A Death at Sea on the 'Row of Life'
At 59 years old and with a preexisting condition, Paralympic rower Angela Madsen had plenty to worry about as the coronavirus spread across the country. So she dipped the oars of her small rowboat in the Pacific and pointed the bow toward Hawaii. She never returned.
For Angela Madsen, it was a fortuitous time to row into the isolation of the Pacific Ocean. It was April 23, 2020, a Thursday, and Los Angeles County was gripped by the coronavirus pandemic. Over 17,000 cases and climbing. Eight hundred dead. That morning, COVID-19 had surpassed heart disease as the county’s leading cause of death. People were coming dangerously close to abandoning lockdown, especially now that a heat wave had descended. In Long Beach’s Eastside neighborhood, an American flag hanging from the front porch of the pink, 1940s-era bungalow that Madsen shared with her partner, Deb, barely moved in the fevered breeze.
In less than three weeks, Madsen would turn 60. Birthdays weren’t a big deal to her, but since it would fall while she was out in the ocean alone, in the midst of an attempt to become the oldest woman—and first paraplegic—to row the 2,500 miles between California and Hawaii solo, she figured, Why not celebrate? So she had stashed a mini bottle of Koloa Rum, a MoonPie, and a single candle inside one of the Ziplocs that held her neatly organized food supply of MREs, chicken-curry bars, freeze-dried rice, protein shakes, instant coffee, and chocolate. “Gotta have some chocolate,” she joked when we talked over the phone that morning.
Like everything on the Row of Life, Madsen’s 20-foot, self-righting rowboat, the food was stored in watertight hatches built around her seat, where for the next three months she planned to spend 12 hours a day rowing west. Her clothes and raingear and Wilson volleyball (complete with a Cast Away handprint) were in the closet-size aft cabin, where she would also sleep for short stretches. Its low ceiling was peppered with stickers—“Well behaved women rarely make history,” read one. Her parachute anchor, crucial for keeping the bow pointed into swell when she wasn’t rowing, was tucked in the smaller forward cabin.
It was hardly noon, and everything was done. The Row of Life sat trailered and ready in the driveway, its freshly painted navy and red hull glistening in the white-hot sun. Madsen was not nervous about the expedition, but she was nervous about the raging pandemic. “I’m already feeling a sense of relief,” she told me. “I’m going to be safer out there.”
An email came through from a meteorologist friend who would be updating her throughout the journey. For the first few days, the wind looked like it would hold offshore. The hope was that the easterlies tumbling seaward from the dry lungs of California’s San Bernardino Valley would slingshot her past Catalina Island and to 125 degrees west longitude, where the currents would shift in her favor. It was, Madsen said, “a little window of opportunity, but not the best.” After that it would be a slog—the prevailing northwesterlies would return to try and push her back. Either way, conditions would be calmer at night, so Madsen, who normally slept little because of the constant pain in her back, had been training to sleep during the day. That afternoon, while L.A. broiled, she drifted in and out of a fitful slumber.
When she awoke around 8 P.M., Madsen donned a pair of dark shorts and a campaign T-shirt for congressman Adam Schiff that read, “Right Matters, Truth Matters, Decency Matters.” She pulled her U.S. Marine Corps ball cap over her freshly shaved head and used her powerful arms to move her large, six-foot-one-inch frame into her wheelchair. She and Deb hitched the Row of Life to their minivan and turned onto Redondo Avenue. Driving north on the 405, they were almost alone.
At the Marina del Rey public launch ramp, Madsen climbed into the Row of Life and strapped into her seat. She put on her life vest and adjusted the little pride flag she’d clamped onto a piece of rigging. In their last moments together, Deb mostly fretted about logistics: Was the tether designed to keep her attached to the boat set up properly? Would she remember to eat the right food after a long row? They’d been through this so many times that they almost forgot to say “I love you.”
Around midnight, as Deb backed Madsen and the Row of Life into the velvety harbor water, three of their friends gathered in the distance, careful not to get too close. Madsen floated for a long moment, rolling her palms around the oar handles, feeling their familiar grip. The first stroke came unconsciously. “See you on the other side of the pond!” one of the friends shouted. The white of the Row of Life’s navigation light bled a fragmented trail across the water until it disintegrated in the new-moon darkness.
