Whether she’s rock climbing or sailing, McKayla Bower is motivated by always moving forward. And by setting her sights on becoming the first trans woman and queer person to circumnavigate the world solo in her sailboat Swirl, she’s moving forward in more ways than one.
We talk about what inspired the trip, how McKayla is preparing for the journey, the kinds of marine life she will encounter, and the big why behind this big endeavor.
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Featured in this episode: McKayla Bower
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Gale’s the host and creator of She Explores. If she’s not editing, reading, listening to podcasts or hiking, she’s probably making homemade ice cream or playing cribbage with her partner.
Note: This transcript was lightly edited and created using a transcription service. As such it may contain spelling errors.
Gale Straub – Narration: This episode of She Explores is brought to you by Danner Boots.
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Gale Straub – Narration: I’m Gale Straub and you’re listening to She Explores.
McKayla Bower: Coming from backpacking hiking mountaineering, every once in a while you see a bear and like, of course you see birds on every trip and maybe you see a, a deer on most, every trip and, I kind of expected sailing to be the same way, but I get to see whales all the time I get to see, seals on a constant basis and sea lions. If you know where to go, sail around here I’ve never gone to sail with dolphins cuz we don’t have dolphins and Puget sound and I’m really excited to sail with dolphins. That’s one of the things I’m most excited for is, is being able to see dolphins playing in the bow wake.
Gale Straub – Narration: This is McKayla Bower. And when she reached out to me about her big plan to circumnavigate the world in her San Juan Sailboat Swirl, I was all ears. For one, I know next to nothing about sailing and we’ve only touched on it once or twice here on She Explores. And for another, I’m so intrigued by what motivates a big, audacious goal like sailing around the world. And I’m even more intrigued by what keeps someone going while they’re out there. And as you’ll hear from McKayla, she has a lot that keeps her motivated.
Gale Straub: So one thing that I noticed, in learning more about you and your background is that you are someone who’s drawn to solo endeavors. what do you think it is about? Having that time to yourself. Like what do you think draws you to, to those?
McKayla Bower: I really like solo travel and adventures because I get to put my full toolbox of skills and abilities, out there to use. it’s not that I don’t want to rely on someone else it’s that I really want to have my skill set so polished that I don’t have to. And then when I do get to meet up with another partner, to go out and do adventures, I know that we both really have the background to be able to be safe and confident in what we’re doing.
And it kind of enables, bigger or potentially more dangerous adventures because the risk mitigation is so good from both parties coming to it or in solo adventures. Being able to only have to look out for myself also means that I don’t have someone else to rely on, but, for me, that really balances out.
And then from a mental standpoint, just having that time alone in the mountains or alone at sea is really valuable to me. I really enjoy. living on my own schedule. not having to conform to other people’s plans.
Gale Straub: Hmm. Have you had, a solo adventure? That’s as. Comprehensive as the one that you’re you’re planning or like one that’s as long in terms of, just the amount of time, but also just all the logistics entailed in, what you’re about to do
McKayla Bower: N no, not, not even close . the biggest thing that I have in my background that would compare to this would be hiking the Pacific crest trail, but I will see. Far fewer people on this trip. especially for longer periods of time of not seeing anyone at all on the P CT, you’re constantly passing other hikers, even in 2017.
When I skied a significant part of the high Sierras, I wasn’t seeing anyone while I was in the high Sierras, but I would still have to dip down to towns to resupply and whatnot, the boat being able to carry six months of food. and about three and a half, four months of water, I can potentially go that long without seeing another soul.
And I haven’t done anything on, on that scope before.
Gale Straub: does that excite you? Does that scare you a little bit? Just from the, the solitude aspect of things?
McKayla Bower: It’s terrifying. You have to be pretty confident and comfortable with You as a person, your mental stability. Ability to cope with that alone time. I will say I have never, in my life hit a point where I’ve said, okay, that’s enough alone time. I’ll go back to people. Now I would always stay out longer.
And I’m really curious to see, because this is gonna be so much longer if at the end of two months I go, okay, that was finally enough alone time,
I am at least taking my cat. So I will have him to talk to if nothing else.
