by Jordan Hanssen
April 6, 2013. I woke 12 minutes before my 6
a.m. rowing shift. We had been at sea, rowing 24
hours a day for 73 days, one day more than I had
spent in this same 29-foot rowboat while cross-
ing the North Atlantic seven years ago.
In the last month we had swum with whales,
seen rainbows at midnight, and eaten flying
squid and fish that had landed on our deck. Even
after our wind generator failed we managed to
keep our science instruments working and con-
tinued to film, take pictures, and write blogs to
send to our website and education program as
part of the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Africa
to Americas Expedition.
Adam Kreek, Canadian Olympic gold med-
alist in rowing in Beijing; Markus Pukonen,
adventure filmmaker; Patrick Fleming ’05,
wilderness EMT and whitewater rafting guide;
Greg Spooner ’01,
and I had planned
this project for four years. Greg had rowed the
North Atlantic with me. Now he was on land—a
one-man mission-control staff—responsible for
transmitting information from the boat to the
team website and to universities and schools in-
volved in the project. He also was responsible for
managing a potential emergency—a job he never
hoped to do.
Markus still snored peacefully in the humid-
ity of the tiny cabin when I made my way out on
Adam and Patrick had been rowing since
a.m. They looked tired but focused. Twenty
knots of wind had whipped the water into 6-foot
swells, about half the size of waves we had surfed
earlier that week.
It’s picked up over the last hour,” said
Patrick. “If it gets worse we should think about
Since breaking two oars in our first month
we had become conservative about rowing in
rough weather. We often chose to set the sea an-
chor, a kind-of underwater parachute attached to
the bow that steadies a boat and reduces drifting.
According to our science team, this year’s
trade winds were uncharacteristically unfavor-
able, and we had spent almost 14 days on sea
anchor. But now we were rowing at full speed,
knots downwind toward Miami—weather we
had been waiting for the whole trip. I relieved
Adam in the bow, and he made his way into the
cabin for a two-hour nap. Markus switched with
Be safe out there,” said Adam.
Pat began to reach out of the cabin to shut
the hatch that would make the cabin watertight
and help maintain the boat’s self-righting ability.
Just then, two waves, no bigger than the others
that day but squared off at the top, materialized
off the stern. The crests of most waves are trian-
gular in shape and roll under the hull. But the
first of these freakish waves engulfed the stern
and poured over the gunnels, filling the deck
area with thousands of pounds of water. In the
days I’d spent on this boat at least a million
waves had passed under it, some in a tropical
storm. I can count on two hands how many
times I’d seen waves like this—and never two at
Ten holes along the edge of the deck called
scuppers—functionally, 10 3-inch-diameter
drain pipes—struggled to shed the water.
Overwhelmed by the weight, the boat listed to
starboard as it fought to surge out of the swell.
When the second wave hit, it pushed the bow
into the back of the first wave, driving us like a
peg into a wall of water.
Adam had put in his earplugs to go to
sleep, when he heard a swirling crash. The boat
pitched, and he rolled onto Patrick, who was
scrambling to seal the cabin. Too late. Water
dumped into the hatch, and our world literally
turned upside down.
Adam’s first thought was that he was unable
to breathe water, followed by a more visceral
realization that neither could Patrick, and he in-
stinctively pushed Pat through the hatch. He rose
to the dwindling air pocket above him, took a
breath, and followed Patrick out of the cabin.
They popped to the surface on either side of
Everyone OK?” we yelled in unison.
Buddy up!” I shouted. “Get the PLBs [per-
sonal locator beacons]. Everyone on the top of
the boat. Keep an eye on me—I’m diving for the
Unable to dive under the gunnels with so
much buoyancy, I took off my life jacket with the
PLB attached and handed it up to Pat.
How many PLBs should we turn on?” he
All four!” I ordered.
The phone rang and went to voicemail. “Hello,
you’ve reached Greg Spooner with OAR Northwest.
If this is a maritime emergency, please leave a
message here and dial 555-629-8043 to have me
Adam’s first thought was
that he was unable to
breathe water, followed by
a more visceral realization
that neither could Patrick,
and he instinctively pushed
Pat through the hatch. He
rose to the dwindling air
pocket above him, took
a breath, and followed
Patrick out of the cabin.
They popped to the
surface on either side of
Everyone OK?” we
yelled in unison