Then there was no sound. The world behind her, Madsen was now in the place that had made her whole. “Whatever my purpose is in this life, my differently-abled, physically-challenged, broken-down, beaten-up body seems to be the vehicle required for me to achieve it,” Madsen once wrote. “If I could go back and change things, I would not.”
After only about six hours, the easterlies died off. It took nearly two days to pass Catalina Island, just 40 miles southwest of Marina del Ray. Then Madsen was locked into heavy seas and a stubborn southeastward drift. Some days she simply deployed her para anchor and retreated to her cabin. “Only thing I can do is run with them,” she posted of the wind and waves on May 2, on the public GPS-tracking web page she had set up for the row. The favorable currents at 125 degrees west were out of the question.
It became clear to Madsen that she needed to head several hundred miles south, to the Mexican island of Guadalupe, where she hoped to find more friendly winds. Three days later, on May 5, the bow shackle that held her para anchor came undone, leaving her no choice but to deploy the anchor from the stern, a less stable option, as it would force the Row of Life to cut through the waves backwards.
On May 8, panicked messages to Madsen, Deb, and Soraya Simi, a 24-year-old filmmaker documenting Madsen’s journey, started coming in from other rowers who were following Madsen’s tracking web page. Her path was dangerously close to Guadalupe’s northern coast, where powerful wind funnels and eddies threatened to suck her into the island’s cliffs. Everyone urged Deb and Simi to call the Coast Guard immediately—This is bad, they worried collectively, she’s not going to make it. “She knows what she can get out of,” Deb told them, despite her own mounting fear.
For the next two hours, the tracker froze, and Madsen stopped responding. When it finally refreshed, it showed not only a hard turn away from the coast but the fastest rowing speed of the trip up to that point. Back at the pink bungalow in Long Beach, Deb and Simi cheered as if Madsen had just won a gold medal. “That was her kraken moment,” said Simi, who had graduated from film school in May of 2019. “All Angela needs to hear is that people don’t think she can make it, and it’s like a volcano goes off inside her. After that, I thought she could do anything.”
On May 10, clear of Guadalupe, Madsen paused to take a sat-phone call from three of her grandkids, who sang her happy birthday. She crawled into her cabin and dug out the mini bottle of rum, MoonPie, and candle, and read the cards the kids had snuck in. She took a picture and then was back out on deck. Her palms were raw, and her rowing seat “felt like a cheese grater.” Every splash of salt water that seeped into the sores on her hands and backside burned like fire. But she knew true pain, and this was hardly that.
Angela Irene Madsen was born and raised in Xenia, Ohio, an old railroad town southwest of Columbus known for being menaced by tornados. According to local historians, the area’s first inhabitants, the Shawnee, believed it to be a place cursed with the devil’s winds. A tomboy who loved to read National Geographic and often came home covered in leeches after playing in a nearby creek, Madsen had been a natural, talented volleyball and basketball player with dreams of one day making it to the Olympics. But in her junior year of high school, she became pregnant with a baby girl, who she decided to raise without the father. When she applied to Ohio State, expecting to receive a volleyball scholarship, she was turned down because, she wrote in her 2014 memoir, Rowing Against the Wind, “They mistakenly believed that I would not be able to keep up with the practice schedule, be a full-time student, and be a single parent.”
With a Navy-veteran father and several of her five brothers in the military, Madsen figured the best shot for her and her daughter, Jennifer, was the Marines. In 1979, she enlisted and was assigned to its El Toro base in Orange County, California, as a military police officer. She joined the base’s women’s basketball team and was quickly recruited by the women’s all–Marine Corps squad. But a fall during an early practice game, in which one of her teammates landed on Madsen’s back, left her with two ruptured discs, a damaged sciatic nerve, and temporarily wheelchair-bound. Although she recovered enough to walk, Madsen’s time on the basketball court was over.
