People with Passion: ocean rower Jenn Gibbons

PEOPLE WITH PASSION: Jenn Gibbons

October 7, 2010

 

"I really knew that I was meant to do this trip. And you have to almost brainwash yourself. There’s gonna be a lot of hiccups. This is one of absolutely tons..."

In January 2012, Chicagoan Jenn Gibbons will solo row the Atlantic Ocean, from Senegal to French Guyana. She will travel in the custom-designed ocean rower Liv, and will make the trip in 70 to 100 days.

The following is the second interview between Gibbons and ReadJack.com, conducted on October 7, 2010, three months to the day after our first interview. In this discussion, Gibbons talks about the Chicago Adventurers Club, fellow Adventurer Neil King, and her big fundraising push in early October to secure ownership of her boat LIV…

I was buying some signage for the Row 4 Row trip, getting decals for LIV. I got there to pick up the signs, and they weren’t quite done yet, so I started talking to the owner, and he’s like, “Oh, what are these signs for?” We get into what I’m doing, and talking a little bit more. He’s a really great guy, Mark Collins from Skokie Signarama. I actually spoke at their Kiwanis Club lunch, and talked a little bit more about my trip. He said, “I also belong to the Rotary Club, and there’s a guy in my Rotary Club who’s probably in his 90s. He sailed across the Atlantic in the 50s, and you should absolutely talk to him. His name’s Neil King.”

I got Neil’s contact information, and Neil and I met for lunch last Friday. The Chicago Adventurers Club is kind of in this bizarre area. It’s in that whole Printers Row area, and it’s on like the sixth floor. You’d never really know that it’s there. You have to be invited. So we went in. I met a couple other members there, just hanging out. I found that they have lunch there as a club twice a week. There’s a quote that outlines whether you can be a member or not. “Do not go where the path may lead, but go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” And basically, my trip would definitely fit the outlines of this requirement. So he just wanted to introduce me to the club.

It was really interesting – they had shrunken heads in there. It was a museum of all kinds of adventures. It was great. They have these flags that hang from the ceiling. It’s like a clubhouse. They have a kitchen. There’s a bar. It has kind of like an “old boys club” sort of feel. Whenever you accomplish one of these tasks, you get a flag. Neil has three flags. He climbed a couple different mountains, and he sailed across the Atlantic.

Gibbons and Neil King strike the adventurer's pose.

He did it with his son, and another guy and his son. He explained the story to me. Actually, I have his – lemme grab this really quick – this isn’t published – but he gave me this to borrow, which is an accounting of his story. I haven’t gotten into it yet but it seems just like a gem, right? He’s just a neat guy. We were going to go on a canoe trip today, but didn’t end up getting transportation for the canoes. So I think we’re going to figure out another time, maybe next week, to go on a trip together. Neil really wants to go do something on water. We share that. I’m hoping he’ll continue to be a part of my planning over the next year and a half. Very cool guy, Neil King.

I didn’t really know what I was interested in in terms of meeting him. I was really interested in the Chicago Adventurers Club, because it just sounded really bizarre, and I’d never heard of it.

Bizarre in a fun way.

In a fun way, yeah. Like a very fun way. But when we went to lunch, we got to talking about adventures, and how people view them, how your family views them. He talked about when he went to go do this trip. I thought it was really cute: he had four kids with his first wife. They got a letter from a guy who wanted to do this trip, basically because he’d bought a boat and wanted to sail it back to the U.S. They got it in the mail. Neil came home from work, and all his kids had read it, and his wife had read it, and his wife was obviously not that excited. But the kids were like, “Dad! You’ve got to do it!” I thought it was cool…

I was sharing with him a little bit about how my parents in the last months have really gone back and forth. My mom in particular. When you decide to do a trip like this, you obviously put your family in a very stressful place. You choose to do that. If I didn’t do this trip, they wouldn’t be freaking out. It really is something you have to take ownership over. I think, certainly, in the last few weeks, I’ve been dealing with that. My mom said, when we were fundraising the first ten grand, “Can I give you ten grand not to do it?” And in all seriousness she was saying it, and then two days later she’s okay. She wouldn’t talk to me for two days after that (smiles), but it’s something I never would have really planned on.

It was good to talk about that stuff. And I think what he was trying to say is that’s gonna happen, and you have to decide whether it’s worth it. When I get back they’ll be happy. That’s about the only time they’ll be happy.

I think Neil – the Adventurers Club as well – feels like our generation doesn’t have as much interest in many of the things that they did, or that they accomplished, which I can absolutely see. Looking at all these flags, we got to talking, and I was like, “If you guys had a website that outlined what each of these people did to get these flags, I would read that. I can think of twenty friends that would hop online and check out your website just because, you know, that stuff is so cool.” And there’s also something about the fact that it’s secret. It was an interesting conversation. I don’t think that our generation is less adventurous. I just don’t think they’re as excited about it as his generation was.

There's lots of cool stuff happening in the Chicago Adventurers Club. (photo courtesty of scottlivingston.wordpress.com)

Probably the big difference between adventurers of the 20s and 30s and adventurers now, is that we attach a cause to everything. Our generation does. Like, you’re gonna run a marathon, and “Oh, who are you gonna do it for?” Neil ran in the first Chicago marathon that ever was. He was a really competitive runner – I think that’s probably the difference.

It’s an interesting point, that we attach some sort of social good to our athletic feats, our adventures. You reached a little bit of a breaking point with the trip in the last two weeks. You weren’t sure if you were going to be able to do it. And then, damn! I mean, if I ever need to build a library (laughter)… You raised a ton of money. Do you think you would have been able to do that if your trip didn’t have the social component?

