YOP017: Sonya Baumstein – Solo Row Across The Pacific Ocean


In April 2015 Sonya Baumstein will attempt to row 5700 nautical miles from Choshi, Japan to San Francisco. Arguably the hardest open ocean crossing in the world, I will be on board a 23 foot rowboat for 150+ days supported only by land-based advisors via satellite phone. Potential challenges of this crossing other than distance and duration include high seas over 40 feet, winds above 50 knots, extreme wildlife, and freighters or other large vessels.

We were fortunate enough to catch Sonya just before she left for her adventure to chat about what the experience will be like and how she has been able to push her limits to become the first person ever to standup paddle board the Berring Strait and continues to achieve higher and higher goals.

Show Notes:

Facebook: Sonya Baumstein

Expedition Pacific 


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Zephan: What going on, everybody? Zephan Blaxberg here form the Year of Purpose podcast, and today I have a really cool guest. Now, as many of you might know, I am a rower and I love rowing. And the person that I’m about to reveal to you is getting ready to make an amazing journey. Now, I’m not gonna tell you what it is just yet, I’ll let her say that to you. But just so you guys know, the audio quality on this one isn’t a hundred percent because she’s actually working out of her shop right now. They’re working on finishing up her boat for her amazing journey that she’s about to do. So, I apologize in advance that there is some music an noises and things going on in the background, but I really hope that you stick with us for this special episode because there’s really a true hero in this and I want you guys to listen in.

So, without further ado, Sonya Baumstein.

What’s up, Year of Purpose podcast listeners? Zephan Blaxberg here and I’m joined by Sonya Baumstein, who’s getting ready to do something truly amazing. Now she’s already rower 2,641 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean. She’s biked from Mexico to Seattle. She’s kayaked from Seattle to Alaska, and she was the first person to stand-up paddleboard the Bering Strait.

But I want to leave it to you to tell everybody here today what you are actually getting ready to do right now.

Sonya: Uhm, I’m—I’ve been prepping actually for the last two and a half years, even during that paddleboard of the Bering Strait, to row the North Pacific Ocean. And it’s taken so much time to get sponsors onboard, the right team constructed. There’s been a lot of moves over the person of the last three years, I guess, but—yeah!

Zephan: That’s awesome.

Sonya: Six thousand miles.

Zephan: I guess a lot of people have asked you this: Are you ready?

Sonya: Oh, you never feel ready, I mean, until you’re taking the first stroke and there’s nothing else you can do. It’s almost impossible. You can fill any amount of time with an endless number of things to take care of. There’s always something else you can do from the standpoint of personal preparation, mental preparation, relaxation. I haven’t gotten much sleep in the past...three months? And not really one day off in the last four, so that’s kind of—

Zephan: Which is good preparation because you’re gonna be rowing pretty much non-stop for, what, about a hundred and fifty days, something like that?

Sonya: Hopefully! It is—it isn’t—it’s one of those things that people talk about and they say “Do you start prepping for the row by doing the sleep cycles?” No, you’re gonna experience that horrible transition no matter what, and I’d rather get the last few days of sleep in a really comfortable bed.

Zephan: Makes sense.

Sonya: All day. Just wanna sleep all day.

Zephan: So let me ask you this, how did all this get started? Like where were you where you’re just like “I’m gonna go out there and do something really crazy and really awesome that people haven’t done before.” Because I feel like a lot of people have a moment in time where they’re just like “This seems like a good idea.”

Sonya: Yeah, I think that—one interesting thing about that that you brought up is people have these moments and it’s almost like they don’t speak them into reality and it’s a really huge part of the experience to say “Okay, I’ve said this enough times. I’m going to go do it.” And the more you can corral yourself into the idea of making whatever that thing is happen, starting a business—which I’ve done at the same time—rowing an ocean, taking your kids backpacking for two weeks. All of those things require a lot of exertion a lot of time and a lot of planning. So it’s really what you’re willing to do. And I think that I, in particular, started with kind of this weird endurance background in endurance rowing. Really good at suffering. It’s something that I do pretty well, generally. I can suffer mostly with a smile on, most times. Hopefully a few of my expedition partners would say that.