Gale Straub: that’s helpful. And, you know, it’s, it’s interesting what you said about risk, mitigation and being able to depend on yourself I’ve had a lot of conversations with women about, going out into, whether it’s the. forest or the mountains, or I haven’t had as many conversations about the sea.
but there is this common thread through where women can often be frustrated in hearing, from other people like, oh, is that gonna be safe? essentially implying that one can’t take care of themselves? But so often the women that I talk to just like you are like, no, I, I’m more worried about other people often as being liabilities for myself when I’m out there.
McKayla Bower: Yeah, I relate to that a lot. And I relate to that from my days of climbing and mountaineering, where there was this unfortunate, almost expectation that as women weren’t gonna be able to take care of ourselves or others to the same capacity that our male climbing partners might. and then especially. when something happens and we have to step up and it sometimes can be hard to get people, to let you step up and take charge.
and when you’re out there alone, at least there’s no one holding you back.
Gale Straub – Narration: McKayla’s an avid climber and mountaineer, and she’s a quick study. She started sailing just a handful of years ago after a breakup left her in search of a new home. Her sailboat Swirl came into her life at just the right time, and now she lives anchored out in a harbor in the middle of the San Juan islands off of Washington state.
McKayla Bower: I don’t wanna be anchored right in front of town. A lot of people are, but I like the, the peace. we’ve had whales come through this Anchorage. We have, tons of Canadian geese and goslings right now. there are probably about two dozen Harbor seals that call this little Anchorage home. So it’s a really peaceful place to be.
Gale Straub – Narration: Swirl was just what McKayla was looking for. And when the pandemic hit in March 2020, she had the flexibility to start getting miles under her belt — enough to make her contemplate an even bigger adventure. Also, before you hear me ask this next question – I do want to clarify that I’m laughing at myself and my own inability to think big sometimes when it comes to the outdoors.
Gale Straub: So, so tell me about the, the catalyst for you for, this goal that you’ve set for yourself of circum navigating the globe, which just, it just seems like such a big . It seems like such a big ambitious plan. And I think that’s just because of my own personality. so I love to, to talk to people who have, you know, different ambitions.
So, um, what was the, inspiration for you to, decide to do that?
McKayla Bower: Well, I’ll be really honest with you up front. I talk about circum navigating the world and people ask all the time like, oh, how are you gonna do it? Are you gonna do this route or this route? And. I describe the route that I’m gonna take.
And I say, you know, I’m in sail from here to Panama, to French Polynesia, to Singapore, to the Maldives, to South Africa, to Brazil, to Panama. And that’s how easy it is to sail all around the world. And then I do sit there and think for a second, or look at a chart of what exactly I’m taking on and it is it’s daunting.
so it’s not just you, that feels that way. It’s those of us who are also planning to go out and do these kinds of trips who feel that way. Um, the catalyst was, I really missed the mountains, which is a weird way to get from. I really miss the mountains. I should probably just go move back to the mountains, to I’m going to go sail around the world.
Gale Straub: Mm.
McKayla Bower: I have had a couple different experiences in my life where I’ve had. Not specific opportunities, but I’ve had the equipment and the fitness and the ability to go do something that the last big one that comes to mind was I got this bug in my head that I wanted to go and solo tribal, right on L cap. And I had all the equipment to do it.
I had all the aiding skill to do it. I owned my own porto ledge. Like I had everything that I needed to go do it and I didn’t go do it. And so I really thought about it as I was considering. Maybe it’s time to sell the boat and move back to the mountains. Am I really going to regret not doing something with the boat? Cuz like I’ve sailed 3000 miles in three years and that’s a pretty good feat, but it’s been within Puget sound and I haven’t had the opportunity to go out and do something bigger the year that I really could have Canada was closed for the pandemic.
so I started looking at what trips I could do
Gale Straub – Narration: Two things you’ll learn about McKayla as you get to know her: she’s not afraid of a challenge, and she is nothing if not thorough. And she looked into a lot of different options: sailing around Vancouver Island, taking on the Pacific Circuit… but nothing was quite the right fit for McKayla and Swirl for their last hurrah.
