Three-time Paralympian, Marine veteran and legendary long-distance rower Angela Madsen was declared dead by the Coast Guard at 11 p.m. on Monday, June 22, 2020. Her body was found tethered to her ocean rowboat approximately 1,280 miles away from where she departed on her quest to row solo from California to Hawaii.
“If successful, this will be a trifecta for a solo Pacific rower,” wrote Madsen in her blog. “The first paraplegic. First openly gay athlete. And oldest woman to do a solo crossing.”
Madsen departed Marina Del Ray on April 24 in her custom-built 20-foot oceangoing rowboat, Row Of Life, and headed toward Honolulu, Hawaii. The 2,500-mile ocean journey was expected to take up to four months. Updates in her online blog said that she had been fighting strong winds and difficult seas, but was in great spirits and enjoying the challenge, taking time to appreciate her 60th birthday on May 10.
Madsen is well known in the adaptive sports community, having competed in three Paralympics. Her sports were rowing, javelin and shot put, and she earned a bronze medal in the latter during the 2012 London games. She was happy to share her knowledge and would bring Row Of Life to the Abilities Expo to give demonstrations and share tales of her adventures, always with enthusiasm and a beaming smile.
“Angela had an amazing generosity of spirit and would show up wherever, whenever she was asked to help out,” says Annie Desalernos, athlete liaison and executive committee member at Valor Games Far West. “When we did events for veterans with disabilities through Paralympic Sport Sacramento, she would load up her sprinter van with adaptive track and field gear and she and her wife, Debra, would drive up to Sacramento from Long Beach. Debra was a constant help and captured the events through her excellent photography, and Angela would teach and coach shot put and javelin. They were an amazing team, always in good spirits and extremely funny.”
Long-distance ocean rowing was Madsen’s passion and earned her 14 Guinness World Records titles. She crossed the Atlantic twice — in 2007 with one other rower and in 2011 as part of a team. In 2009 she crossed the Indian Ocean with a team of eight rowers, and in the next year she circumnavigated Great Britain with three other women. In 2014, she was part of two-person Pacific ocean crossing from California to Hawaii.
Madsen made her first solo attempt to cross from California to Hawaii in 2013, setting off from Santa Cruz harbor in her Row Of Life. Unfortunately she ran into a series of strong storms on the eighth day, experiencing multiple capsizes and needing to be rescued. A trawler found her abandoned and damaged craft and towed it to Long Beach.
On Madsen’s current crossing attempt, despite facing difficult headwinds and large seas, her GPS tracker and blog updates showed she was making steady progress. On her 60th day at sea, she was near the half-way point to Hawaii, making it likely she would have arrived in Honolulu within her planned four-month time frame.
In Madsen’s last text message sent on Saturday night, June 20, she said she planned to enter the water the next day, wearing a harness and safety line, to fix some hardware on the boat that attaches a para-anchor. The parachute-like device can be deployed into the water to stabilize a boat in heavy weather and big seas, both of which were forecast to come her way in the next few days. On Sunday, Debra and their friend Soraya Simi, who is making a documentary about the crossing, contacted the Coast Guard because the boat’s course was aimlessly drifting and Madsen was not returning text messages. The Coast Guard dispatched the C-17 plane that spotted her lifeless body in the water, tethered to Row Of Life.
A German cargo ship headed to Tahiti from Oakland heard the Coast Guard’s call and recovered Madsen’s body late Monday night. The Row Of Life is adrift and Debra hopes to find a way to recover it. Madsen’s Facebook page has a summery written by Debra saying, “Angela is now en route to Tahiti without me, which was not our agreement. Angela was living her dream. She loved being on the water.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up to help pay the costs of recovering Madsen’s body from Tahiti and also to hopefully recover her boat, Row Of Life.