When your phone goes off in the middle of the night, it isn’t usually good news.
At best, it signals a call into action, albeit with a foggy head and a scrambled mind.
At worst, the incessant ringing or buzzing represents news of a dreadful event, or an impending one.
As the British rower Jasmine Harrison discovered, being woken up at 4 a.m. — when you’re all alone in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — is a harbinger of all of the above.
“Oh my God,” Harrison declared on a video recording that she made of the incident, “I’m actually shaking. This is as scary as anything!”
She was roughly halfway through a daring solo adventure — rowing across the Atlantic — when she realized that she was teetering on the brink of total calamity.
Her tiny 550-pound (249 kilograms) rowing boat was on a collision course with a drilling ship, which could easily have swatted her asunder without ever knowing that she was there.
Recalling the incident to CNN Sport, the 21-year-old revealed the stream of consciousness that overcame her in that terrifying moment: “I’ve got to use my radio, I’ve got to use equipment, maybe flares. Then row, steer! Go do this, go do that. Contact technology. Find out which direction. Bearings! All sorts,” she says.
“I really needed to engage my brain when I’ve just been woken at half past four in the morning after a long shift of night rowing.
“So that was quite scary,” she adds, with something of an understatement.
Thirst for adventure
Harrison is a rare breed of solo adventurers, an ocean rower who’d never even picked up an oar until she decided to go for it at the end of 2019.
Since the first attempt to row across the Atlantic in 1896, only around 900 attempts have been made to row any ocean — fewer than the number of people who tried to climb Mount Everest in 2019.
Female solo rowers are even rarer. Fewer than 200 have successfully navigated an ocean and just 18 have made it across the Atlantic on their own.
Harrison describes herself as a “normal child,” but one with a thirst for adventure.
“I’ve never really gone on any ‘abroad holidays’ and I wanted to go to a cool place,” she says.
So, when she turned 18, she packed her bags for the Caribbean and found work as a bartender and a swimming instructor. Working in a bar in Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua, she witnessed the rowers coming ashore in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.
Harrison says she was hooked, but it took her friends and family a while to realize the enormous scale of her ambition. She admits she also might have understated it to them as “just a really long race … might be gone for a few months.”
“It’s only when I was actually out there, and they see me on TV and they’re like: ‘Oh, right! She’s serious. This is big!'” she says.
However, Harrison says a lot of research and contemplation went into her decision.
“I’m not a complete, like, free spirit,” she reflects. “They wouldn’t let us go if they didn’t have full trust that we were going to make it to the other side.”
Nevertheless, she was well aware of the dangers and Harrison wasn’t afraid to leverage the risk. “I could maybe die” is how she put it as she pursued financial support.
“I said: ‘Well if I don’t make it, it’s actually a bigger story for you. So please sponsor me!”
As she recounts her escapades from more than two months across 3,000 miles on the high seas, it’s clear that adrenaline was a major draw.
As the drilling ship changed course, ghosting past her and off into the night, Harrison’s first thought was that she wished her hands would stop shaking so she she could do something.
But it wasn’t long before she was calculating the narrative currency of her brush with oblivion, exaggerating the drama of a phone call afterward and boasting: “Guess what? I nearly got hit by a massive ship!”
Harrison says that particular incident was the most frightening, because she had some control over it. Equally perilous, though, was the spontaneous drama that nature threw her way.
Twice she was pitched into the ocean when rogue waves capsized her boat and even though her little vessel was designed to self-right — “he’s very clever, he does it himself,” says Harrison — she was still injured in the process.
On the first occasion, she was violently yanked back out of the water.
“I was holding onto the grab lines, thinking it wasn’t going to self-right,” she recalls. “And then he did. Literally flung me out and I just landed on [the] deck. I was like ‘Oh, there we go!'”
The second capsizing was less dramatic because she was safely in her cabin at the time, but her elbow was injured and still bruised upon the completion of her journey.
The goal was to try and row 20,000 strokes a day, the equivalent of 60 miles. But when the going was rough, the distance covered might only be a fraction of that — a spirit-crushing two miles.
It was in such moments when Harrison took solace in the wildlife that seemed to be along for the ride.
“It’s ridiculous, it’s just so cool,” she enthuses from the quayside in Antigua. “You’re literally less than a foot away from the sea all the time. I saw lots of dolphins; I took a picture and in one snap I had 40 dolphins in one picture. It’s insane!
“I saw whales, marlin, I even had a little crab on my boat.” adds Harrison, whose Facebook feed shows her holding a flying fish.
Upon watching her videos back of these magical encounters, her joy is infectious as she narrates the scene to nobody in particular, struggling to find the appropriate words.
“This is the most exciting thing ever in my life. Oh my God, that was like — aargh! Oh my gosh, f***ing hell!” she says.
Asked if she thought the fish were aware of her presence, she’s in no doubt that they were.
“They are 100 percent aware. Every morning I’ll, sort of, put my hand in the water and the pilot fish would swim to my hand and I’m like ‘Morning! Where are you going to take me today? Backwards again!'” she says.
Harrison says she spent many long hours deep in her own thoughts, realizing that very few people on Earth could ever experience such extreme solitude for so long.
“How many times is a human being so far away from another human being?” she ponders. “Even if you’re at home alone in the house by yourself, you’ve got a neighbor — literally — sat a few meters away on the other side of the wall. I just feel so lucky, it’s like — wow.”
After 70 days, three hours and 48 minutes, Harrison made it to Antigua and pulled her final strokes into the Guinness Book of World Records.
At just 21, she’s the youngest female to have rowed solo across any ocean; she’s a trailblazer, a pioneer, somebody that will inspire women and girls all over the world.
Having taken her first, tentative, steps back on dry land, she was faced with more than a dozen interviews. Out of everything she has experienced since departing the Canary Islands in December, the media interest has been the most surprising — she says she just doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.
“I was just doing this because it’s something I wanted to do. I only wanted to cross an ocean. I didn’t really think that the rest of the world were going to want to know what I’m doing. I mean, this is just my life.”
When pushed for a reason to try and explain all of the interest, Harrison concedes: “Because it’s cool. Especially at the moment, during lockdown, something has happened. The Talisker Whiskey Challenge happened when everything else was canceled. And that’s just insane.”
She doesn’t yet have any plans for another adventure, but already she has concluded that trying to top this experience would only “ruin” it. In time, the magnitude of her accomplishment will sink in
It will also take time for the bruises to heal and for the ground to steady beneath her feet; the waking memories of her voyage are still so visceral.
Harrison barely slept in her first night back on dry land, the wide-open space of her stable bed was too much of an adjustment, never mind that she “wasn’t suffocating on my own breath in the tiny cabin.”
“I started rocking backwards and forwards really fast and I was like — OK, balance, balance, I’m not in the boat,” she says.
“It’s a weird feeling, but absolutely wonderful. To feel that you’re still in another place, in another world. And you’re not? That’s so cool!”