Picking Up the Pieces After Angela Madsen’s Death on the ‘Row of Life’

(Photo: Soraya Simi)

Fresh out of film school, Soraya Simi’s first documentary was centered around the Paralympic rower’s 2,500-mile solo journey to Hawaii. Except Madsen never made it.

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Day 12. Halfway into an eight-hour trek on Highway 6 from Salt Lake City to Mammoth Lakes, California—my last stop on a solo road trip across the West before finally settling down in Santa Barbara with the first lease I’ve signed in three years.

I promise myself that this is the last time I will ever drive through Nevada alone.

It’s hot, I’m tired, and the A/C in my car broke long ago. I’m 100 miles from the nearest town and haven’t seen another car for more than 30 minutes. As for the scenery, I might as well be on Mars. Barren and bleak desert stretches on into a kind of cruel infinity. The understimulation takes me to all corners of my mind.

I think of loneliness. I think of Angela Madsen, my first feature documentary subject. After coming across a sailing film I’d made while a student at the University of Southern California, she’d asked me to tell the story of her solo, unsupported 2,500-mile row from California to Hawaii. We FaceTimed just months after my graduation from film school in 2019; it was the first time I realized that she was 59 years old and used a wheelchair. She was a Paralympian and had already rowed across both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It was a stroke of luck, an amazing opportunity for my first doc.

We spent a year filming together around her home in Long Beach, California, before she surreptitiously launched her 20-foot ocean rowing boat, Row of Life, in the heart of 2020’s global COVID lockdown. After she was about eight weeks at sea, we exchanged what would be our final satellite messages. The next day, she drowned while attempting to fix the bow shackle on her boat. I’m still not sure exactly what happened. She was halfway between Los Angeles and Hawaii, and surrounded by so much ocean she must’ve seen the edges of the earth bend, glimpsing into a window of eternity.

Did she feel lonely? Did she cry for help? Did she know no one would come?

I think of her cremated ashes sitting in a box on her TV chair at home, waiting to be reunited with the Pacific Ocean. I think of my hard drive with all the footage I shot, collecting dust on a bookshelf back home in Tucson, Arizona. I think of how much she wanted a film about her life—more than she wanted to row across the Pacific alone. I think about how much she trusted me; she said we were together for a reason. “I just row, Soraya,” she said, “You do the rest.”

Both hands on the wheel, I start to cry. Cool, glass tears run down my cheeks. I let it happen. It feels good to feel something in all this nothing. I look out the window. A swath of sand rises and spins in the distance. A dust devil accelerating toward me. I stare a beat too long. By the time I look back at the road, I’ve veered into the opposite lane. I jerk the wheel to adjust, but overcompensate. My car swerves off the asphalt, lurching into the desert. I yank the steering wheel again, but it locks as the tires lose traction on loose dirt. I head straight for a ditch at 85 miles per hour.

I scream and slam the brakes but accidentally hit the accelerator. I close my eyes. The airbags explode. A punch in the face. Metal and plastic crunch. Glass shatters. My car soars into the air, lands with a thud, and, eventually, rolls to a stop.

Angela used to talk about the sense of ultimate freedom and total self-reliance she felt on ocean rows. It made me want to know that kind of power, too.
(Soraya Simi)

Angela died on June 21, and a few days later I flew to Oahu with the hope of salvaging her boat, which was adrift in the Pacific with six cameras and the footage of her 60 days on board.

When I arrived in Hawaii there was an email in my inbox from Peter Mortimer, the codirector of The Alpinist, The Dawn Wall, and Valley Uprising. I was stunned. I’ve looked up to Mortimer since I was 15. Before I knew anything about filmmaking or set foot in film school, I knew I wanted to make movies about audacious adventurers, just like Peter does.

He had read about Angela in The New York Times and wanted to introduce himself. He said that he, too, had recently lost a subject during production, the climber Marc-André Leclerc. He said he couldn’t believe how young I was to be facing a story like this, and that he felt he was in a particularly relevant position to offer guidance if I wanted it.

