Pioneers Redefining Possible

SONYA BAUMSTEIN

Ocean-based explorer and conservationist

Outside Television gets the inside scoop on Sonya's successful Bering Strait crossing and her next project, rowing the North Pacific. OUTSIDE TELEVISION
October 1, 2013

Sonya Baumstein, a 28-year-old Orlando, Florida, native and former collegiate rower for the University of Wisconsin, has spent most of her life knocking off crazy adventures.

And on August 1, 2013, after a year of preparation, Baumstein became the first person to paddle across the Bering Strait. At 8 a.m., Alaskan Inupiaq hunters dropped Baumstein and her 14-foot-long, 25-pound carbon stand-up paddleboard in fog 15 miles south of the Russian island of Big Diomede, west of the International Date Line. She spent the next 11 hours paddling 25 miles in a zigzag line, fending off an orca and fighting turbulent chop from three ocean currents that pulled her north, then south, then north again before landing on a sandy beach four miles north of Wales, Alaska.

  • On Lake Washington, with Mount Rainer looming in the background.

  • Bathed in morning light during a dawn patrol on Seattle's Lake Washington.

  • Between the trees on Lake Washington.

  • Skirting lily pads in the freshwater estuary between Lake Union and Lake Washington.

  • Standing tall and ready to paddle.

  • Looking out onto Puget Sound from the shores of Bainbridge Island.

PHOTO GALLERY: Baumstein on a shake-down paddle in and around her hometown of Seattle. Michael Hanson

THE CROSSING: On August 1, 2013, Sonya Baumstein became the first person to SUP across the Bering Strait. She paddled a 14-foot-long, 25-pound carbon-fiber stand-up paddleboard, and her 25-mile long crossing took her eleven hours.

“It’s hard to tell the Bering Strait story in a logistically reasonable way,” says Baumstein, who gave up on her plan to launch from Russian soil after spending weeks trying to secure the required visa, invitation letter, and special permission. She had to wait more than three weeks in Wales, Alaska, for calm water—weather and relentless currents, one of which can rip vessels north at ten knots, make the crossing particularly daunting—and then her paddling partner, Nicolas Carvajal Uribe, a British Columbia-based rower, bailed because of mounting responsibilities back home. When Baumstein finally did get on the water, she fueled the crossing with just half a Power Bar, two granola bars, and a half-liter of water.

“Once I hit land,” says Baumstein, “it was hard to stand, because my knees hurt so badly; so I lay on the beach and smiled, thinking about all the people who told me I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

As hard as the Bering Strait was, her most extreme and daunting project to date is coming up fast: In April 2014, she’ll row the North Pacific unsupported with Lia Ditton, a 32-year-old Brit who has rowed across the Atlantic and sailed more than 100,000 nautical miles, the equivalent of four laps around the globe. Baumstein and Ditton plan to set out from Japan and paddle 6,000 nautical miles in roughly 180 days to San Francisco. The duo will carry 1,654 pounds of food and 50 pounds of research gadgets for NASA’s Aquarius project, a satellite that monitors currents, water salinity, and surface temperature. Traveling slower and closer to the ocean than most research vessels, Baumstein will be able to capture hard-to-gather comparative data for Gary Lagerloef, the senior scientist for the project.

“We’re going to be a moving science float,” says Baumstein. “Nobody sits in the middle of the ocean for six months, moving as directly across the water as we can.”

The women also intend to set a few records, including the first female crossing, the first female pairs crossing, and the fourth successful unsupported crossing of the North Pacific in history. Of the 18 known attempts so far, 15 have been unsuccessful, and the obstacles are daunting. The powerful, north-flowing Kuroshio current off Japan (equal in volume to 6,000 large rivers) can cause the wind to shift every 12 hours, yield 50-foot seas, and 60-knot winds; fast-moving freighters, errant shipping containers that float two feet below the water’s surface, and whales could shred their small boat; and then there’s always the possibility of equipment failure or mental exhaustion. But to Baumstein, the risks are worth it: “I get the opportunity to be in incredibly remote, beautiful places,” she says.

