Three weeks, four big men and one small boat

The crew ceremoniously launches their boat, the James Robert Hanssen, last weekend on Lake Union in Seattle. Photos courtesy of OAR Northwest

On Wednesday morning, four men will set out in a 29-foot rowboat on a journey many Northwest boaters will never do.

Leaving from the Vancouver Rowing Club in Stanley Park, they’ll row out of Vancouver Harbor and into the Strait of Georgia, heading northwest to spend the next few weeks circumnavigating about 750 miles around Vancouver Island.

This is no group of novices — the foursome includes Canadian Olympic gold medalist rower Adam Kreek, and two of the other rowers, Greg Spooner and Jordan Hanssen, were part of group that set a Guinness World Record in 2006 by becoming the first to row across the North Atlantic from the U.S. to England unassisted. The fourth crew member is Boeing flight test engineer Richard Tarbill.

Spooner said while the primary dangers on the Atlantic expedition were wind and other boats, the Vancouver Island trip brings other risks including rocks, potentially hazardous currents and shifting wind patterns.

“Our biggest danger is the weather,” he said. “It’s an extremely volatile time right now. There are still very large seas out there.”

Particularly worrisome is Brooks Peninsula, an arm of land on the west side of the island that juts out about 12 miles into the Pacific.

“It becomes this enormous wind and wave-catcher that can create a misery for a little rowboat like ours in the wrong conditions,” Spooner said.

The crew, from left to right: Richard Tarbill, Adam Kreek, Markus Pukonen (alternate crew member), Greg Spooner and (bottom) Jordan Hanssen.

Then there are the challenges inherent in “four big dudes,” as Spooner describes the group, working, eating and sleeping together 24/7 for up to three weeks. Meals are carefully portioned to provide between 6,800 and 7,200 calories per person daily. Sleep deprivation is likely. Such conditions can strain relationships, Spooner acknowledged.

“In any tight quarters, especially when you’re under duress, it can be challenging to keep those relationships going strong,” he said.

The group is part of Seattle-based nonprofit OAR Northwest, which works with sponsors to fund expeditions and develop educational programs around them. During the Vancouver Island trip, whose primary sponsor is the Canadian Wildlife Federation, the four crew members will be rowing 24 hours a day in two-hour shifts.

Along the way, they’ll be taking water samples and collecting data on weather and sea conditions. The boat, which the group says is the most advanced ocean rowboat ever made, is equipped with a weather station, GPS, video cameras and a hydrophone so the rowers can listen to what’s going on under the surface. The data collected will be given to the University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey, and OAR Northwest’s academic advisory committee will be using the information to develop lesson plans for K-12 students.

Additionally, the team members will be outfitted with sensors that measure their heart rates, sleep and performance patterns. The data will be used by the University of Calgary’s Centre for Sleep & Human Performance to determine how activity and sleep levels impact physiology.

The public can follow the expedition on the group’s website, which will have an interactive map tracking their journey, 12-hour weather reports, a blog and a link to email the crew.

Spooner said while education and research are a big part of the expedition, the lure of adventure is the main draw.

“The drive and thirst for adventure is something that is innate in the human spirit,” he said. “That essentially is what brought this all about in the first place.”


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