McKayla Bower: And then I started just looking at, you know, bigger and bigger trips and, and you can only go so big where eventually you just stumble upon. Okay. Well, there is like the entire globe, like you could like go around the whole thing. and I started looking at that and I, I knew that I had heard the statistic at one point where more people have been to space than have sailed around the world solo, but I thought it was nonstop.
And I knew that I wasn’t gonna do it nonstop. I have zero desire to do it nonstop with this boat. It would take well over a year and it’s just really not feasible.
McKayla Bower: And then I looked it up and it’s not nonstop. It’s just, it’s just period. More people have been to space than have sailed around the world by themselves. Period.
Gale Straub: Wow.
McKayla Bower: not a single one of them has been trans and not a single one of them has been openly queer. I thought for sure, with some of the big world races that, that one of those athletes.
Has gotta be out as openly queer and none of them are. the more research I did and the more I started talking to other trans and queer sailors, the more I really realized that no one in our community has done this. It just really felt like there was this opportunity to take my culmination of skills and desire to do something big with this boat and do something really positive for my community that, hopefully the, the goal is to gain us a lot of, publicity, us being specifically the trans athletic community.
A lot of visibility in a really positive way and something that it’s really hard to take that one away, cuz I’m not competing directly against someone else. Plenty of women have also CIS women have also circum navigated. And so no one gets to sit there and say, well, she was only able to pull this off because she’s trans.
and then the other thing to look up is have any San Juan sailboats sailed around the world and no, they haven’t um, and so I did kind of figure, you know, these boats are from the seventies, you would figure someone.
McKayla Bower: Would’ve taken a crack at it with one. and so I, I talked to a friend of mine who was a Naval ship ride, and he came out and he actually spent three hours going over the entire boat with me from tip to stern. And he said, there is no reason why you shouldn’t take this boat around the world. I don’t know why no one’s done it before.
Probably because there weren’t very many, there were only 270 of this boat made. There was less than a thousand of the entire classmate. cause they come in a few different sizes but his opinion was, there’s no reason not to take this boat around the world and started talking to other people who have circumnavigated or done partial circum, navigations, or, big sailing and, and really no boats and really can understand the, the physics and the design of this boat.
And everyone agrees. There’s no reason not to take this boat. So I have the boat, I have the drive to do it. I have the knowledge and the skillset to do it. I have the time to do it. I’m working on the funding to do it. there’s no reason not to, not to go out there and take a crack at it.
Gale Straub: Mm. Yeah. And, and, you know, there are these windows and time, you know, where like, it’s not that you can’t go back and do that climb, but there are these windows that kind of open for us and close and, and it’s a lot about where you are in the moment.
And so it’s cool to think about you in this point in time making this decision and planning accordingly, you know, you’re on the planning stages. You’re planning on leaving right in, in a year.
McKayla Bower: Yep. Pretty much exactly.
Gale Straub: Yeah. And do you have like a, you seem like a very systematic person. Do you have like a big checklist of like everything that you need to do before you set off?
McKayla Bower: I do, I do have a big checklist. It started as a much larger checklist. I am now down to one sheet of paper left to do on the boat. Now some of them are really big, like install an electric, inboard and some of them, you know, right now I’m working on repainting the decks of the boat that one’s big, but not quite as huge as, putting a whole new propulsion system in the boat.
but a lot of them are really simple. That was one of the other things that kind of led to, my making this decision to do it is I looked through the list of everything that needed to happen to the boat, to do it safely. and it was a pretty short list. Now a huge part of that was I had just rebuilt the entire interior of the boat.
And so she’s pretty sound.
I had a wonderful conversation with one of my neighbors about this. The other night I approached the entire boat in systems, kind of how you would backpacking. I have a sleep system. I have a cook system. I have. sailing system instead of a hiking system. but I approach it in a very similar method to kind of how I, I approach backpacking and breaking it down into those different systems.
Gale Straub: and so, yeah, you’ve got your list to get the boat ready. But what about, what about you? Is there anything that you need that you feel like you need to do to mentally be ready to set sail?
