By Jo Mooy
My nephew JoJo’s boat race across the Atlantic Ocean became a metaphor for what had been thrust upon all of us in 2020 with the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic.
When the phone rang, the unfamiliar number on the screen had too many digits so I didn’t answer. It rang again with the same number. Surely it was spam. A few minutes later a text came from my niece telling me to, “Answer your phone!” On the third call, a voice said, “Auntie Jo, it’s me, JoJo! I’m calling on a satellite phone from the middle of the Atlantic.”
JoJo is my nephew, Joseph Nunes, who lives in Antigua in the West Indies. His boyhood dream to row across the Atlantic ocean was in progress. At age 18, he was doing it with Travis Weste in the pairs category of the international Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge. The 3,000-mile race—considered the most difficult and grueling ocean-rowing event in the world—is marked by good crossings but also rollovers, off-season hurricanes, and harrowing rescues. Contestants (solo, pairs, or four-person crews) row westward from La Gomera off the coast of Spain to Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua in identical 24 foot by 5 ½ foot fiberglass rowboats.
I tracked the progress of the 21 boats, which was updated every four hours on the Talisker website. The single rescue boat, which on radar looked like it hovered nearby, was actually hundreds of nautical miles and days away from some boats. If help was needed, it would take some time for it to arrive. It was now in the hands of each rower to stay afloat and do what they had trained to do. When the boats left the safe harbor of the Canary Islands, their dreams collided with the reality of what rowing across an immense ocean meant. They were now at the mercy of the sea, the winds, the currents, and their own fears. The real challenge of strength, of courage, of fortitude, of conviction, and of endurance had begun.
In that moment, the Talisker Challenge became a metaphor for what had been thrust upon all of us in 2020. The world left the safe harbor of normalcy to embark on a vast sea of uncertainty, fear, anxiety, separation and loss. JoJo and Travis trained for two years for this journey. They had satellite phones to call for help. Solar panels to keep the electronics charged. A life-saving sea water to freshwater conversion unit. A GPS and beacons in case of emergency. Freeze-dried rations to last 90 days at sea. By comparison, none of us had any training on what to do during a worldwide pandemic. When the order came to quarantine the population was stranded like a pod of beached whales. Arguments devolved into gunfights over the wearing of masks. Food became scarce as the supply chain was derailed. Scientific experts who could navigate the conditions were silenced when social media and political “experts” took over the narrative.
In rough seas, JoJo and Travis had to release the para-anchor. It’s a large parachute that acts as an enormous brake to stabilize the boat and prevent it from turning broadside into the wind. In the dark seas of 2020, where was our anchor? Constant emotional currents swamped our boats.
What anchor did we put out? During a week of cloud cover concern mounted for the fleet. Without sunshine, the boats lost power. Without sunshine, all electronics, navigation systems, and GPS went dark, losing their charges. Their life-saving water system was on manual crank until the sun came out. In our lives, the daily news cycle darkened our days and moods. Our personal navigational systems were on life support. We had to dig deep inside to find any small flame and keep it lit.
Whenever the seas calmed, one of the boys jumped overboard to scrub barnacles from the bottom of the hull. He was tethered to the boat with a strap around his waist and one at his ankle. On days when the 2020 news was not as emotionally potent calm also prevailed. On those days it was much easier to enter deep states of relaxation, or meditation, or take refreshing walks in parks. Those interludes tethered us to sanity and helped to scrub the barnacles from the soul.
Marlins, the fastest fish in the ocean, attacked a few boats. Their barbs punctured and broke off in the hull. One rower had to go overboard immediately to repair the hull with epoxy, no matter how bad the weather was. On land, when someone in the community had their heart pierced by outside influences, others found the courage to bypass their own fears of Covid’s barbs and jumped in to help the individual in need. The epoxy they used was a helping hand, a kind word, or just being there to ease the burden.
Both young men were asked what they learned on this voyage. Travis said he learned he can do anything. At night, when he was tired and exhausted, he was faced with the immensity of the ocean and the endless rowing. He felt like giving up. Then he remembered that while he was the one physically rowing, people all over the world were rowing with them and he couldn’t give up. When all he saw was an endless sea it was okay. He told the radio interviewer that he had to “Keep pushing on! No matter what life throws at you keep pushing on. You will get there in the end.”
On the satellite call JoJo told me about the crossing. He said the hardest time was at night when it was pitch black. The only sound was the oars cutting through the waves. In the immensity of the ocean, he and the boat were so tiny. In those hours when he rowed alone, his only thought was “getting into the safety of the cabin” after his two-hour shift ended. When I asked him what he learned, he said, “We had a goal to beat the record. Halfway across I realized the experience was more important. I also decided when I get back to Antigua not to waste any more time on stupid things.”
