A paraplegic veteran launches solo row across the Pacific
Military veteran and paraplegic Angela Madsen finds life at sea liberating.
What others call her disabilities melt away when she is rowing to far-off destinations, and all that remain are her capabilities—what she can or cannot do is determined by the tasks at hand and what the ocean will allow.
“It’s almost become my comfort zone,” she says. “There’s nobody’s notion of my perceived ability.”
On the morning of Saturday, June 8, the 53-year-old life-long athlete and Olympic ocean rower embarked on a 2,300-mile journey by row boat from the Santa Cruz Harbor on a course for Waikiki, Hawaii—her first solo ocean row. Balancing distance and currents, she deemed Santa Cruz to be the most feasible launching point.
The expedition, which she calculates will take between 80 and 100 days and will be done without an accompanying support boat, is meant to raise awareness of the hardships veterans face upon their return to the United States, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. She also wants to bring attention to the U.S. Department of Affairs’ backlog on medical claims and their inability to adequately help the increasing number of veterans.
Madsen joined the military right after high school in Ohio. She became a military police officer and played on the women’s Marine Corps basketball team. It was during a game in 1993 that she tripped and another player fell on top of her back, severely injuring her spine. While undergoing surgery, her situation became much worse.
“Everything went wrong,” Madsen says. “They got the wrong discs, put the bone grafts in wrong, and drilled a hole in my spinal cord.”
Following the botched surgery, Madsen says she lost her house, became homeless for two years on the streets in Southern California and fell into deep depression.
Envisioning a future of unrelenting pain and dwelling on life in a wheel chair, Madsen says she even attempted to take her own life.
It was her reintroduction to sports—shot put, surfing on her knees and rowing—that she believes saved her life.
The activities reinvigorated her naturally competitive spirit and also restored her desire to live, be happy, and excel, the latter of which she has done to a degree many might at first think impossible.
Madsen, who now lives in Long Beach, competed in the 2008 and 2012 Paralympics in Beijing and London and now plans to compete in the shot put event at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
She has won gold medals in four World Championships of Rowing and holds six Guinness World Records for the sport. If Madsen makes it across the Pacific, it will mean another Guinness World Record for being the first woman with a disability to row solo across an ocean.
Madsen’s rowing vessel, named the “Spirit of Orlando,” is 19 feet long with a cockpit amidships and a rear sleeping cabin. The boat has a foam core with a fiberglass and Kevlar overlay, making it light, buoyant and very strong.
Should the boat capsize, Madsen will be tethered in and the boat is self-righting.
With oars just under 10 feet long, she will average between two and five knots under pure muscle power. She hopes to cover about 50 miles a day.
The boat is equipped with a water maker and solar panels that charge two batteries used to power a Global Positioning System, a radar, radios, and an Automatic Identification System, which allows passing ships to avoid a collision.
Madsen will subsist on dehydrated meals, carefully balancing her exertion with calorie intake. She has 99 days of meal packs, plus chocolate rations for morale boosts, she says.
When the wind is against her, Madsen will throw out a sea anchor so she doesn’t lose her way, taking the time to recuperate or fish.
She knows big seas are inevitable, and while storms will be dangerous, she relishes surfing her boat down the faces of massive waves while listening to classic rock—it reminds her of the scene in the movie Apocalypse Now when the soldiers are surfing as the bombs are falling, she admits.
In addition to weather, dangers at sea for Madsen include whales breaching on top of her, sharks, and open sores, which are a risk for paraplegics on dry land. At sea, with humidity and salt abounding, she will have to inspect her body with a mirror for wounds every day and treat them before they become infected.
She expects these trials to be punctuated with moments of elation, such as stunning sunrises and sunsets, a full moon rising over the ocean, the water glowing with phosphorescence, and the realization of being somewhere where no other human has been.
“There’s an overwhelming sense of gratitude for life out there,” she says.
Three months is a long time to be alone, but Madsen says she does not experience loneliness the way most people do.
“There are a lot of times when I’m with a crowd of people, and I still feel that [loneliness],” she says. “Out there, I’m in my element.”
Madsen set out to sea with the photos of about 30 fallen soldiers aboard—a way for her to “honor the fallen.” She hopes that her trip will serve as a symbol of hope for veterans who may feel, as she once did, that their lives are not worth the struggle.
“There’s a hopelessness that our guys are feeling when they come back,” she says. “This can show them that things can be OK, and life is going to become what you make of it.”
Learn more about Angela Madsen at rowoflife.com.