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Canadian rower calls solo trans-Pacific voyage an ‘epic struggle against Mother Nature’

John Beeden poses with a Christmas card on board his boat a day before completing his solo trip from North America to Australia.

John Beeden

Apart from enjoying a ginger snap cookie, John Beeden has not been celebrating much. That could be seen as odd, since he completed the first ever solo Pacific Ocean crossing by row boat on Sunday, arriving in Cairns, Australia, after 209 days at sea.

But Mr. Beeden, a resident of Burlington, Ont., became accustomed to a spartan lifestyle during his 11,300-kilometre journey, spending about 15 hours a day at the oars and sleeping fewer than five hours a night.

Now in Sydney, he seems loath to break with that routine of privation. At 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, local time, he had just returned from his first run since disembarking.

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"I feel absolutely sick and awful," he said over the phone. "My muscles are rowing muscles now and not running muscles."

It's an indelible reminder of a voyage that Mr. Beeden, 53, says is already becoming "a distant memory." He could be forgiven for thinking it had all been a dream: The concept was so outlandish and the experience so surreal.

At times, his boat was surrounded by sharks, he says. Twice he got caught in rotating currents that made his oar strokes futile. And between pelting rain and heaving waves, sleep in the cabin of his high-tech vessel was often impossible.

"It did become an epic struggle against Mother Nature," he said. "It got harder and harder as it went on."

Peter Bird rowed a similar route across the Pacific before being rescued in coastal waters near the Great Barrier Reef in 1983. Although Mr. Bird came painfully close to land (just 33 miles), Mr. Beeden is the first person to row all the way from North America – he left from San Francisco – to Australia.

His endurance came from running the steeplechase and the 5,000 metres, he says, but also from sheer necessity.

"Mentally you don't have a choice," he said. "If you don't row, the boat does what the ocean's doing, which is quite often going the wrong way. So your body can really surprise you."

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It's a lesson he learned when he rowed across the Atlantic in 2011, from the Canaries to Barbados, a feat that left him thirsting for even greater challenges. The Pacific offered those in spades. Among the biggest were currents and headwinds that made his task seem Sisyphean at times.

"It's like having money stolen from your pocket," he said. "You've rowed those miles and all of a sudden you have to re-row them."

Despite the hardships, and the demands of maintaining a blog from his cramped quarters, Mr. Beeden found moments of serenity in the vast emptiness of the ocean and the obliviousness of the blue marlins and dolphins that would occasionally come near.

"It's quite nice to have reasonable chunks of time to reflect," he said. "A bit like meditation, I guess."

Of course, those chunks came out of time with his wife and daughters. "I've got some big debts to repay – not just financial debts," said the sports event organizer, who financed the trip himself to the tune of more than $100,000.

Now he looks forward to spending time at the family cottage near Parry Sound – rowing on a lake, of all things.

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