What Happened to Angela Madsen?

When Angela Madsen died during her attempt to row alone from California to Hawaii last month, few details were available about her last hours or what might have happened to her. Last week, her wife, Deb Madsen, filled in some of those details on Facebook. While her theory of hypothermia is not likely — the water was 22˚C, which even skinny people can manage for several hours — the many details may be helpful to other ocean rowers.

Deb Madsen’s report:

I spoke with Angela several times on Saturday by text and phone. The concern was a possibility that Cyclone Boris was forming, and the forecast models included some that could be problematic for Angela. At the beginning of her trip, Angela lost the shackle at the bow that she was using to deploy her parachute anchor. She had been deploying the para-anchor from the stern since she lost this front shackle. The stern deployment works, but Angela preferred the bow deployment…[which] provides a better ride in extreme weather.

Angela was about as far from land as possible. She was about 1,200 miles from the mainland and 1,300 miles from Hawaii. We started looking into the possibility of rescue, based on where the storm would actually track. She was in an area of little marine traffic, and it appeared that the closest ship was 500 miles away.

We decided that she needed to prepare for the worst, since she might have to ride out a cyclone. If that was the case, she thought it would be important to deploy the para-anchor off the bow. We decided that she would have to jump into the water and reattach the shackle. The sea was rough, so she decided that she would go in [the water] Sunday morning, as that would be the best sea state. Her last post was June 20, Saturday evening: “Tomorrow is a swim day. I have to re-shackle my bow anchor bridle, in case there is a big storm. It came undone some time ago. I’ve been using the stern.”

Any time you leave your boat, it’s a risky endeavor. I thought she would text me when she left the boat and when she hopped back on, but no texts came. I texted several times throughout the day, with no response. I watched the speed and trajectory of the boat, and it seemed as if it was floating rather than being rowed; but if she went for the swim, she might have been tired and not rowing.

I checked the main text inbox and found that she hadn’t communicated with anyone since Saturday night. It should be noted that the satellite service was sketchy where she was. [She had a] Garmin InReach and Iridium Go. I texted and emailed, asking her to contact me or I would notify the Coast Guard. I felt a horrible dark weight in my chest. I contacted [documentary filmmaker] Soraya Simi Sunday afternoon, and we decided to call the Coast Guard for guidance. They said they would work on finding a ship to divert to rescue her.

Monday morning, we were advised that there were no ships close by, but they found one which had diverted from its path and was headed toward Angela. They expected the ship to arrive in about 11 hours (9 to 10pm Monday, June 22). The U.S. Coast Guard also decided to dispatch a C17 to fly over and report what they saw.

The plane flew over about 8pm but was unable to report their findings because of communication difficulties in that area. The German cargo ship Polynesia reached Angela’s location about 10:30pm on June 22. I received a phone call at about 10:40 from the Coast Guard advising that Angela had been located and was deceased. She had been found in the water, tethered to her boat. There was no obvious trauma. (I asked if she had struck her head, but it did not appear that was the case.)

I believe Angela entered the water about 10:30am, Sunday June 21. She was in board shorts and a sports bra (this I know). She was tethered to the boat. The water temperature was about 72 degrees. The plan was to hop in, replace the shackle, and hop back in the boat. Angela has never had trouble getting back into the boat from the water. The boat sits close to the water and she is crazy strong.

I believe when she tried to get back in the boat her tether was caught on something that did not allow enough slack for Angela to get back in the boat. She may have been in the water longer than planned, trying free the tether. I think that and possible hypothermia led to her demise. Because of her paraplegia, she had little to no sensation in the lower half of her body. It’s possible that hypothermia was setting in before she even realized it. By the time she realized it was too late to recover. She may have gone unconscious or had a heart attack, but ultimately it led to her passing.