Charles Tillman and a friend plan to row across Lake Michigan this year.
Three possible problems with that idea.
1. Tillman has zero experience as a rower.
2. He’s never built anything before, much less
3. He’s afraid of lakes. (And sharks.)
“A big fear of mine is big bodies of water,” the former Bears cornerback said. “I think a shark is in everything. I could swim in a pool and I would think a shark is in it. I’m a huge ‘Shark Week’ fanatic. The worst thing I’ve ever seen on ‘Shark Week’ was [that] a bull shark could live in fresh water.
“That rocked my world. So any lake, any pond, I will argue you till you’re blue in the face … I know there’s a bull shark in there.”
So Tillman’s taking this on in part to conquer his phobia.
“I’m terrified of water. I think in life you gotta conquer your fears. I think this is a fear I can conquer,” Tillman said. “Now, I can swim. If I do fall in I’m not gonna drown.”
He added: “I’m crazy. I have a screw loose up here. I like the craziness of jumping in a boat, building it from scratch, hopefully it floats and then entrusting my life with it. It’s a leap of faith. I tithe, I go to church, I do all that. If it’s my time, it’s my time but hopefully it ain’t.”
Tillman and tech
executive Jacob Beckley also are using their “Row4Kids” trek in August to raise money for pediatric cancer research and to financially
support families of child cancer patients.
“[My wife Jackie] thinks I’m dumb … She’s like, ‘Really, with this?’ But I definitely think it’s for a great cause. My wife and I are passionate about what we do [with the Cornerstone Foundation]. Jake is passionate about the Beckley Foundation with the cancer research that they raise for Dr. [Mary Beth] Madonna and neuroblastoma.
“We [at Cornerstone] write these micro-grants and support these families here in Chicago, and we do some stuff in Carolina. It’s a lot of people out there who helped me when my daughter Tiana was sick,” said Tillman, referring to his family’s ordeal in 2008 when his then-baby daughter was born with cardiomyopathy and needed a heart transplant. “As they say, it takes a village. Oh, I had a whole village, plus some, that really helped us out. This is our way of giving back.
“What other way, man? Just get off your butt and build a boat and row across Lake Michigan.”
Tillman got the idea after chatting with Beckley at a charity gala. Beckley had rowed solo across the lake 3 years ago as a fundraiser for his foundation.
“I woke up in the middle of one night, just a crazy thought, I thought, ‘I think I’m going to row across Lake Michigan,” Beckley said. After a
23½-hour trip, he swore he wouldn’t attempt it again.
All it took was some convincing from Tillman. “I said, ‘If you ever need a wingman, I’ll do it with you again.’”
The plan is to row from St. Joseph, Mich., to Chicago, maybe Montrose Harbor. But they don’t have a date, exact route or time of departure yet. There are many factors, weather foremost, that go into those decisions and more still needs to be done.
But first come the boat-building and the training.
Tillman wanted to buy a boat, but one would have to customized for this kind of trip, and he was shocked by how expensive it would be – roughly $80,000.
“Every dollar out of our pocket is a dollar not going to our causes,” Beckley said. “So we immediately ruled [that] we’re going to build our own boat. I’m not sure he was extremely confident that we could, but I think after he saw it come together, he was like, ‘I think we got this.’”
For weeks, the pair have been assembling the 22-foot-long, 5-foot-wide (at its widest) boat from scratch at a shop called Make-It-Here Inc. in Downers Grove. It’s made with Okoume marine-grade plywood and weighs an estimated 350 pounds.
“Not a handy man, man, I’m terrible with these,” said Tillman, looking down at his hands. “I’d rather be punching footballs out. But I’m learning the little bit of ingenuity I do have. … I’m digging it. I appreciate it. I got this sweat equity built into this boat.”
It’s also a family project for Tillman and his four children, an opportunity to teach them teamwork and how to build something. Taya, 13; Tiana, 11; Tyson, 9; and Tessa, 6, have helped sand the boat and apply epoxy – whatever tasks dad needs at the time.
“We’re doing something special,” he said. “My daughter, Tiana, she’s the reason I do this, because he had the heart transplant. It’s just another way for her and I to bond.”
Tillman added, “I think each year she understands a little bit more what we do and just like her story in itself. … A complete stranger blessed her. Through her blessing, we started this foundation because our daughter’s alive. So everyone that we bless with our foundation since 2008 is really Magali [Garcia] and [her] baby Armando [the heart donor who died at 9 weeks old]. … It’s really them blessing other
Once fiberglass is applied and the boat goes to paint, Beckley and Tillman plan to have it checked by the Coast Guard and then test it on the water for buoyancy, among other things.
However, recreational boats aren’t required to go through an inspection unless its being sold or being used for business. The Coast Guard Auxiliary does provide complimentary safety checks, but it doesn’t evaluate seaworthiness.
While this going on, Tillman and Beckley have been developing their own training regimens, but Beckley said he’ll also have to teach Tillman techniques unique to rowing. When Tillman’s ready, they’ll go out on the water, perhaps in early May if the weather’s good.
“I think the first body of water we’re going to get on is going to be the Chicago River. We’ll see how things go on that,” Beckley said.
After a month, Beckley hopes to step up to training on Lake Michigan, which “can be so unpredictable. … That’s why it’s super-important to research the weather, research the conditions.”
Lt. Kate Woods, Inspections Division Chief at the Marine Safety Unit Chicago, added that “there can be huge 6- to 12-foot waves, unpredictable weather and those kinds of things.” She advised that Tillman and Beckley send the Coast Guard a communications plan – including predetermined, periodic check-ins – as well as a float plan, since Lake Michigan gets congested that time of year.
But she also noted that the lake can be dangerous even for experienced boaters, citing last summer’s tragedy when Jon Santarelli fell overboard and drowned during the Chicago Yacht Club’s Race to Mackinac.
“That would be my caution to these two,” Woods said. “The Coast Guard sees this every day where people with the best intentions and the best preparations may end up in a situation that is less than desirable,” she said.
Mind you, Beckley doesn’t have much experience more on the water – or in it – than Tillman.
Before Beckley made his own boat to row across Lake Michigan in 2016, he had “never built a boat, never rowed. I didn’t know how to swim. Never took swim class. I can float on my back.”
After a pause, he
added, “We’ve got life preservers.”
Tillman has skydived twice but this latest daredevil undertaking hasn’t hit him yet.
“Right now it’s excitement because I’m building this boat. Now, as it gets closer, I’ll be a little more nervous, there’ll be some nervousness festering up inside these intestines. Definitely.”
Tillman understands the risks but trusts his partner. And they’ll be prepared.
“We got a chase boat,” he said, referring to a support vessel that will follow them. “Coast Guard gonna know. We got radio, satellite equipment. I’m not scared in that regard. If we get into a jam, that big boat gonna’s save us. The first time I learned how to swim I just jumped in.”
At least Tillman shouldn’t have to worry about sharks.
“As for Lake Michigan, there have never been substantiated reports of sharks,” Mark Schick, director of fishes exhibit development at Shedd Aquarium, said via email. “People have mistakenly identified lake sturgeon as sharks but they are a harmless large fish with a body shape similar to a shark.
“Lake sturgeon are native to the Great Lakes, and the only sharks I know of around here are at Shedd Aquarium.”