And I had gotten my Master’s in Non-Profit Management and I was teaching at the university of UCF—I’m sorry—University of Central Florida, UCF. And I think I had two or three separate jobs on top of it, social—doing social work and coaching two different elite programs of rowing. I didn’t feel super fulfilled. There was that moment, I think that people have, and I felt like this was a time and I had to go do something and a friend mentioned to me “Hey, have you heard about Ocean Rowing?” and I said “No” and that’s kind of how it began and then after that, I was trying to engage other people in this idea of “Let’s see what we can do” and everybody came from a different background. I had—Oliver, my rowing partner, was a professional mountain biker, so he was really into the idea of doing a long distance bike trek, so that’s kind of how the bike idea came up. And I had another friend who was supposed to do the row with me and didn’t, who’d been a backcountry guide in Alaska, kayaking, and he said “You should really check out the inside passage.” So I did that.

And then, after you get kind of kick started, and figure out what your path is, then—I don’t know, it’s kind of an imagination, sky’s the limit sort of thing. And I think that people maybe glamorize this stuff but the amount of work that goes into being able to have the chance to row and ocean, much less the actual act of rowing an ocean, is a massive undertaking.

Zephan: So it’s really cool that you bring up the endurance rowing. So I actually—I started rowing last year, I never rowed in my life. There was an introductory class with our local boathouse, and I started last spring, and literally by the end of it, I was getting ready to do my first head race—which, for people listening in, is a 5K race sometimes—and so I’m super, super stoked that our boathouse actually opens Saturday.

Sonya: Oh, cool!

Zephan: So in just a couple days here, we’re getting back on the water. So let me ask you this: What seat did you row? Were you usually in fours or eights, or what’d you do?

Sonya: I was mostly eights, the programs I was in. Bow seat, or seventh seat. I was always starboard. I tried the whole bisweptual thing, which…let just qualify that, for anybody who doesn’t know rowing. Sweep rowing, instead of sculling—sculling is two oars, sweep rowing is one oar that you have both hands on. So if you can sweep both sides, you can do port and starboard rowing. Because it’s two different positions, it’s called bisweptual.

Zephan: I was actually—I’m a seven seat, too. That’s my favorite place and I’m a starboard rower. I’ve tried rowing on port and I can’t do it.

Sonya: I want to! I want to be able to, it just feels so goofy!

Zephan: Yeah, I mean, I can do but, but it’s not nearly as clean looking as it is on the other side of the boat.

Sonya: It’s not as satiating either. I don’t know, there’s just something about starboard that really has me.

Zephan: Yeah, I’m on the same side as you!

Sonya: That’s really funny.

Zephan: So the cool thing is, right after I read an article about you, I saw this video somebody posted online about—is it like “The Great Pacific Race,” or something like that?

Sonya: Yeah!

Zephan: So I saw that and I was like “I really want to do this.” And I was like “Wait a minute, this girl is doing all of this. She’s out there for days and days and months at a time doing this stuff.” So just for everybody listening, this is why I was like, I need to talk to you, because you’re doing really cool stuff.

Sonya: Oh, that’s rad. Yeah, actually—interestingly enough—Chris Martin is that race director and he’s a friend of mine. And I had a boat entered in that race last year, so I got four people in a boat and they collected scientific data crossing to Hawaii. So that was a cool—it was the kickoff year. And now I’m officially the first ocean-rowing boat builder in—I guess it is…I can’t say the western hemisphere, because that includes Europe. There’s four ocean-rowing boat builders in the world. And the other three are in the UK.

Zephan: So you’re building your own boat, custom for this trip.

Sonya: This is a custom boat, yes, but I already have two other boats on order. So for different crossings. One’s out of race, one’s in race, for the Atlantic challenge, if you’ve seen that. That’s the first race that I did. Races are a really cool thing to enter, and it’s not necessarily—I think some people think it’s a sell-out sort of thing, but this is something that’s so foreign that you’ve never done before. And to have that kind of comradery before you launch and to just figure it out as you go—which is what sailing is, but you’re doing it without a sail in a rowboat. It’s a really cool thing.

