Across the pond, part II

Among the yachts and sailboats parading through the Montlake Cut next Saturday will be four men in a funny looking row boat.

While most of the people will be there to commemorate the unofficial opening day of boat season, the four guys in the 29-foot ro w boat with a sleeping cabin will be celebrating the start of their latest adventure.

The men recently began preparing to row from the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa more than 2,600 miles to Antigua in the West Indies late next year.

The Ocean Adventure Rowing Northwest crew is made up of Jordan Hanssen and Greg Spooner, a couple of University of Puget Sound graduates who’ve already rowed across the Atlantic Ocean once; Rick Tarbill, a former University of Washington rower; and Adam Kreek, a Stanford grad who helped Canada win rowing gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Their goal isn’t simply to row across the Atlantic; they want to make the trip in 34 days or less. The record is 36 days. The men also hope to raise $500,000 for charity along the way.

Few men know the rigors of ocean rowing better than Hanssen and Spooner. The two were half of a crew that battled storms and a lack of food in 2006 to become the first Americans to row unassisted from New York to England.

During three months at sea, they suffered everything from hallucinations to severe weight loss, which prompts the question they hear more than any other: Why would they want to do this again?

There are several reasons.

Spooner references a quote from Stephen Kiesling’s 1994 book “The Shell Game.” “My body is a tool to test the capability of my will,” he said. “... We also want to rally the Northwest to its adventuring and pioneering roots.”

For Hanssen, it’s as simple as wanting to return to where he believes he belongs.

“I had a hard time stepping off the boat,” Hanssen said of the ’04 expedition. “I wanted to keep going. ... I wanted to row until my hands fell off. Until I would explode.”

Since landing in 2004, the men haven’t met many adventures they aren’t willing to take on. In 2008, they became the first known people to circumnavigate the Olympic Peninsula in a row boat. That same year, Hanssen biked across Australia.

“You could spend a dozen lifetimes reading and not know everything,” Hanssen said. “You could have a 1,000 lifetimes and not see everything. I think that’s kind of a bummer.”

So they plan to cram as much adventure as possible into the one life they have.


It was Hanssen who first hatched the idea to row across the Atlantic in 2004 when he saw a flyer for the 2006 race.

“I hated the idea until I ended up loving it,” Spooner said.

Hanssen recruited Spooner first, and they later added fellow UPS rowers Brad Vickers and Dylan LeValley. The men took out loans to buy their $36,000, 3,000-pound fiberglass row boat.

They spent almost two years planning their trip, outfitting and altering their boat, and it paid off. Not only did they make the nearly 3,300-mile trip in 71 days, but they beat the second-place boat by six days and earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Along the way, the three men waited out a storm by sealing themselves in the boat’s tiny cabin. But their biggest problem was a miscalculation that left them without enough food.

Vickers was in charge of the food, and about two weeks into the crossing he realized they were going to have to start rationing if they were going to make it.

The plan was for the rowers to have 8,000 calories per day so they’d have plenty of energy. For nearly two months the men had to survive on about 2,400 calories per day, barely enough to sustain them if they weren’t rowing 12 hours each per day.

Hanssen lost 38 pounds and Spooner lost 45.

Spooner was so hungry that at one point during a rest break he dreamed he was eating Nilla Wafers. The dream was so vivid that he woke himself when he hit himself in the mouth trying to eat the imaginary cookies.

On another occasion, he ate moldy cheese because he didn’t want to waste a single calorie. He ended up losing his entire breakfast. “When the hunger set in I beat up on Brad about it,” Hanssen said. “But the thing is, it is a team so it was all of our responsibility.”

The team could have radioed for help from the race officials and had food in a matter of hours, but they would have been disqualified.

“Asking for food was failure,” Hanssen said.

When they finally pulled into Falmouth, England, they wanted nothing more than to hug their friends and family and eat.

“We developed eating disorders,” Spooner said.

Spooner weighed 220 pounds when they left New York. He weighed 175 pounds when the row ended and a couple months later he was a fluffy 230.

“They looked like a bunch of Christian Bales when they left,” Tarbill said. “Greg was buff. Then I saw a picture of him at the finish and he was so small his spandex didn’t fit right.”

A couple of months later when Tarbill finally saw the rowers again he was stunned by what he saw. They looked fat. But even as their bodies suffered on the high seas, it was clear that they were naturals at ocean rowing.

At one point, Hanssen remembers thinking: “If not for the hunger, this would be easy.”