She also could no longer perform her regular duties as an MP. Her commanding officer, however, disagreed. According to Madsen’s memoir, the CO denied Madsen’s requests for medical care for her injury, as well as for a transfer to a less physical occupation, because Madsen repeatedly refused his sexual advances. Once, Madsen would later tell Deb, in a fit of self-defense, she assaulted the CO, injuring him badly. As a result, the base commander discharged her with only a fraction of the medical benefits she needed. (As of press time, the Marine Corps had not officially responded to the allegations surrounding Madsen’s discharge.)
“Whatever my purpose is in this life, my differently-abled, physically-challenged, broken-down, beaten-up body seems to be the vehicle required for me to achieve it,” Madsen once wrote. “If I could go back and change things, I would not.”
At just 21, Madsen was a civilian again. Though the pain in her back and legs remained “barely tolerable,” she avoided a wheelchair for the next six years, picking up mechanic jobs at Sears and later U-Haul. But eventually, the pain became too overwhelming to work. Sports were out of the question. “I felt like I didn’t have a body,” Madsen wrote in her memoir. What little strength she had left went toward taking care of Jennifer, who was beginning to display signs of bipolar disorder. In her reduced physical condition, Madsen struggled to provide for her. Money was tight. For a year, she and Jennifer lived in a garage. Other times Madsen had to take on an “endless parade” of random roommates.
In 1993, while receiving treatment for minor injuries at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center, doctors discovered that her spine had deteriorated so severely that her lower back would need to be fused. The ensuing operation, which was performed at a Veterans Affairs hospital, went disastrously—the surgeons operated on the wrong vertebrae, and their bone grafts failed. The procedure left her permanently unable to walk. Incapable of suing the VA, thanks to a 1950 statute that bars military service members from collecting damages from accidents such as hers, Madsen had to figure out a way to live on her paltry disability checks.
Then, one day after a doctor’s visit, Madsen came home to the apartment she shared with her partner at the time to find an eviction notice on the front door. Inside, the place was nearly cleared out. Her partner told Madsen she was leaving. “I did not sign on to be with someone in a wheelchair,” she said, according to Madsen’s memoir. Alone and sifting through what was left of her life, Madsen discovered that the woman hadn’t been paying any of their bills and had also been stealing Madsen’s disability checks, along with her savings and 401(k). Her final act: taking Madsen’s car, never to return.
Jennifer was also gone. Barely a teenager, she had begun drinking, using drugs, and running away from home for long periods of time. Abandoned by her daughter and partner, and with too little money to pay for rent, food, and bills, Madsen moved onto the streets of Anaheim. “When I celebrated my 34th birthday,” she wrote, “I found myself wishing I had never been born.”
“Last night was amazing,” Madsen posted on her tracker on May 27. “Waters calm as I’ve ever seen.” In these rare moments of tranquility, she would stop rowing for a few minutes, relishing the way the ocean’s immensity consolidated into tiny laps against her boat’s hull. The way the flash of a wahoo, a flying fish, or the crystalline spine of a Portuguese man-of-war reminded her she wasn’t truly alone. How the Milky Way and its showers of shooting stars were so clear they seemed but a few feet away. The vertigo she felt when imagining the great mountains and valleys looming beneath her. “Just to stop every once in a while and listen—I love doing that the most,” Madsen had said on the morning of her departure.
Only a few hundred people have experienced such things. The first recreational ocean row was completed in 1896 by two Norwegian men who crossed the Atlantic, from Manhattan to France, in an 18-foot oak and cedar open rowboat. But the first solo attempt didn’t happen until 1969, when a Brit named John Fairfax rowed for 180 days between the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco, and Hollywood Beach, Florida. It would be another 30 years, in December of 1999, before the first woman, American Tori Murden McClure, completed a nearly 3,000-mile solo ocean row from the Canaries to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. “Women have walked the hero path since the beginning of time, but we are supposed to walk it softly, and we are not supposed to walk it alone,” Murden McClure later wrote in her memoir. “I wouldn’t be a victim of circumstance.” Seventeen other women have since followed in Murden McClure’s footsteps. Madsen was determined to be the 18th.
