The Muskegon Yacht Club on Lake Michigan is a small, white, rectangular building on Muskegon's Lakeshore Drive, and at 6:30 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 1, the loudest sound coming from the club was the jangling bells of the docked boats. On the backside of the building the letters MYC in bright neon lighting mirrored the early morning sunrise bouncing off the lake. All the boats were still, save one around the building's side in the parking lot.
The boat was a single-occupant rowboat called Liv, custom built for long-distance solo rowing. It was hooked to the back of a green Jeep. Standing on the boat was Jenn Gibbons in a black, zip-up sweatsuit, and standing in the parking lot beside the boat was Mark Carroll of Chicago's The Rowing Group, Gibbons' former coach and current boat expert. They were giving the boat one final look-see before dropping her back into Lake Michigan.
When they finished, Gibbons leaned forward toward Mark, who reached up and clasped his arms around her back, tenderly helping her down from the boat. This was her first day in Liv after a week of biking after a terrifying attack on her boat in the early morning hours of July 22. Determined to finish what she started but to take greater precautions, Gibbons, 27, of Pilsen, re-cast a portion of the trip on land via biking, riding 500 miles in six days with friends and state troopers around her.
Still, she was excited to return to the water. Once the boat was back in the lake, Gibbons and I did a short interview while three friends who had come to support watched her and took pictures. She was sitting in the boat, holding my tape recorder as we spoke; she seemed touched by her closeness to the lake, staring out at the sunrise as she answered my questions.
"I'm feeling good about today," she said with a yawn. She spoke slowly, pausing after each sentence. This was not her usual fast-paced ebullience. She told me about the strain of biking and the difference in the soreness compared to the soreness of rowing. She told me about laying in the cabin for the first time since the attack, about the black chalk on the boat from the police checking for fingerprints. She breathed.
"I don't have to sleep in there, so it's not really scary. We were here really early, and I was laying down in the boat before the sun came up, and (pause) just getting used to the smell of the boat again, and what it feels like to lay in there. It's still a positive feeling. I still feel safe in the boat. Everything just kind of changes, and I'll be home soon, you know? I'll be home in two weeks. And it will be good."
Nearby, Carroll was walking around the boat, checking the boat's depth and making sure there were no submerged rocks or anything else that could hurt the rudder. Gibbons continued, still speaking softly and slowly.
"I've been on a bike for the last week. I didn't plan on that. I didn't plan on becoming a voice for victims of sexual assault. So that's different. But um," she said, turning away from me and looking into the lake, "the water still looks the same. It's gonna be just as hard ..."
She paused again, still gazing out at the lake. We finished our conversation, and then recorded a video message for her followers. With the cameras running, her smile, flair and moxie returned. And as her small band of visitors cheered and snapped shots and filmed, she put her oars back in the water and rowed away.
Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. @ReadJack