Dr. Usatin’s Excellent Adventure
Riding solo from Canada to Mexico on a personal watercraft
by Julene Snyder
On her journey from Canada to Mexico on a personal watercraft, only the left half of Jane Usatin’s face got sunburned, since that side was exposed to direct sun for the greater part of each day.

It’s hard to believe that her hands were the only part that got sore. A 56-year-old grandmother traveled 1,800 miles from Canada to Mexico on the open ocean, riding a personal watercraft (PWC) and, in the end, it was the endless gripping of handlebars that gave her grief.“The hands were the weakest link,” says Jane Usatin, director of undergraduate programs for the School of Business Administration. “It took a while for them to get back to normal.”

Other than that, how was the six-week-trip?

“It was a learning experience,” says Usatin, with characteristic understatement. But a moment later, her whole face lights up.

“It was mind-blowing! Just the marine life alone!”

She ticks off the list on one (clearly recovered) hand: “I saw two orcas. I stopped my engine, because I didn’t want to spook them. I also saw some whales that I’d never seen before; I sketched them and asked the locals. It turned out they were blue whales.” She leans forward, eyes glowing. “When I was growing up, blue whales were about to become extinct, so this was like seeing a unicorn.”

The recitation continues: Humpback whales. Acres of seabirds. Otters. A pod of dolphins. A shark. (“Maybe. It was sort of so-what.”) And of course, the humans were special too, especially one in particular.

“My ever-patient husband followed along in the RV and we’d meet up every night,” she recalls. “And of course, up in Oregon and Washington, people weren’t as familiar with PWCs. The locals would come out to see what was going on when I’d come in. In one town, a wave had pushed me off. I was tethered, but it was hard to get back on, especially once the boat got pushed over on one side. When a tractor came into the water and got me righted, a crowd had assembled on the beach. People were cheering and clapping.”

Of course, the trip wasn’t all applause and unicorns. There are bad eggs among the PWC community (Usatin calls it the “1 percent jerk factor”), and some maritime officials tended to view Usatin’s quest with a certain skepticism.“Maritime law says that they cannot deny me safe harbor,” she explains. “But in one case, they didn’t want to let me leave once I got there.” Usatin all but snorts with derision. “These crafts are what lifeguards use to rescue swimmers; it’s ridiculous. They’re really small boats. You just sit on them, rather than in them.”

Adventure is no stranger to Usatin. She’s traveled by motorcycle — both solo and with husband Josef — across the country many a time. But she wanted to do this particular trip for several reasons.

“I had four objectives,” she says, ticking them off. “To help people gain respect for the ocean. To gain respect for the coastal fishing and logging towns. To raise money for Sister Dale’s scholarship. And to counter the media stereotype of PWC riders as scofflaws.”

The Sister Dale Brown Marine Science Memorial Scholarship commemorates the service and life of Sister Dale Brown, who worked at USD for more than 25 years and had a love for marine science and the ocean. Brown’s memory — as well as that of Usatin’s late friend, John Helms, a motorcycle buddy for whom her PWC is named — accompanied her down the coast.

“John died before I could make the journey,” she says.

“He was the first one who heard about this plan who didn’t laugh at me. I wanted to honor his encouragement.”

So was Usatin ever afraid during all those long hours bouncing from wave to wave? “I was never scared,” she says, insistent. “Sure, I got annoyed by some of the waves. I’d be in the trough surrounded by waves, and I couldn’t see the horizon. It was probably stupid, but the boat doesn’t sink, and after all, I’m tethered on. I knew if I didn’t get eaten by sharks, I’d be OK.” If being the first person ever to complete such a journey — and this without having ever been on a PWC — makes Usatin sound like a daredevil, that’s far from the case. “Blame it on my mother,” she says with a laugh. “She said,‘If you prepare for it, you can do whatever you want. After all, you never know your limits until you exceed them’.”

To learn more about Usatin’s journey and the Sister Dale Brown Marine Science Memorial Scholarship, go to