TOUGH GUY. Interview with Jim Shekhdar, ocean rower

Interview with Jim Shekhdar, ocean rower. Credit: getty images screenshot

Erik Stríž
Project manager, editor
Bratislava, Slovakia

Jim Shekhdar belongs to remarkable record-breakers from the turn of the millennia, but an average sports and news enthusiast might not have heard of him. Such is the fate of people who decided to take action and achieved something extraordinary without an extensive media coverage.

Pre slovenskú verziu tohto rozhovoru prejdite na slovenskú stránku


Jim Shekhdar – symbolically – at the turn of the years 2000 and 2001, as the first person in the world, rowed solo across the Pacific without stopping. He spent unbelievable 274 days at sea, rowed 10,652 miles (17,338 km) and experienced situations that would discourage most people from more encounters with the ocean. He originally expected his voyage to last a month less.

Jim Shekhdar during his solo across the Pacific without stopping

Jim Shekhdar during his solo across the Pacific without stopping

The start of the voyage was not smooth. Shekhdar had to postpone the hip surgery although his hip was causing him pain. He was not granted permission to start in Chile, and when he finally set off from Peru on June 29, 2000 he found out he forgot a can opener. It was a serious issue since most of his food for the next couple of months was in cans. Later Jim ran out of cooking gas. During his solitary journey towards the horizon he had ten encounters with sharks, his telecommunication devices failed a he almost lost his life in a collision with an oil tanker. At the end he had to swim the last 30 meters (98ft) because his boat capsized – he did not accept help therefore his record held. It might sound surprising that Jim Shekhdar first heard about the Atlantic Rowing Race – the event that inspired him to cross the Pacific – in 1997. Which is only 3 years prior to him setting on his 9-months long voyage that he finished on March 31, 2001.

This time I was not only interested in the accomplishments thanks to which we to this day perceive Jim Shekhdar as a courageous and tough guy. What spoke to me most of all was Jim’s determination and resolve that have been with him his whole life. I am very pleased that Jim accepted our request for an interview and that we can bring it to you as the first in Slovakia.

Mr. Shekhdar, for my generation, you are an embodiment of the endurance of the human spirit. Do you often meet people who appreciate your accomplishments?

For a couple of years after I finished my Pacific row, people of all persuasions, from adventurous to religious, would recognize me or contact me after reading my book with questions related to their own beliefs and interests. I was frequently on TV and in the newspapers (my publisher funded book signings and talks in Australasia and Canada as well as the UK and the Today program flew me to the USA). I was also in demand for motivational and inspirational talks and these then moved to include risk management and problem solving, so there was a lot of contact with the public. However, the most rewarding of these were when I heard from people who contacted me to let me know that they were inspired to go out and do something they had wanted to but never had the nerve. Without exception they had succeeded at what they wanted to achieve. This may have been because only the successful ones contacted me but I like to think that those who did not manage to make their move or were unsuccessful at least benefited from the experience.

I sell my book from my cafe on the beach in Cornwall (UK) during the summer (we are very inaccessible and seasonal); we sell a couple of books a week to people who either remember the TV documentary or are inspired by the back cover summary and know someone who would enjoy it.
Two weeks ago a lady came to the cafe and told me she had sat next to me on the flight from Cisco to Lima (when I went back to Peru to thank the people in Ilo who had helped me so much at the start).
I used to enjoy doing my talks and am thinking to start another series to get support for my next expedition.

I expect to succeed every time I set out on any project. I believe with proper preparation and planning almost 100% of risk can be eliminated from any endeavor. It did occur to me before my 3rd rowing expedition that if I managed 3 out of 3 successfully, it would start to look easy – fortunately, my 2003 expedition ended prematurely leaving me something to conquer in the future.

Cover of Jim Shekhdar's book Bold Man of the Sea

Cover of Jim Shekhdar’s book Bold Man of the Sea

Your exploits are inspiring, but people see achievements in particular. In fact, how many failures are needed to achieve one major success?