Zephan: What are you up against doing all this? I mean, clearly, the elements, but I have no experience, and for everyone else listening, most people don’t have this type of experience of like… You’re crossing an ocean. This is not just like a little lake that you decided “I’ll be over there in five minutes.” This is—you’re on the open water. So what are you up against here?

Sonya: As far as the physical? Or the mental, or?

Zephan: Both really.

Sonya: I think, uhm, your perspective changes a lot. It took a while, so that’s also a transition period when you get out there. The mental, for me, is much more important. So it’s being able to literally live only in the moment, because your emotions change so rapidly with what’s going on. So short-term memory, super important. Low expectations, incredibly important. And ability to problem solve and focusing on just the challenge at hand is a really difficult thing to do. To say “Okay, well—” and the questions I get are typically that “This, this, and this, and this can happen.” “Oh my god, you could die.” This is the most often said thing. So it’s been really weird talking about my potential death for the past two years, I’ll tell you that. That’s the most often asked question.

Zephan: But you have your potential of greatness too, right.

Sonya: Well, yeah, and it’s not even like a measure of scales, I don’t think. It’s you have things that you can prepare for, and then you prepare however you can before you go, but it doesn’t mean all those things are gonna happen, so there’s no reason to really focus on those things in my opinion. And maybe that’s just how—there’s been a lot of points getting up to this point that this project could’ve completely failed, as I’m sure. Any business owner could say, any expedition person could say. So it’s that problem solving and saying “This is the problem I’m gonna solve today. I’m gonna get one yes today, whatever that yes is.”

Zephan: So what is it inside of you that drives you to keep going? Because, you know, I’m sure there’s gonna be ups and downs with this. We saw in Castaway he eventually starts talking to a volleyball, right? So you’re away from people for a really long time. Do you have any form of communication with checking in with home? How does that all work?

Sonya: I definitely do. But I do also want to qualify that with saying I’ve been surrounded by a lot of people doing a lot of intense things. And people are the largest unknown factor that I deal with. The ocean, I get! I’m never gonna really understand what’s happening, but I know there’s high seas, low seas, and animal life and freighters. And most of those things are manageable and I’ve got backup plans. I never know what humans are gonna do! Or bears. Bears are also in that same category. So the ocean to me is more like home than anything else. But communications at sea, I have a satellite phone, so I have a satellite phone sponsor, Apollo Communications, and people don’t realize but there’s different plans for everything. So in order to send a picture, you have to have a data plan, and there’s no way that I could possible stream video unless I want to pay a thousand dollars for a one minute video. So I wish I could show you guys what it was like, but after I get back, the videos will be somewhere.

I have something called a Delorme InReach, which is really cool. It’s this little mapper that does a cookie trail and that will be up on my website. So every four hours, it’ll drop a cookie. Of course I have my backups to that too, in case that device fails for any reason. And it also allows me to do Facebook updates and Twitter updates. So a hundred and fifty characters, they’ll be very short.

Zephan: That’s really cool though, you at least get to tell people “Hey, I’m still here!”

Sonya: Yeah, yeah! And say like “Whoa, fish.” That will probably be the extent of it, or “Still really tired.” Uhm…yeah, there’s the science equipment I’ve got on board. I’ve got a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of science gear from Liquid Robotics, and that it also its own communication system built in, so it’s got a back entrance to a website and all of that information is going to be again on an open source website for classrooms around the world to access and we’ll have scientists explaining what the data points coming in mean and if any other scientist, physical oceanographers, or otherwise want to access that, we will share that data.

Zephan: So a lot of the trips that you’ve done, it sounds like there’s been a scientific background to it. Like there’s some sort of researching and gathering information. Is that something that’s really important to you when you do these?

