“Rescue crews rush to aid naked Irish solo adventurer.”
The headline was too horrid on so many fronts to pass up.
It turns out 29-year-old Irishman Keith Whelan, attempting to become the first of his nation to row solo across the Indian Ocean—despite having little rowing experience, just naked ambition and a Twitter account—had been slapped by a big wave 128 miles off the coast of Australia and cracked his head on a protruding bolt. After calling for help, a cargo ship, the Fujisuka—having nothing better to do—diverted course, picked him up, and delivered him back to shore at Bunbury, where he held . . . drum roll . . . a press conference.
How do we know all of this? Thanks to his constant tweeting and blogging and the 24/7 reach of the global media.
Before we go any further with the story of this faux adventure, why, oh why, did he opt to row naked? According to his website, it was “to avoid painful chafing from salt-encrusted clothing.” ("Having gotten into a rowing boat for the first time only a year or so beforehand, he will spend 110 days alone at sea, facing 50-foot swells, hurricane-force winds and unrelenting sunshine . . . and he'll be naked.”)
Not to mention the attention the word naked still garners in headlines, Twitter feeds, and Google searches.
I’m not suggesting the guy shouldn’t be able to define adventure in his own terms. With most corners of the world already explored in every imaginable fashion, those who seek adventure today are forced to find new ways of doing so. People have walked up Mount Everest on behalf of every imaginable disease, attempted long walks, long rows, long sails, etc., going forwards, backwards, sideways, and upside down in efforts to draw attention to their pursuits. Whelan is hardly the first to use showmanship in support of a worthy cause to rationalize his effort. (His charity is Keep A Child Alive, for which to date he’s raised about $700 . . . out of a hoped-for $15,000.)
But there is something missing, something lackluster, about much of the “adventuring” we're seeing in the early years of the 21st century. Rather than truly fulfilling lifelong dreams or accomplishing something brand-new (Ed Stafford’s walking the length of the Amazon stands out as a good example of a truly audacious, smart adventure) it seems all you need today is an attention-grabbing moniker, a sat phone for delivering constant updates to your blog, a charitable cause, some kind of “first” (will climbing Everest naked be next for Whelan?), a contact for “media requests,” and—succeed or fail—a now-mandatory press conference.
I’m not suggesting we go back to the days when Robert Falcon Scott and team froze to death 10 miles from a depot (texting might have actually helped keep them alive), or when the best rationale climbers could come up with for risking their lives on Himalayan peaks was “because it’s there,” but it seems there are more and more inexperienced people launching adventures these days and getting sizable attention most often for their ineptitude, thanks to the instant reach of social media.
According to his tweets, Whelan is back on shore (after a “tough day, very long” aboard the cargo ship) and “up for trying the 3,600-mile solo row again.”
Given the way this adventure started for the lad, I’d advise the “freelance events manager” from County Kildare consider a year off for further planning.
Even before being rescued, his Indian Ocean attempt suffered a variety of setbacks, beginning with severe seasickness. On May 11 he ran into trouble soon after launching and had to be rescued by a passing fishing boat, which towed him to a nearby island. After setting out again, he blogged that he was back on the mainland because strong winds and bad weather had blown him off course. Ready to depart one more time, he was alerted—by his Australian host, since he apparently hadn’t noticed himself—that the boat’s rudder was badly damaged and needed serious repair.
Before starting this misadventure, this is how Whelan explained his motivation on his website: “I am a risk taker, and risking your life to achieve a dream is the biggest risk you can take. Some might say it's foolish, but to my mind it is only foolish if you don't know the risks and you don't prepare for them and train for every possible scenario.”
My question is, did he really understand the risks and was he prepared for “every possible scenario?” Or was he just being foolish?
Whelan is not the only soloist attempting to cross the Indian Ocean this season; my friend Roz Savage—who at the very least has earned her headlines by previously having rowed across the Atlantic and Pacific—is now 38 days out.
Her daily blogs often tend to focus as much on the high-tech side of modern-day adventuring—whether its her failing GPS, trickiness downloading emails, or disconnected sat phones calls “with Mum”—as the ocean world around her (the daily repetitiveness of which can, I’m sure, get very boring to post about).
Reading posts from the middle of the ocean by these modern-day adventurists makes me wonder what 140 character missives Thor Heyerdahl would have sent back from the balsa wood raft Kon Tiki in the 1940s.
“Another yellowfin committed suicide by throwing itself aboard; Bengt keeping the three of us up with incessant snoring”
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook.