SEATTLE – As a member of the University of Washington’s elite women’s varsity crew, Eliza Dawson honed her athletic skills on the sometimes-choppy waters of Lake Washington.
This summer, she’ll test her rowing talent in a far more challenging environment, where small crews of rowers rarely go: the Pacific Ocean.
Dawson is taking part in a 2,400-mile rowing race from Monterey, California, to Honolulu. She and three teammates are aiming to break a world record – 50 days, 8 hours, 14 minutes, set in 2014 – for a women’s rowing team.
But they also want to put a spotlight on the far-reaching impacts of humankind on the Earth by rowing across parts of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a vast gyre of pulverized plastic garbage occupying an area roughly four times the size of California.
Dawson, who studied atmospheric sciences at UW and will begin working on her doctorate at Stanford University this fall, plans to send photos and videos of the garbage patch. She hopes to record the journey on her blog and the team’s blog as she goes.
“It’s going to be a hard, demanding journey – and that’s what it’s going to take to combat climate change,” said Dawson, 22, who was a member of the UW crew in 2016 and 2017.
The four women will alternate two hours of rowing with two hours of sleep for 40 to 50 days. They’ll be rowing a specially designed oceangoing rowboat they’ve named the Ripple Effect.
Their journey is part of the third Great Pacific Race, organized by New Ocean Wave. It involves eight teams of rowers crossing the Pacific. They are the only all-women team in the race.
Dargan Frierson, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at UW and one of Dawson’s former professors, described Dawson as “the type of person who tries to do things that seem impossible.
“I hope it raises awareness about the types of changes we’re making to the environment,” he said. “The oceans are different from when she was born (in 1996). They are a lot hotter, a lot more acidic. And, there’s a lot more plastic.”
One day last week, Dawson and her coach, Conal Groom of the Seattle Rowing Center, carried a one-person shell out onto the water east of the Ballard Bridge. Dawson sat on the small seat and rowed the sleek shell past a line of battered commercial-fishing boats with names like Determined, Aleutian Challenger, Sea Venture and Botany Bay.
Skimming along under a cloudy sky, she scattered a flock of ducks and passed a partly submerged plastic bag floating in the water.
In an oceangoing race, “technique is useless,” said Groom, who rowed in the 2000 Summer Olympics. “It’s basically fitness. My job is to make sure she has enough training.”
Dawson typically rows up to two hours a day in the morning. In the afternoon, she works out for another two hours, doing a range of fitness activities including cycling and weightlifting. When she’s not training, she’s working to raise $20,000 to help fund the journey.
The race will hinge on things that are beyond her team’s control – weather, currents, waves. “And luck,” Groom said.
Dawson has only met one of her teammates in person. Two are from Great Britain, and one is from Brazil. They connected over the internet. They’re coordinating the trip via Skype calls.
They’ll meet in Monterey next month, for the final leg of training. The race begins June 2.
“It’s going to be a crazy experience,” she said.
Dawson has displayed a seriousness of purpose and fascination with the natural world that impressed adults when she was just a kid, growing up in Port Townsend, Washington.
When she was 10 years old, she and her sister, Chloe, began volunteering at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, where the girls met Libby Palmer, its co-founder. Palmer was struck by Dawson’s maturity, and her ability to do sustained, concentrated work.
In 2008, the science center started a four-year project to clean and reassemble the skeleton of an orca whale that had washed up on Dungeness Spit in 2001. Eliza and Chloe volunteered for four years, meticulously cleaning the bones and helping to assemble and position the 24-foot-long skeleton for display.
Finding a fully intact orca carcass on a beach is rare – the mammals usually sink in open water when they die. Research revealed that the dead orca was heavily contaminated with toxins.
“That was a wake-up call for me,” Dawson said. She’d grown up sailing and rowing in what seemed like the pristine waters around Port Townsend. How could a whale living in those same waters be full of toxins?
The orca project sparked a growing interest in how the ocean was being changed by acidification and carbon dioxide.
“Climate change is a fact, not a belief,” she said. “It is mathematical equations. It is physics … it is clear the climate is changing, and it will affect everyone.”
Frierson, the UW professor, met Dawson when she visited his lab as a high school student.
“She has the determination, the intelligence that you don’t see in many students,” he said.
He hopes students and faculty in atmospheric sciences will be able to aid Dawson’s journey – giving the team a heads-up about upcoming weather and other details like projections of wave heights.
“Even just things like forecasting cloudiness might help her to know how long she can use her electric devices,” which are solar-powered, he said. “I’m hoping we can be useful to her, and get some good experience forecasting a place that’s not forecast that much.”
Dawson is also working with EarthGames, a group of researchers, game developers and students who develop video and board games about the natural world, and who plan to release a game about Dawson’s journey shortly before it begins.
In her doctoral program at Stanford, she plans to study why the Antarctic ice sheets are collapsing and what effect the retreating ice could have on sea levels.
Dawson is confident in the boat, which has two small cabins for resting and sleeping, and two seats for the rowers. An emergency vessel will be in the area, and a helicopter could airlift a rower to safety if the worst happened.
“They’re going to have the latest technology – she’s such a whiz at everything technological,” Palmer said. “There’s nothing macho about their approach. They’re working with a lot of expert people who are lending her a hand.”
The boat will contain food for the trip, most of it dehydrated, and it is equipped with a desalinator to make potable water out of seawater, along with a GPS tracking device and a satellite phone.
“I have a lot of trust in her, in knowing what her limits are,” Frierson said. “I just know this, from the academic side, that she’s not a person who tries to pretend she can do things she can’t.”
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