Rowing the Distance

Former Air Force aviator sets world record for completing the longest solo, nonstop, unsupported ocean row across the Pacific from North America

It’s 3 a.m. and Jacob Adoram Hendrickson (’02, ’13) has been rowing nearly nonstop for 16 hours. He has spent the last 335 days paddling across the Pacific, and he’s within 5 miles of his destination: Cairns, Queensland, Australia. Strong winds and ocean currents have made the final hours especially challenging, but Hendrickson’s blog post from that final day reveals his unsinkable nature:

As the skies give way to darkness, I attempt a quick rest break. The second I stop rowing I immediately start losing angles to the north. I can’t afford breaks. I eat as quickly as possible then get back to it. Quitting isn’t an option. It’s the last major push towards shore on day 335 at sea; I’ll row until something breaks.

Hendrickson crash-landed on Trinity Beach the following day, June 8, 2019, with a lot to celebrate.

Looking for a Challenge

The seed for Hendrickson’s 7,145-mile journey was planted eight years earlier when the U.S. Air Force fighter pilot was assigned to an air liaison role — a desk job — in Fort Irwin, California. He had dreamed of being a fighter pilot since high school and had attended Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach Campus because it boasted the largest Air Force ROTC detachment. Having flown 170 combat sessions in his dream job, this new assignment was a gut check. “I wasn’t feeling good about the direction of my career,” Hendrickson says. “I wanted to find out how I could become more fulfilled and find more meaning in life. I wanted to do something physically challenging.”

Hendrickson zeroed in on a challenge: completing the longest solo, nonstop, unsupported row across the Pacific Ocean from North America. At the time, the only person in history to come close was British rower Peter Bird, who rowed from San Francisco to Australia in 1982 but had to be rescued a quarter mile off the Great Barrier Reef. In 2015, John Beeden completed the challenge by successfully making landfall. But unlike Bird and Beeden, Hendrickson had zero rowing or ocean-going experience, and he was planning to row a greater distance without any resupplies or stops along the way.

Building the Perfect Boat

To accomplish his goal, Hendrickson needed a boat. A Google search led him to naval architect Eric Sponberg. They discussed the project for nearly two years while Hendrickson was still in the Air Force. When Hendrickson’s Air Force career ended in 2014, Sponberg began designing in earnest. The result was a 28-foot-long, 2,400-pound ocean rowboat capable of storing a year’s worth of food, equipment and electronics; a forward cabin dedicated to Hendrickson’s living area; and a hardtop-covered rowing station situated in the center.

The task of building the boat fell to Schooner Creek Boat Works of Portland, Oregon. Construction came in fits and starts as Hendrickson worked to finance the project. But in 2018, the boat — christened Emerson after Hendrickson’s favorite English bulldog — was complete.

To train for the journey, Hendrickson spent three years getting in shape, even going so far as to bike across the United States in 2015. He studied maritime weather and navigation. Once Emerson was complete, he spent 12 weeks with her, training, testing and organizing. The final two weeks prior to departure were spent rowing in Neah Bay, Washington, including his first and only open-ocean trial run.

Moxie vs. Mother Nature

Hendrickson departed Neah Bay on July 7, 2018. His first day at sea proved a hard slog as strong currents hindered his progress. During the trial run, it had taken two hours to paddle out into the open ocean; on this day, it took eight. “I felt like I was rowing through mud,” Hendrickson says. “I was tired, sore, anxious and having all kinds of doubts.”

Eventually, the tides turned in his favor, and he settled into a rhythm. Each day, he rowed an average of 10 to 12 hours, listening to podcasts, music and audio books to pass the time. The sheer vastness of his surroundings intimidated and inspired. From his blog, day 255:

The silence is almost painful. There can’t be anything else like it. Maybe there is, but I’ve never been fortunate enough to stumble upon such intense serenity.

Hendrickson’s most challenging day at sea came at the hands of Tropical Cyclone Ann. “All of a sudden it went quiet,” Hendrickson says. “And then a wave hit broadside. Water rushed in, and I hit my head on the ceiling. When the boat finally came back upright, I started hearing this crazy loud creaking sound I had never heard before.” In the pitch black, rain pouring down, Hendrickson fumbled for the source of the sound, discovering that his spare oars had ripped off the side of the boat and were dangling by a lashing. He pulled them back in, cutting his hands badly in the process. Undeterred, Hendrickson rode out the storm, grateful for Emerson’s self-righting capabilities.

Now, Hendrickson is gearing up for his next great adventure: finding a job, a home and, possibly, settling down. “I realize I want to pay attention to what I do and do it mindfully,” he says. “I’m realizing that maybe getting married and having kids is more important than I thought it would be.”

As for Emerson, she was recently on display at the Portland Boat Show, and Hendrickson is in talks with a maritime museum regarding her possible acquisition.

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