A young woman from Luverne was half of a two-person team that rowed a small boat 2,747 miles over 58 days this winter across the Atlantic Ocean, from the Canary Islands off North Africa to Antigua in the Caribbean. It was actually a race, in which her team finished 17th out of 26 rowed boats.
And in a few days, on June 4, a woman and a man from the west metro are scheduled to push off as a team from Monterey, Calif., intending to row a small boat across the Pacific Ocean to Honolulu, at least 2,400 miles and 45 to 60 days away. That, too, is billed as a race.
So, let 2016 officially be remembered as the year that Minnesota emerged as a force in the world of competitive trans-oceanic rowing.
“When I heard about those guys I thought, ‘Yoo-hoo — go Minnesota!’ ” said Caitlin Miller, 24, of Luverne, of her fellow rowers. “This is amazing.”
This is amazing evidence, too, of the accelerating pursuit of ever zanier, and often more dangerous, endurance adventures. Marathons and Ironman triathlons are now a yawn. More than 500 people are registered in June for the Race Across America, a virtual nonstop, coast-to-coast ultra-bike race from California to Maryland. The winner will finish in about eight days.
Next week’s Great Pacific Race represents another level of challenge. In the first race two years ago, five of the 13 starting boats dropped out in the first two days, only trying to get away from the coast. Two four-man teams were rescued in high seas by the Coast Guard, and three single rowers returned to shore because of, respectively, exhaustion, severe sea sickness, and repeated capsizing of a boat. Seven boats eventually finished the race in 44 to 75 days.
The starting line June 4 in California will include the team of Erin Hammer, 44, who grew up in McIntosh, Minn., and now lives in Minnetonka, and Ryan Foss, 42, who grew up in St. Louis Park and Brainerd and now lives in Tonka Bay. Their inspiration?
“We like the crazy adventures,” Hammer said. “The adrenaline kick.”
“There is also part of me that likes the idea of having big goals,” Foss said. “I would like to encourage my kids to dream big.”
For the record, according to an actual organization called the Ocean Rowing Society, since 1896 fewer than 400 people are known to have successfully rowed a boat across an ocean. More than 200 other people or boats failed in the attempt, or were lost at sea.
These days, competitive trans-oceanic rowing is trending. Just 31 attempts were recorded before 1984. So far this year alone, 38 boats — solos and crews of two or four — have launched. That number does not include the fleet of about 20 boats expected June 4 for the second edition of the Great Pacific Race.
Hammer and Foss come to the Great Pacific Race as aggressively outdoorsy adventure buddies. Trans-oceanic rowing became a kind of natural progression for them. They met in 2008 in the MBA program at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business and discovered a mutual interest in 30-to-50-mile ultramarathons (they’ve done five), and exotic high-altitude mountain hiking (they’ve done Africa’s Kilimanjaro, at 19,341 feet, and South America’s Aconcagua, at 23,841 feet).
That led, late in 2014, to what Hammer described as “the most intense thing up to this point” — the Jungle Marathon in Brazil, a seven-day, self-supported, 174-mile slog through the Amazon. The fun there included “mud, swamps and tarantulas,” Hammer said, with one memorable attack by hornets along the trail. Hammer finished; Foss did not. (On Aconcagua, Foss made the summit; Hammer did not).
All this intense, far-flung travel and adventure, and Hammer and Foss are not only not married, they are not even dating. Hammer is single, but her boyfriend, Matt Knight, is part of a four-man rowing team from the United Kingdom in the Great Pacific Race. Foss has been married for 17 years to his “very understanding wife,” Lisa Foss. The Fosses have two understanding boys, ages 9 and 11. Hammer left her banking job this year to concentrate on the rowing project. Foss works at brightpeak financial, a planning service of Thrivent Financial, which is among their sponsors.