During the longest days of Covid’s reign of terror and the nonstop divisiveness in the country, we too sought safety inside. Many experienced the darkest night of the soul. Refuge was found in the home, away from the madness, rage, fear, and lies raging outside. We were protected there. To-dos were set aside as we looked at all the effects the last 365 days had taken on us. The physical, emotional and psychic toll was shocking. We learned each person had to figure out how to get through each day.
After 47 days at sea and rowing 24 hours a day through all sorts of conditions, JoJo and Travis landed safely to Antigua. When they stepped onto the dock, both were wobbly and unsteady. They held on to each other and to the railing for stability. Arriving home, their ordeal at sea was over. But they faced new challenges like integrating back into society, sleeplessness, and the ever-present alertness for danger. It took a while, but they got through it all. We too stumbled through a year of pandemic fear and isolation. Six days into the new year, the attack on the U.S. Capitol signaled 2021 would be another year of discord. There are still endless obstacles to overcome and mountains to climb, but we did make it through some very rough seas.
On the way to our safe harbor, two young men taught me that when the seas are most turbulent find your anchor and quickly toss it out to stabilize your boat. My personal anchor was meditation, gardening, quiet reflection, writing, and walks on the beach. But more importantly, I adopted their approach to dealing with the mind-numbing effects of whatever was happening around me. Don’t waste time on stupid things. And regardless of the circumstances, Keep pushing on!
Back on Dry Land
The story of JoJo and Travis’ 3,000-mile row across the Atlantic Ocean, which also appeared in my February 2021 newsletter, was one of my most commented on articles. I rewrote it five times, trying to accurately balance the metaphor of the ocean race with our collective trials in 2020. Here are answers to some of the questions I received following their return:
What was their first meal after the race? It’s traditional to give the contestants whatever they want to eat or drink for their first meal back on dry land. Every rower in every boat asks for a glass of fresh ice water. (They’ve been drinking converted sea water for weeks.) Their first meal was waiting for them in the Talisker tent. JoJo wanted a bucket of fried chicken. Travis’ mother made him homemade fungi and conc water, a local dish.
Tell us more about the bird that followed them? From the Canary Islands, a bird closely followed their boat. Birds that appear out of nowhere are usually spiritual messengers. This one may have been a messenger, as JoJo said it was always present when he was rowing. The bird is called a Northern Storm Petrel. It’s a seabird that flutters over the ocean, never landing unless it’s breeding season. Sailors call the bird Mater Cara, another name for Mother Mary. The name of the last boat to finish the race is “Storm Petrel.”
What are JoJo and Travis doing Now? Since returning, they’ve been doing promos for Talisker, photoshoots, videos for Talisker documentaries, etc. Within 48 hours of reaching land, JoJo, of the sea and born to the sea, was back on the ocean fishing at dawn. Sounds like the Storm Petrel could be his totem.
Would they do it again? When asked if they would do it again, JoJo was quick with a NO! Travis would like to do it again in two years. (The race is held every two years.)
What were the effects of rowing for that long? It generally takes many weeks to recover. Both had trouble sleeping after their return, and it took a while to get their land legs back. Before the race, rowers are told to bulk up for the crossing. During the 47 days at sea, JoJo lost 35 pounds and Travis 10.
Where is the boat now? “Wolf” made three rows across the Atlantic with Antigua teams. Because the 2020-2021 race got so much publicity, the sponsors decided to donate the boat to Antigua, which is known in boating circles as an icon in ocean fishing and racing. Wolf will now have a prominent place at the V. C. Bird International Airport, commemorating the efforts of the three Antigua rowing teams: Team Wadadli, 2017: Island Girls, 2019: and Team Antigua Pairs, 2021.
Jo Mooy has studied with many spiritual traditions over the past 40 years. The wide diversity of this training allows her to develop spiritual seminars and retreats that explore inspirational concepts, give purpose and guidance to students, and present esoteric teachings in an understandable manner. Along with Patricia Cockerill, she has guided the Women’s Meditation Circle since January 2006 where it has been honored for five years in a row as the “Favorite Meditation” group in Sarasota, FL, by Natural Awakenings Magazine. Teaching and using Sound as a retreat healing practice, Jo was certified as a Sound Healer through Jonathan Goldman’s Sound Healing Association. She writes and publishes a monthly internationally distributed e-newsletter called Spiritual Connections and is a staff writer for Spirit of Maat magazine in Sedona. For more information go to http://www.starsoundings.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.