, but none gave me the joy that rowing provided. The
physical skill and teamwork balanced with power was as beautiful to experience as it was
to watch, for I still had my sight back then. I looked at rowing as a metaphor for life,
individuals working together to eke the most out of their effort. After college, I joined
the Sausalito Rowing Club and enjoyed all that San Francisco Bay had to offerthe sea
life, the birds. Rowing opened up a new and versatile way to explore Richardson Bay under
the Golden Gate Bridge, through Raccoon Straits and around Angel Island. I could imagine
the region at different periods of timewhen the Indians lived on the land, when Jack
London stole oysters from the bay, or when the Liberty Ships were built in Sausalito.
March 28, 1988, my life changed forever. When I finished my shift as
a pediatric nurse at Marin General Hospital, my eyes felt irritated. I put in some
over-the-counter eye drops Id bought at a store. As soon as I felt the pain, I knew
something was terribly wrong. I found out later that the drops had been adulterated with
lye. I was that one-in-ten-million person who becomes a random victim of tampering.
Suddenly I was a toddler in a 34-year-old body. Over the next six months I stayed at home,
didnt do anything but listen to books and music, and thought my life as I knew it
was over. Then an acquaintance from the boathouse called and said, "I am taking you
out rowing in a double." She told me that I didnt need to see to row and that
she would steer the boat. The skeptical owner of the boathouse nervously agreed to let me
try. I instantly remembered my technique and realized that sight wasnt important.
For the first time I was able to escape for a few moments the ever-present awareness of
being blind, and just feel the boat and the oars as I moved my body in the coordinated
rhythm of the stroke.
Over the next couple of years I mastered techniques that would allow
me to live a normal life without sight. I attended the Orientation Center for the Blind in
Albany, California, where I learned independent mobility with a cane, reading and writing
in Braille, how to cook and live independently. I attended Guide Dogs for the Blind, where
I got my first Guide Dog, Webster, a yellow Labrador retriever. On my first walk with
Webster I got an inkling that I could walk as fast as everyone else and I could move
without evaluating every step I took. With my regained dignity and self esteem, I went
back to work at Marin General Hospital, first developing x-rays, and then as a medical
transcriber. I also volunteered at Guide Dogs, giving tours of the their campus. In 1994 I
was hired full time as their Director of Volunteers, and currently manage 425 volunteers
who work in many capacities on the San Rafael campus.
|Aerial (left) and her rowing
partner Perry Heffelfinger prepare for the 1999 Catalina Crossing.
On New Years Day 1998 I was introduced to Perry Heffelfinger,
who had rowed the Catalina Crossing for nine years in a single rowing shell. Perry wanted
to row Catalina one last time in a single, but asked if I would consider rowing with her
in a double in 1999. Could I row for six hours continuously? Was I strong enough? Could I
endure the pain? Was I good enough to row with Perry? In 1998 we tested the waters
together. Perry hadnt spent much time rowing in a double. It was awkward at first,
having to consider another person in the boat, keeping our strokes in unison, Perry
talking me through what she wanted me to do. In the beginning we were like two teenagers
learning how to dance togetherwe needed some time to get coordinated in the boat. We
decided we would first attempt a short race before committing to Catalina. We entered the
Open Ocean Rowing Regatta (OORR) in May 1999 and came in second behind the US Womens
National Rowing Champions, with a respectable time of 1 hour 15 minutes in this 8 mile
race. Perry realized I had the stamina and strength to match hers, and that Catalina in a
double was possible.
We needed a double rowing shell we could borrow for the race, a rack
and vehicle to transport the boat, and a powered escort boat to transport us out to the
island and guide us through the race with a crew to cheer us. Bill Erklans at the OORR
agreed to let us borrow his double for Catalina, a 29-foot Maas Dragonfly.
|Aerial and Perry still
smiling after a hard workout
Twice a week Perry and I would row for two hours, and, if
conditions allowed, we would row around Angel Island. I joined a local gym and did weight
training to increase my strength. We also did one twenty-mile row in preparation for the
distance. Many details had to be considered--what to drink and eat during the race, what
to wear, equipment such as life preservers, a compass, a Global Positioning System device,
walkie-talkies, a cellular phone, seat pads, lights, and flares. I read the few accounts
of the race that exist and talked to veterans of the race. The one common thread that all
agreed to was that the race doesnt really begin until the last two hours. The
contest is truly against yourself, against your desire to quit because of the pain. I
heard stories of seasickness, near-misses with freighters, and rough conditions. However,
they were unanimous in their sense of great satisfaction in completing the race.
To be continued
.in the next issue of Incredible People
youll read about Aerial Gilberts amazing 32 mile race in the Catalina
Crossing. Dont miss it!
Aerial Gilbert is an R.N. and Director of Volunteers at
Guide Dogs For the Blind, Inc. in San Rafael, CA. Please take a moment and email her with
your comments at: email@example.com.
If you would like to know more about Guide Dogs for the Blind, visit their website at: http://www.guidedogs.com