McKayla Bower: I think that a lot of that has come over the last three years of sailing this boat I feel really confident in my ability to set. And do big long passages in sailing. It’s known as passage making when you sail for more than just a day or two to get somewhere. And I don’t have a lot of experience in passage making and it’s something that’s really hard to gain experience in until you just do it.
one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was right before I went and hiked the Pacific crest trail, someone told me you don’t have to be in the best shape of your life to hike the Pacific crest trail. The Pacific crest trail will get you in the best shape of your life. You don’t have to be a super experienced passage making sailor in order to take off and do something like a circum navigation.
McKayla Bower: It will turn you into a passage making sailor. Lucky that I’m able to leave in a pretty calm time of the year, where I should be able to ease into it. I shouldn’t have to leave and immediately deal with huge seas or high winds. The goal is to never have to deal with them. Choose the route that takes me, on the correct side of the equator at the correct time of the year to not have to deal with cyclone season or monsoon season or typhoon season or hurricane season.
Gale Straub – Narration: McKayla is thorough. After the break, we’ll hear more from her about what drives her, on and off the water.
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Gale Straub – Narration: We’re back.
Gale Straub: So you mentioned the P CT. One of the things that when you initially reached out to me via email, you said that you weren’t completely in love with the P CT. would you be able to speak a little bit to that? Like what it was about that endeavor that, didn’t necessarily pull on all of your heartstrings
McKayla Bower: Yeah. there were a few things I. I’m a Mountaineer. I identify first and foremost, even, still now, I’m getting so heavily into sailing. I still say I’m a Mountaineer there is very little to no mountaineering on the Pacific crest trail. It is a lot of walking, especially when you do it in a low snow year, the logistical planning of long term long distance travel was something that I fell in love with.
But the day to day monotony of walking,
it just wasn’t for me. I don’t know how to put it any simpler than that. I enjoy getting to the top of something at the end of the day, I enjoy, having. Goal that I can say I completed. I ended up through my hiking of the P C T just kind of shooting for longer and longer days every day, so that I could feel like I was constantly improving, cuz that’s something that I, I seek.
one of the differences was sailing that is appealing to me is the boat is moving even when I’m not doing anything. And I you’re just constantly making forward progress. And that was something that wore on me with the P C T was if I sat down because my feet were hurting, I wasn’t making constant forward progress.
And that was just something that I kind of learned about my own mentality that I need that feeling of continued growth and movement. And that is something that I’ve found with sailing. that feeling of even when I’m not doing something exactly right. This moment, I’m still making forward progress. I’m also drawn to the fact in sailing that I’m not gonna have to stop very many places. That was actually one of the hardest parts of the entire.
Through hike for me was the anxiety that I felt every time I was in a trail town, it was a lot of people. It was so rushed, getting everything done. I felt like I was hemorrhaging money. Every time I walked into the town and I did the P CT on a very tight budget, even for a 20 something year old P C T hiker.
yeah, those were the parts that I didn’t, I didn’t completely fall in love with. I did fall in love with the community, especially the older community of P C T hikers who I met. the views are, are hard to not fall in love with but then there’s also long stretches of time, Southern Oregon, where you’re kind of just walking in a tree tunnel.
And I know that a lot of people find that really meditative and relaxing and, it wasn’t for me.
Gale Straub: how do you find rest for yourself?
McKayla Bower: Uh, someone asked me this the other day, how, how I rest and I couldn’t come up with a good answer for them. I am someone who constantly needs a project to work on, honestly, spending this entire weekend. sanding was really good for my head, even though my shoulders were screaming at the end of the day, I felt rested and relaxed because I had something to zone out and work on and I could at any point stop and look around at the progress I had made.
similarly with climbing, those moments where your whole body is screaming and all of your focus is just on that next hold and that next move.
That’s really relaxing to me. One of the things I fell in love with, with climbing was that need to be so careful and precise all the time. Cuz if you unclip the wrong thing, it can, it can all be over. that level of elevated awareness became really relaxing and almost meditative for me.
Gale Straub: Hmm. And I definitely imagine that when you’re out. on the ocean, there’s a similar level of like hyper awareness that you have to have. I also imagine there’s probably some boredom, but
McKayla Bower: Yeah.
