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Seattle Washington USA


A ROW IN THE DARK
by AERIALGILBERT

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Carey Chenoweth, 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 Perry’s oars chattering on the water, and her voice became increasingly tense. "Let’s 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 footing—because 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 offer—the 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 time—when 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 I’d 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, didn’t 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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.

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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 hadn’t 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 together—we 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 Women’s 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.

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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 doesn’t 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 you’ll read about Aerial Gilbert’s amazing 32 mile race in the Catalina Crossing. Don’t 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: gdbdeanne@email.msn.com.   If you would like to know more about Guide Dogs for the Blind, visit their website at: http://www.guidedogs.com

 

  

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