UQ graduate Eleanor Carey on rowing the Pacific and refusing to remain anchored
Seasick for 17 days straight, her stomach and kidneys in knots, “getting beaten up constantly” in the middle of nowhere and suffering from something called ‘pizza bum’.
There were definite moments when UQ graduate and adventurer Eleanor Carey thought her ambitious row from California to Hawaii was destined for failure.
Yet, she maintains the toughest part, bar none, was embarkation day – the moment she had to convince herself to hop in the boat and trust the next 4000km would not spell her demise.
“The sea safety briefing I had beforehand absolutely petrified me,” Carey admits.
“They told me that if I fell out of a capsized sailboat at sea, my chance of survival was less than five per cent. That’s considerably less when you start talking about a non-motorised rowboat.
“The penny suddenly dropped that if I ever got separated from the boat it would be an absolute miracle that I’d be found alive.
“I went home and had a brief mental breakdown.
“Once you are out on the water though, that’s the relaxing part.”
Even though the physical suffering which followed would suggest otherwise, the physiotherapy graduate said the anxiety of the preparation period was easily the most intense time.
Not only did she have to convince herself to strap in for the ride, she had months of overcoming objections and fears from well-meaning family and friends.
It was remarkable that Carey found herself in the Great Pacific Race to start with.
“I’m far too impressionable and influenced by books and documentaries. Within 30 minutes of watching Losing Sight of Shore on Netflix I’d sent off an email,” Carey confesses.
“I contacted Explorers Connect, which is this website where bat-shit crazy people find each other.
“I got a message back which said: ‘Our crew is full, but we’ll put you down as an emergency reserve’.
“I didn’t take them seriously. I thought they were just politely declining.
“Then a crew member dropped out…”
Carey’s meagre rowing experience to that point had included a few months spent paddling up and down the Brisbane River while at UQ, something she admits was pursued more for the social aspect than the physical challenge.
However, another adventure in the intervening years – an eight-nation cycle from Norway to England – had lit the wick on her wanderlust.
She has now visited approximately 40 countries, along the way managing a surf hostel in Morocco, climbing a volcano in Central America, and setting course for several multi-day canoeing trips along Australian rivers.
But nothing quite defines her spirit and courage like the row across the Pacific.
“I found it really interesting the way my body adapted on the cycle across Europe,” says Carey.
“I’d never spent that long continuously moving my body and I felt so good; so clear and calm.
“I didn’t do it specifically for a mental benefit, but I definitely got one.
“Now I get itchy feet. I get a craving and feel it’s time to go on a long trip again.
“It becomes like a drug…a high…and it’s addictive, which I guess later led me to the row.”
Not that everything was plain sailing (quite the opposite in fact) when Carey and crewmates Cazz Lander and Megan Hoskin hit the water for 62 days floating adrift.
“Some days we were getting beaten up non-stop,” recalls Carey.
“The oars basically become big weapons in your hands and when they slammed down on you or you lost control in heavy swell, that wasn’t much fun.
“I spent the first 17 days seasick and was vomiting every 15 minutes. I had some moments where I definitely thought it (completing) wasn’t going to happen for me.
“There’s also this thing – what they call ‘pizza bum’ – where the salt from the sea gets underneath you, and because you are sitting flat for so long at a time, it starts to cause abrasions and irritation.
“You need to sleep with your bum out so it can air and dry off. You see a lot of bums on a trip like the one we did.
“Thankfully I didn’t get it too bad, but I’ve heard of others who suffered lesions which became infected and they had to spend days lying on their side.
“By some miracle, through all this, we held on.”
The great paradox with all of this is that Carey didn’t consider herself an outdoorsy or sporty kid in her youth.
But, as she notes, “people change”.
Some elements haven’t altered a great deal however, including Carey’s fierce sense of independence, desire for personal growth and willingness to lead.
The former Stanthorpe State School captain and Grace College vice-president has moved on from physiotherapy to helping budding entrepreneurs with their startup concepts.
In 2016 she founded The Generator Bundaberg, forming partnerships in the Wide Bay community and offering new businesses a helping hand towards their dreams.
Carey has also been a mission leader for Startup Catalyst since 2017, running “life-changing” international excursions to hotbeds of startup activity.
Along with the travel necessary for her various speaking engagements, Carey describes herself as currently being of no fixed abode.
“I did adore being a physio and was learning all the time, but I felt I was ready for a change,” she explains.
“As soon as I get comfortable, I’ve got to find something harder to do.
“The whole reason I started The Generator Bundaberg was because I wanted to see people execute on their dreams.
“I love the entrepreneurial ecosystem. You don’t waste time or wait around for other people to fix your problems.
“The attitude and spirit of entrepreneurs run many parallels to the world of adventurers.”
In recent months, Carey has visited most major Australian cities, invited to give relatable examples of “how to build resilience, produce high-performing human beings, and to achieve what seems impossible”.
She finds it hard to perceive herself as now having a public profile, but is comfortable with the role nonetheless.
So, where to next for the roaming soul?
There’s a concept already in planning about a charity bike ride around Queensland, but really, the possibilities are endless.
“The one thing that’s changed is that I don’t think I can surprise my family anymore,” Carey laughs.
“I could tell them I’m going to ski across Antarctica next week and they would just say ‘Okay’.”