Alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Mylène Paquette watched from the window of her rowboat's small cabin as seven-metre waves crashed over her.
The waves were frightening, but the four-second intervals between them were far worse for the anticipation. As long as Paquette kept the airlock of her cabin closed, the modified ocean rowboat would pop back upright if it capsized — which it did four times during that storm.
Despite onslaughts of massive waves lasting up to 48 hours — in a bad spell she spent nearly six days strapped to her bed — the Montreal native reached land again last week, becoming the first North American woman to row across the Atlantic solo.
Her four-month journey began in Halifax in July and carried her nearly 5,000 kilometres to the northeast coast of France near Lorient — an epic accomplishment for someone who has always been afraid of water.
Perhaps her biggest ally in the feat was Hermel, her seven-metre custom-built fibreglass boat equipped with solar panels and satellite phones. It was named after Hermel Lavoie, the man who volunteered months of his time outfitting the boat and who helped provide remote technical support to Paquette throughout her journey from his home in Rimouski, Que.
The rest of her team, spread between Montreal, Florida and France, watched for incoming weather patterns and advised Paquette on route changes. She was also in contact with doctors, who warned her to watch her carbon monoxide intake if she spent too long sealed in her airtight cabin, and a psychologist who helped her through the darker moments.
It was this team that helped her overcome her fear of water. At one point she had to scrape off the barnacles that were slowing down her boat’s progress. On the team’s insistence, she dove into the water four times and each time she says she contemplated the plunge like a reluctant cat. She overcame her fear but says she still doesn’t like to be in the water.
Even in the physical sense she sometimes had a few friends nearby; a pod of pilot whales came in to check on her progress every three or four days for the first few weeks and another curious group of the same species shadowed the end of her journey near France.
On average, Paquette rowed for six to eight hours a day, but her progress was highly dependent on the winds and tides — to avoid an incoming system she once had to row for nearly 14 hours. In the second half of her journey, she was rained on almost every day. She kept her clothes in Ziploc bags and enjoyed a dry set for a short time every two weeks.
Yet by the time she was back on land, it was a struggle for her to even walk more than a few metres.
“It’s like I was in a coma for a couple of weeks,” Paquette said the day after returning to solid land. In quick, excited bursts the rower described how she’s gaining the energy to walk again after more than four months of shuffling around the small space of her boat with the help of railings. The sensations of being back on land with people and “too many stimulations” overwhelms her. She satisfies urges to touch plants and flowers and forgets that she can’t walk.
“It’s like I’m a little baby discovering the world,” she said.