Surviving a Capsized Rowboat in the Open Ocean

Jordan Hanssen and three friends were more than three-quarters of the way through a 3,700-nautical-mile row across the Atlantic Ocean when two rogue waves flipped their boat and left them fighting for their lives.

Rough seas

Rough seas     Photo: Alvolv via Shutterstock

The James Robert Hansen

Jordan Hanssen, Adam Kreek, Markus Pukonen, Pat Fleming

"I can count on two hands how many square waves I’ve seen in 150 days at sea in this rowboat. And now two were coming one after the other, with only a 30-foot fetch between them."

The First Crossing

Read about author Jordan Hanssen's first Atlantic expedition in the book, Rowing Into the Son.

Explorer Jordan Hanssen had already rowed across the Atlantic Ocean once, but that was in a race. He and three friends didn’t exactly sightsee as they powerstroked across the pond in 72 days. Hanssen wanted to row across again, but with more time to enjoy the sights and share what he saw with others. He and his crew outfitted their rowboat with loads of scientific gear, solar panels, and computer equipment. They put out of Dakar, Senegal, and rowed toward Miami, Florida. Hanssen fulfilled his wish for more time, barely, and for sharing, by an order of magnitude. By the 73rd day of their Canadian Wildlife Federation Africa to Americas Expedition, they had held video chats with hundreds of school children and measured things like temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and dissolved CO2 for several scientists. Then two rogue waves flipped their 2500-lb. craft and left everyone fighting to survive. Hanssen shares that story, as told to Joe Spring.


We left on January 23 and had a hell of a first 500 miles. We were in a 29-foot-long rowboat that looked liked it was the baby of a long ship and a V-2 rocket. We took wind on the beam and waves between six and 12 feet, so it was difficult rowing and we got seasick. We had two separate occasions where waves came over the boat and snapped the oars in two. Our wind generator had trouble right off the bat, so we had to conserve the electricity made from our solar panels. Once we got past the Cape Verde Islands, things smoothed out.

We had some cool experiences early on, too. One calm day, I threw off all of my clothes, dove in the water, and swam with humpbacks. Another day, we saw these things that looked like flying fish, but they were six to seven inches and looked like arrows over the water: Flying squid, which landed on the deck. I had never heard of flying squid before, but I had a Jet Boil and some coconut oil. I cooked three for less than 15 seconds. They were soft and delicious.

One night, after we were west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, I was doing push ups and I looked off and said, “Hey, that’s a weird cloud. It almost looks like a rainbow.” I looked away and looked back and it just spread across the entire sky, with four shades of gray in it. I was like, “This is the most profound thing I have ever seen.” Unfortunately the boat was moving all of the time, so it’s not like I could keep the camera still to take a photo of the moonbow.

Another night a storm went over us and lightning got so close that the VHF antenna started to glow. I turned and saw my friend Markus staring at me with this weird expression. I had a big beard at the time, and I could feel the edges of my beard start to lift up because of the charge.

So, we were 375 miles from Puerto Rico and nearing the Bahamas. We were super exited because the water was going to get a lot more interesting. In some places it would be 30 feet deep. We’d been rowing over two to three miles of water for two months, and we couldn’t wait to see the rich biodiversity in the shallow tropical water.

It was calm when I got off my April 6 shift at 2 A.M. I went to sleep and got up about 12 minutes before my 6:00 A.M. rowing shift. The winds and seas had picked up, but we had been surfing in waves twice as big the week before. I had also seen 65-knot sustained winds and gusts of up to 80 in the North Atlantic. This was nowhere near that, maybe 25-knot winds and four- to six-foot swells. We thought about putting in a sea anchor to stabilize the boat and wait things out a bit, but decided against it. We’d seen worse.

The wind was finally blowing us towards Miami so I was pretty excited to get on the oars. I switched out with Adam. Markus switched out with Pat. Markus pulled down his pants and started to use the poop bucket. Adam started to settle himself in the cabin. As I steered the boat, I waited for them to shut the door. Shutting the door is what maintains the boats self-righting capability.

Right when I saw the door closing, these two waves came from a 30 degree off-angle. In my experience, waves come shaped like triangles the vast majority of the time. Occasionally a square wave comes, and if it’s square, it affects the boat very differently. A triangle wave lifts the boat and slides under it. As it goes, it pulls the boat forward. A square wave doesn’t lift up the stern. It just kind of overwhelms the stern and starts pouring water into the gunnels. I can count on two hands how many square waves I’ve seen in 150 days at sea in this rowboat. And now two were coming one after the other, with only a 30-foot fetch between them.

