Ocean rower Angela Madsen is currently about a third of the way through a 3,500-mile crossing from Los Angeles to Hawaii, but that only begins to describe her remarkable journey.
A single mom at 17, Madsen enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school, becoming a military police officer and a standout basketball player. An injury on the court forced her to give up the game, and then her military career.
“Being paraplegic doesn’t motivate me to do it. It just doesn’t stop me from doing it.”
After a botched spinal surgery, she lost most of the function in her legs. “They took out the wrong disc, put the bone grafts in wrong, drilled a hole, and compromised my spinal cord in the surgery,” Madsen says in the trailer for an upcoming feature documentary by filmmaker Soraya Simi. Confined to a wheelchair, Madsen contemplated suicide and lived on the streets before finding basketball again as a wheelchair athlete.
Introduced to adaptive rowing, she won three world championships and competed in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. Then she changed her focus to track and field, competing in two more Paralympics, and winning a bronze medal in the shot put in 2012. She founded an adaptive rowing program in her hometown of Long Beach, Calif., and began rowing across oceans with some regularity.
She rowed the Atlantic in 2007 with French amputee Franck Festor, and the Indian Ocean two years later in a crew of eight. She rowed around Great Britain with three other women, crossed the Atlantic again with another team, and then attempted a solo crossing from California to Hawaii in 2013. She made it barely more than a week before a Coast Guard helicopter hoisted her from her 20-foot rowboat in high winds and 25-foot seas.
The boat was later recovered, and Madsen gained some redemption in 2014 when she completed the California-to-Hawaii route with Kiwi rower Tara Remington. But the solo challenge still called.
She rebuilt her boat, painted a shark’s mouth on its bow, and shoved off for Hawaii on a hook-shaped course of about 3,500 miles. She expects the trip to take anywhere from 75 to 90 days, but has provisions for 120 and no plans to stop until she gets there.
“I’ve got this thing where when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. And I go all in on commitment,” Madsen told Adventure Journal from the eastern Pacific on Tuesday, her 33rd day at sea.
Adventure Journal: So let’s set the scene. I’m in my back yard and you’re in a 20-foot rowboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Angela Madsen: That’s right I’m at about 122.5 [west latitude]. I’m like 6 or 700 miles southwest of Los Angeles, looking to jump into the trades. The winds have been against me most of the time. I didn’t expect to come this far south, but the northwesterlies had me pinned. I ended up going behind Guadalupe, which was interesting.
I looked it up. Isla Guadalupe is the only land for 150 miles in one direction, and several thousand miles in every other direction. And you missed it by less than a mile, and then spun in circles trying to get away. I take it that wasn’t part of the plan?
I had to go behind the island because the northwest winds went up to gale force, and it was just going to slam me into the island if I tried to go west of it. So my meteorologist told me to go to the east side [laughs].
There’s really no protection from northwesterlies until you get to the south end of that island. The rest of the time the winds want to put you into the island. That island’s like 4,200 feet, and it generates it’s own wind eddy. So getting away from it is tough.
As big and heavy as your boat is, and you just being one person, you can’t really buck the wind, can you? You have to work with it as best you can.
You can in some amount of wind, but not gale force. You really can’t. I’ve been crossing northwesterlies the whole time, but if I row when it’s 25 knots or above, I’m just going south with it.
Northwest is the direction the wind is coming from, so it wants to push you southeast—toward Mexico. So your bow is pointed at Hawaii, but you’re still sliding south with the wind and current?
Pretty much that’s how it is. Sometimes when it’s like 15 or 20 knots you can turn your rudder to the west and when the wind hits the cabin you can surf a little bit. So you can get a little bit of west out of it. When it’s too windy you can’t do anything.
Except hold on, right?
Yeah, I got knocked down during the gale. I got swamped twice and had a knock down. I was trying to row across the wind when it was probably a little too much. And you know, you never know until you try.
Did it knock you out of the boat?
I got knocked off the rowing seat and back into the gunwale. I didn’t get knocked out of the boat, but for a while it was like a little kiddy swimming pool with all the water trying to run out of the scuppers. I thought for sure I was going over, but I didn’t.
Your description makes it sound like no big deal, and I suppose it is after completing four ocean rows. What stands out about this crossing?
It’s solo. I’ve never done solo.
What do you do differently when you’re alone?
