Breathing Lessons: Rowing Across the Atlantic

When I walked down the dock at the Liberty Yacht Club and saw the 29-foot boat that was supposed to carry four above-average-size men for approximately three months, I immediately wondered how they would do it. None of them seemed the least bit worried or nervous about this amazing, yet daunting adventure they were about to embark upon.

Jordan Hanssen, Greg Spooner, Brad Vickers and Dylan LeValley are attempting to become the first Americans to row across the Atlantic Ocean in the 2006 Shepherd Ocean Fours Rowing race that began June 10 from New Jersey and ends in Falmouth, England.

I spent a day with the four before they set sail and saw firsthand how they got ready for this grand adventure. Because they all had rowing experience from college, they were incredibly positive that they could take on this extraordinary task. Jordan was afflicted with asthma as a child, but said that he had the lungs his father never had and had practiced the correct way to breathe in order to make sure his lungs were up for the challenge.

The four rowers, all in their 20s, met at the University of Puget Sound where they were members of the crew team. While there, they helped to win four consecutive Northwest Conference Rowing Championship titles, so they were no strangers to the open waters.

They expect their voyage will last between 40 days and 70 days. They have enough food and supplies to last up to three months, and a support vessel will follow all of the teams in case of emergencies. The length of the race is 3,100 nautical miles, and there are three other teams participating in the race, each from England.

The American team, though, is rowing for more than just pride or patriotism. It's rowing on behalf of the American Lung Association of Washington, because its team captain, Jordan Hanssen, lost his father when he was 3 years old to an asthma attack. The team is hoping to raise awareness for asthma and other lung-related diseases. It's funded the spot in the competition through corporate sponsorship, local donations, and the four rowers' own money.

The young men used the last year for training and just getting used to living on the small boat. They'll rotate as pairs: Two will row for three hours, and the other two will sleep or rest in a tiny space reserved at the front of the boat. Their boat is so small that they have to be careful of large barges and other ocean liners that may miss them. Just hearing of the potential dangers of their journey is enough to keep me on dry land.

When happens when the weather gets bad? "Then we will all bunk together in the small sleeping quarters and hold on," they said. They expected to suffer a little seasickness, but they tried to acclimate themselves to the boat during their training to avoid it when they officially set sail.

Right now they are in their second week at sea and more than 100 miles ahead of the other teams. They are keeping an online blog on their Web site, so you can track their progress and send them messages via their satellite phone onboard.

They missed Father's Day Sunday, a bittersweet holiday for Hanssen, but his father's memory lives on in the very craft carrying them on their voyage. The boat was appropriately named after him: the James Robert Hanssen.

I was extremely impressed by their hard work, determination and ability to undertake such a daunting task. Not one of the men seemed the least bit nervous or worried that they wouldn't complete the race. In fact, they all seemed to have every intention of winning it.

For more information, check out their Web site www.oarnorthwest.com and the American Lung Association of Washington at www.alaw.org.

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