An Atlantic Odyssey

Four former UPS rowers embark on historic ocean race from New York to England

June 10, 2006 

Dylan LeValley, left, and Greg Spooner train on the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Along with teammates Jordan Hanssen and Brad Vickers, they comprise Ocean Adventures Rowing Northwest, a team of former UPS crew team members who today begin their quest to row from New York to Falmouth, England. | Photo gallery

PETER HALEY/THE NEWS TRIBUNE

Perhaps the most beautiful view Jordan Hanssen has ever seen is the North Atlantic spread out below him from atop Knocknarea Mountain, a broad hill on the west coast of Ireland.

“I remember seeing green with a touch of gold,” said Hanssen, who was 11 when he last hiked the hill. “It’s where heaven meets the earth.”

Hanssen, 23, means this literally. When he was 3, his family scattered his father’s ashes on top of this hill. And it’s where he feels closest to his dad.

Hanssen and three friends leave New York this morning with Knocknarea as their ultimate destination. They’ll make the trip in a 29-foot fiberglass-and-foam rowboat they’ve christened the James Robert Hanssen in honor of Jordan’s dad.

The men, all former members on the University of Puget Sound crew team, are competing in the first Ocean Fours Rowing Race from New York Harbor to Falmouth, England. Their team, OAR (Ocean Adventure Rowing) Northwest, is the only American crew in a four-boat race that will cover 3,100 nautical miles in 40 to 70 days. If Hanssen, Dylan LeValley, Greg Spooner and Brad Vickers are successful, they’ll be the first Americans to row across the North Atlantic Ocean.

They’ll row two at a time, each pulling four three-hour shifts a day. All the while, they’ll endure 30-foot waves, a cabin roughly the size of a refrigerator box and a 5,500-calorie-per-day diet of such tasty dishes as grits and mashed potatoes.

In preparing for the “sufferfest,” as they call it, they’ve spent the 20 months since Hanssen recruited them immersed in what they call the world’s best grad school. They’ve learned business (raising $300,000 in less than a year), public relations, Web design, nutrition, boat outfitting and more.

“In some ways I think the hardest part is behind us,” Spooner said. “Now, all we have to do is row, and that’s what we do best.”

But he knows what lies ahead likely will be the biggest challenge of his life.

“You bet I’m nervous,” Spooner said. “This will change my life or it will take my life.”

THE MOTIVATION

Hanssen, who lived in England until he was 3, has just a few memories of his dad.

He remembers going on walks, visiting his dad’s office, and the concern in his dad’s eyes as they played outside one winter and Jordan picked up a dog’s dropping encased in snow.

But his most vivid memory is the night he got out of bed after hearing his dad return from work. He bumped down the green-carpeted steps and ran to him.

“I remember he was happy to see me,” Hanssen said. “Then I remember him collapsing and a doctor wearing a gray pinstripe suit.”

James Hanssen, just 29, suffered an asthma attack and collapsed and died while carrying his son back to bed.

Jordan Hanssen said loves his life, his mom, Eve Hanssen-Wood, and the man he also calls dad, Jim Wood.

But he can’t help but feel like asthma robbed him.

“I can still cry about it,” Hanssen said. “My daddy died in front of me. It is part of me. … I’ll never get to sit down and have a conversation with him as an adult. I’ll never know his thoughts on politics or hear him say he loves my mom or get to ask him if he believes in God.”

This project is more than adventure for all of the men. Spooner and LeValley hope to inspire others to live fuller lives. Vickers is rowing in memory of his aunt and his grandmother, who died of lung cancer. For Hanssen, though, it’s part of an ongoing grieving process.

“Jordan is not an angry person, but I think in his mind this is his way of fighting back against the disease,” said Hanssen-Wood.

When he first saw a poster for the race in November 2004, Hanssen was intrigued by the pure adventure. But as he recruited the team, he realized the adventure needed a deeper purpose.

In honor of his father, the rowers teamed with the American Lung Association with a goal of raising an additional $300,000 to fight asthma and other lung diseases. They’re at $10,000 now, but hope that figure increases during the row.