Once the duo sets out, they’ll mitigate risks by rowing in three-hour shifts while the other partner sleeps, wearing survival suits when necessary, and rowing nude in the heat to avoid the chafing effects of saltwater against their Spandex shorts and T-shirts. They’ll also equip the boat with emergency communications devices, a solar-powered electric water maker, and a “sea anchor,” which acts like a giant parachute that will allow them to make forward progress in the event of a large headwind or strong current. To keep spirits and strength high, the women will eat 4,500 calories per day, including treats like chocolate and peanut butter, plus they’ll have limes in case they happen to catch a fish for ceviche.

But first things first: Baumstein and Paul Bieker, the naval designer behind the BMW Oracle Racing Trimaran that won the 2010 America’s Cup, have dreamed up a radical boat design that will incorporate the scientific equipment requirements and allow the duo to cross the North Pacific in relative safety. Simon Miles, one of the component builders for the Luna Rosa 2013 America’s Cup Trimaran, will build it as soon as Baumstein raises $5,000.

“When doing extreme athletics,” Baumstein says, “you just sit down and do it. It’s not an ‘I can’t.’ It’s an ‘I could. I will.’”

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Row Station for Two:

At 26 feet, the length is longer than a typical 23-foot pairs boat. The extended waterline will make the boat faster and allows for more storage.

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Deck and Stern Cabin:

The bow will serve as food storage for 1,504 pounds of dehydrated meals, oil, peanut butter, snacks, and chocolate. The women will literally have to sleep on top of the pre-made bags of daily food allowance for the first few weeks in order to be able to carry enough for the entire crossing.

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Weather tower:

On the stern cabin, the weather stand measures the above water information such as humidity and air temp at the time the water is being tested.

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Solar Panels/Corvis Battery:

On bow and stern cabins, 300 watts of solar panels will be connected to one high-efficiency, 24-volt Lithium Ion battery by Corvis Energy, one of the most efficient batteries in production today. Its energy consumption is much slower than regular batteries, while its recharge rate is much faster. It also has an internal controller that turns off a low battery to prevent it from dying. The women will have to be very careful with energy usage and will likely have a separate set-up soley for the science as a back-up.

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Navico AIS Transponder/Simrad VHF Radio Transmitter:

Both instruments are connected to the GPS. The transponder allows the women to see the course of another vessel on the GPS chart and will also emit a sound alerting the women that they are crossing paths with another vessel. The VHF transmitter enables the women to contact the other vessel

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Bow:

Its wave-piercing design is the first of its kind, which will aid in headwind wave conditions.

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Rudders:

Made of carbon, there will be one spare on board, as rudders have been known to break (bringing a secondary rudder is not typical, but necessary for a trip of this length and magnitude). The rudder will be hydraulically controlled rather than using foot steering because the general drift of the Pacific is more consistent compared to other ocean routes.

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DIY Watermaker and DIY Handpump (back-up):

Salt water is pumped in through the bottom of the boat and, through reverse osmosis, is pushed through a membrane with a high pressured piston creating freshwater stripped of mineral components. Like the rest of the boat’s vital systems, it runs off of the batteries and energy created from the solar panels. The pump is located inside of the main bow cabin in a hatch underneath the floor to avoid soaking this sensitive and important device.

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Life Raft:

There’s a ditch bag inside of it as well as on deck that has back-up gear in case of emergency, such as flares, MREs, bags of water, chocolate, PLBs, flashlights, and a signaling mirror.

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Science Equipment:

Sonya and Lia are collecting data for NASA’s Aquarius project, a remote satellite program that monitors changes in ocean current and near surface salinity and temperatures to better understand the rising oceans. There are variables, however, that the remote satellite can’t measure: wind, rain, and other weather elements that can skew the data’s accuracy. Because of the women’s six-months on the water and the speed and profile of the boat (the women will not break the surface of the water with a wake), the data they collect will be very accurate. Stored in a 30-pound salt- and water-proof container, the “brain” or processing unit, compiles all the above- and below-surface data, calculates it, then pings it remotely from the boat to the satellite upload at Liquid Robotics, the company managing the Aquarius project.

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Bow cabin:

The larger design will aid speed in a tailwind and add shelter in a headwind. Most ocean rowers sleep in the stern. Sonya and Lia will sleep, one at a time, in the bow. In addition to sleeping quarters, the bow will hold all of the vital system electronics such as the GPS, AIS, VHF, watermaker, solar load controllers, and panels.