Woman rowing 800 miles from Ketchikan for troubled kids

Posted: Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Dale McKinnon is a rower with a cause.

The 58-year-old woman pulled out of Ketchikan early Friday morning at the start of a two-month, 800-mile voyage south to her hometown of Fairhaven, Wash.

She's making the trip to raise money and awareness for Northwest Youth Services, a Washington-based organization that provides assistance for troubled kids. McKinnon said the program has seen its federal funding cut.

"I've seen funds and programs being cut back and cut back and cut back and I'm just sick and tired of it," she said as the prepped her boat for departure.

McKinnon's vessel is a dory-style rowboat she built from a proven Sam Devlin design. She's added bulkheads and decks as well as features recommended by other distance rowers and her own desire to keep clothes and gear dry.

One of those items is a solar-powered electric bilge pump recommended by rower Gary Lundgren, who visited Ketchikan last summer with his dog, Elvis, while on a round-trip voyage between Washington and Petersburg.

McKinnon built her boat, named Bella after her granddaughter, Isabella, in six weeks at home using a stitch and glue technique involving carbon fibers vacuum-pressed between sheets of marine plywood.

It has an overall length of 19 feet with a beam of 22 inches at the hard chine and 38 inches at the gunwales.

The beam is a little bit less than a traditional dory, McKinnon said.

"That diminishes the reserve buoyancy but also increases my speed. And I think it will reduce more of the windage than on a traditional dory."

She has built three similar boats and rowed them many miles, but the farthest she had rowed this boat before Wednesday was from the Ketchikan ferry terminal to Shoreline Drive.

"You may hear me swearing a blue streak way down by Annette Island," she said.

A native of San Francisco, McKinnon worked as a photographer for the Arizona Daily Star and The Associated Press before a brief stint with Newsweek in New York.

In 1997 she moved to the Bellingham, Wash., area, where she works as a technical writer. She's led an active lifestyle, but incidents resulting in broken backs twice and a shattered leg once have made kayaking too uncomfortable.

"I just can't sit in one position and have one part of my body doing all the work," McKinnon said.

Rowing involves three major muscle groups and is a fantastic fat burner, she said. She got her start in rowing in 2001 when a friend with plans to build a Devlin-designed boat convinced her that building two boats off of one set of plans was just as cheap.

"I said, 'Oh, OK.' And we ended up building the boats in my yard, McKinnon said.

Using kayakers' charts, she rowed that first boat from Bellingham to Nanaimo, British Columbia, and back, a distance of at least 150 miles.

"Before that, I think maybe I rowed for about four hours my entire life," McKinnon said.

Since then she's rowed in the San Juan Islands and between port towns along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

After leaving Ketchikan, her progress will be determined mostly by weather, tides and currents, she said.

McKinnon has six one-gallon jugs of water on board.

"They're for drinking and also for ballast to keep the boat in proper trim in the wind, she said.

Her biggest fear for the trip ahead? Bugs, she said, displaying a large welt from an insect bite on her head.

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