Rowing from Miami to New York for Alzheimer’s research

From running marathons to cycling across the country, many have braved extreme tests of strength and endurance to raise money for charities or other medical research.

Lewis Colam, 24, is hoping to do the same – by rowing 1,400 miles along the eastern coastline from Miami to New York City, with the aim of raising $20,000 for the Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation.

But he has almost zero rowing experience.

“I chose rowing because it’s one of the things I’ve never done before,” Colam, a British citizen from Plymouth, England, told  “I knew I could cycle or run a marathon, but rowing is something I’ve never even messed around with.  I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn something new and really test myself.”

The trip was inspired after Colam had a very personal experience with Alzheimer’s disease.

“I saw the effects [of Alzheimer’s] on someone fairly close, and the rapid deterioration and how it destroys the individual and those around them,” Colam said.  “Then I read about it more, and realized I had a lot to learn and that there are lot of people trying to find a cure for it.  So I decided to dedicate a bit of my life to help find it.”

The harrowing journey

After quitting his job in London and traveling overseas with nothing but his sailing equipment and a tourist visa, Colam embarked on his journey March 3 from Miami.

So far, he has managed to row along the entire coast of Florida, but he still has seven states to go – and time is running out.  Colam’s visa is set to expire in May.

“I’m never been so anxious in my life,” Colam said. “I might be deported before I get there.”

But Colam remains certain he can row his boat the entire length of the trip.  However, despite a few technical devices to help update his followers on his progress, Colam is sailing with very little supplies – and very little protection.

“When I hit a storm, there’s not much I can do,” Colam said.  “There’s no cover and no protection from the elements.  The boat will turn over, and it’s just not comfortable.  You just have to keep going, but I’m very vulnerable and exposed out there.”

He added he has already run into a “few moments of drama,” having encountered a few storms that he thought would sink the boat.  One day, he even ran into a pack of manatees that ended up knocking him overboard.

“I was lucky,” Colam said of the incident.  “I thought the water was really deep, but it was actually quite shallow.”

Expert rower weighs in

A trip of this magnitude comes with many inherent risks – and concerns from experienced rowers.  Richard Ricci, the head coach of men’s rowing for Connecticut College in New London, Conn., said Colam could contract tendonitis from incessant rowing.

“An expert rower knows how to turn the ores from a horizontal to vertical position without turning their wrists,” Ricci told  “Their stroke is well coordinated so that they don’t need a lot of force.  Novice rowers tend to grip the handle too tight and don’t know how to relax certain muscles.  They run the risk of getting tendonitis in their wrists and forearms – could even do permanent damage to their tendons.”

Ricci also noted those who row for extended periods of time often get blisters on their hands and butt,  which have the possibility of becoming infected if not treated properly.  Element exposure – such as sunburn and infection – was also concern, along with the sheer amount of strength required to row such a long distance.

“Rowing is an overall exercise,” Ricci said.  “He’s using his shoulders and his arms, his lower back muscles, his hamstrings and glutes, his abdominals, and his quadriceps.  So from an exercise perspective, it’s all his major muscle groups.”

However, there are some ways to make the trip much more achievable, according to Ricci.  Colam has been navigating through the Intracoastal Waterways, which are much more benign waters than the open waves of the Atlantic ocean.  Ricci said if he sticks to this path, he could possibly make it.

“It’s going to be horrendously difficult, but there are always exceptions to a rule,” Ricci said.  “I would advise him to take a lot of breaks, keep his fluid levels up, don’t sit down all day, and take care to avoid injuries – like cuts and infections in your hands.”

“It’s certainly a courageous thing to do,” Ricci added.

Rowing with hope

The potential dangers are certainly not lost on Colam.  But, despite the hardship and the odds, Colam is determined to finish.

When he feels like he truly won’t be able to complete the journey, Colam said he thinks about his legion of followers.  He said the amount of donations he has received so far has been staggering – having raised over $17,000 of his $20,000 goal.

“I’m stunned by how much people have given in terms of actual donations, their time, and their support,” Colam said.  “It has become much more of a community project than just about me.  So many people have decided to send me words of encouragement or tips.  People have also opened up and told me about their experiences and their loved ones that have been affected by Alzheimer’s.  It’s horrible to read about, but at the same time it keeps me focused on the mission of what I’m doing.”

But ultimately, Colam is just trying to enjoy the experience, day to day.

“I’m just a young guy out to have a bit of an adventure,” Colam said.”

To follow Lewis Colam’s progress, visit his site