Book tells compelling tale of cross-Atlantic row

The OAR Northwest team, from left: Greg Spooner, Brad Vickers, Jordan Hanssen and Dylan LaValley. Photo by Erinn Hale

The OAR Northwest team, from left: Greg Spooner, Brad Vickers, Jordan Hanssen and Dylan LaValley. Photo by Erinn Hale

Most boaters will never sail across an ocean, let alone row across one in an open boat.

But people like Jordan Hanssen are cut from a different cloth. Hanssen, who lives in Seattle, was one of four men in their 20s who spent 72 days rowing across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to England in 2006. The team, part of Seattle-based organization OAR Northwest, set a Guinness World Record for the first unassisted row from mainland U.S.A to mainland U.K. and won the inaugural North Atlantic Rowing Race.

Hanssen, 30, chronicles the epic 3,200-nautical mile journey in his new book, “Rowing Into the Son.” Published in October by Mountaineers Books, the book is a gripping, well-paced tale that puts the reader onboard the 29-foot rowboat James Robert Hanssen as the team, with Hanssen as its captain, grapples with gale-force winds and 40-foot seas, fatigue, freighter traffic and most significantly, severe hunger.

The group was just 17 days into the trip when it was discovered that the crewmember tasked with provisioning had badly miscalculated the amount of food needed. From that day on, food stores were sharply rationed, leading to precipitous weight loss, tension between team members and in Hanssen’s case, a painful obsession that caused him to talk incessantly about the foods he was missing, from his mother’s green chile stew to the butter chicken at his favorite Seattle Indian restaurant.

“Everything would get back to food and I just couldn’t break out of it,” Hanssen said over coffee during a recent interview in Seattle.

The team lost a collective 147 pounds and arrived at the finish line with just half a package of polenta and a bag of tuna. They opted not to have food brought to them via the race boat, since that would have disqualified them from achieving the record for an unassisted race. They were rewarded for their perseverance when they crossed the finish line at Bishop’s Rock Lighthouse, off the coast of Cornwall, on Aug. 18, 2006.

A first-time author, Hanssen deftly weaves an intimate account of the journey and the events leading up to it, starting with the purchase of the $40,000 rowboat and the 18 months of pre-trip preparation. His vividly detailed prose provides a clear picture of the team’s days and nights at sea, from the wonder of a group of dolphins swimming alongside the boat to the unpleasantness of personality clashes and hygiene issues (in case you’re wondering, the boat’s head consisted of a five-gallon bucket attached with a string and carabiner).

The crew battled big seas and severe hunger during its 2006 journey.

The crew battled big seas and severe hunger during its 2006 journey.

But it is Hanssen’s ruminations about his late father, Jim Hanssen — the boat’s namesake — that elevate the book from an engrossing adventure story to a transcendent tale of love and loss, identity and family ties. When Hanssen was three years old, his father collapsed at home and died of an asthma attack as he and his mother, Eve, stood by helplessly. Three years later, Eve remarried a man who Hanssen always considered not a stepfather, but his second father.

Throughout the journey, Hanssen gradually comes to grips with his father’s death. After reaching England, Hanssen, along with his mother and teammates, recreates the trip he made as a 3-year-old up Knocknarea, a hill on the west coast of Ireland near where the family then lived, to scatter his father’s ashes. There, as a final tribute, Hanssen places a letter he wrote to his father and four pieces of wood carved from the boat’s oars and sets them alight.

Writing the book, which took six years, was “hugely cathartic,” Hanssen said.

“I was dealing with stuff that started to happen to me when I was three,” he said. “I hadn’t really grieved for [my father] as an adult until the trip. Writing it out made sense of that.”

Since the Atlantic journey, Hanssen has cycled across Australia, rowed the Olympic Peninsula in an open dory, canoed more than 200 miles on the Rio Grande, and last summer circumnavigated Vancouver Island with fellow OAR Northwest members.

An OAR Northwest crew is expected to leave this week and row from Senegal to Miami, Florida.

An OAR Northwest crew is expected to leave this week and row from Senegal to Miami, Florida.

In early December, Hanssen flew to Dakar, Senegal for OAR Northwest’s next expedition, a second Atlantic crossing. A crew of four, with Hanssen again serving as captain, left Dakar yesterday to row more than 3,600 nautical miles to Miami, Florida. The trip is expected to take between 60 and 80 days and would set another world record for OAR Northwest, this time as the first team to row from mainland Africa to the mainland United States.

The team will be conducting research along the way, collecting data on water quality, temperature, barometric pressure and other metrics that will be made publicly available for researchers, educators and others. Additionally, the crew is working with universities to study the role of sleep and recovery during the grueling journey, and to compile a physiological and mental profile of the characteristics required to row across an ocean.

For his part, Hanssen seems unlikely to be done with adventuring after the expedition. He prefers traveling close to the elements and says he finds the challenge and simplicity of pulling himself over the water profoundly satisfying. His life is focused around the next adventure, propelled by an irresistible curiosity.

“I think it’s important that everybody goes out and has an adventure,” he said. “We live in this world where you feel like people have been everywhere, and they have. But there is so much value in going there yourself.”

One Response to Book tells compelling tale of cross-Atlantic row

  1. Carolyn January 26, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    That was such a great inspiring story Deborah.
    They certainly were a dedicated crew to travel in a boat like that for an incredible long distance.

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