We got straight to work exploring the options to recover Angela’s boat, which was adrift at sea 1,000 miles away. One strategy was to hoist the 20-foot boat on a salvage vessel—at prohibitively high cost—and the other, more dangerous tactic was to tow it behind a 52-foot Beneteau yacht. But a Category 4 hurricane had swept through the last precisely known location of Row of Life. Tracking had never come back on. The boat and all the footage on board were gone, presumably, forever.

After six weeks, I left Hawaii empty-handed, trying to calculate how much a story weighs. Maybe some stories are so heavy they sink to the bottom of the ocean.

A year later, still grieving, still lost, I started to plan a trip to visit mentors. Peter lived in Boulder, Colorado; a writer friend was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and a production company that made work I admired was based in Salt Lake City. I thought they might be able to give me the answers that seemed to evade me while I was sitting at home.

Angela used to talk about the sense of ultimate freedom and total self-reliance she felt on ocean rows. It made me want to know that kind of power, too. I wanted to pit all the things that make me against the magnitude of big sky and fresh context and hold it up for scale. It was early April 2021. I plugged a route into Google Maps “just to see” and felt a tingle in my stomach. Something told me to go, so I did.

Driving through the Navajo Nation, an audiobook of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang playing as I wave my hand out the window, I feel the hot air blow through my unbrushed hair. Abbey’s ghost has proved to be an excellent road-trip companion so far, and his advice to “evade the clamor and confront the bare bones of existence” seems worth adhering to.

Monument Valley disappears in the rearview and Moab is just a couple hours away. Freedom, I’ve found, costs little more than guts and gas money.

Something rattles under the hood. For a moment, I hope it’ll go away if I ignore it, but the sound is so annoying that I pull over. Lying flat on the heated pavement, I examine my car’s underbelly. A piece of plastic is lodged somewhere it’s not supposed to be. I use my knife to set it free. The disruption leaves my front bumper dislodged like a broken jaw. I grab a roll of duct tape and re-affix it as best I can, hearing my twin brother warn me about how being cheap keeps you poor. I smack the bumper, tell my car I love her, and promise to find a better solution once I get to Moab.

This pit stop in southern Utah is for a series of birthday celebrations for a friend from Colorado. I know what to expect: hysterical giggling, psychedelics, crackling campfires, and up-all-night conversations.

Time passes accordingly. The next morning, it’s cold and raining and my body aches from sleeping in the back of my car. I regret the unproductive time. I came out here to be alone, to “confront the bare bones of existence.” I’m not sure what that looks like, but I don’t think it’s this. Since I am the first one awake, I decide on an Irish goodbye.

In line at a café in Moab, I meet a girl named Caroline. We make polite small talk, order the same breakfast, and decide to eat together.

“If you don’t have plans today,” she says, “I can show you a really cool locals-only spot for you to take pictures. If you want.”

I hesitate before responding, debating whether to say yes or to wander alone through Canyonlands or Arches, to pay Abbey’s ghost tribute. But something about her feels familiar.

“Sure,” I say, wiping guacamole from my chin and looping my camera over my neck. “I’m game for anything.”

We hike past throngs of cars and into gold dust and red rock, and watch a group of out-of-towners peel off onto the opposite trail. Caroline looks back at me and smirks. “Tourist traps.”

I snicker too, as if I wouldn’t be going down the same path if it weren’t for her.

A mile or so down the way, flowing water echoes off the russet canyon walls, pours into a crystal-clear pool, and shimmers in the bright noon sun. In one swoop, Caroline slips off her clothes and jumps in. She reappears farther down the creek. I follow suit.

The water is frigid. We float on the sun-warmed surface, then climb out to lounge naked on the heated stone. I glance at Caroline, who looks beautiful, blissfully uncomplicated. Maybe, I wonder, it really is that easy.