“It seemed like the perfect cause, considering we are using our lung power to cross the Atlantic,” said Hanssen, who was diagnosed with asthma at 8 but outgrew the disease.

While fundraising hasn’t taken off, the cause has added meaning to the race.

“This might sound weird because his biological dad died more than 20 years ago,” said Rebecca Steele, Hanssen’s girlfriend, “but I think this experience has helped Jordan feel a lot more connected to him.”

A CHANCE TO MAKE HISTORY

If they make it to England, it won’t be the first rowboat from the Puget Sound area to cross the Atlantic this year.

Erden Eruc returned to Seattle on June 2 after rowing the middle Atlantic from Portugal to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean Sea. But few attempt the more ruthless North Atlantic with its fog and icebergs. Even the 882-foot Titanic was no match for these seas in 1912.

Norwegians George Harbo and Frank Samulson were the first to row across, from New York to France, in an 18-foot boat in 1896. Englishmen Sir Chay Blyth and John Ridgeway conquered the North Atlantic from Cape Cod to Ireland in 1966.

Blyth organized the first transatlantic rowing race in 1996 and in 2003 handed the races over to England’s Woodvale Events, organizer of this summer’s race.

This race has strict rules, and rescue boats will be on hand for the entire crossing. But any team requiring help will be disqualified and have to sink their boat.

All four teams have identical 29-foot boats, bought by the race organizer for $38,000 each. Teams pay $1,200 to enter the race, but there is no prize for the winner. Teams also are responsible for outfitting the boats with rowing apparatuses and navigation equipment. Perhaps the strictest rules involve the boat’s 100-gallon freshwater ballast. The water is sealed and allows the boat to right itself after capsizing. It also serves as emergency drinking water, but should teams use the water they’ll be assessed a time penalty.

While the magnitude of the challenge often overshadows the competition, Spooner says the team expects to win.

“But if we finish second or last, it will still be a success,” he said. “We’ll be the first Americans to do this.”

Of course making history in your 20s sets the bar high for the rest of your life.

“I don’t know,” LeValley said. “When I’m on my deathbed and I look back, I think I’ll be satisfied if this ends up being the biggest adventure of my life.”

BETTER THAN GRAD SCHOOL

Vickers, the first to say yes to Hanssen, cashed in saving bonds to come up with $10,000 to cover his share of getting OAR Northwest started. The others took out loans for the same amount.

“I saw it as an investment,” Vickers said. “For $10,000, this is a pretty great grad school. I can’t imagine we’d learn this much if we’d gone back to school.

“We’ve started a business. I’ve become very knowledgeable about nutrition planning the food. Greg (Spooner) is becoming an expert at media relations. And we’re all getting great experience pitching our project to investors.”

While they’ve proven to be natural businessmen, they’ve also been rather innovative.

One of their secret additions is seat belts, which will allow them to keep rowing longer in nasty weather.

“And even an extra hour of rowing could be a huge difference,” Hanssen said.

While at least Spooner plans to return to grad school, they all figure “first American to row across the North Atlantic” will look pretty good on their résumés.

“Hey, after we do this,” Hanssen said, “what can’t we do?”

FIT, FAT AND READY

Regardless of what happens, OAR Northwest has already made rowing history.

As part of their training, they set the world indoor record by combining to row 2.1 million meters – roughly the distance from Seattle to San Diego – during the seven days of the Seattle Boat Show.

Each rower took two three-hour shifts on a rowing machine, enduring the monotony of the Qwest Field Events Center.

“I’d rather row six hours on the water than three hours on the erg,” Spooner said, referring to a rowing machine. “All we could see for seven days was the manifold booth next door.”

The rowers have a hard time believing the other teams in the Ocean Fours race could be better prepared. The British teams include former and current commandos and rugby players but lack OAR Northwest’s rowing experience.

All four learned to row at UPS, where they won four Northwest rowing titles.

“If you asked me to pick the cream of the crop for a project like this, these four guys would be right at the top of the list,” said UPS coach Michael Hagmann. “They are leaders and good rowers. They definitely aren’t timid.”