Gale Straub: there’s but if it’s just, you know, it’s just, you, you’re, you’re responsible for yourself and probably doing a little dance of just keeping everything everything going.
McKayla Bower: most sailors. I know myself included. We don’t really listen to music while we’re out sailing, sometimes an audio book or a podcast, but really what we’re listening to is the sound of the boat. And every time something different changes on this boat, I have halliards, which are the ropes that run to the top of the mass to move sails up and down mind run inside the mast.
And so there’s no way that I can secure those. To stop them from making noise. When the boat rocks, they just they’re loose inside the mast. And so when the rock boat rocks back and forth, they knock against the mast. And I have had guests over to Swirl before who can’t sleep through that. And to me, I can sleep through that.
But as soon as there’s a new sound, I can tell you exactly what the new sound is. . I had a friend over a couple days ago and there was this new creak that was very subtle and she’s been aboard swirl many times and I just, my ears perked up and I couldn’t figure out what the new creak was. And I eventually tracked it down, but it was so subtle.
She never did figure out what the sound was that I was talking about. And so I, I do think that that’s, you know, you’re listening to your boat and you’re very in tune with your boat. And I think you’re right. It is a dance of keeping everything correct and, and happy and safe.
Gale Straub: Mm, how do you sleep through that?
McKayla Bower: Uh, you sleep in 20 minute naps. And the reason why it’s 20 minutes is if you wake up in the middle of the night and you see a cargo ship on the very horizon, you can just barely see the lights on the top deck of the cargo ship means it’s about 70 miles away. And at this speed, they move. If they’re on a collision course with you, it’s 20 minutes until that boat comes through your boat.
Gale Straub: Oh, my gosh.
and you don’t have to be up long. You just have to get up and poke your head out.
Gale Straub: You’ll definitely be challenged. You’ll get that stimulation. There’s no tree tunnels in that. So
McKayla Bower: It’s true.
Gale Straub: you said that after the, P C T you went back to the high Sierras because you wanted that challenge of, the physical aspect of, of skiing in the winter and navigating all of those different aspects.
So your jump from P C T to high Sierra solo Nordic ski route. just sounds like you, from what I’m learning about, you.
McKayla Bower: Yes. I, I would agree with that. Nordic skiing, the high Sierras was incredible. There’s no other real word for it. Just being up there. I think that it’s the thing that a lot of thru hikers fall in love with, of being able to like, do so much with so little, you live out of this backpack on your back for six months.
And I went up and I was able to do this high Alpine mountaineering that I had only ever done with like tons of gear and with other people by myself with very minimal gear and one of the first things I ever learned how to do in the mountains was Nordic ski.
So it was really cool to lean back on that skillset and use it again to do such a huge project.
Gale Straub: And that trip must have been life changing because you came out as trans after that trip. but the thing that I really wanna hear about is something that you wrote in, in your email to me, was around how you’ve come to this conclusion that coming out shouldn’t be something that is scary or that you need to be brave to do.
would you be able to speak a little bit to that? If you’d.
McKayla Bower: Yeah. Yeah. I would be happy to, I, on that Nordic ski trip, I was in an avalanche that, that had gone a little bit differently, could have been life ending. I’ve taken some really huge falls while rock climbing that if they had gone differently could have been life ending.
And, and I’ve been in these just kind of scary situations, even when everything goes perfect in rock climbing. I think a lot of people, a lot of your listeners either know or can imagine that just like. Feeling of moving across granted a thousand feet off the ground is daunting. And the scariest thing I’ve ever done was come out as trans.
And I, I think that to some extent, it’s me envisioning a better future for those who are coming after me than I had for myself, but it shouldn’t be that scary. And one of the things that I have really learned from my own experience is a lot of the people in my life who made it feel really scary before I came out, it was a lack of education and understanding.
And that’s part of why I think that trans visibility and education is so important because it’s people being afraid of what they don’t understand. And all I want is for the youth who are coming behind me to be able to come out more confidently at an earlier age. And I see it, it’s working. We just have to keep doing it.
when I came out, I knew that there was something different. I knew that I was supposed to be a girl from when I was about three years old and the terminology wasn’t even there when I was in high school. And I was trying to explain these feelings to like my closest friend and there was no terminology around it.
