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Crossing the Indian Ocean with a Disability

  • Date: 2009/08/16 Angela Madsen
  • Synopsis : First disabled woman to not only row across the Indian but to have rowed across 2 oceans.

Main Document

After 58 days 15 hours and 8 minutes it is the fastest crossing of the Indian Ocean by oar and the first eight person mixed crew. Helen Taylor and I became the first women to row across the Indian Ocean and I became the first disabled woman to not only row across the Indian but to have rowed across 2 oceans.

I have finally returned home to life as I know it after completing my epic rowing expedition across the Indian Ocean. I was successful in that I met all my objectives and reached all of my goals.

After 58 days 15 hours and 8 minutes it is the fastest crossing of the Indian Ocean by oar and the first eight person mixed crew. Helen Taylor and I became the first women to row across the Indian Ocean and I became the first disabled woman to not only row across the Indian but to have rowed across 2 oceans. I had completed the Atlantic Ocean crossing in a pairs boat with Franck Festor after nearly 67 days at sea on February 07, 2008 That was another story and completely different experience. Franck is a single amputee from France who doesn't speak English and I don't speak French. We were the only crew with disabilities and we came in 8th out of 16 pairs boats. No one expected us to finish. No one believed in us or our abilities and we were completely underestimated by most everyone.

To explain briefly what ocean rowing is like I have often said that it is like a combination of 2 sports, rowing and bull riding extended over time and distance. A rowing race may last 4 minutes, a bull ride only 2 minutes. Ocean rowing is like trying to do everything including eating, sleeping, and rowing while riding a bull 24 hours a day from one point of land across thousands of miles of deep ocean water to another point of land taking months to complete.

There are no support boats and all food and supplies are to be carried on board. Solar panels charge batteries which operate a desalinator or water maker to remove salt from the ocean water and filter it for human consumption. We eat dehydrated food. We have a satellite telephone, VHF radio, GPS navigation. There is no plumbing or toilet. There is only a bucket.

A pairs boat is about 24 ft long, 6 ft wide and weighs about 1600 lbs loaded. The eight is 36 ft long 6 ft wide and 2100-2500 lbs loaded. The pair is a sculling boat and there is an oar for each hand, 2 oars for each rower and the eight is rigged for sweep rowing or 1 oar per rower alternating port and starboard. There are squalls and storms generating high winds and huge waves. There are sores from salt, blisters from rowing, arthritic pain, other injuries and pain from falling and being knocked off the rowing seat and fatigue. It is dangerous and there is a category of missing at sea for ocean rowers. I know it doesn't sound like much fun but there is no feeling like successfully completing an ocean crossing. I don't know quite how to describe it. It is putting yourself on the seat every day and doing the job, ignoring how you feel and doing what matters. It tests and pushes to the limits both mentally and physically.

After doing so well in the Atlantic race Woodvale asked me to skipper the crew of eight across the Indian having the most ocean rowing experience when they began taking applicants. It did not matter to them that I am a paraplegic. Unlike my other row with Franck, I was the only physically challenged athlete on the crew. Opportunities don't just present themselves for no reason so I could not pass it up!

We had challenges from the beginning with the boat not being ready, the food not being purchased and the last minute crew changes. It is a pay for place concept and we all met for the first time in Australia. We did not know each other or train together before the crossing.

On day 3 of our Indian Ocean record setting rowing attempt we had suffered a knock down as a large wave struck our boat from behind. Our steering system seemed to turn us prematurely as we were accelerating down the face of a massive wave. We ended up turned sideways as the wave was crashing over us. A knock down is not a capsize as the boat never goes all the way over it is more like being just at the point of rolling and then coming back the other direction. We had broken and lost some oars and one of our proper rowing seats was also lost in the chaos. Everyone was tethered to the boat and we did not lose any of the crew. You would have heard about it in the news had we had a death or missing at sea. The solutions we found to the problem of the lost rowing seat was to take a wooden plank or cover from the battery compartment and make a fixed seat. Having trained and competed as a fixed seat rower for the last 10 years, I volunteered to dedicate myself to that rowing position for the remainder of the crossing. The alternate watch had decided to rotate and every day a different person would have to row from the fixed seat. Everyone agrees that It was the worst seat in the boat being a wooden plank and not a proper rowing seat for starters. People really did not train to row with their backs and arms so it was quite a painful experience for them, not that it wasn't quite painful for me as well, I just knew it was not going to cause me any debilitating injury or prevent me from being able to continue. I could also generate more power from the fixed seat having all of the experience and training that I have. I suffered the worst sores of the whole crew on my buttocks as a result.

Our auto pilot/steering system eventually failed and our crew who had sailing experience built a tiller system for steering the boat so our watch system had to change again. To try and keep 4 people at the oar and 1 steering we had to alter the fixed seat rowing station and make a place for the helmsman. I did this by removing the foot stretcher and making a new one from another wooden hatch cover from inside the cabin. It wasn't a sturdy system and a lot of us would get knocked off the seat but it worked well enough. We could then have our regular watch of 4 plus 1. When we began it was 2 watches of 4 and 12 hours of rowing and 12 resting. When we got closer to the finish and the steering went out we went to 3 rowing and 1 steering keeping to the 4and 4 but people were not utilizing the rest periods in the excitement after we crossed the half way point and the boat was not moving as quickly with only 3 rowing so we went to the 4+1 rotating in and giving up some of our rest periods. The boat speed increased and we made it to the finish in Mauritius ahead of all of the other boats in the race. We had given the Woodvale race participants a 9 day head start so to be the fastest across they would have had to come in 9 days ahead of us.

This having been my second ocean crossing, comparing the two and noting the differences, this was by far the most difficult. There really were no favorable conditions and it was a farther distance. Then there was the amount of people and personalities to deal with. Resolving all problems of all types quickly seemed to be the winning ticket even if the resolution was to ignore something or stuff it or let it go all together. When we set out I had told everyone that no one gets along 100% of the time, even the best of friends, I believed that this helped as no one had the expectation that we would all get along. I did not get along with everyone on the boat but I showed no favoritism one way or the other to anyone. I put our experienced ocean rowers in charge as the watch captains and it wasn't perfect. I don't believe I would ever choose to do it the same way again although it has been a fantastic experience!

Contact Information for interviews or speaking engagements

Angela Madsen AKA Msparasurfer on Facebook, Myspace and Twitter

Websites: Rowoflife.com (Atlantic Ocean) PirateRow.com (Indian Ocean)

3631 E.10th st, Long Beach, CA.,90804 (562)434-8334 cell (562)505-4157

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