A challenging row -- from Africa to the U.S.

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
7:15
AM ET


Before Jordan Hanssen and his three OAR Northwest crewmates began their projected 3,600-nautical-mile row across the Atlantic Ocean, he told me their boat was a “little spaceship.’’ Some 900 miles into the row, their transoceanic journey is not Apollo 13, but back at mission control, Greg Spooner acknowledges he is getting a little nervous.

“I’m not scared, just concerned,’’ said Spooner, who is in charge of land operations for the expedition in Bellingham, Wash. “I know failure is not imminent, but there is a safety risk and it has to be managed appropriately.’’

Some background: The OAR Northwest crew is made up of four Pacific Northwest rowers: Hanssen, Olympic gold medalist Adam Kreek, Markus Pukonen and Pat Fleming. Hanssen, along with Spooner, rowed from New York to England as part of a race seven years ago. This time, Spooner is staying at home while Hanssen and crew are rowing unassisted from Senegal to Miami in a sponsored expedition to gather oceanic information and provide live educational updates. They left Dakar, Senegal, on Jan. 23.

Rowing the cramped, 29-foot James Robert Hanssen boat all the way across an ocean was never going to be easy, but it got decidedly more challenging for OAR Northwest when the wind generator failed from the start. That has forced the crew to rely on solar panels to power equipment for computers, phones, navigational equipment and the water-desalination system on a more limited basis. When hit with a recent stretch of steady cloud cover, the situation became more acute. Last week, they were forced to shut down all the equipment to save power. Wind and wave conditions are also slowing their pace.

“When the sun is out, they get a good enough charge to make water, make phone calls and get info back,’’ Spooner said last Thursday night. “As soon as the sun disappears, that changes everything. Now, they are running completely dark.’’

The next day the crew broke a second oar, leaving them with no spares in case another breaks. “It added a whole new dimension to the trip,’’ Spooner said.

The sun came out this week, though they are still rationing power, and wind and waves remain an issue. Spooner says he is in contact at least every other day with the crew and that their mood is remarkably upbeat given the conditions.

“I think that comes from having a group of guys who are similar,’’ he said. “They’ve come to the understanding that they’ll just have to put their heads down and keep pushing. Things eventually will line up in their favor.’’

Spooner said there are adequate backup systems -- such as hand-held GPS, single-use batteries, maps, compasses and sextants -- for the voyage and that the support people in Seattle are trying to figure how the generator could be repaired. When cloud cover lingers, the biggest concern is being able to power equipment that desalinates the ocean water for drinking and a device that alerts nearby ships to avoid accidentally hitting the rowboat. The crew can desalinate the water using a hand-pump, but it is a slow process that would prevent someone from taking a sleep shift.

Despite the power shortage, their location is updated daily at oarnorthwest.com, where you can track the journey.

Hanssen, 30, has dealt with rowing setbacks before. On the 2006 New York-England row, the crew learned it was short of food a quarter of the way into its eventual 71-day journey. They also hit such heavy headwinds when they neared the finish that one day they rowed 24 hours and still lost mileage. They were forced to get by on so few calories per day that the four rowers lost a combined 145 pounds by the time they reached England.

The obvious question, then, is not why anyone would row across the ocean. The question is: Why would anyone do it twice?

Part of the appeal is the educational aspect, though the plan to gather as much information about the ocean as possible and send updates is severely challenged without the generator. Then there is the sheer thrill of what the ocean offers. And part of it is that they love to row.

“One of the most satisfying things we can do as human beings is going from Point A to Point B under our own power,’’ Hanssen told me near his Seattle home before he left for Africa. “If you’re really out of shape, it’s hard to appreciate that, but if you get to a certain level of shape, it’s such an empowering thing.

“The movement just feels good, and getting from Point A to Point B is a profound thing. From the day we walked out of Africa, that’s what we’ve done. At one point we were all nomadic peoples.’’

And with the power shortages, Hanssen is facing similar situations to the old seafarers.

The crew rows in two-man shifts broken up by a four-hour sleep shift at night and two two-hour sleep shifts in the day. Hanssen said they packed enough food to consume 5,000 calories per day (you burn a lot of calories rowing) for the expected two-month voyage and 3,000 calories a day for another 40 days should the row take longer.

Hanssen wrote about his New York-England adventure -- and how it emotionally connected him to his deceased father -- in a recently released book, “Rowing Into the Son.’’ This row should give him plenty of material for a sequel.

“I’ve been on this boat before and as it was in the North Atlantic,’’ Spooner said. “When life is hard out there, humans have this incredible ability to adapt and make do with what you have.’’

The original plan was to reach Miami by mid-March. Spooner expressed confidence they will still reach it, though it now could take into April and the crew will be skinnier when they reach shore. If there is a serious issue, he said, a rescue ship could reach the boat within 16-20 hours.

“I think the likelihood of catastrophe is very slim,'' he said. "The possibility of making some mistakes out there with the navigation -- there is a moderate risk of that happening. But they’re going to make it to Miami.’’

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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