Angela Madsen, a paraplegic ocean rower attempting a solo crossing from Los Angeles to Honolulu, has perished at sea.
Madsen, 60, roughly halfway through her voyage, entered the water on Sunday to repair a shackle used to attach a sea anchor to the bow of her boat. She was preparing for a tropical storm approaching her position approximately 1,275 nautical miles east of Hawaii. Madsen never made it back to the deck of the boat.
“Being paraplegic doesn’t motivate me to do it,” she’d said of her ocean row in our May 26 interview. “It just doesn’t stop me from doing it.”
Madsen spoke with Adventure Journal from her 20-foot oceangoing rowboat, Row of Life, the same one she had abandoned eight days into a 2013 attempt to row to Hawaii alone. The boat later washed ashore in Mexico, and Madsen repaired it, painted a shark’s mouth on its bow, and tried again.
A Marine Corps veteran and lifelong athlete, Madsen lost most of the use of her legs following a botched back surgery in 1993. For a time she was homeless, living out of a storage locker at Disneyland. Then she discovered adaptive rowing, becoming a three-time world champion, and 2008 Paralympian in that sport. She competed in two more Paralympics as a track athlete, winning a bronze medal in the shot put in 2012.
She was a prolific ocean rower, first crossing the Atlantic in 2007 with French amputee Franck Festor, and later adding the Indian, Pacific and a second Atlantic crossing to her laurels. Asked what made this crossing different, she said that apart from the aborted 2013 attempt, all her previous rows had been as part of a team.
“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,” she said. And then she laughed, as she did throughout the interview.
She’d recently celebrated her 60th birthday at sea with a satellite call from her grandchildren, a moon pie, and a shot of Koloa rum. She’d been bucking headwinds and unruly seas for a month, but remained irrepressible and, it seemed, unstoppable.
When she did not answer text messages on Sunday and early Monday, her wife Debra Madsen and friend Soraya Simi contacted the U.S. Coast Guard. A search plane flew over Madsen’s boat on Monday evening and observed her in the water, motionless and tethered to the vessel. A cargo ship diverted to the scene recovered Madsen’s body. Her boat remains at sea.
“Angela was a warrior, as fierce as they come,” Debra Madsen and Simi said in a statement on the expedition website. “A life forged by unbelievable hardship, she overcame it all and championed the exact path she envisioned for herself since she was a little girl. To row an ocean solo was her biggest goal. She knew the risks better than any of us and was willing to take those risks because being at sea made her happier than anything else.”