There’s little glamour in such an obscure passion. Although Madsen was able to win a fight with the VA for more robust disability payments, she relied on organizations like the California Paralyzed Veterans Association to pay for travel expenses to rowing events.
Superficial media interest merely surfaced before and after a row—it seemed only tragedy attracted mainstream attention. “What goes on in the middle, that’s just personal struggle,” said Rob Eustace, whose 52-day San Francisco-to-Hawaii mission in 2014 remains the fastest ever solo row of the route. People drawn again and again to something as solitary and thankless as crossing an ocean alone, Eustace said, yearn “to achieve that feeling of being so small.” Madsen had that longing, but she was also afflicted by self-doubt. “She did it to prove she could,” Deb said. “It was never going to be over until the solo row.”
The rhythmic movement of her oars plying the water always brought Madsen back to her last accident—the one that lit the fire within. On a trip to San Francisco in 1994, her wheelchair’s wheels jammed in a crack at the edge of a train platform, and she tipped off onto the tracks. “Funny things go through your head when you believe you only have seconds of living left,” she wrote. Mostly, though, she thought about a health care worker who had once told her she was a “waste of a human life.” Two good Samaritans pulled her from the tracks just before a train screamed past. Of all the hell she had suffered, nothing rattled Madsen as much as this, and right there in that station, she vowed to make a change. “Instead of anger over everything that had happened to me in the last couple of years,” she continued, “I should have been more appreciative of the life I had left.”
She returned to Long Beach and signed up for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, where she went on to win five gold medals, in swimming, wheelchair slalom, and billiards. She joined a few basketball teams. And a few years later, she found rowing, which came more naturally to her than any other sport. She quickly won her first rowing gold in a five-mile ocean race in San Diego. Then, in 2002, at age 42, she entered the World Rowing Championship—her first international rowing competition—and took silver. For the next four years, Madsen went undefeated. “My Olympic dream,” she wrote, “became my Paralympic dream.”
In 2007, a social worker named Deb Moeller showed up at Long Beach’s Pete Archer Rowing Center, where Madsen ran the California Adaptive Rowing Program, a nonprofit that introduces physically and intellectually challenged children and adults to rowing. Deb had brought with her a young man who was struggling with adjusting to life in a wheelchair. She watched from a distance as Madsen patiently guided him on his first row. She fell in love with the way Madsen refused to accept his disability, or her own, or anyone’s, as some kind of executioner of dreams. After a few months of spending time together, Madsen put it to Deb bluntly: “I don’t want to date anyone, because I’m going to row across the ocean in December.” Instead, she asked Deb to marry her. (Though they wouldn’t tie the knot until 2013.)
That ocean crossing was the Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Race, a nearly 3,000-mile endeavor from the Canary Islands to Antigua known as the “world’s toughest rowing race.” For Madsen and her partner, Franck Festor, a Frenchman who had lost a leg in his early twenties, it was an opportunity to prove to everyone that people like them—they dubbed themselves “The Differents”—could cross oceans, too. Sixty-six days after leaving the Canaries, on February 7, 2008, Madsen and Festor rowed past the superyachts moored in Antigua’s English Harbour and over the finish line, in tenth place out of 20. On the dock, among the cheering crowd and sprays of champagne, and waiting with Madsen’s wheelchair, was Deb.
Deb had assumed that this was the only ocean Madsen needed to cross. But Madsen was hooked—she had rediscovered the competitive athlete she once thought she’d have to abandon forever.
That summer she qualified for the Beijing Paralympics and finished seventh in the adaptive rowing event. The following year, she captained a team of seven able-bodied athletes through a 58-day row from Western Australia to Mauritius, then the fastest ever Indian Ocean crossing by oar, making her, along with fellow crew member Helen Taylor, the first women to row the Indian. In 2010, she and three other women competed against a team of four men in the Row Around Great Britain—the 51-day circumnavigation was a first for women rowers. (The men’s team couldn’t finish and dropped out.) At the 2012 London Games, Madsen switched things up, using the upper-body strength she’d gained from rowing to take home bronze in the shot put. Four years later, she was back at the Paralympics again, this time in Rio, throwing shot put and javelin.
