Rowers complete Vancouver Island voyage

TACOMA — Rowing around an island the size of Maryland at 3.5 miles per hour, there are stretches when time passes slower than the coastline.

So slowly, in fact, at one point during their recent 22-day counterclockwise circumnavigation of Vancouver Island, Jordan Hanssen and Greg Spooner tried the daunting mathematical task of calculating how many strokes they’ve taken together since they formed OAR Northwest in 2005.

The final tally: “7 million,” Hanssen said. “Give or take a couple hundred thousand.”

Those strokes took them across the Atlantic Ocean and into the “Guinness Book of World Records” in 2006 and around the Olympic Peninsula in 2008. And Wednesday, the University of Puget Sound graduates were at the oars when their five-man crew finished its 640-mile lap around Vancouver Island.

As repetitive as rowing is, the crew is propelled by knowledge that the more strokes they take the more they discover. For all their journeys, the Salish Sea showed Hanssen and Spooner plenty they’d never seen.

The northern lights. Whale spouts. A skinny-dipping gold medalist. A chance to play basketball in an isolated First Nations community. A near collision with a tugboat.

“It was a pretty amazing experience,” Hanssen said.

The Salish Sea voyage was essentially a test lap for OAR Northwest, which plans to row from Africa to South America in December.

The idea was to indoctrinate new crew members Richard Tarbill (a Boeing flight test engineer) and Adam Kreek (a Canadian Olympic rowing gold medalist) to the rigors of ocean rowing.

Along for the trip was alternate rower Markus Pukonen, a Tofino, B.C., resident who learned to row in March. He filled in for Spooner, who had to join the expedition late, and Kreek, who had to leave early to tend to his sick wife.

The hands-on experience allowed the new crew members to get used to life at sea on the 29-foot-long boat.

They slept in one-, two- and four-hour shifts in a cabin roughly the size of pickup truck cab. They feasted on canned salmon, polenta, wild rice and quinoa. They jumped overboard for the occasional bath (hence the aforementioned skinny-dipping gold medalist). They adapted to the rigors of needing two men at the oars 24 hours per day.

“It was a very, very, very hard trip,” Tarbill said.

Along the way they also took photos of whales, birds and other wildlife for the Canadian Wildlife Federation, which paid $150,000 to sponsor the trip. They also collected data, such as water salinity and dissolved oxygen levels for the federation.

The goal is to use their adventures to inspire and educate North American youth. The team offers grants to Pierce County schools wishing to host them for assemblies and hopes to connect with those schools online and via satellite when they row the Atlantic.

It’s a part of the mission Spooner and Hanssen say they’re still working to expand.

In some ways, circling Vancouver Island might prove more challenging than crossing the Atlantic again, Hanssen said.

On the Atlantic they hope to catch the currents and cruise west as fast as 100 miles a day. But off the coast of Vancouver Island there were constant threats.

“My hands down, No. 1 fear was being on the West Coast and being blown into the island,” Hanssen said.

Constantly changing currents, rivers emptying into the sea and heavy ship traffic meant the potential for danger was always present.

On the final night, Spooner said he made a navigation mistake before his turn to sleep.

“It was a rookie move,” he said, shaking his head.

The boat started heading up the Fraser River and moments later Spooner awoke to a commotion on deck. A large tugboat was too close for comfort.

The crew quickly adjusted course and veered west to round a jetty.

One of the most challenging parts of the trip came when they were stalled in strong currents off the Brooks Peninsula on the island’s western coast. Their strongest efforts moved the boat just 10 miles in 10 hours.

That night, April 23, they were rewarded for their work. “It got very calm, skies were clear and you could see this waxing moon — it was deep orange — and Venus,” said Spooner, who was rowing with Hanssen at the time. “We looked up to the east and all of a sudden this very distinct green band appeared right over the harbor. Over the next several minutes it just rose straight up in the air.”

Awed by the sight of the aurora borealis, the men woke the others. Pukonen, exhausted by the Brooks Peninsula effort, stuck his head out of the cabin long enough to say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen those,” then went back to sleep.

Weather forced the crew inland seven times, a luxury they won’t have crossing the Atlantic.

The most memorable stop, they said, was a four-day stay in Hot Springs Cove on the island’s western side, where the men visited the secluded Hesquiaht First Nation. The cove can be reached only by boat from Tofino, about 25 miles southeast.

The team spoke to students and joined in a community basketball game. Spooner, Pukonen and Tarbill played high school basketball and were impressed by their opponents’ talent.

“They had this amazing sense of the court, their ball control was off the court, guys and girls playing together hitting 3s left and right,” said Spooner who played barefoot. “They took us to school.”

Everybody but Pukonen got sick at least once on the perpetually undulating sea. Even Spooner, who didn’t get sick on the Atlantic in 2006, hurled when the boat rounded the island’s northern cape.

But nobody was sick more than Tarbill.

“On the first day I wanted to kill myself,” he said standing on a floating dock in Vancouver’s English Bay. “. I’m kind of wobbly right now.”

Nevertheless, he has no regrets, although his face seemed to go a little white at the mention of the Atlantic expedition.

“I need a couch and a wall,” Tarbill said. “I just need to stare at the wall for a day and I’ll feel better.”

University of Puget Sound graduates Jordan Hanssen and Greg Spooner, original members of OAR Northwest, are amassing an impressive rowing resume:

2006: Rowed from New York to England in 71 days with fellow UPS graduates Dylan LeValley and Brad Vickers.

2008: Circumnavigated the Olympic Peninsula in 20 days.

2012: Circumnavigated Vancouver Island in 22 days with new teammates Richard Tarbill of Seattle and Canadians Adam Kreek and Markus Pukonen.

By the numbers

554: Nautical miles rowed to circumnavigate Vancouver Island. That’s about 640 miles.

3.0: Estimated average speed in knots during the trip. That’s 3.5 mph.

2,500: Estimated weight in pounds of the fully loaded 29-foot boat.

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