I turned the stern of the boat toward the first wave. It hit, and it probably dumped between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds of water on the deck. The boat sunk down and started listing starboard as it began shedding water. If it had been one wave, we would have been fine, but we were leaning to the side with a second wave coming. So the boat is listed, Pat’s still reaching out to shut the door, Adam’s rolling into Pat, Markus is on the poop bucket, and I’m watching the second wave. It just grabs the boat and corkscrews it right into the water.

Pat was not able to shut the door all of the way. One gallon of water went through the door, then two, four, eight, 16 gallons. All of a sudden the cabin is entirely full of water and Pat and Adam are inside of it and the boat is upside down. I’m floating in the water and I see Markus floating with his pants around his ankles. Adam is about 200 pounds and Pat is about 155, and Adam shoves Pat out of the cabin right away. Maybe 10 to 15 seconds later they popped up and I said, “Is everybody OK?”

We were, but the rowboat was upside down and flooded. It could be flipped over, but there was no guarantee. The cabin was full of water.

Before we had left on the trip, we had conducted this training exercise in the water in Anacortes, Washington. We learned the line you pull to inflate the life raft can be 80-feet long. We learned what a life raft sounds like when it opens. It’s disturbing. A life raft outgases for two to three minutes after it inflates. It can sound pretty scary if you haven’t heard it before.

We augmented our grab bag—those supplies that go with you in the life raft—before we left. The guy who sold us our PLBs had written a list of the very best stuff you can have in it. I said, “OK, you wrote this a few years ago, what else should you bring?” He said, “I’d take a PLB. I’d take another PLB. I’d take another PLB. And I’d take another. If you have those things and a gallon of water you’re going to be found. What’s gonna’ get you safe faster is getting found faster.

There were four life vests secured to the boat via a line. Everybody grabbed one and put it on. The PLBs were attached to the life vests. Pat said, “Well, how many PLBs do we turn on?”

“All four!” I said.

Five minutes after the flip we had the life raft up. We tied the liferaft to the boat. Everyone felt pretty good, so we hung on to the boat and tried to flip it over. The three of us tried of different angles and forces. We almost had it once, but slipped and banged my knee and had to let go. The boat rolled back into the water still upside down. The water was 76-78 degrees, but with no body fat you do get cold after a while. I had lost 25 pounds during the trip. After three hours, everybody was tired and worried about hypothermia when Adam looked at me and said, “You’re purple.”

We gathered some supplies from the deck and swam to the life raft. No one was really a churchgoing person, but in this liferaft there was a mini-Bible. Markus pulled it out, and looked around and said, “Well, can’t hurt.” And he literally finished reading Genesis when we heard the sound of an HC-144 Ocean Sentry airplane.

They dropped something called a Self-Locating Datum Marker Buoy, which drifted with us so they could calculate our track. They dropped some more life rafts. The current pulled the liferafts away from us, even through the wind was blowing towards us. That’s when I put it together. One of the reasons why those two waves were so steep and square was because the current was running against them.

The plane also dropped a barrel the size of a beer keg into the water. Markus swam over to the barrel and brought it over to the life raft.  There was a list taped on top. It read “one wool blanket, six emergency drinking water packets, six chem lights, and two emergency food packets.” We had all of that stuff. I thought, “Here’s this barrel with all this stuff and it’s not small and we already have four guys that aren’t small in this life raft.” I said, “This is great, but if we open this up, it’s going to be hard to reshut and keep it water tight. What we really need is a VHF radio. That’s important enough that if it was in here, they would list it.” We decided to wait to open the barrel until we needed the stuff.

When you’re on a 29-foot boat, you have to make a series of compromises. We had a VHF radio hardwired inside the cabin. Initially, the rowers went inside the cabin at night and used that radio to contact ships at night. The rowers often woke up the other crew sleeping in the cabin when they used it. Since sleep was important and we had an extra VHF radio inside our grab bag, we took that VHF out and put it in the bow of the ship. We made that decision so that we didn’t wake anyone up when we called ships at night, but now it meant we couldn’t grab that VHF. We realized we should have had two handhelds: One to keep on deck and one to leave the grab bag.