The coatrack next to the pink bungalow’s front door quickly transformed into a display of ad hoc medals and Olympic uniforms. The living-room walls were plastered with posters from past events. Her Wilson volleyball sat like a shrine in one corner. All the clutter was Madsen’s way of slyly showing off her accomplishments to guests without having to openly boast. “She wanted people to understand that you could do these things, even if you have to do them differently,” Deb told me. “That just because you’re in a chair or have some sort of disability, you shouldn’t count yourself out.”
As May turned to June, the precious moments of calm out in the middle of the Pacific gave way to day after day of ten-foot waves and 25-knot winds. Madsen tried not to think about 2013, when her first attempt to row solo from California to Hawaii ended after only nine days with a Coast Guard rescue in heavy seas. Nor did she want to dwell on Jennifer, who after drifting in and out of Madsen’s life over the past 27 years, had passed away in 2019 at 41 from complications linked to her bipolar disorder, diabetes, and opioid addiction. While her relationship with Jennifer never mended, Madsen had grown close to Jennifer’s three daughters Chyenne, Angel, and Amanda, who she’d been communicating with throughout the row. “My grandma was always there for her grandkids,” Amanda, who is 25, told me. “She was this person who just seemed invincible.”
Madsen instead focused on 2014, when she rowed the Pacific with New Zealander Tara Remington. Other than nearly being squeezed between two tropical storms around the halfway point, everything about the row went perfectly. They steamed through the 2,500-mile trip in 60 days, sometimes clocking over 70 miles a day, becoming the first female duo to row from California to Hawaii.
Sometimes Madsen even let her mind drift over the finish line and under the warm shower she would take at the Imperial of Waikiki condo she and Deb had rented for her arrival. She looked forward to rediscovering America in a better place—she had been thrilled when Deb called on the sat phone, on June 15, to tell her that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of protecting LGBT workers from discrimination. That was hope, and hope was fuel.
But these were blissful reprieves. The present demanded her attention. An early-season tropical cyclone was brewing to the south. She had made it this far running the para anchor off the stern, but for this storm, she and Deb decided she needed to use the sturdier bow deployment. The time had come to fix the shackle that had broken back around Guadalupe. To do it, she’d have to get in the water. Just after midnight, on June 21, she posted on her tracker, “Tomorrow is swim day.”
Throughout the morning of the 21st, Deb sent texts to Madsen’s sat phone and tracker but got nothing. She figured Madsen had tethered herself to the boat and jumped in the 72-degree water around 10:30 A.M., wearing boardshorts and a sports bra. Madsen had done this plenty of times in the past—her upper-body strength was supernatural—but Deb worried that the tether had caught on something, restricting her from pulling herself over the gunwale. Or that she’d simply stayed in the water too long; because of the lack of sensation in Madsen’s legs, she might not have felt the numbness of hypothermia setting in, at which point it would have been too difficult to pull herself aboard.
Deb examined Madsen’s path on the GPS to see if there was any forward momentum to indicate rowing. Instead, the Row of Life looked like it was floating with the current. It was also heading south, a direction Madsen was avoiding at all costs. Around 10 P.M., Deb picked up her phone to text Simi, the filmmaker, who was in nearby Marina del Rey, packing her things to leave in a few days for Oahu, where she would await Madsen’s arrival. “Now I’m concerned,” she wrote. Later, Deb would describe feeling a “horrible dark weight” in her chest.
After a few minutes of deliberation, Simi convinced Deb it was time to call the Coast Guard’s Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) Honolulu to request a rescue. The problem was that Madsen was currently located in one of the loneliest stretches of ocean on earth, almost exactly halfway between Long Beach and Oahu, just south of the Tropic of Cancer. It would take some time, the Coast Guard told Simi, before it could find a ship that could somewhat quickly reach such a remote area of the Pacific or a plane that could make the round-trip flight.