My experiences with ocean rowing have been the opposite – no absolute failure until my third expedition. However, you could say that my first one – the first Atlantic race in 1997 was not a total success as David and I did not win. While this could be attributed to my rowing skills it was mainly due to taking the wrong turn at the beginning of the race – taking the shortest route and hitting a headwind for several days!

In normal life and normal sport each failure (failure to win) has to be taken as a lesson and an incentive to take lessons from why the failure occurred – not everyone can win a race. What has to be worked out is what needs to be different to improve the chances of winning! I would quote two examples, Gary Player (golf) says ‘The harder I work the luckier I get’ and Steve Redgrave (Olympic rowing) – ‘There are four years to my next race; I decide on the time that will be needed to win, and I then set an annual target so that I can achieve that time by the time of the race.’

Do you think perseverance and morality prevail over physical abilities? In other words, are the boundaries of human performance limited only by our own thinking?

From my time in rugby there is a saying that a good big one will beat a good small one. However, if you are smaller – which I was not very often – there were always ways to overcome brute strength; it is amazing how often quickness – of mind and body – can provide an advantage over weight. This is not very easy in ocean rowing which depends on physical strength and persistence.
Morality – it is more satisfying to accept defeat than to win by cheating. However there are different interpretations of cheating and some forms – such as out-thinking an opponent is very acceptable.

In the middle of an ocean there is nobody to cheat except yourself!

Some people claim it is great to leave society for a while, because this way they can find their true character. You had been spending long time alone at the ocean, many weeks in a row, do you agree with the claim of better self-knowledge?

Given enough time alone you experience all the emotions available – good and bad. If you are not happy in your own company you should never put yourself in that position.
That does not mean that just because you can talk to yourself you will be successful. I was fortunate on the Pacific, I had the same school of tuna to talk to for several months, although some people may think that a little crazy. I had a satellite phone, even though I couldn’t afford many calls and was sometimes out of satellite range for weeks at a time; but the fact that there was always the prospect of speaking to my family briefly was a great incentive to stay alive – and sane.

Interview with Jim Shekhdar, ocean rower. Credit: getty images screenshot

Interview with Jim Shekhdar, ocean rower. Credit: getty images screenshot

Is there a recipe, a guide to better endurance and resistance? Does a person have to be motivated naturally or can he learn it?

Almost every undertaking is 80% in the mind and 5% luck, the rest is confidence which is built by preparation and following the rule you make to stay alive and sane.

During your adventures you probably experienced emotional and moral crises; how you have learned to fight them?

As I say in my book, depression I don’t do very well as long as there is something to fight against. Stress is a modern word invented by people in need of a crutch. Fear is something to get the adrenalin going.

Why do you think it makes sense to overcome, be persistent and fight with yourself?

When you are on your own you cannot afford not to have faith in yourself – there are plenty of enemies out there to focus your aggression against.

Ocean rowing is a sport we do not often hear about, requiring almost superhuman morale and physical fitness. Why did you choose such a challenging sport?

I do not completely agree – 90% in the head means you need conviction, but not necessarily to be at your peak physical fitness. You need to know your body and your endurance limits and I always told myself I needed at least 10% in the tank in case of emergencies; this is different to racing where you put everything into it until the end. Although I did quite enough physical training, however fit I was when I started I was bound to be a lot fitter at the end!

The next question is the cliché, but the answer from you is extremely valuable to us: If you could recommend one thing that would help people to overcome anything, whether in private life or in sport, what it would be?

Manipulate the odds until they are so much in your favor it needs bad luck to make you fail – and when you do, analyze what went wrong and put it right before the next one. My big mistake in my failure in the Southern Ocean was a lack of need to do it – I now have the need to complete the unfinished business!

In these days, are you planning any other activities or projects that might be interesting to our readers? 

There is a clue in the previous answer; however, 15 years after my first failure and the creation of the unfinished business that still needs to be addressed, there are a couple of extra factors I have to take into account – both of equal importance: first, my body needs to be regenerated – it is in a mess at the moment, and second, I have a new young family whose support I need and who I need to leave without financial worries if I don’t make it (a very small probability, yet something that needs to be resolved so that 100% can be applied to the task).

We are thankful for the interview. Answers were sent by email in October 2018. 


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