After surviving Brazil, their question became, of course: What next? Two discoveries focused their thoughts. First, they heard about the Pacific rowing race, which seemed attractively harrowing. Then they heard about a friend’s 2-year-old son, named Hadley, who somehow endured bouts of 100 seizures a day in the care of a children’s hospital in England, and their friend’s work raising money for children who could not afford the care that Hadley received.
“As we’d talk, the trans-Pacific race just kept coming up,” Hammer said. “It started to make sense. And there was the Hadley part.”
The Hadley part was that they realized they could use the race to raise money for hospitals serving other children battling disease.
After months of research, wrangling sponsors and partners, and the support of understanding employers and families, Hammer and Foss last July committed to the project by writing personal checks for a boat.
What followed was a whirlwind of planning, logistics and training, which included learning how to row a boat. The money they raise will go to Children’s Hospital and Clinics in Minnesota, Children’s Hospital Colorado, and Children’s Healthcare in Atlanta. (Donations can be made at EnduranceLimitsUSA.com).
But what to expect in a trans-oceanic rowing race?
The rower from Luverne, Miller is among the few people on Earth who can offer first-hand advice. She went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where, fatefully, she joined the rowing team and met teammate George Pagano Jr. Intrigued by the adventure, they also fell into the momentum of the challenge and the preparations for the trans-Atlantic Talisker Whiskey Challenge — and, suddenly, they were at sea off Africa.
“After two years of preparations,” Miller said, “it really sunk in about two days out, after we couldn’t see land anymore, that maybe we were really in this.”
Miller described a surreal couple of months at sea — usually alone, as she and Pagano mostly alternated two hours-on/two hours-off schedules; whales jumping; glorious sun rises and sunsets between celestial shows at night that included “shooting stars that looked like someone throwing a flare over the boat”; and huge pools of bioluminescence — marine microorganisms that light up the ocean at night as if illuminated by a submarine.
But life in trans-oceanic rowing often comes down to rowing, eating, sleeping, and making sure your lifeline is attached — always. Dramamine is not considered a performance-enhancing drug.
“We rowed by ourselves a lot of the time,” Miller said. “It can actually get lonely.”
One of the toughest times came when their instruments told them they were headed for a tropical storm. They dropped their parachute-like sea anchor and bobbed in the water without advancing for three days, waiting for the storm to pass. Another time, they hit a bad current for three days of rowing. The first day they lost a mile; in the next two days of rowing they didn’t move an inch.
Miller’s advice for Hammer and Foss: Make sure you have redundancy and back-ups for everything; stay positive and enjoy the days when you move 70 miles; photograph and record everything you can; and forget about the race — just keep moving. “It will,” she said,”go faster than you think.”
Others have told Hammer and Foss to expect that their 23-foot boat will capsize at some point. “But our boat is self-correcting,” Hammer said. “It should right itself.”
More advice: “We’ve been told that someone,” Foss said, nodding his head sideways toward Hammer, “will have to jump overboard once a week and scrap the barnacles off the boat.” (Miller confirms this.)
Keeping it together
Interestingly, one of Hammer and Foss’ assets will be their time together as exhausted, stressed-out partners — “in the trying times,” as Hammer said. They haven’t rowed much, but they have made tough decisions together while in bad moods. They manage their fatigue directly. They establish code words that mean leave me alone right now. In down moments, they sing.
After a winter of indoor rowing, Hammer and Foss look fit, loose but hardly bulky. They are mostly eager — very eager, really — to be done with the packing, planning and preparations. This spring, they did some test workouts in their new boat off the Mississippi Gulf coast, and have been rowing off California since May 20 — equipment checked out, food packed and podcasts downloaded.
What comes after trans-oceanic rowing?
“We’ll have at least 44 days to talk about that,” Hammer said. Added Foss: “My very understanding wife is already pressing me on that question.”
Tony Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Minneapolis.
Follow their progress
For updates on the rowing race, go online to its website at greatpacific.race.com. Find updates on Erin Hammer and Ryan Foss at endurancelimitsusa.com