Sonya: I think it is. It’s something that I was actually talking to someone last night about. Scientists can’t be everywhere and it costs a lot of money. We as adventurers, as people going out every day and doing things, we have this ability to collect data. Even going to work, let’s say you bike to work. That daily commute offers information. Everything plays into this—a plan that we can make around climate change, and it’s a word, being from Florida, that I will use. Adventurers especially, it’s a really cool thing. Because you’ve got a lot of people going out, climbing mountains, and doing really remote stuff that most scientists would never have access to, but could absolutely use the data. And maybe it’s an off season or it’s a new part and new things are getting discovered every day from these people tracking animals or collecting ocean samples, as I’m doing. I think—

Zephan: Zephan cutting in here real quick for just a second. While I was on the call with Sonya, she was actually tethered with an internet connection from her phone just to try and Skype us cause she’s getting ready for this adventure. So it cut out for just a second, but then she did give me a call back. So here is the rest of that interview:

Sonya: Sorry! Are we good?

Zephan: Yep, we’re good now.

Sonya: Uhm, I think that when it comes to discovery, people thought it ended in the 17th Century with Columbus—or even 1800s, Amelia Earhart, sort of stuff. And there’s still new things happening every day. Our planet is constantly shifting around. The affects that we’re having, the natural effects of life’s gravitational pull. So the idea “never stop exploring” is pretty important to me, I think.

Zephan: Yeah, no that’s really cool that it’s no longer just something for yourself. Like yeah, you do have this one really be accomplishment that you get to do, but at the same time, you’re also kind of making your mark on the world, both by showing other people it’s possible and you’re helping the science community. So it’s really neat to kind of give back while you’re doing this at the same time.

Sonya: Yeah. It’s kind of like an inspiration aspiration sort of thing, right.

Zephan: Yeah.

Sonya: I think I often say “If a tree falls in the forest…” because I get a lot of crap. I get a lot—I don’t know if I’m allowed to swear but just think of the other word. I get a lot of crap from solo adventurers for—they feel like I’m selling out by doing all these school talks and presentations. But media’s the only way to affect change!

Zephan: Mhm. Yeah, that’s how we make a difference today. Look at the power of all these videos we see online now. People watch these videos, next thing you know it’s got a million views. And there’s no way to get that message across as easily as in a video.

Sonya: Cat social media.

Zephan: Yeah. So you have this awesome saying that was on one of your videos. “Every great discovery starts with adventure.” And that’s pretty awesome. Where did that start for you? Like where did that saying come from?

Sonya: Uhm…me? Which is really weird to say. I said that. And it’s something that I believe. When I talk to schools, I talk a lot about just this idea of what exploration is, and everybody has a different definition. So when I talk to kids—as you can hear, my shop is going on in the background—I say “Define exploration for me.” And they tell me what it means to them, in particular, and then I talk about modern day explorer, which aren’t really talked about. Everybody looks at that as adventure, unless you’re doing a poles trip. Polar exploration for some reason is still looked at as exploration, but outside of that, everything else is just kind of this “adventure” qualification and…the line between the two I don’t really understand. It’s really blurry I think.

I talk about a guy and for the life of me I can’t remember his name off the top of my head, but he was really into snow. He’s alive right now. He’s working in Siberia. Gosh, I wish I could remember his name. And he led a bunch of polar trips just as a guide, and then was leading a trip in Siberia and discovered the oldest baby wooly mammoth every found. Something like 2.8 billion years old. And that’s a gateway! Adventures a gateway drug, man! If he wasn’t there leading that trip for people who had no idea what they were doing, what would’ve been the chances? And it’s the same for everything. Travel logs, etcetera.

There’s been—there’s a female writer from New York Times that decided one day that she wanted to paddle the Niger River. [Unintelligible]! You don’t often see women in that part of the world, especially alone or in a wooden, dug-out boat going down the Niger River. I mean—and obviously, people have been doing that for centuries and I think that she might have been the first white woman on record to do that. Or American woman, I should say. And so she went down the river, was accepted into all these different communities, wrote vigorously about all the experiences she had, and ended up making a lot of new anthropological discoveries after she was done that she didn’t even know about. So these are the things, it’s again, the gateway drug.