(Soraya Simi)
(Soraya Simi)

I open my car door. Shards of glass fall off my lap as I muscle my way free.

I drop one leg out slowly, then the other, checking to see which bones are broken. Everything seems to be in working order.

I walk to the front of my car, which hasn’t been so lucky. The hood is blown out and all kinds of goopy liquids spurt from underneath. The next town, Tonopah, is over a hundred miles away. I rub my eyes and massage my temples, pushing hard on my skin.

I look for my phone in the debris. Surprised to see a few bars of service, I do what any shit-out-of-luck girl would: call my dad. He doesn’t answer.

“Emergency,” I text. “Totaled my car.”


“Please help.”

My phone rings.

I start to cry. He calms me down and then rapid-fires questions:

Where are you?
Somewhere in Nevada.

Are you hurt?

How’s the car?

Is there anyone around to help?

Do you have the insurance number?

He tells me to call the insurance, wait for a tow, and stay put. A gleam of metal shines in the distance. It’s a truck, one I passed over half an hour ago, coming this way.

I left Moab after a sunrise jaunt with Caroline. She handed me a bundle of wildflowers for protection, which I placed on the dash.

Now climbing from high desert up the backbone of the Rocky Mountains, I bundle up and slow down as a snowstorm swirls around me.

I’m on my way to Boulder to meet Peter at a bookstore on Pearl Street. It’s raining. This is the first time we’re meeting face-to-face after reams of emails and phone calls.

“Any update on Angela’s boat?” he asks, sitting down.

I shake my head.

“The ocean-drift experts said between March and June of this year it might hit the Philippines. It’s May. And, of all places, the Philippines—with its twenty-some-thousand miles of coastline, countless islands, bays, and other uninhabited nooks and crannies. That’s if the boat is even still floating. The boatbuilder said it’s ‘unsinkable.’ There’s no way to really know. And there’s no guarantee any of the cameras or footage will be on board, let alone usable.”

Peter scratches his head.

“Crazy,” he says. “Unfortunately, there’s no real story without that footage. At least, I can’t picture it.”

I nod. I tell him I’ve spent more time thinking about this than anyone can possibly imagine. What I’ve walked away with is that time is the only variable left to tell this story. He agrees.

I want to tell Peter how I’ve felt these last few months: wildly insecure and unfathomably sad about losing a friend and American hero whose extraordinary story deserves to be shared, and about how public and catastrophic the failure of my first film was. I want to tell him that I feel ready to re-engage but don’t know how. That I had it all and then lost it all and I probably shouldn’t be in charge of things anymore. That I would like to be mentored by someone who knows better, and not make documentaries about people who might die in the middle. That maybe he knows better than me—he must know better than me. What should I do next?

But I don’t say any of these things. I don’t want to ask him for anything. I no longer get the feeling that he has those answers.

The moment passes and two days later I wake up early and climb the second Flatiron before a ten-hour drive to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I feel lighter. Faster. Stronger. Better, somehow.

The ferocious winds of southern Wyoming face few obstacles other than my lonely car and the gas-station pump.

I drive through the Wind River reservation, steadily climbing in elevation. Dark clouds roll in and the temperature drops suddenly. I am winding, rolling, rising, alongside the river that pokes in and out of view. In a clearing up ahead, something is crossing the road. I slow down to see.

A wolf. My favorite animal and the first I’ve ever seen in person. It looks at me before darting across the road.

An hour later, in the thick of a snowstorm, I notice bazooka lenses pointed out of half-rolled windows of stopped cars, aiming high into the canopy of trees. I jump out to investigate. Up in the woods, a grizzly bear sits on his bottom, chewing on a branch, unfazed by the audience below.

Onward to Jackson. Hundreds of white-tailed deer and elk dot fields blanketed in fresh white. Red-tailed hawks soar overhead. All these beautiful and strange, wild and lonely things. I don’t know what to say other than there’s a place in me where these things go. The connective tissue between all this and little me, sometimes it feels like too much all at once. It’s nourishment that fills me all the way to the brim.

