• Heather Taylor

The hills and valleys of Long Beach

This last month back on land in California has not at all been what I imagined. 

The valley

As I mentioned when I arrived back in California, Debra Madsen picked me and the boat up in the Channel Islands. Debra’s wife Angela was rowing the same route as me, but she had left a month before me and was slowly making her way west after a very difficult first month. She got some fairly bad winds and had ended up quite a ways south while not making much ground west, but had since fought for every mile to get towards Hawaii.

Naturally we were following her journey and Debra was in daily contact. Debra was sending her boat repair questions, “where was this tool in the garage?” and sharing the daily updates. I spoke briefly with Angela on one call in the first week. Debra was in the early stages of packing to fly to Hawaii at the start of July for Angela’s arrival.

On the Monday, 22 June, I popped into the main house in the early afternoon to say hello and learned that Debra hadn’t heard from Angela for the last 36 hours. The last message her received was on Saturday night when Angela was planning to get into the water and fix her parachute anchor in preparation for a potential hurricane. The tracker on the boat showed that it hadn’t been moving faster than normal drift; it wasn’t being rowed.

Angela hadn’t responded to any of the messages or emails sent through the various devices. Though she was notorious for being a poor communicator while at sea, not responding for 36 hours and to the messages that said the Coast Guard was on its way meant that she mostly likely couldn’t respond. She could be injured on deck and unable to get into the cabin where the devices were. On a previous row, she had injured her back and wedged herself between the rowing seat and gunnels for a day or more until she could move again. 

The Coast Guard were informed of the situation and were planning to send out a plane to see what was happening and had also diverted a German cargo ship to render aid.  I spent the afternoon and evening doing a few repairs and popping into the house to see if they’d heard anything. I stopped in at 7pm before I went for a run and afterwards; still no word. I had a shower, dinner and texted Debra at 10:30pm from my apartment; still no news. Around 11:30 pm, a text came through saying she was deceased.

While we all knew it was a possibility, a more likely one than anyone was willing to openly admit, it was still a surprise to see it written. They had found Angela in the water tethered to the boat. Her body was recovered and taken to Tahiti where the ship was heading. It will return to Long Beach on the vessel in a few weeks. Her boat is still adrift, but a sailing yacht is now on its way to recover it, and hopefully footage from Angela’s row. Hypothermia is what Debra believes was the cause of death as no visible signs of trauma were found on Angela. Her arm strength was more than enough to get her into the boat. Being a paraplegic, her body temperature is harder to regulate so if her tether caught on the boat somehow as she tried to get into the boat she may have run out of time trying to release it before the cold took over and caused confusion and disorientation. 

Debra is doing well given the circumstances and left for Hawaii as planned on 5 July to meet the boat when it returns. The New York Times did an obituary for Angela (link here) and you can watch a short documentary by AT&T about her previous ocean rows and Paralympic career via the RowofLife Facebook page.

Angela Madsen in 2018

I have yet to fully digest how this has affected me. Had I not met Debra I would have heard about Angela’s death through the ocean rowing community. I have thought about how I would have felt if I’d received the news while at still sea as one other rower has. It’s confronting regardless of her being on the same route at the same time as me. It’s a situation I had thought a lot about and even planned for the possibility. You don’t undertake such an adventure without knowing the risks, and trying to mitigate against them as much as you can.

Getting in the water is one of the great risks in ocean rowing as you can’t easily turn the boat around if someone goes overboard. My boat is set up differently than Angela’s so it would be possible to avoid getting in the water as I can access all equipment from the deck. I can repair any hull damage from the inside and clean the hull with long poles or ropes (knowing it won’t be ideal).

The hill

In the week following the news I got my things together and made the final repairs to the electrical system and finished the watermaker maintenance. I made a trip up to San Francisco to pick up my bags from my friend Natalie’s house to sort through everything I had and pack up it based on where it needs to be for the next year. The food was divided into three piles: eat now, can be taken on a plane if need be, and good for next year.

Debra had planned to take me and the boat to Monterey on 30 June where it would be stored at PJs. We carried on as planned. The van was packed full of all of my things and tubs of food that would be stored in the garage for the year. We had planned to drive through the night as the day slipped by and traffic would be lighter after rush hour.

As we crested a hill two miles from Debra’s house at 11pm, the boat trailer detached from the van, broke the safety chain and careened down the hill creating a meter high cloud red sparks as it rolled passed us. Sitting in horror at the sight, we watched it chase the cars in front of it in the next lane, miss the gum trees and lamp posts lining the road and hit the curb coming to a sickening stop. It was as epic as any movie you can imagine.

Given what could have happened, the boat (and everyone) is in remarkably good condition. So grateful the roads were largely empty and no other cars or large objects were hit. There is definite damage to the boat but mainly hull fibre glass damage and the bow eyelet. The trailer didn’t fair nearly as well and has to be replaced.

The size of the boat and trailer and lateness of the hour meant that Debra and I had to do an all-night stakeout of the boat. The boat had come off the center rollers making it a very tricky task of needing to secure the boat before attempting to get it towed so more damage wouldn’t occur. A few very, very kind people from the rowing club came to assist in the morning and we roped in a passing jogger to help lift and shift the boat back on the rollers. The destroyed wheel made it difficult very difficult to tow and get to the repair shop.

The trailer shop man and my dad thinks it was a coupling failure. The hitch had been quite stiff to get it on as the proximity to the ocean in Long Beach often seizes things, but it had appeared to latch on. The thought is that the latching part didn’t descend and was in fact on top of the towball and not below the ball at the neck latching on; something we couldn’t have seen despite checking it. The noise started very shortly before it detached so we didn’t even have time to pull over before it occurred.

I was definitely more traumatised by this than the returning from the ocean given the dramatic moment and the implications of repairs The boat and trailer are now at the trailer repair shop for the next 8 weeks until a new trailer is built. Once made, the plan is to take the boat to the man who repaired Angela’s boat. It’ll stay there for a few months as he repairs is slowly on the side.  

The now

I’m finishing writing this in Monterey now. I came up on Sunday night (5th) in a one-way rental with all my food bins and luggage in tow. I’ll leave what I can here and go exploring in Northern California, Washington and Montana for the next month. I say that with a little hesitancy as things keep changing.

I was to study in Canada in September but as this is now being taught remotely, I’m intending to return to Perth in August when direct flights to Perth from the west coast begin again (via Tokyo). While I have a flight booked, flight cancellations are a high possibility and potential quarantine payments may prevent me from returning. So I’ll continue to see what comes tomorrow.