MICHELLE LEE holds the world record for the fastest woman to row one million metres on a Concept 2 rowing machine and is Australia’s first woman to row any ocean solo. Her book, Alone, details her extraordinary journey of rowing solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
ABOUT THE BOOK
In 2018 Michelle Lee became the first Australian woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. It took two years of preparation for the 68-day, 5 000km journey – Alone details this extraordinary adventure from her perspective.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean is never an easy undertaking, but people have been making the journey for hundreds of years. The very first crossings were made to discover and explore new lands. Today, most crossings are made by huge cargo ships exporting essential commodities across the ocean. But some daring people choose to cross the Atlantic to test the limit of their physical and mental strength – to achieve something unthinkable.
Each year in December, waiting for an end to the hurricane season, rowers depart from La Gomera, Spain and arrive in Antigua, in the Caribbean. No motor, no sails – a journey powered only by rowing. It was from this port that Michelle sailed into the history books, achieving what few have before her and marking the start of a new chapter in her life encouraging others to live without regret and not die wondering.
To be all that you are, and all that ever have been, is all perfect.
To wind up where you are, right now, in your current point in your life is a combination of exactly that. All that you were.
Think of your struggles, trials, tribulations and your wins, triumphs and podium moments.
This is your journey. Mine has not all been smooth coastal sailing with blue bird skies – aka, rainbows and butterflies.
There has been turmoil, upheaval and rage. Home should be a safe haven. It should be the one place you can go, when your world is falling apart around you. Home should make you feel ‘ahhhh’. You know – that sigh of pure relief, when you reach safety. Our home was very rarely that. In fact, my memories are of yelling, arguing, fighting and disharmony.
Padstow Heights, my welcome to the world for my first 5 years. Born to Margaret and Ray Lee.
My sister Kathryn was 6 years old when I was born and she said I had to be named Michelle. So, Michelle Louise Lee I am.
Significant and inspired by my sister’s best friend name – at the time. I have no idea of my time of birth. It is these details of my life that were never talked about or – as my friends’ do with their kids, rejoice – on their birthdays’.
My brother Anthony is less than a year older than me – 363 days in fact. Born 7 August 1971.
Our mother never shared anything about her childhood openly and our curiosity was unwelcomed, so early on that I now can say that I know very little about her life.
I am aware that her upbringing was tough. Poppy came back from World War 2 damaged – mentally. He was an alcoholic and later died of bowel cancer.
Mum, being the oldest of 6 siblings came with responsibilities just shy of running and maintaining a household – while her mother became the bread winner.
I do remember Mum telling me how she had to make sure her brother and sisters were ready for school each day.
I am sure that my Mum’s mental state is a reflection of her past. Her conditioning and beliefs were set amongst tough and hard times. Apparently, she wanted 6 children – and endured 3 miscarriages in the gap between my brother and sister, 5 years.
To understand the turmoil and disharmony in our household explains possibly why I so consciously chose not to have children, or to be a mother.
There was an element of thought ‘what if I had what my mother had and treated kids the same way?’
Although I am now confident that I do not have the afflictions my mother suffers, I am relieved that I never became a mother. No regrets at all with that choice. It was the right decision.
My sister on the other hand says that she always wanted to be a mother and that she regrets never having the opportunity. I think my sister is similar to Mum – mentally. That statement would be fighting words, of course. She was engaged once, but never married. There was a long story with that. Her fiancé was Danish.
Apparently, they (the Danes or family?) practice witchcraft and my sister is positive that they put a spell on her at some point. Mum hated on Katherine(spelling? – see earlier), intensely. For as long as I can ever remember. There was no love shown towards her and the relationship was toxic, at best. Why she was hated so deeply is unknown to me.
Dad was never around to see the abuse mum dished out on Kath. He was gone from dawn til dark. Often my brother and I would be ripping mum off Kath; pretty traumatic at age 4, 5 and 6.
After years of me silently questioning what illness my mother had, I took myself to the family GP, Les Pate, also best mate of my dad.
A character in his own right, Les Pate had witnessed mum’s “episodes” – for lack of a better word. He had experienced the wrath of her sharp tongue firsthand.
I decided I would book an appointment to see if Les could shed any light on the situation. He did. He admitted and confirmed that my thoughts of mental illness were present. He asked me what I thought mum had. “schizophrenia?” I replied, “you know – multiple personalities.” He said no. Not schizophrenia but definitely a chemical imbalance that could be controlled on prescriptive medication. He said the sad thing was that you could achieve a level, sane and logical person on monitored medication.
. . .