Zephan: So it’s the thrill of this adventure into the unknown with the potential for some many things to happen that we can’t even foresee.

Sonya: Exactly.

Zephan: That’s awesome. Well, I’m sure excited to—I’m gonna be tracking you on this journey to see how everything’s going. I definitely want to stay tuned to all of this. Really quick for me, and for everybody listening, how do you feel fulfilled in this journey? What does it really mean to you when you say “I’m getting ready to do this adventure”? Why is it so important?

Sonya: Oh, god—

Zephan: I mean, like, so I love being on the water and here’s why. So when I started rowing, I found that it was the first time where I could really calm my mind down from everything going on outside of me. Literally, the second I get in the boat—they always say to keep your head in the boat. Obviously you know from balancing wise, you can’t really turn your head to the side because it can start to tip the boat, but you really do—there’s something that happens when you get into the boat and you start rowing, and you just kind of like automatically get into the zone. And I get that feeling every time. And it’s like I wish I could stay there forever. So I don’t know if maybe like there’s something really special to you about rowing that makes you want to keep coming back and doing more and more?

Sonya: I think it’s more the ocean. Ocean rowing, very depressing compared to lake rowing. I’ll be quite honest, I wish that I had never had a background in rowing before I did ocean rowing, because you want that perfect stroke and you barely ever get it. I mean, if I get fully up the slide five times a day out of the eighteen hours, it’s kind of shocking.

Zephan: Wow.

Sonya: So oars flying everywhere constantly sort of thing. Black eyes, stuff like that. So you have to have a lot of patience. I think the coolest thing about ocean rowing, rather than rowing, for me is—and I switch up. You can see I don’t just do one thing, because I get tired of it. I don’t just want to be in that one niche, but I come back to the ocean constantly because it feels like a gift every time. There’s so many competing forces. And to be able to get the right weather or have enough seamanship to control yourself and the boat in the weather to cross. Deal with the plethora of problems that happen, both before, during, and after. It feels like survival. Survival’s a really—I want everyone to be able to go out into the woods or in an ocean and survive because you’ll never feel more empowered as a person.

Zephan: Yeah, I mean, I think it brings us down to our bare basics of behind human. You get to like really feel what it means to be here on this earth right now.

Sonya: And I think people swing polar ways. For me, it makes me the most positive and regimented person that I can be in my entire life. Because you got this fear of control that’s very tiny. So you do things over and over again that are better for yourself but also that make you happy. The small things that make you happy too. And while I’ve been with people that have been very negative, the positivity carries you through it or it can drive you into the ground. It’s really hard and I think that that’s one leg up that I have on the whole idea of this being solo, which really doesn’t freak me out for some reason.

Zephan: So what’s one small thing that makes you really happy? I had, the other morning—I have three roommates, and the other morning, I had had about four hours of sleep, I had a long day ahead of me. And literally as I wake up, my roommate texts me and is like “There is coffee waiting on the counter.” And I’m like “Yes! This is what I need today!” What’s your little like…I guess guilty pleasure? What makes you really happy?

Sonya: On the ocean or in general?

Zephan: How about both?

Sonya: Okay. Food on the ocean and in general, I can say that. But…in particular on the ocean, as far as environmental, like a super clear night. Clear night sky, waves following the wind, wind about twenty-two knots, waves about seven feet, big moon, cruising speed. It’s beautiful. Then you’re just surfing down waves. That’s like… That’s an ideal moment. Like I remember those four or five moments from the Atlantic. They’re—[sighs]. And then beyond that, Cheez-Its.

Zephan: Hey, I love Cheez-Its.

