TACOMA, Wash. — When the waves of bad luck hit, one adventurer was squatting over the bucket that served as the team toilet, two were prepping for a morning nap and the captain was at the oars.
It was morning number 73 of OAR Northwest’s attempt to become the first team to row from Africa to the United States. With 2,726 nautical miles down, they were 843 miles and at least three weeks shy of Miami.
The Saturday morning wind cranked up to about 20 knots, creating steep waves the crew normally loved because it gave them the sensation of rowing a 29-foot surfboard.
Jordan Hanssen, the captain, pointed the stern at a set of broad, flat waves while Markus Pukonen tended to his morning constitution. Adam Kreek and Pat Fleming had just finished their shift at the oars, had crawled into the tiny stern cabin and were closing the hatch.
Seconds later, their world turned upside down and they were scrambling to stay alive.
Two days later, Hanssen sat in the gym of a Puerto Rican hotel doing curls with one arm, holding a cellphone in the opposite hand and not bothering to fight back tears as he recounted the story.
“We never looked at this like we were trying to conquer the Atlantic,” Hanssen said Monday afternoon. “We know the ocean either lets us cross or it doesn’t.”
The 29-foot James Robert Hanssen has airtight compartments in the bow and stern and is powered by two rowers. In 2004, Hanssen and three other University of Puget Sound graduates purchased the boat for $35,000 and named it after Hanssen’s dad. His dad died of an asthma attack when Hanssen was a child.
In 2006, the UPS grads rowed across the North Atlantic, taking on hurricane-force winds but never capsizing.
The boat was designed to right after capsizing, but Saturday morning the crew was a victim of unlucky timing.
The first wave lifted and turned the boat as if it were grabbing the stern and driving it into the next wave. Tipping to the port side, water crashed over the gunwale and into the stern cabin before Fleming could close the hatch.
“A hundred pounds of water quickly became 200 pounds and we were flipping,” Hanssen said.
Pukonen and Hanssen were tossed overboard, while Kreek and Fleming sucked in air as the Atlantic filled the cabin. Kreek pushed Fleming out of the hatch, then followed.
Thanks to hours of training for just such an incident, the crew knew exactly what to do next.
Wearing life jackets, they bobbed in the water as they deployed an emergency life raft, activated the personal locator beacons each wore and took turns diving under the boat to recover what gear they could.
During one recovery dive, Pukonen cut free a plastic dinosaur affixed to the bow. Rex was a 2002 Valentine’s Day gift to Hanssen from his mom, and it has served as OAR Northwest’s mascot since the team’s first ocean crossing.
Like Indiana Jones, Hanssen even made a point to collect a broad brim leather hat he bought as a joke 11 years ago. He laughs at the idea that even in survival mode the men chose to save trinkets.
“Can you believe it?” he said Monday, “Because I can’t.”
From whales to fish, OAR Northwest saw plenty of sea life on its expedition, but the only thing they saw every day was a seabird called a skua.
“It was like it came each day to bear witness to what was going on,” Hanssen said.
As the men salvaged gear for the life raft, the skua appeared again.
“There is something about birds,” Hanssen said, his voice cracking. “They make you feel not only your spirit but other people’s spirit.”
As they watched the skua watching them, the men started thinking of other people: Kreek’s mom, who died when he was young; a friend who died of a heart attack during the crossing; and Hanssen’s dad.
“It sounds really damn silly,” Hanssen said, “but the only people who could really help us right then weren’t of this world anymore.”
For three hours the men tried to right the boat singing “All Hail the James Hanssen,” a song Kreek wrote when the team rowed around Vancouver Island last year.
Fighting exhaustion at one point, Hanssen screamed “Come on, Dad!” as the team rolled the boat. It was the closest they came to righting the vessel.
Exhausted, the men crawled onto the life raft, not sure how long they’d have to wait for help to arrive.
Looking at the salvaged gear on the floor of the raft, Pukonen spotted a small Bible. He opened it and started reading from Genesis.
“He was reading about creation when I heard the unmistakable sound of a C-130,” Hanssen said. “Then I saw the colors of the U.S. Coast Guard.”
The plane dropped a radio and flares and circled overhead until a Puerto Rico-bound car carrier ship, the Heijan, arrived to pick them up.
Coast Guard officers later praised the men of OAR Northwest for their preparedness.
After the rowers warmed up aboard the Heijan, crewmembers offered them beers and plied them for stories.
“You guys are really inspirational,” one crewmember told the rowers.
Hanssen laughed and replied, “You guys just saved our lives. How does that work?”
“It’s really humbling and blows my mind when we hear that,” Hanssen said.
The team hopes to salvage their boat, but floating with its gray hull up, Hanssen says “it will take a miracle.”
Still on board are the team’s wallets, passports and cellphones. They hope to fly home to Seattle by the end of the week.
Hanssen said his ocean-rowing days aren’t over. He still wants to circumnavigate the globe.
“I love living too much to be careless,” he said, “but I can’t imagine living life without pushing myself.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services