Our back yard was one of many pleasures. We rode BMX bikes till the sun went down and rode horses through paddocks and terrain that you could have sworn made you feel like real life cowboys and Indians.
My brother would make awesome bike tracks with dad’s farm tractor and later, when he could reach the pedals, the bulldozer.
It was action packed on the weekends with a bit of everything happening. I will never forget the time my brother tied Jodie Green by the ankle to Bennie the German Shepherd.
Bennie loved to play fetch with a stick or a ball. Anthony threw the stick as far as he could, Bennie took off with the power of what looked like 6 horses. Jodie’s legs got ripped out from under her. She screamed as Bennie dragged her along the ground – she crossed a multitude of surfaces – gravel, grass and dirt. He then returned as diligently as ever, giving poor screaming Jodie another dose of torture.
My brother copped the biggest hiding from dad that night. Mum screamed “You bastard Anthony, wait till your father gets home!” Well, you can guess how that ended. Jodie never saw the funny side to that but did question why she let him tie her ankle to the dog in the first place.
Garren McCalla – my brother’s mate, was there. I think he was pretty traumatised by the whole scene. There were many instances that occurred where I am sure most people would be horrified. My brother was on first name terms with the emergency staff at Camden Hospital. His visits included multiple concussions – usually from football but also from falls off his horse “Red”. He even rolled a ride on lawn mower once – he was curious what sort of angle it could maintain.
Never dull, never just quiet and mundane with Anthony. I love and hate that. To be anything but is boring. It is safe. It lacks excitement.
Our afternoons were always spent in the pool in summer. I remember the summers being particularly hot. There were even some days at school when they “call it off”. They would actually call school over and closed for the day, send us kids home! We always ended up with school mates over. The pool would be full of kids.
Other times in the extreme heat, teachers would have everyone lay on the floor with the overhead fans on and the lights off. I used to love that. The whirring of the fans and dimly lit room without teacher watching over us like the shepherd over her lambs. Those memories are nice to recall. It was the harmony I lacked in the home. It was a yearning that I didn’t know existed – until I experienced it.
. . .
Pivotal moments in my childhood were the ones where I would be in deep trouble. I learned very young that lying only got you in more trouble; running and hiding was never an option.
I tried to run away several times. Taking my hard case – burnt orange school bag – I carefully put my PJs, buffy (my white empty bodied, stuffing-less pussy cat) and my pencils inside, shut the lid and snapped the locks down. I was leaving home.
I had nowhere to go and I was scared. The sun was going down rapidly. I knew I didn’t have long to get to my undesignated place. For what wrongdoing I do not remember but, I copped a hiding with dad’s belt. He cracked it across my arse and thighs hard enough to leave welts and a burning sensation that left before the welts did.
It was on the path between the clothesline and the outside toilet. I remember him being outraged by my crime. With that, I packed my bag.
My sister came with me. She took me to the horse float which was acting as a nursery to a little piglet. His mother was shot by a farmer and the bullet ricocheted off her. It hit the little piglet and damaged his front leg. We got him and nursed him. He grew up to be like puppy dog – following us wherever we went. At this time however, he was occupying the horse float. We sat on the floor with him and I wondered how long we would stay here before we moved on. Like, actually left home.
My sister comforted me and I soon forgot about the hiding. My hunger took on too much priority. Then, just as though she mind-read me, Mum called “Kathryn. Michelle. Dinner is ready” What? Could she read my mind? It was dark now – and cold. The piglet loved having us in his company. I now wondered how long we could hide out for without starving to death. I forgot to put any food in my bag.
It wasn’t long before we dragged our tail between our legs, head bowed and entered through the back sliding door. Mum put our dinner on the table without saying a word. My sister and I ate in silence, me touching her leg the whole time for comfort.
She really did protect me. I went to her for everything. I used to wet the bed till I was about 5. In the middle of the night, I never once thought of waking Mum. I would go across to my sister and she would silently take me to the bathroom, run the bath, add alpha Kerri oil to the warm water and rinse my poor red, inflamed and sore skin. Then she would take me back to her bed.
It served a purpose. You see, it meant that I would then get to sleep with my sister. She was just 9 and I was 3.
Those memories are vivid, strong and firm in my mind. I can see the whole scene as though I am hovering above, looking down.
Just to write about and recount it in the full detail stings my heart. It is with warm tears running down my face that I recall these moments. It is as though it has awakened the little girl in me. The scared, nervous, anxious and want to be hugged little girl. The one who wants to believe in rainbows and butterflies. The memories. There is a deep sadness that evokes a need to protect and preserve the corners of your heart to dampen the need to burst into tears.