Spain Remembers

Spain Remembers

Monday, June 14, 2010

Charkie Wilkins stops rowing to check in

June 13, 2010
Hello to all my backers;

I apologize for the delay in sending out this my first report on the progress of my grand trans-Atlantic adventure, which as you know is well into its training stages and moving forward at a stroke rate of about 25 tugs a minute. The best news of late is that, as of a couple of weeks ago, I’ve moved outdoors and am rowing on water, rather than sitting on the Concept Two indoor rowing machine, as I did throughout the winter and spring.

Not that I resent the machine for a single calorie consumed – in fact am most grateful to it for serving me so well, and to my friend Peter White, a one-time high-level rower, who lent it to me. Among its more obvious benefits (beyond the building of rowing muscle) is that if you stay on for hours and hours and hours… and hours and hours and hours… you ease yourself into a drifty mantra-like meditation, a sort of dream state, that at its deepest levels can dispel even the agonizing discomfort of the hard plastic seat (experienced, in my case, through several inches of protective foam). Perhaps needless to say, the whole process of being on the thing has toughened me psychologically for the sea hours ahead. My longest single indoor row of the past six months was a “rowing marathon” – 42 kilometres, as measured on the machine’s electronic monitor (3 hours, 22 minutes) – which I did in one Gatorade-fueled sitting back in April.

The real difficulty with the machine is not so much pain as the fact that you can’t read on it – you need your hands for the “oars”. Fortunately my daughters Eden and Georgia bought me an iPod for Christmas, so I’ve had the advantage since then of being able to listen as I row… Bach, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Dave Matthews, Sonny Rawlins, whomever.

My outdoor rowboat, you’ll want to know, is not the spiffy sort of skiff that you see competitive rowers using in the Olympics, but an old Norwegian sailing vessel given to me on my 12th birthday, which I have converted into a rowboat, and which works the muscles of the upper body and abdomen like nothing you ever imagined. However, it doesn’t do anything for the legs. Since rowing of the sort we’ll be doing on Big Blue will be done from a sliding seat (like the one on the machine), which brings the thighs into each stroke, I’m also cycling, doing knee bends, and so on, to keep my legs fit. People say to me, “Oh, you must be really ripped with all the rowing.” And I am of course. However, as you might imagine with a guy my age, it is more a sort of psycho/metaphysical/literary ripping than one merely of the body. While I am fit (touch wood) and have added several inches to my shoulders and thighs, I have to admit that it’s a little harder to get that “ripped” feeling anatomically than it was thirty years ago.

Fact is, with all the training, I’m a trifle on the skinny side and will be looking to put on about ten pounds of sustaining fat during the weeks before we hit the Main in January. Advance weight gain is apparently a significant survival technique on an adventure such as ours which will require as much 12 to 14 hours a day of rowing.

Of other matters, most of you have seen “Life is but a Dream,” the little film that Kelly Saxberg and others made about my training and seafaring ambitions. What you may not know is that the film was chosen from among well over a hundred others from various countries to be shown at the big international documentary festival, Hot Docs, in Toronto in May, where it won a couple of awards. So, congratulations to Kelly, a brilliant filmmaker… and many thanks, too. The film has become a significant part of my fundraising efforts for the expedition and recalls for me a sunny day in early March when we walked the rower a kilometre out onto the ice of Lake Superior at Silver Harbour and filmed among the ice-racing boats.

I’m happy to say that I recently came to an agreement with Explore magazine and Outdoor Canada for stories about the expedition. Meanwhile, the book contract is a multiple and ongoing negotiation between my agent, Jackie Kaiser, at Westwood’s in Toronto, and three Canadian publishing companies, all of whom have expressed an interest in doing the story. (Some of you may have noticed that my former publisher, Penguin, has, in the absence of the profound moral stability I brought to the operation, been rattled by sexual scandal… at the highest levels, as they say. I worked with both of the scandal’s principal participants at various times and never had an inkling they were also at work on one another.)

Where publication is concerned, the following is an excerpt from my book proposal – in the form of a letter (written to Jackie Kaiser), which may be of interest to some of you… particularly of a certain age:

 I see the book in somewhat the same way as I saw The Circus at the Edge of the Earth when I was getting down to work on it – basically one item of damn good theatre after another… lots of good storytelling, lots of powerful images, lots of freshly conveyed perspectives both on the human comedy and how best we might play out our roles in it... particularly as we age.

Thematically, one of the central questions throughout will be: What would happen if rather than simply enduring risk and uncertainty as we add years – donning the “lean and slipper’d pantaloon,” as Shakespeare put it – we decided instead to embrace risk, juice up on it, reclaim our bodies, reestablish ground… in short reinvent ourselves, or at least reset our compasses… say, as oarsmen in a trans-Atlantic rowing expedition.

And therein I see both the thematic and narrative arcs of the book – intrinsic to and animated by my improbable makeover, at the teetering age of 61, as an extreme athlete (measured, of course, against the broader story of the adventure).

Jackie, I think you know some of the details of the actual expedition and of the forces afoot within and around it -- the crew’s compulsion toward a world record; the competitive clash of a pair of veteran sea captains (Melvillian characters in their own right); the daunting array of privations and dangers aboard the boat… And of my private compulsions regarding the endeavour – my begging my way aboard; my calculated risk that I could survive a heart attack while I took my unofficial fitness test; the immensity and intensity of the training… And of course the predictable barrage of skepticism, even contempt, over my choices.

Alternatively, I must admit, I have enjoyed the quiet acknowledgement from so many (including bank executives, artists, politicians, professors, et al) that they’d love to be going along with me.

My training is at a point where it occupies about half my day and is expanding as we head into summer. By mid-July it will be pretty much my full-time job (along with book research and planning). For the past ten days I’ve been rowing on Clear Lake at Torrance, Ontario, where I will be training throughout July and August, before moving back to Thunder Bay.

As you undoubtedly noticed above, Gargoyle’s restaurant, where my son Matt is a cook, has joined the valued ranks of my backers, thanks to Doug Morrill. My fundraising otherwise is going reasonably well after a somewhat “gradual” start. Needless to say, I’m extremely grateful to all of you and am currently about half way to where I’d like to be by September to make all of this happen without having to resort to counterfeiting. Progress notwithstanding, don’t hesitate to pass my prospectus along to your uncle Scrooge McDuck if you find the spirit upon you.

In closing, I might mention that there is an ongoing if sporadic discussion among the crew members about what foods and nutritional supplements will serve us best on board. My friend Trish Wilson recently suggested that some sort of fruitcake, replete with nuts and dried fruit, might be good aboard. I mentioned this in a writing class I was leading, and one of the participants, Richard Hiner, an adventurous guy in his own right, went home and baked me a fruitcake so compelling that I’ve decided to beg somebody to bake me a few pounds for the trip, based on Richard’s recipe (hint hint… as they used to say in Jughead comics).

And with that, I shall sign off for now, with the promise that you’ll hear from me again in a month or so, now that I’m up and at my reporting.

Again, and as you know, you are all deeply appreciated.

I send warm wishes.



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