Seventy-six Days at Sea, Part 2: Life at sea – the return to land
By Maria DiDanieliFeatures Leadership Profession
I feel like I’m telling a story that I read about,” Paul Attalla muses
when asked to look back at his participation in the Atlantic Rowing
Race 2007. “I don’t feel like I’ve actually done it.”
“Who hath desired the sea? –
The sight of salt water unbounded –
The heave and the halt and the hurl
and the crash of the comber wind-hounded?”
– Rudyard Kipling
I feel like I’m telling a story that I read about,” Paul Attalla muses when asked to look back at his participation in the Atlantic Rowing Race 2007. “I don’t feel like I’ve actually done it.”
|Pilot whales feeding around Dr. Paul Attalla’s boat.|
The perception of his solo rowing journey as surreal is not hard to comprehend. For 76 days, Dr. Attalla, a chiropractor from Fernie, British Columbia, lived an existence that was very different from any he had ever known. Aside from the fact that he was at sea – where, for the first while, he was overtaken by debilitating nausea – he now had to adapt to virtual, rather than real, human contact, a diet of dried foods, very little sleep, and enormous physical stresses. Add to this a leak in his boat – that took several days to manage – and the fact that he had some close calls with various ocean liners, and waves as high as 13 metres, and you have a tale that does seem to have sprung from a novel.
But achieving the opportunity to participate in the race had, for seven years, been a very real goal that Attalla was now actually living out, day by day.
WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE…
“As a chiropractor with a busy practice,” notes Attalla, “I was very used to having lots of people around. Also, between my family and preparing for the race, I had become accustomed to being very busy all the time.”
So, how does one go from a fulfilling and hectic lifestyle to being on a rowboat, all alone, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?
First of all, Attalla’s account reveals that he was not really alone. Although not accompanied by any articulate creature – of human tongues, anyway – Attalla was often visited by dolphins, a variety of birds, turtles and whales. (On one occasion, one very large whale parked itself underneath his rowboat for over an hour, forcing him to patiently wait until the whale gave him clearance to move on.)
When he wasn’t interfacing with marine life, Attalla would read the comments from friends, family and supporters, in the guestbook on his website – this continually brought him great comfort and strength. Also, though limited, he did have some telephone communication with his family and others, as well.
But, for the most part, Attalla spent his time thinking.
“I rewound my entire life, from my first memories,” recalls Attalla. “It’s like you dust off the shelves in your mind.”
“I’m a fan of happy thoughts, so I focused on happy things. I thought about how amazing it was to be rowing and representing Canada in this race.”
Attalla also thought, quite a bit, about the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR). As the Canadian competitor in the race, his goal was to raise awareness for the CMHR. The CMHR is involved in many projects that, Attalla notes, will help Canada move into the future with the right foot forward, as a global leader in human rights. He feels that, as a nation, we need to remember our heroes and our struggles, in order to understand where we are going, and that we need to recognize those whose perseverance, in preserving history, will strengthen the richness of our Canadian culture.
“I would think of how blessed I was to be able to pursue my dream. Often I would remember people less fortunate such as a First Nations child, that I had learned of, who was forced into a reform school and was forbidden to speak her native language. This child was afraid she would forget her native tongue unless she practised it. Thus, she would hide away at night under her covers and whisper her language to herself so no one could hear her and so she would not forget. And then I would tell myself that I have nothing to complain of.”
The one thing Attalla could not permit his thoughts to dwell on was his family – his wife Nicole and his two daughters, Joy and Amy.
“If I thought about my wife and kids,” he says, “I would become unfocused. And an unfocused ocean rower is a dead ocean rower.”
PAIN AND OVERUSE INJURIES
As a chiropractor, Paul Attalla had known the importance of staying safe, during the race.
In training, he had prepared his body for the rigours of rowing across the Atlantic not only through building strength, but also by deliberately sustaining bumps and bruises to build up protective muscle mass. Therefore, during the race, he was able to minimize the incidence of injuries due to being knocked around by waves and wind.
However, he now found himself encountering pain and the possibility of overuse injuries arising from rowing motions, etc. Once again, being a chiropractor came in handy.
“Because I’m a chiropractor,” says Attalla, “I knew of the importance of preventing overuse injuries by ensuring that I kept repetitive motions in check and took appropriate breaks.”
When asked for the high point of his journey, Dr. Paul describes the entire trip as being a high point. He tells of sunsets on the water, of the beauty of sea creatures, and of Chirp, a bird that stayed with him throughout the race.
“He was not so much a bird as an angel and a good friend,” says Attalla, who notes that he finds it hard to talk about Chirp. “I noticed him at the start of the race, but didn’t really pay any attention to him. But, day after day, he would come back to visit. I had heard that some sea birds have been known to ‘follow’ a craft over several days, so, I began looking forward to Chirp’s visits.”
“Sometimes, I would talk to Chirp, or, if the conditions were too dangerous, I would not say anything – but he would stay, anyway, in silence, and just be with me.”
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
Attalla’s moment of truth came three days before he finished the race, when a 13-metre swell threatened his life.
“Swells are intimidating to row,” explains Attalla. “If you get hit by one, you can be knocked off the boat.”
During this particularly large swell – which persisted for several hours – Attalla wanted to continue rowing but was forced to hide inside. Having had very little sleep, and being very tired at this point, Attalla felt a fear, now, which made him switch gears from racing mode to survival mode.
“At that point, I wanted to be a father, son and husband more than being first to cross the finish line,” he recalls.
The swell finally subsided and Attalla was able to row himself, safely, to the finish line. On February 16, 2008, Dr. Attalla arrived in Antigua, achieving the second fastest time for unassisted solos in the race.
Dr. Paul Attalla has sold “The Spirit of Fernie” – parting with the boat, he says, was an emotional experience, but had to be done in order to continue financing this journey that he will never forget.
Attalla says that he’s happy to be on land and to be a part of his family again.
“I will be keeping my relationships closer, from now on,” he says, referring especially to Nicole – who always supported his Atlantic rowing dream and moved to Vancouver, taking care of their daughters on her own, while Paul was at sea – and his girls, Joy and Amy.
Finally, Dr. Attalla talks about his renewed passion toward his practice and his patients.
“After no human interaction, and being in silence for 76 days,” he states, “I realize what a privilege it is to get to listen to stories of injury, hurt and happiness and that I get to try and help!”
“Participating in the race has amplified and refreshed, for me, how amazing a profession this is to be in,” he continues. “It is a blessing, an honour and a gift to be able to impact people’s lives in a positive way.”
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