31
summer
2013
arches
Book review
Rowing into the Son:
Four Young Men Crossing
the North Atlantic
Jordan Hanssen ’04
256
pages; paperback
The Mountaineers Books
review by Chuck Luce
Back in 2006, when Hanssen; Dylan LeValley
’05;
Greg Spooner ’01, D.P.T.’10; and Brad
Vickers ’05 were making their epic trip across
the North Atlantic in a rowboat, it was obvious
from the journal posts they were making to the
team website that the guys not only possessed
astounding mental and physical stamina, they
managed in spite of their many hardships and
distractions to write about the experience like
poets.
Well, of course they did. They’re Puget
Sound grads, and that’s the way they were
brought up.
But it’s one thing to describe events in real
time; it’s another to reflect, evaluate, and di-
vine the meaning of such a huge undertaking.
It took trip leader Jordan Hanssen five years to
write
Rowing into the Son,
and in it we get the
full backstory of the crew’s plodding 18-month
preparation; astonishing, terrifying, sometimes
heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions of an
environment realized with a rare tactility; the
not-always-happy interactions of four 6-foot-tall
men doing all the things that life requires for
72
days on a bobbing platform about the size
of four double beds laid end-to-end; and even a
lesson or two in marine biology and meteorol-
ogy.
The facts of the trip are by now familiar to
Arches
readers: College friends, former members
of the Puget Sound rowing team, get the crazy
idea to sign up for a 3,290-mile rowboat race
across the ocean from New York to Falmouth,
England. During the crossing they ride out
Hurricane Alberto; dodge 800-foot container
ships; endure endless two-hour shifts of rowing/
sleeping, rowing/sleeping; and experience by
fits tedium, misery, and euphoria. They win the
race and set three world records, including be-
ing the first Americans to row unassisted from
mainland U.S. to mainland U.K.
In this book we learn a lot more. First of all,
and perhaps this should come as no surprise,
the guys’ success had much to do with humil-
ity about what they knew and didn’t know,
and good preparation. In the months leading
up to the race they rented a Seattle house that
became dormitory, headquarters, workshop,
and warehouse. By living together the rowers
began a process of team building, which would
be immensely important later when solving the
inevitable unanticipated problems their adven-
ture would spring on them. They sought out
experts, asked questions relentlessly, listened
eagerly, and tested ideas. Repeated evaluation
of equipment resulted in modifications to gear
that made their craft more efficient, reliable,
and safer than their opponents’. Again and
again they went back to mentors. “The project
was our Siren,” Hanssen writes. “During mo-
ments of clarity we dreamed of a future without
obsession.”
They called their collaboration Ocean Ad-
venture Racing Northwest, and they voted to
name their boat the
James Robert Hanssen,
after
Hanssen’s birth father, who died when Jordan
was 3. More on that in a bit.
The book’s cadence quickens and it be-
comes hard to put down when the guys hit
the water. I’ve had a little experience myself on
long, stressful journeys—days and days stuck in
a wind-drummed tent on a freezing mountain-
side waiting for the weather to clear, for ex-
ample—but Hanssen describes hardships I can
scarcely imagine. We learn about all manner of
maladies brought on by constant damp, numb-
ingly repetitive tasks, and conditions that permit
scant hygiene. Apart from their hands, the
rowers found that caring for the health of their
butts was vital. Pardon the indelicacy: They were
plagued by ingrown hairs, the result of rowing
and sweating in unwashed clothing. “The slight-
est pressure unleashed a sting akin to some ma-
levolent nurse plunging a hypodermic syringe
into the offending area,” Hanssen writes. “Greg
confessed this was the closest he had ever come
to crying from physical pain since grade school.”
Lesson: To get dry, take your clothes off.
And then there was the food.
The guys had calculated they would be
burning about 6,000 calories a day, and those
calories needed to be replaced to maintain
physical strength and mental acuity. But on day
17
the team realized that at the speed they were
proceeding they would run out of food before
they ran out of ocean. Spoilage in the eternal
damp wasn’t helping matters. After only a brief
discussion all agreed not to request assistance
(
which would have disqualified them from the
race) and to ration provisions for the remaining
three-fourths of the trip. Privately they some-
times struggled with their anger over such an
oversight.
Which brings up morale. Close quarters,
constant discomfort, physical exhaustion, sleep
deprivation, and starvation are not exactly con-
ditions under which one would expect always-
cheerful crew interaction. It must have been
uncomfortable for Hanssen to write about the
(
surprisingly infrequent) less-than-triumphant
behavior he and his friends displayed, but he
does what good writers do. He tells the truth,
and in so doing gives the reader a cinematic rep-
resentation of quotidian highs and lows.
In keeping it real Hanssen also does his best
to relate his thoughts. A couple of months in
a rowboat allow a lot of time to think, and we
accompany Hanssen on a parallel epic jour-
ney—that of having two fathers and his lifelong
struggle reconciling conflicted feelings of loyalty
between men to whom for different reasons he
is immensely grateful, and whom he loves very
much.
After everything we’re left with one question:
Was the sacrifice worth the reward? Hanssen
concludes that it was, and not just for the re-
cords or the pride in accomplishment or the wild
emotions or the jaw-dropping things they saw.
In the end the enduring value of the OAR North-
westers’ adventure is a well of resolve. Later in
life, when they are faced with, say, unpleasant
tasks at work or tough family decisions, can
those possibly be harder than crossing an ocean
one oar stroke at a time?