Sonya: And in life, when you’re able to meet someone and have some sort of a lasting impact on them. So I’ve had the good fortune of being able to do all these amazing expeditions and talk to all of these amazing people and be taken into a lot of people’s homes in inclement weather or just to have food. And to get a text message from people, especially when you’re so focused on doing this one thing every day, all day, with all of your energy and emotion. To get a text message saying “Hey, I was just thinking about you” from somebody I met two years ago, that picked me up on a sailboat, that’s a really cool thing to get. Or I got a message from a girl that I did a talk to—it was in Los Angeles. I did a presentation, and she said “Still not using plastic water bottles.” Like these are really cool things! This makes me happy.

Zephan: Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, last question before I let you go. What’s next? What comes after this awesome adventure? Are you even thinking there yet, or maybe do you want to go take a vacation for a little while?

Sonya: Yeah, uhm—it’s funny. Everybody always wants to know the next one because now this one’s like done as far as—

Zephan: This one hasn’t even started yet.

Sonya: No, I know! That’s the funny thing! When you talk about it for so long, I just want to go. I wanted to go last year but changes happened, lost a partner, going solo. There’s gonna be a few things. I’m gonna be at an Airbnb in San Francisco. So very cool they’re sponsoring me for two and a half weeks roughly after the row. Healing, so I won’t be able to move. And I usually use most of my time rowing to think about what I’m doing next, but…I think I’m gonna go with my boyfriend to southeast Asia in December and eat all of Vietnam. Eat it all! And…probably a circumnavigation.

Zephan: That’s awesome.

Sonya: Yeah, if I finish doing this ocean row, I’ll have six thousand miles out of the way towards doing self-powered circumnavigation of the world, so I’ll probably get done with that. Try to do a winter bike or a spring bike to get over to New York by May, and then prep to row the North Atlantic over, and then get through Europe and Asia.

Zephan: That’s really cool. Well, congratulations on everything you’ve accomplished up until this point. And I know it feels like—it feels like it’s done but it hasn’t even started yet. Which is kind of cool because now you get to enjoy it all over again, right.

Sonya: Yeah! The first stroke hasn’t happened yet so that’ll be really cool.

Zephan: That’s awesome. Well, you know, the best of luck to you in everything. The weather cooperating with you. Everything else cooperating with you, with getting all of your gear over there. And of course, safe journeys as you make your way across.

Sonya: Thank you so much, and I’ll tweet you on the ocean.

Zephan: Awesome! And what is the best place for everyone to keep track of this stuff? Do you have like a website?

Sonya: Yeah, so, on Facebook Sonya Baumstein—I’m Jewish, that’s a long last name.

Zephan: That’s okay, I’m Jewish too. [Sonya laughs] Zephan Moses Blaxberg, who would’ve guessed?

Sonya: Sonya Baumstein! B-A-U-M-S-T-E-I-N, you can find me on Facebook. And expeditionpacific.com is where you’ll find all my tracking information and the links to get onto my Facebook and stuff like that. So most of my communication from the ocean is going to be on my Facebook page, Sonya Baumstein on Twitter, but that’ll be populated with map on my website.

Zephan: Good deal. Well, hey, it was great talking to you. I’ll let you get back to your work. I know that you’ve got to finish making a boat over there. And hopefully I’ll get—

Sonya: Do you want a quick shot of the boat?

Zephan: That would be awesome! Can we see it?

Sonya: Yeah, hold on. Let me turn this guy around, or see if I can. I don’t know if I can, but I’ll hold you like this and see what I can show you. So…bow of the boat.

Zephan: Nice!

Sonya: There’s Alex. We did some oar fitting today so it’s still on. But…the final coat of paint and primer goes on tonight.

Zephan: That’s awesome. Oh, and how many oars do you have to bring with you for something like this?

Sonya: I’m gonna bring four Sawyer oars. They’re heavier duty, they’re not hollow carbon, which I like. And they’re made in America, which I also like. So four primaries and then one set of breakaway oars. Break down that in my aft cabin.

Zephan: Nice. Good deal. Well, hey, thanks for spending some time with me today. Good luck with everything that you’re going on to do. This is a really awesome adventure and I’m really excited for you.

Sonya: Thank you so much! Keep in touch!

Zephan: Alright, have a good one.

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