Well I definitely talk to myself more [laughs]. I tell myself what I’m doing all the time, like somebody else is here. I just decided I wanted to row across an ocean and I wanted to do it solo. The first time I rowed the Atlantic with Franck, that was as close as I got because he didn’t speak English and I don’t speak French. That’s pretty damn close to being solo. That was a really good row.
We didn’t know the first thing about ocean rowing. We had an old used crappy boat. Like, I can’t believe three-eights inch of plywood separated us from sinking. We didn’t have sponsors. We just pinched pennies. We only had a handheld Garmin. But we were going to do it no matter what.
Even after four successful ocean rows, were there people telling you couldn’t do this trip alone?
Oh yeah. There’s all kinds of people that say, ‘She’s not going to make it.’ There’s always the naysayers. Everybody gets the naysayers.
People gotta be how they gotta be, and that’s their thing. That’s not my thing. That’s their thing.
You had your sixtieth birthday at sea a couple of weeks ago. How did you celebrate?
My grandkids called me on the phone and sung me Happy Birthday, and I had a moon pie with a Girl Scout cookie on top and a candle on it. They sang and I blew out my candle, and I ate my little moon pie thing.
And then I drank a shot of Kōloa Rum.
Rowing 12 or 14 hours a day you’re consuming a ton of calories, but how does something like a call from your grandkids, and support from friends and family, sustain you? How important is that kind of sustenance?
It’s huge. You know we do the Rice Krispies squares where you can write messages on them. They wrote messages on rice crispy squares and put them in my snack packs. It’s kinda cool.
Things are better now that phones are better. I have the Garmin InReach that’s doing tracking and texting, and then I have the Iridium Go and the Iridium for my other comms. I’ve been texting [my wife] Deb daily, but I haven’t been talking as much on the phone. I’ve been white knuckling it to not lose ground, and to not go too far south. I can’t stop for one second without losing 10 miles to the wind. I’ve been afraid to let go of the oars. [laughs] I worked for those miles. I don’t want to lose them.
Today’s the first day I can let go of the oars, and I’m probably only going to lose one point five nautical miles in three hours.
You come to ocean rowing from an athletic background, both before your accident and then as a Paralympian and world champion. How does that compare to what you’re doing now, which is more of an expedition or adventure?
The drive in training to be an elite athlete is like the drive in training when you’re in the Marine Corps and the drive to row solo across the Pacific. It’s all similar, I guess.
Does your disability motivate you to do this?
I would have never known about it had I not had the accident. I wouldn’t have been in the Paralympics and I wouldn’t have been back in athletics. I would have been doing computer-aided drafting and mechanical engineering 10 hours a day, six days a week, because I love my job.
Being paraplegic doesn’t motivate me to do it. It just doesn’t stop me from doing it.
The Coronavirus lockdown didn’t stop you either. You could say you’re taking isolation to a whole new level, alone in a tiny rowboat hundreds of miles out at sea. What do you say to people who are complaining about being cooped up?
I like where I am better. I’m actually a lot safer. You know, people run around isolated in a crowd. They run around in their own heads all the time, so I don’t know what the difference is [laughs]. They’re not really participating anyway.
But the fear of losing your job, losing your house, the financial stress–all that’s going to weigh on people. And you know, I’ve been a homeless vet. I’ve lost everything. It’s not the end of the world.
Rowing across an ocean naturally has its highs and lows. Are there moments that make you think all of the pain and fatigue and financial stress is worth it?
There’s all kinds of things, I mean, I’ve been to places on the planet that no human being’s ever been. It’s part of that wanderlust. And yeah, this is really hard. I’ve got sores on my butt and I’ve got scars on my hands and overuse injuries. And yeah, it hurts. But I mean, I just watched a thousand crabs go by the other day. I’m just at the beginning of where the trades are going to whip up and start, and there’s all kinds of stuff around. Jellyfish and crabs– Everything just kind of floating out here waiting for those tradewinds. And I’m right smack in the middle of it. So, yeah, there’s things that make it worth it. Getting to the other end and eating a greasy cheeseburger and having a proper bath is going to be worth it too.
So you’re fighting west and going south, trying to catch those trades where you might finally get some following winds and following seas.
That’s the plan. I just have some more west make. I’m still crossing northwesterlies. I don’t have favorable conditions but at least it’s light enough I can cross. Today is almost perfect. I’ve gotta get to it, so I can make some more west.
Top Image: Soraya Simi
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