You know, I’ve never thought about that. I really don’t think we would be able to do it. One of the strong points of my trip is that I’m so closely tied to the organization that I’m doing it for. That helped with that big fundraising push. So, absolutely. I think it had a lot to do with it. And it’s not even like I’m just a development person for the organization. I coach the women. I’m very closely connected to them and the cause.

I think Katie[1] wanted to sell [LIV] to me. We had negotiations going back and forth. I’ve been nothing but up front and honest with everything, in terms of funding and our plans, and I told her, you know, I really think we’ll have the funding to purchase LIV by January. And we’re on track to do that, to fully pay it off, and have plenty of money to fundraise for ROW. But it was like, all of a sudden we needed it by this date. I drafted a couple emails. I sent it to a few people, and said, you know, “How should we frame this?” The first couple times I wrote it, it was like, “God, you don’t want to sound that desperate, but you do want to sound a little desperate.” It was the first time I had personally begged anyone for money.

At that point, I had to decide. I knew, “This is my out.” Because I could have told nobody. I could have said, “I just couldn’t raise the money in time, and now I’m screwed, and maybe I’ll wait until 2013. Or maybe I won’t do it.” You know? I knew that was kind of my moment of, like, “Do I really want to do this?” And I knew that the moment I sent that email to everyone there was no turning back.

It certainly was a personal ask. This is a trip that nobody else is doing but me, so it was a personal request. But like I said, because I’m so closely tied to the organization, donations came in from all over the country, from people I don’t know. There’s no way of me knowing these people except for them forwarding out to their friends. It’s always worked out, I think, because my heart’s in the right place. And maybe someday it won’t. But so far I have a good record. (Laughs.) The things I’ve chosen to do have worked out.

I really knew that I was meant to do this trip. And you have to almost brainwash yourself. There’s gonna be a lot of hiccups. This is one of absolutely tons. What if I start getting tendonitis in my left shoulder? Which I am. What if – you know, there’s gonna be a lot of stuff.

Fundraising isn’t fun, or easy, or comfortable for a lot of people. Like I said, I have a habit of just, you know, “I’m gonna cast out that way. That’s what I want. That’s what is needed for this trip to happen.” I kind of knew that if the money didn’t come in, that I couldn’t do the trip. But especially after the first day, I knew we were gonna do it, because people were flooding in, excited about it. I was hearing from people from high school that I haven’t talked to in like eight years…

What were people saying as they were donating?

The modern thank you: a photo with tags.

“I hope this helps.” “I gave ten dollars. I hope this helps.” There were so many people who gave ten dollars. It really added up. You almost don’t think that things like that can happen. It’s like, “Oh god, if I donate five dollars, that’s not even going to get anywhere, so I wont even do it.” But people did it! And they did it in large numbers. And I think because we framed it the way we did – or, I don’t know, maybe it was some other reason – but we said, “Even if you have ten dollars to give, that’s awesome.”

I think people like being a part of something like that, and I really wanted to thank everyone in a really unique way. So far all I came up with was a picture, and tagging everyone. (Laughs.)

I’m still amazed. We had a board meeting on Tuesday, and our board members are like, “That’s insane. We still can’t believe that happened.” But I also learned that there are a lot more people paying attention to what I’m doing than I thought. Sometimes you’re in the beginning stages, and you have to be really confident and boldly say, you know, “I’m rowing an ocean, and this is how I’m gonna do it.” Some people are like, “Oh my god, that’s so amazing and inspiring,” and yada yada yada. But people from high school, are they like, “Oh, crazy-ass Jenn Gibbons is doing this,” or whatever? Like, am I the laughing stock of Lakeview High School? I have no idea. But people donated! So it’s like, “Oh, people are paying attention.” It made me confident in what I’m doing.

Like you said, and it’s obvious: you’re the only one going on this trip. You’re the one who has to do the work, and you’re gonna be out there by yourself. But at the same time, you’ve talked about the way that rowing is team-oriented… does it feel like you’re bringing a lot more people on the boat with you now?

Oh absolutely. Definitely. As I go over the next fourteen, fifteen months, basically come June of next year, I need to not be worrying about fundraising, and I need to just be focused on my survival and my training and things like that. Just like any non-profit does, we have a committee of people who are committed to this particular fundraising stint. I’ve been really fortunate to put the ask up there for the right people to come on board and lead the fundraising. And since that fundraiser, people have really stepped up and said, you know, “Here’s one hundred bucks, here’s whatever. Outside of that, how can I help you with fundraising?” These have been anywhere from ROW members to parents of kids I coached five years ago.

The people who really care about me have said, “Come June, you need to be doing nothing but training and preparing.” The first time someone said that to me, I was just like, “Yeah, you’re right! (Laughs.) Absolutely, you’re right.” I feel really fortunate to have those people in my life. If it was me teaching them how to row, or teaching their kids how to row – whatever it is that I did, I’m glad I did it, because I just feel really lucky.

Jack M Silverstein is a freelance writer covering music, culture, and sports in Chicago. His first book, “Our President,” is available at Amazon.com. Say hey at twitter/readjack or facebook/readjack.

Read our first interview, from July 7, 2010: PART I & PART II

For more on Jenn and her quest, check out row4row.org, and follow her on facebook. Also, check out KyleWeaverPhoto.com for more on the photographer credited above.

Photo from the Chicago Adventurers Club courtesy of ScottLivingston.net.

Stay tuned to readjack.com for more conversations with this bold athlete!

COMPLETE People with Passion interview archive


[1] Katie Spotz, former owner of LIV and the youngest person to solo row the Atlantic.

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