After the 2006 crossing the friends eased back into real life.

Spooner started working on his physical therapy degree, which he is now a few internships away from finishing. Hanssen worked at a Seattle hardware store and started writing a book about the 2006 expedition. He’s working as a pub crawl tour guide and looking for a publisher.

LeValley turned his focus to sailing and works as a yacht technician in Seattle. Vickers is the manager of the Seattle Boat Show.

And the boat was put on display in Tacoma’s Working Waterfront Maritime Museum, where it is still on display when it’s not in use.

When Hanssen and Spooner decided to take another trip across the Atlantic, their ’06 teammates offered to help with support but weren’t interested in making another crossing.

That left them in need of two more teammates.

The first call was to Rick Tarbill. Like Spooner, Tarbill grew up on Bainbridge Island. Tarbill developed a love of rowing when he attended the University of Washington on a violin scholarship.

At the time Tarbill was 6-0, 155 pounds, about 4 inches too short and 50 pounds too small to be taken seriously as a competitive rower. But he made the team anyway. When he was told he’d have to choose between rowing and violin he gave up his scholarship.

Tarbill’s work ethic and ability to outperform larger athletes made him stick out. One of his coaches called him the “Universal Donor” because he made whatever boat he was in go faster.

“He is a monster competitor,” Spooner said.

During preparation for the ’06 row Tarbill told the Hanssen to keep him in mind for his next ocean rowing adventure.

“There was a certain earnestness in his voice,” Hanssen said. “... I knew he was serious.”

Hanssen, Spooner and Vickers met Kreek at a rowing race in San Francisco in 2009.

“They talked to me about Ocean Rowing and I talked to them about the Olympics,” said Kreek, who competed in the ’04 and ’08 Games for Canada.

They quickly realized training to row across an Ocean was similar to training for the Olympics.

“Both are incredibly large goals,” Kreek said. “And you have to work hard as a team to achieve that goal.”

Kreek has worked as a motivational speaker since the ’08 Games and after a conversation with the OAR Northwest team found himself daydreaming about ocean rowing.

Then one night when he and his wife were out for dinner with friends he surprised her and himself with the words, “I think I’m going to row across the Atlantic Ocean ... .”

Kreek, who rowed for three years at Stanford, lives in Victoria and OAR Northwest was thrilled to go international by adding him to the team. “We’ve got a ringer,” Hanssen said. And Spooner added, “He knows how to make boats go really fast.”

Spooner and Hanssen have shared all the details of the ’06 crossing with the new recruits. Tales of ingrown hairs, constipation and, of course, the hunger pains.

Tarbill and Kreek were undeterred. “They got through a desperate situation,” Tarbill said. “Think how much better we’re are going to be this time.”


In 2006 the race seemed secondary to OAR Northwest but that won’t be the case in 2011.

This time winning in a world record time is the goal.

And with their experience and combined rowing pedigree the goal hardly seems unrealistic.

This time each committed $5,000 to get the project going. They have hired a copywriter and are hoping their résumés will allow them to land bigger sponsors.

They expect the training, which will include a row from Victoria to San Francisco, and expedition to cost about $500,000 and they hope for it to be 75 percent funded by next fall.

They’ll consult nutritionists to lay out a better food plan this time around and might have Vickers help with the plan. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons,” Spooner said. “... We want to update and innovate.”

While they have a boat capable of making the trip they plan to buy a newer model that weighs 400 pounds less.

This time they’ll be rowing with the trade winds which should make the trip considerably faster.

And while adventure is the only excuse these guys need to hop in the boat, they believe it’s important for their expedition to have a deeper purpose.

For the original trip, they christened the boat the James Robert Hanssen, in honor of Hanssen’s father who died of an asthma attack. And OAR Northwest raised nearly $50,000 for the American Lung Association.

In 2011, the crew has a new cause and a goal of raising $500,000. This time they’ll row for Right to Play, an organization with the goal of improving the lives of children around the world through sports and games.

Kreek has traveled to Peru and Columbia to work for the organization and brought the cause to the team’s attention.

Kreek says the cause is special because it treats underprivileged kids “like children and not just mouths to feed.”

And of course, there is also the message they strive to share with anybody who’ll listen. They yearn to motivate people to pursue as many of their dreams as possible. And not just the easy ones.

“There are a lot of reasons to adventure,” Hanssen said. His favorite: “It’s fun to do hard things.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497