Angela Madsen to Solo Row the Pacific Ocean

Oceans Rowing/canoeing

Angela Madsen, 59, is currently waiting to start her solo row across the Pacific Ocean. Setting off from Long Beach, she will row 4,000km across the Pacific to Honolulu. If successful, she will bag a trifecta of firsts for a solo Pacific rower:  first paraplegic, first openly gay athlete and oldest woman.

Her boat was loaded and ready to go on April 1. Now she waits anxiously. “I just want to get out of there and do my extreme social distancing,” she says.

Madsen is no stranger to rowing oceans. The three-time Paralympian and U.S. Marine veteran holds six Guinness world records for ocean rowing. In the past 13 years, she has crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice — once as a pair and once with a crew of 16. She also crossed the Indian Ocean with a crew of 8, circumnavigated the UK with three other women and crossed the Pacific Ocean with a partner. Besides all this, she has competed in the Beijing, London and Rio Paralympics in rowing, shot put and javelin.

Madsen wins bronze in shot put in the 2012 Paralympic Games. Photo: outsports.com

Madsen enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after leaving high school. She was in the military police and a top-level basketball player for the Marines when she was injured.  The serious back injury ended her military career, and she was discharged in her twenties because of chronic pain. After years of spinal degradation, she underwent corrective surgery and woke up from the operation a paraplegic. Never one to give up, Madsen turned to adaptive sport and since then, “opportunities have always come up”.

Originally, she started out with adaptive rowing, but the coaches of her introductory course were ocean rowers. Influenced by them, she started doing small coastal rows. Her friends saw an advert in the Amputee Coalition of America, in which a rower sought a male amputee for an ocean crossing.

“They forwarded it to me and said that I’d be crazy enough to want to do it. And they were right. He was looking for a male amputee but I just wouldn’t let him look by me. I  kept insisting I was the one. And so I became part of that crew.”

In the end, the row never came off but it led to her rowing the Atlantic with Frank Fester. Fester, an amputee from France, spoke no English and Madsen spoke no French, so they played pictionary at meal times during their 66-day row. Madsen thinks that this is the closest she has come to the isolation of a solo row, since she really had no one to talk to. Despite this, she says that it is still her favorite expedition.

They used old equipment and a second-hand boat that took on water and had some wood rot. She learned on the job, with just one centimetre of plywood separating them from a trillion tons of seawater. But they made it in one piece and are still friends. She fondly calls them “the Spanky and Our Gang of ocean rowing”.

Row of Life. Photo: Soraya Simi

For her solo Pacific crossing, her boat is the Row of Life, a six-by-two-metre vessel that she bought in the UK during the 2012 London Paralympics. With 120 days of food and lots of equipment, the boat will weigh around 570 kilos at first.

For safety, she is kitted out with two life rafts, a ditch bag, EPIRBS, a satellite phone, an InReach, safety lines along the length of the deck and all the lanyards and harnesses you could need.

She even has a plan if her boat floods and doesn’t self-right during a capsize: One of her life rafts is a solo aviator’s raft that is the same shape as the inside of her cabin. She can actually inflate that inside the cabin, displace the water and self-right the boat herself.  All her previous experience gives her confidence about this row, but she also believes in the boat itself: “The boat is very clever…it’s newer, made out of flotation foam [covered with] gelcoat. It handles pretty well, even in strong winds.”

When she did this route previously with partner Tara Remington, it took 60 days. This time, she is hoping for 75 to 90 days, although she would like to get as close to 60 days as possible. She will row two hours on, two hours off throughout her unassisted journey.

In 2013, she attempted her first solo crossing of the Pacific, but had to be rescued on day eight, when winds up to gale force four threatened to push her onshore. Looking back, she thinks that she might have ridden it out if she had held on a bit longer. She set off that time from Santa Cruz, where many ocean rows begin, but the “northwesterly winds are way more intense there,” and getting offshore was incredibly difficult. So for her Pacific crossing with Remington, they left from Long Beach, where Madsen lives. “Winds are a lot less intense here, and [though the route is longer], I thought, what’s 200 miles in the grand scheme of things? But it was the hardest 200 miles I’ve ever done.”

Madsen begins her Pacific crossing in 2014 with Tara Remington. Photo: outsports.com

This time, that first 300km will also be the most difficult, she says. She once again chose to leave from close to home, because she can wait for good weather. “If I can get a jump on that first part, the rest is pretty predictable.”

Roz Savage currently holds the record for fastest woman to row from California to Hawaii, 100 days. But Savage left from Santa Cruz, so her trip was 300km shorter. Even so, Madsen is confident that she can beat the record.

Unlike most other expeditions, COVID-19 hasn’t hampered her plans much. Her only concern is landing in Honolulu. She doesn’t know what the situation will be in a few months and is hoping that Hawaiian authorities don’t stop her from landing. “I’m leaving with a lot of faith that things are going to work themselves out,” she says.

But since she has 120 days food with her, she says that if she can’t land in Hawaii, she will just keep rowing. Her only other concern is the physicality of the challenge. This is her first long row in six years, she is older and her condition is degenerative, so she doesn’t know how hard she will find it compared to previous rows.

About the Author

Rebecca McPhee

Aspiring sports and travel journalist based in the UK.

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