However, rowing a 65-foot, 35-pound shell on a calm lake for 5ß minutes is considerably different than rowing a 29-foot, 3,000-pound boat on a choppy ocean for two months.

“It’s like the difference between the 100-yard dash and hiking the Appalachian Trail,” LeValley said.

Their preparation included two 10-day rows on the Puget Sound and the Pacific, on which everyone but LeValley experienced seasickness.

“Puking on the boat is like puking after you get drunk in college,” Hanssen said. “It’s very matter of fact. You just put your finger down your throat and get it over with and you’re eating again 30 minutes later.”

Eruc Erden told the men to expect to be sick for the first week at sea. So, the team bolstered its training with two 10-day rows on Puget Sound and the Pacific. Everyone but LeValley got sick.

They believe they also have an advantage because they’ve lived together in Seattle for more than a year.

“We are all smart, capable and moody guys,” Spooner said. “We’re going to bug each other, but we can deal with that.”

Two men at a time will share the tiny cabin, and when the sea gets especially nasty all four will pack in on their sides while the ocean tosses them about.

They’ll have no privacy when they relieve themselves in a bucket, and no escape should anybody snore.

To battle boredom they have an iPod and a few books, and they’ll receive a daily e-mail download that includes baseball scores. They’ve paid special attention to food. They are taking enough to eat at least 5,500 calories per day for 100 days.

Vickers, who is in charge of food, had the team try numerous high-calorie foods before settling on staples of cheese, polenta, grits and similar items.

“If there was anything two guys didn’t like, it didn’t go,” Vickers said.

And the team isn’t shy about expressing opinions. When Vickers brought a mixture of nuts, crackers, soy sauce and dehydrated peas on the Pacific training row, he said “it almost got me thrown off the boat.”

“No matter what we take out there we are going to get sick of it,” Vickers said. “We’ll have to force ourselves to eat so we have fuel.”

Vickers expects them to burn at least 6,000 calories each day. To prepare, each has added 15 to 25 pounds.

“We’re going to easily burn it off,” Spooner said. “We keep joking that we are going to take before and after pictures and start an ocean rowing fitness program when we get back.”

‘THE PERFECT CLOSING SHOT’

When Dave Spooner thinks about his son rowing across the Atlantic, a series of three images flashes through his mind.

First he sees the black-and-white images of waves crashing over the bow of a battleship in the opening scene of the 1952 World War II documentary “Victory at Sea.” Next is a color version from his time serving on a Navy ship in the Pacific. Then he pictures Sarah Kessens and Emily Kohl, two women who tried to row the Atlantic last year only to need rescuing after 16 hours perched on the hull of their capsized boat.

“I’ve seen what the ocean can do to a 4,000-ton ship,” Spooner said. “They’ll be in a 1½-ton rowboat.”

Vickers’ parents aren’t talking to the media. Linda Doerflinger, LeValley’s mom, said she balked at the idea.

“There is a lot of fear and trepidation, and I can’t wait for it to be over,” Doerflinger said. “This is a high-risk endeavor, but I’m glad to see my kid taking a chance rather than choosing not to take risks.”

The rowers have done their best to put loved ones at ease with preparation.

“For four guys who’ve never done this before, they’re as prepared as you can possibly be,” Dave Spooner said.

None of the rowers is married, but only Vickers doesn’t have a girlfriend.

“I look at this as an amazing adventure,” said Hanssen’s girlfriend Steele, who has been dating him for a year. “I might be scared for them if I hadn’t watched how hard they’ve prepared. My only sadness is that I’m losing my best friend for the next few months.”

Friends and family will be in England when the men row ashore in August.

Then they’ll travel to Ireland for the short hike up Knocknarea to see where heaven meets earth. There, 1,000 feet above the Atlantic, Hanssen will tell his father that he and his friends just made history.

Then they’ll plant an oar in the ground.

“I’ll be surprised if any of us don’t have tears,” Vickers said. “I can’t even talk about it now without getting tears in my eyes. It will be the culmination of our project, the perfect closing shot.”

Craig Hill: 253-397-8497, Craig.hill@thenewstribune.com

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