At home, Deb spent a sleepless night beside the rowing machine and medals, posters and paddles, and other memorabilia of Madsen’s prodigious career, holding out hope that her partner would respond to her calls and texts. Thirty minutes away, in Marina del Rey, Simi took up phone duty with the Coast Guard, receiving updates on the search and rescue mission and relaying them to Deb. “I convinced myself that anything had happened except that she had died,” Simi told me. “I was praying for it with every fiber in my body.”
At 8:30 A.M. on Monday, June 22, ten hours away from Madsen’s position, the German cargo ship Polynesia received JRCC Honolulu’s urgent request to assist in a search and rescue operation of the Row of Life. It would be a major detour, but in keeping with one of the core tenets of the United Nations’ Law of the Sea—the closest vessel must rescue those in distress—the Polynesia’s captain immediately changed course. At the same time, JRCC Honolulu began hunting down a plane that could make the round-trip flight to such a remote location.
Back in Marina del Rey, Simi received word from JRCC Honolulu that an Air National Guard C-17 transport plane had been dispatched from Bakersfield, California, and would arrive at the Row of Life’s position that afternoon. She drove over to the pink bungalow to be with Deb for the next update.
It was a clear, serene early evening over that desolate swath of the central Pacific when the C-17 made a low pass over Madsen’s position and identified her lifeless body floating in the water, still tethered to the boat. Not long after, at 7:15 P.M., the Polynesia arrived and dispatched a crew to retrieve Madsen’s body. Fifteen minutes later, the crewmen were beside the Row of Life. Other than some scrapes and bruising on her lower right leg, Madsen’s body was unharmed. An autopsy later concluded that she had drowned. How, exactly, will never be known.
Deb examined Madsen’s path on the GPS to see if there was any forward momentum to indicate rowing. Instead, the Row of Life looked like it was floating with the current. It was also heading south, a direction Madsen was avoiding at all costs.
Ten minutes later, Deb got the call.
Through an intermediary at the Coast Guard, Deb asked the Polynesia’s captain to retrieve as much from the rowboat as possible, but his crew was only able to grab Madsen’s passport before aborting the recovery. It was getting dark, and the weather and swell were beginning to grow rough.
For 30 years, Deb had been a social worker; she’d seen a lot of pain, a lot of sadness. The job had taught her to compartmentalize trauma. She had refined a wry sense of humor to deflect the hurt. When you love someone so completely drawn to a thing as enigmatic and apathetic as the sea, you learn to understand mortality as constantly looming rather than as a condition of some distant, nebulous future. “Every time I talked to her, she was so delighted to be out in the middle of the ocean, which I never understood,” Deb recalled. “It’s hard not to be supportive when that just makes somebody so happy.”
Simi, however, broke down. “I’ve never lost someone that’s close to me in such a tragic way,” she told me. For over a year, she and her film crew had shadowed Madsen as she prepared for the row. The experience had been the best and most significant of Simi’s young career, and now it was also the hardest. She turned to Deb, who, she said, had “gone into computer mode.” Simi asked her how she could be so collected. There was work to do, Deb told her. They had to get Madsen home.
After landing in Honolulu on July 5, Deb stayed at the Imperial of Waikiki for six weeks, working to figure out how Madsen might still complete her journey. She’d arranged for the Polynesia to bring Madsen’s body back to Long Beach, and around mid-July, she hired a boat to scour a quadrant of the Pacific where the Row of Life might still be drifting. But by late July, the rowboat’s GPS signal went dark, and around the 25th, a hurricane passed over the search area, undoubtedly blowing the Row of Life out of reach and possibly destroying it. In two weeks, the salvage mission was called off.
For Deb, this couldn’t be the end. The last pages of Madsen’s memoir now read like final instructions: “I know what it is to suffer. I know what it is to feel hopeless. I know what it feels like to give up on dreams and goals. And I also know what a mistake it is to give up.” Deb and Simi agreed that the film must be completed. Next year, Deb, Amanda, and the rest of the grandkids will return to Waikiki with Madsen’s ashes. Together, they will cross the finish line.