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Adventurer Jan Meek's story

Don’t ask why, ask why not, says Jan Meek

By Saionee Chakraborty

  • Published 10.02.19, 6:18 PM
  • Updated 10.02.19, 6:18 PM
Jan Meek
Jan Meek Source: Jan Meek's website

When we WhatsApped Jan Meek one January afternoon, she promptly texted back: ‘Am pulling tyres on the beach at the moment!!!’ Five hours later comes another text: ‘Still out with the tyres’. Her energy and enthusiasm for life are impelling. “I do something that I love and it inspires people. Now, that is such a bonus,” she told us when she was in town last year. Inspire? Well, Jan is in her 70s and has rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, been to the Magnetic and Geographic North Pole and has four Guinness World Records in her kitty. We heard the Sussex resident’s story in rapt attention…

Turning 50 was the game changer

I went to China at 50. On my 50th birthday, I was in a beautiful lagoon in Australia… I sat in this beautiful green swimming costume, singing (sings it) If They Could See Me Now... and it just changed my life and made me realise that there was a life after my husband and also I was no longer married. I was doing what I wanted to do. And it is never too late.

From the moment my husband (her second husband; Jan is now married to Peter Walker) died, I decided to go to China. I had never gone on adventure trips before that. My hobbies were reading and classical music and I hadn’t been to a gym ever.

The first complete break from the norm was backpacking. I went around China. I remember thinking, this is it now. My children have left home and I can do anything. There’s nothing to stop me. I don’t need a nine-to-five job. It didn’t matter if I struggled sometimes. I had some beautiful furniture and one day I got rid of them all and just kept my rugs, lamps and pictures and when I moved, I was Jan and a van. Everywhere I went, I’d get a little tiny flat and get some things from a charity shop, put all my lovely rugs and pictures and it was my home. I felt light-hearted and free. I had been a mum, a wife, a daughter. Suddenly, I was Jan. I was me. I found myself…. That’s when the Atlantic happened.

Atlantic was awful and wonderful

I rowed across the Atlantic at 53 (‘world’s first Atlantic Rowing Race’ from Tenerife to Barbados). My son Dan (Byles) came and asked me, ‘Mum, how would you like to spend Christmas in Barbados?’ I said: ‘Dan! That’s great.’ He said: ‘We are going to row there’. He asked me to be his partner for the race. I went to the gym and told the instructor that I have a challenge. I want to row across the Atlantic and your job is to get me fit enough for it.

I had to raise 70,000 pounds because I had to get a boat built (a 23ft wood-built rowing boat called Carpe Diem). I mortgaged my house to build a boat. People could see I was committed. It was a glamorous, fun boat and everywhere I parked it, people were just fascinated. Later I had to sell it to pay for my trip to the (North) Pole.

Atlantic was awful and wonderful. We rowed for 101 days, 3,044 miles and I had boils on my bottom. I often used to think why am I doing this. What I discovered was it is never too late to learn. I learnt navigation. I learnt to row. I also learnt that there are two kinds of people in life. There are the dream-stealers who would say: ‘You are too small and you cannot row!’ Then the others who would say: ‘Wow, Jan, is there anything I can do to help?’

Someone I had known for 30 years was a rower. So, he took me out rowing. I learnt from scratch. I had never been to a gym. I used to row an hour a day on the Ergo, which was very boring. And all the guys at the gym would say, should we throw a bucket of water on you, so that you get the real feel.

There were bets placed whether I would last two weeks, two days or two hours! I was the mayor (of Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire) and old ladies had given me 10 pounds. Daniel had been given three months off the army. They have given us food. You got to go!

One would row and one would sleep for 24 hours a day. Sleep deprivation was probably one of the hardest things. We rowed for two solid weeks and didn’t move! And in those two weeks, my hands became arthritic, I got sciatica, cold sores, sty and boils on my bottom. It looked like a pizza! Every time I sat down, I cried. And I started writing a letter to Daniel… ‘I cannot do it’. On Day 21, Daniel came up to me and said: ‘Mum, I cannot open my hand, I have got a boil!’ So, it wasn’t my gender or my age. It was just inevitable.

We started reading out our diary to each other. Daniel had written: ‘During those two weeks, I thought my mother was ruining her body and her health for my dream and suddenly, her mental strength overcame her physical weakness. We got through the pain barrier. On that day, I would have given up and on Day 100, I would have done another 20 days’.

If you are not scared out in the ocean, then you are silly. You have two choices — give up or go on. You could press a little button and help would come in three-four days. I had mortgaged my house to build that boat. I told Daniel we are not rowing a boat, we are rowing my house. We can only give up if we are sunk by a whale.

Jan with Calcutta girl Madhabilata Mitra (left) and Tanvi Buch, in Calcutta last year. The two are part of her South Pole expedition.
Jan with Calcutta girl Madhabilata Mitra (left) and Tanvi Buch, in Calcutta last year. The two are part of her South Pole expedition. Picture: Arnab Mondal

I lost all my toe nails…

When I got back, I would be asked to speak. I started earning money by speaking. I had a great story. Some people said we were brave and some said we were mad.

I really didn’t think I would go on another adventure. I was 60 when the opportunity to go to North Pole came. I rang up Daniel and said how about going skiing on Easter? And it was our family motto… ‘Why not?’ It was hard…

-67 degree. You eat 9,000 calories a day and you lose a pound a day in weight. After two weeks we woke up one day and it was only -18 degree, and we were so hot, we took off a layer!

I lost all my toe nails. Walking and skiing 350 nautical miles from Resolute Bay to the Magnetic North Pole wasn’t easy. It took us 30 days. We weren’t proud that we got to the magnetic North Pole. We were proud that we had overcome our fears of losing our nose or our toes.

Four weeks later we got a letter about going to the top of the world. Explorer David Hempleman-Adams was looking for interesting and diverse people. I said: ‘Why not?’ I was 64. We went twice in one year. This was totally different. There was a lot of open water. We got to the North Pole, put up our tent and the next morning, we had drifted 10 miles away. We skiied back and the next morning, we had drifted 10 miles away. The third time we got there, we had to wait five hours for the helicopter.

I just believe I can

Then I thought of settling down for a little bit. My mom wasn’t well. She had dementia. I had had visions of going to the South Pole at 70, but she was ill and I couldn’t do it.

We want to finish explorer Tom Crean’s journey (Jan and her team are planning an expedition to the South Pole later this year). Captain Scott did not choose him to go to the South Pole and he was devastated to have to return to base just 150 miles from the South Pole. I have got Crean’s granddaughter (in her 50s) in the team. Isn’t that romantic? Tanvi (Buch; in her 20s), Madhabilata (Mitra; in her 30s), me (in her 70s), and then I have got my friend who got breast cancer and is now all clear. She is in her 60s. The reason why we haven’t got a 40 is either they have children or their career is at a very special time. I just believe I can. I am slow, but it is not a race. It also shows how far actually we have come, that nobody is actually that surprised that women are doing it.