Which is maybe why when I get to my writer friend’s house where I had planned to have dinner and spend the night I am not hungry anymore. Salmon and potatoes, conversation and couch surfing no longer sound appealing. Maybe the girl before the road, the river, and the wolf would have stayed, but a lot can happen in a few hours, and I don’t feel like it anymore.

I find a motel up the road and crawl into cold sheets. I turn on my headlamp, pull out my notebook, and start to write. A dam busts. I write until I fall asleep. I write when I wake up. I write as I cook myself dinner on the carpet of a cheap motel in Idaho. I write down the stories of heartache I need to let go, ripping pages from my notebook and burning them with the last bit of butane in my camp stove. I write soaking in a hot spring by the Snake River, steam evaporating into thin air while cool rain taps on my bare shoulders. I write down the questions I realize I already know the answers to. I write by the fire in the evening and in the bathtub at night. In the silence, in the evening, it feels good to be alone. I write and I write and I write until, quite simply, I have nothing more to say. And have the courage, finally, to go home.

I drop one leg out slowly, then the other, checking to see which bones are broken. Everything seems to be in working order.
(Soraya Simi)

I wave frantically. The driver brakes and jumps out.

“Holy shit!” he yells, “Are you OK?!”

I try to explain through sobs—dust devil this, tire pop that—I lose patience with myself and point to my car.

“I totally fucked up.”

“I saw that dust devil. Huge. I used to be a mechanic. Let’s see if it’s fixable.”

He walks over to the hood but before his knees hit the dirt, he solemnly shakes his head.

“You blew the radiator. The car’s toast. You gotta call a tow or something and get out of here soon. This is not a good place to be.”

Nodding, I head back inside to find the insurance information in the glove box. The rearview mirror had blown off and as I reach to move it, I notice blood trickling down my face.

Panicked, I look at my reflection in the window. My nose is bruised and swollen.

“Airbag gotcha pretty good, eh?” I hear from outside the car.

I wipe the blood, call an insurance agent, who estimates it will take eight hours for a tow to arrive.

Listening, the driver mentions he’s heading to Bishop and can take me to Tonopah. I tell him that Bishop would be better.

“OK, I’ll take you, but you will have to come back out here to figure out what to do with your car.” He tells me that the tow truck won’t haul it past Tonopah. “Take a photo of my license plate and ID and send that to your family so they know I’m not some creep. This is a really, really bad place to break down. You’d be surprised the kinda shit I’ve seen.”

I don’t want to know.

We start unpacking my stuff and, embarrassed by how much there is, I explain that I was moving back to California after a long time away.

“Don’t apologize. Let’s just get out of here. This is my last time taking this goddamn highway. Hey, listen to me: never ever ever get in a truck with a truck driver—ya hear? Great way to kidnap people and a desert like this is a great place to hide a body…I’m Jim, by the way.”

He extends his hand and I shake it, trying not to overthink my vulnerability. As Jim collects my final few items, I scan my car for a final review.

I leave behind a first aid kit, books, and a handful of tools. Caroline’s flowers are crunched to bits. I grab my camera bag last, only to realize a video is recording. My heart skips a beat. I remember swerving off the road and grabbing my camera. Did I somehow hit record? I quickly scrub through the footage. The whole accident is there.

I zip the bag shut.

Very funny, Angela.

“Ready yet?” Jim beckons.

“Yeah! Coming.”

I smack what’s left of my bumper, tell my car thank you, and hide my key for the tow truck.

Climbing into the passenger side, Jim hands me an ice-cold Gatorade for my face and smiles in a way that makes me feel genuinely better.

“Gonna be real pretty in the mornin’. Just you wait.”

I lay the bottle gently against my nose and lean out to close the door. I take a final look at my car sitting alone in the desert. A mush of metal, glass, and rubber. Another vessel lost to sea. I expect sadness, but feel only indifference. I slam the door shut.

Without looking back, we push west.