Rescue crews rush to aid naked Irish solo adventurer

The headline was too horrid on so many fronts to pass up.

It turns out 29-year-old Irishman Keith Whelan, attempting to become the first of his nation to row solo across the Indian Ocean – despite as far as I can glean having little rowing experience, just naked ambition and a Twitter account – had been slapped by a big wave 128 miles off the coast of Australia, cracked his head on a protruding bolt and called for help. A cargo ship, the Fujisuka — having nothing better to do — diverted course, picked him up and delivered him back to shore at Bunbury, where he held … drum roll … a press conference.

How do we know all this? Thanks to his constant tweeting and blogging and the 24/7 reach of the global media.

Before we go any further with the story of this faux adventure, why oh why did he opt to row naked? According to his website it was “to avoid painful chafing from salt encrusted clothing.” (“Having gotten into a rowing boat for the first time only a year or so beforehand, he will spend 110 days alone at sea, facing 50 foot swells, hurricane force winds and unrelenting sunshine … and he’ll be naked.”)

Not to mention the attention the word naked still garners in headlines, Twitter feeds and Google searches.
I’m not suggesting the guy shouldn’t be able to ‘define’ adventure in his own terms. With most corners of the world already explored in a variety of fashions, those who seek adventure are forced after a fashion to find new ways of doing them. People have walked up Everest on behalf of every imaginable disease, attempted long walks, long rows, long sails, etc., going forwards, backwards, sideways and upside down to try and draw attention to their pursuit. Whelan is hardly the first. (His charity is Keep A Child Alive, for which to-date he’s raised about $700 … out of a hoped-for $15,000).
But there is something missing, something lackluster, about much of the ‘adventuring’ we’re seeing in the early years of the 21st century? Rather than truly fulfilling dreams or accomplishing something brand new (Ed Stafford’s walking of the length of the Amazon stands out as a good example) it seems today all you need is an attention grabbing moniker, a sat phone for delivering constant updates to your blog, a charitable cause, some kind of ‘first’ (will climbing Everest naked be next for Whelan?), a contact for ‘media requests’ and – succeed or fail – a now-mandatory press conference.

I’m not suggesting we go back to the days when Robert Falcon Scott and team froze to death 10 miles from a depot (texting might have helped keep them alive)… or when the best rationale climbers could come up with for risking their lives on Himalayan peaks was ‘because it’s there’ … but it seems there are more and more inexperienced people launching adventures these days and getting sizable attention most often for their ineptitude, thanks to the instant reach of social media.

According to his tweets, Whelan is back on shore (after a “tough day, very long” aboard the cargo ship) and “up for trying the 3,600 mile solo row again.”

Given the way this adventure has started for the lad, I’d advise the ‘freelance events manager’ from County Kildare consider a year off for further planning.

Even before being rescued his Indian Ocean attempt suffered a variety of setbacks, beginning with severe seasickness. On May 11 he ran into trouble soon after launching and had to be rescued by a passing fishing boat, which towed him to a nearby island. After setting out again, on May 24 he blogged that he was back on the mainland after strong winds and bad weather blew him off course. Ready to depart one more time, he was alerted – by his Australian host, he apparently hadn’t noticed himself – that the boat’s rudder was badly damaged and needed serious repair.

Before starting this misadventure, this is how Whelan explained his motivation at his website: “I am a risk taker and risking your life to achieve a dream is the biggest risk you can take. Some might say it’s foolish but to my mind it is only foolish if you don’t know the risks and you don’t prepare for them and train for every possible scenario.”

My question is, Did he really understand the risks and was he prepared for ‘every possible scenario?’ Or was he just being foolish?

Whelan is not the only soloist attempting to cross the Indian Ocean this season; my friend Roz Savage – who at the very least has earned her headlines by previously having rowed across the Atlantic and Pacific – is now more than 40 days out.

Her daily blogs often tend to focus as much on the hi-tech side of modern-day adventuring — whether its failing GPS’s, trickiness downloading emails or sat phones calls ‘with Mum’ being disconnected – as the ocean world around her (the daily repetitiveness of which can, I’m sure, get very boring).

Reading postings from the middle of the ocean by these modern day adventurists makes me wonder what 140 character missives Thor Heyerdahl would have sent back from the balsa wood raft Kon Tiki in the 1940s.
“Another yellowfin commits suicide by throwing itself aboard; Bengt keeping the three of us up with incessant snoring”

[flickr image via wongaboo]