Australian Rotarian Robert Pennicott, fellow Tasmanian Mick Souter, and cameraman Zorro Gamarnik became the first people to circumnavigate Australia in boats powered by outboard motors.
Some people set goals. Others set records. Meet four adventurers who didn’t settle for the ordinary, but embarked on daring odysseys.
Circumnavigating the Land of Oz
“I tend to be optimistic, and I tend to do things quickly. If I think about them too long, I might say no,” Robert Pennicott says. So when he got the idea that he could circumnavigate an entire continent in a 17-foot inflatable, outboard-driven dinghy, he started planning and didn’t look back.
Pennicott, who launched an ecotour business in his native Tasmania 13 years ago and now employs nearly 60 people, donates at least 25 percent of his annual profits to conservation-related causes and other charities. “It’s been important to me in the last 10 years,” he says. “I want to have made a difference when I die.”
He resolved to circumnavigate Australia and chose to benefit polio eradication, tying the attempt to a fundraising campaign dubbed “Follow the Yellow Boat Road.” Pennicott, 47, became a member of the Rotary Club of Kingston four months before he departed on the 101-day journey in June 2011. “I wanted to target something that I believe is extremely worthy,” he says. “And I love to be part of something that has a beginning and an end. It’s more important now to get rid of the last bit [of polio] than anything.”
Throughout his trip, strangers showered Pennicott and Mick Souter, a friend who skippered a second dinghy, with generosity – sometimes literally. People on passing boats tossed them donations, and workers on hulking oil rigs threw down $20 and $50 notes.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. In the middle of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Pennicott’s dinghy ran up against waves “as tall as telegraph poles.” As he navigated the swells, salt water dried across his eyes and leaping fish pummeled his head and torso.
“There was physical and mental exhaustion at times, when we’d put in big days in rough waters and smashed our bodies up,” he says. “There were some moments where, if you stopped and thought, you could panic. But you go into another zone and just concentrate to get through the moment.”
Pennicott raised A$289,000, donating 92 percent to polio eradication and earmarking the rest for his own fund, the Pennicott Foundation, which supports conservation work. “I hope that in the next 10 years I make a lot more money, so I can give a lot more money away,” he says. “I’ve got so many things that I want to do that will make a difference.” Read more.
Journey to the top of the world
Joe Pratt didn’t climb Mount Everest for the view. When he reached the world’s highest peak, conditions were so bad, he could see barely a quarter-mile. “There was no million-dollar view from the summit,” he says. “You couldn’t even stand on the summit, for that matter. You could only sit.”
Pratt, 57, spent about 15 minutes on top of the world in winds so powerful they tore his ski cap from his skull and carried it off into the void. Then he turned to the grueling trek back down the mountain. There would be time to reflect later.
“It’s a bit of a strange thing,” he says. “You have so much anticipation because you’ve been on the mountain for five or six weeks at that point, working toward this moment. When the moment occurs, you’re numbed by the eight-hour climb you’ve made from high camp to the summit.
“On one level, my feeling was one of happiness and a sense of accomplishment. On another, there was a sense that I didn’t belong there. You’re kind of trespassing. You’re in a place where you can’t even breathe.”
Pratt’s ascent on 20 May 2012 made him one of only two Americans to reach the summit via Everest’s north face that spring. It also helped the member of the Rotary Club of Raymond Area, N.H., bring in more than $22,000 for PolioPlus, a figure that continues to climb toward his goal of $100,000 with every post-summit speaking engagement. Read a blog post from Pratt.
From the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters
When someone asks Bill Irwin where he bikes, he likes to respond, “Oh, I’ve ridden around the country.”
Inevitably, people reply, “Yes, but where?”
Then he gets to deliver his punch line: “No, I’ve ridden around the country.”
In October, Irwin, 70, and his longtime riding partner and friend Ed Ott completed their fourth epic ride. The nearly 1,650-mile route took them from Maine to Miami and closed an around-the-United States loop they began in 2004 with a trip from Anacortes, Wash., to Atlantic City, N.J. The pair also completed a West Coast ride in 2007 and a 2010 journey from California’s Pacific Coast to Florida’s Atlantic Coast.
A lifelong athlete, Irwin embraced cycling only after knee surgeries put an end to running. “Biking is the only sport I can do with the parts I’ve got left,” he says.
Irwin estimates that he’s put 25,000 miles on his Trek 520 since that first ride in 2004. On their most demanding trips, he and Ott averaged about 65 miles a day. “It’s worth it to get on the saddle and be out there in the middle of nowhere,” Irwin says. “You have time to think. You’re away from the computer and away from the office. You’re out in the middle of God’s country.”
In addition to seeing America up close at 15 miles per hour, Irwin, a member of the Rotary Club of Torrey Pines (La Jolla), Calif., has raised money for his club’s foundation. At first fundraising was an afterthought, but then he started sending letters and collecting pledges before hitting the road. On his 2010 ride, he brought in $12,500.
The young woman and the sea
On her 64th day at sea in a 19-foot vessel, Katie Spotz encountered a group of Venezuelan fishermen. “The only thing they said was ‘Loca! Loca! Loca!’” recalls Spotz, who six days later became the youngest person to row solo across the Atlantic. “That was my only human interaction for two and a half months.”
Some may call her crazy, but Spotz, 25, has another way of looking at it. “There are certain things I think you’re destined to do,” she says. “Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, but I do feel that I’m part of something much bigger.”
That something is a mission to increase access to clean drinking water. Her 2010 trans-Atlantic journey, which started in Senegal and ended 3,038 miles later in Guyana, brought in more than $150,000 for Blue Planet Network, a group based in California, USA, that backs safe-water projects worldwide. Spotz, an Ohio native who is now a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholar at Goldsmiths, University of London, plans to continue her work as a clean-water advocate after graduation.
She wasn’t always an extreme athlete; throughout childhood, Spotz played the position of bench warmer. But when she turned 18, she took up running. “I started to realize that I was holding myself back,” she says. “The excuses were always there. I stopped listening to those excuses and I started trying.” Her list of accomplishments includes an ultramarathon, a cross-country cycle, and a 325-mile river swim.
Before her record-setting row, Spotz trained for two years on Lake Erie. She recruited sponsors and sought help from advisers, including a weather expert and a sports psychologist who helped her get ready for the intense exertion and solitude at sea. But she couldn’t anticipate everything. “There’s nothing that can prepare you for 30-foot waves or sharks,” she says. “You have to go into it hoping for the best, and do your best to plan. But the ocean inevitably will do what it wants with you.”
During the crossing, Spotz battled sunburn, fatigue, loneliness, and even fires. (High waves once caused her to drop her small stove, setting her shoes ablaze; another time, salt water got into some wiring, touching off an electrical fire.) Her greatest struggle was sleep deprivation, brought on by a constant barrage of waves crashing against her cramped sleeping chamber. The lack of sleep made for a rollercoaster of emotions, “crazy high, crazy low,” she says.
“It was a challenge on every level. And at the core, I love challenging myself and pushing beyond my preconceived notions of what is possible.”