McKayla Bower: And now we have words to describe it. And words are so powerful because they express ideas and being able to share those ideas and who I am with other people, I, I, I feel so fortunate in my life and part of it’s because I live in a very blue area of a very blue state, and there’s a lot of privilege associated with that, that I don’t wanna disregard in any way, but I very rarely have to deal with.
Transphobic people. And a big part of that is because even the people who I think would be meet me and interact with me and realize the authenticity that I bring of myself to the table and can gently educate. And, it’s not like I’m teaching them about, I mean, I would say a lot of ’em walk away without ever realizing that I was trans, but that there was something different about me.
whether they find out down the line or I out myself all the time, especially now with this project of circum navigating, I tell people on the street who I strike up conversations with that. Oh yeah. I’m gonna take off to be the first trans person to circumnavigate the world. And
Gale Straub: Mmm.
McKayla Bower: I think it’s that level of visibility, not from everyone, but from those of us who are in these positions of privilege and can do it safely, that that really opens the eyes of everyone else. I see this, this better future coming. And I see some of the trans kids who I know here. I mean, in Washington as a whole, I’ve, I’ve lived many, many places around here. I see a lot of the trans youth who I know being able to have these conversations with their parents, with their peers and have so much more acceptance than was ever.
Afforded to me at that same age. I don’t think it has to be scary anymore. I think that it still is for a lot of people, but that that’s part of the goal through, through this project is just through more visibility because I, I think that when the visibility is there, people become less afraid of what it is that they just don’t understand, and it becomes a safer, more welcoming, more accepting place for all of us.
Gale Straub: Hmm, and we definitely have that in common. We want that
McKayla Bower: Yeah.
Gale Straub: Well, this is, uh, a corny. I actually wrote down on my question list. I was like, this might be the cheesy, easiest question that I’ve ever
McKayla Bower: Oh, I’m so excited.
Gale Straub: but, um, what do you think is gonna be like the wind in your sails when you’re, um, when you’re out there
McKayla Bower: I think that a lot of the drive is going to be knowing that every mile I put under the keel is bettering my community in some small way. And I think that that is really important to me. One of the things that I like about sailing is once you push off from a. You kind of have to just keep going until you hit another port.
it’s oftentimes really hard to turn around and there was always this part of me on the P CT, where I would get about five miles out of a town and I’d be like, why am I doing this?
I could just turn around and walk five miles back and be done. in sailing you can sail into the wind, but you can’t sail directly into the wind. And so once you push off from that dock and you’re in theory, when doing an equatorial route more or less, always sailing down wind. It makes it really difficult to make that decision to turn around and go back.
And so I think that that’s part of what I’m looking forward to is just that kind of constant forward movement. And, that’s the point is it’s not just forward movement for me and the boat. It’s forward movement for my whole community, for the trans generation coming behind me for the queer generation coming behind me, cuz queer in a lot of ways other than just trans.
I’ll get to claim a few firsts, sailing around the world. So I’m a, a woman who dates other women and a trans person and, SWIR will be the first San one 30. And I think that’s all.
Gale Straub: Yes, exactly.
McKayla Bower: A lot of drive forward is just to, to do it for the betterment of it’s. It’s about a lot more than just me.
Music carrying us out
Gale Straub – Narration: Thanks so much to McKayla for taking the time to talk. She shared a few places you can follow along on her journey before and after she sets sail in August 2023.
McKayla Bower: you can find me on the internet at who is McKayla Bauer. My name is spelled M C K a Y L a B O w E R, whoisMcKaylaBower.com. You can find me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, other things I’m probably forgetting to mention all of them are at SV swirl.
Gale Straub – Narration: You can find all the ways to reach McKayla linked in our show notes.
Thanks to our sponsor Danner Boots for making this episode possible. Learn more at Danner.com.
You can find She Explores on social media, our website, and wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe to our biweekly newsletter to stay up to date! You can find me on Instagram @galestraub.
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This episode was produced and hosted by me, Gale Straub.
She Explores is a production of Ravel Media. We’ll be back with a new episode in a few weeks. Until next time, stay curious.
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