We tied to the steel barrel to the bow of the boat, because we didn’t want it rubbing up against the raft. After a couple of hours the HC-144 traded out with a C-130. They dropped another barrel. This one had “OPEN ME” written all over it.

“Well, shit, I guess that one did have a VHF radio in it,” I said. Lo and behold, we pulled out a VHF radio and started talking to the Coast Guard. They established that everybody was alive and okay, because at that point they could only see two of us in the raft. They radioed two ships to see about picking us up, and that call led to the scariest moment of the entire trip. 

The wind picked up to about 35 knots and seas were still about six feet, but it was getting worse than the morning. A 580-foot-long Japanese car carrier, the M/V Heijin, approached. It looked like a skyscraper floating on its side. The deck must have been 90 feet above the water. The only other thing between the ship and our kiddie-pool-sized liferaft were six-foot-high seas.

Over the radio, someone on the Heijin told us to cut loose of our boat. We had originally tied the life raft to the boat so we could be a bigger target for rescuers. As we cut loose and began to float away I took a long look back at our rowboat

It was named James Robert Hansen, after my father. He died of asthma when I was three. The first trip I took it on occurred a few years before. It was a race across the Atlantic during which we raised money for the American Lung Association. That trip was a chance for me to grieve for my father as an adult. So there was a huge emotional connection for me with this object. As we moved away, it just bobbed in these waves, still proud and oddly defiant.

Whoever was steering the Heijin was a total badass. This thing is like a gigantic wall and there’s a 35-knot breeze blowing and it’s getting towards dusk. He’s piloting a car carrier that can hold 4,000 cars to not run over something that is the size of a Mini. Its bow thrusters turned the normally dark grey ocean water into this beautiful turbulent blue, which was also scary. Slowly we floated toward the bow. We were close enough to see the layers and layers of heavy marine paint. They were thick and uneven enough that we worried about them puncturing the life raft.

Twenty guys dressed in orange jumpsuits and life vests threw rope after rope down at us, but we missed every single rope. It took them 15 minutes to reposition the ship. It was getting dark. We knew that we only had one more chance. If we didn’t grab a ladder or rope, we’d have to spend the night alone in the raft next to this mammoth wall. They had the gangplank down. The waves were moving the boat six feet up and down—which isn’t a big deal when you’re the only thing around, but is when you’re right next to something with 90 feet of freeboard. The massive propeller was just churning.

On the second pass we caught the pilot’s ladder and one of the ropes and started climbing up fast. It had been 13 hours from capsize to rescue. The crew wrapped us in blankets and took us to an empty office. A crewman said, “Who’s in charge?”

Markus pointed to me.

They took me up to the bridge, where everyone was wearing uniforms: white button-up shirts, epaulettes, and black pants. I was wearing blue ExOfficio boxer briefs, a grey bandanna around my neck, a sweatband with a skull and crossbones around my forearm, this massive blonde beard, and a shark-tooth necklace. I walked in and they just handed me a VHF radio. The Coast Guard came through the radio and said, “Are you guys OK?”

I said, “Yeah, thank you for watching over us.”

After we got back, we paid for the Heijin’s extra fuel. We also went to the Coast Guard stations in Florida, met the rescuers, and thanked them. During one visit, the commanding officers said, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these guys. After most people are rescued, they just kind of forget about it as fast as possible.” That blew me away. I met them and shook their hands. They saved our lives. Standing in front of all those Coast Guard guys, I just started choking up. And so did they.

EXPERT OPINION
One key hero in this story is the gentleman who encouraged Jordan and his crew to purchase PLBs—including backups. It was smart of Jordan to take his advice. There's reason to believe the outcome here would have been far more tragic without the beacons. The personal locator beacons started a series of notifications that got the Coast Guard rescue crews to the right spot. The lesson: Use technology to your advantage.

On another note, one of the dangers of operating in the south Atlantic is the notion that the warmer water gives you plenty of time in a survival situation. While it's true the average survival time is greater in warm southern waters than in the frigid winter waters up north, the human body has to fight hard to maintain its temperature. Jordan saw that first-hand as hypothermia set in. Know your environment and prepare for the worst.

Overall, Jordan and his crew appear to have been somewhat prepared, but not necessarily ready. The sea state was worsening, and they should have had their lifejackets on. They had VHF equipment, but couldn't take it off the ship. Details matter at sea, and it sounds like Jordan knows that better than most now.
—Lt. Joe Klinker, Coast Guard

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