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.
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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.