HEALTH COACH Talks with Angela Madsen, Ocean Rower, Skipper: ROC Rowing Expedition

ROC Rowing Expedition

Big Blue Row, arrived on Port St. Charles, Barbados, March 4th, 2011; after 47 days at sea. Angela Madsen skippered a crew of 16 rowers with 7 Canadians on the team. 

They were attempting to break the world record of 33 days, 7.5 hours for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing by oar (people power only), in the 38 foot Big Blue; the first Catamaran rowing vessel to cross an ocean. With 8 oars in the water rowing non-stop (4 rowers in each of the twin hulls), the crew of 16 rowers kept a schedule of two hours on the oars, and two hours off, throughout the expedition; which was unaccompanied by another boat for supplies, safety, or communication. 

After encountering formidable ocean conditions that hindered their progress, they realized that the expedition would take longer than the planned 30-33 days and began to ration food while maintaining their non-stop schedule. 

As Captain, Angela was responsible for the wellbeing, morale, and the safety of her crew, and ultimately the one responsible for reaching their destination. She is the one to hold everything together when the going gets real, through the demanding pace, unimaginable stress and strain, fatigue, and the dangerous conditions that must be endured and overcome when attempting such an expedition. 

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to communicate with Angela about this ocean voyage (her fourth) and to have a glimpse into her extraordinary life and to share this with my readers here at HEALTH COACH.

Thank you, Angela, for giving me your time to talk about what you do. Your life story truly is a world-class inspiration - see the Exceptional People Page for a profile of Angela - and valuable to share with my readers at HEALTH COACH, with whom I am working hard to inspire healthy habits. 

What I felt was needed was to show a world beyond the everyday struggles. I am proud to feature you as the standard of an exceptional person. Adventurer. Olympian. Trailblazer. Defier of Limitations. Champion of Life. Ocean Rower. Paraplegic.


1. You have some very impressive achievements, definitely meriting a few tattoos and piercings (seafarers that survived harrowing voyages would mark them symbolically and that is the origins of tattoos and piercings). What are you most proud of?

I have had a few piercings and I found them to be inconvenient so they are gone. They just get all caught up in clothing and ripped out. I do have a tat of a zipper (on my back over my surgery scar) opening up to reveal the inner hardware or Harrington rods and pedicle screws which hold my lumbar spine together. The tat was done from my x rays. I do have a long list of achievements, some of them very impressive I suppose but I am not quite sure of which I am most proud or if I am proud of any of my achievements. I get a lot of positive feedback from people who have heard my story who have been inspired to be more positive or do more with their lives. Sometimes I feel proud of them and of their accomplishments and I gain a sense of satisfaction knowing I had some part in it. It's not really about me so much.

2. A skipper is a key position on an expedition team. What has this role involved for you?
I embrace and value the care of my crew and I have a passive leadership style. Ocean rowing on these crossings is not like any other activity or expedition that can be duplicated or simulated any place else on earth.

Preparations for the row involve training. Training to make sure they are physically and mentally prepared. Safety and rescue training, basic navigation, basic first aid at sea and familiarizing them with the boat and its components and kit as well as making sure they have their personal kit items for the trip. What to bring, what not to bring and preparation also involves the encouragement of even estate planning as it is a dangerous sport.

On the row itself, besides keeping everyone as safe as possible and making the decisions of navigation, watch system, schedule and maintaining a good working relationship with the crew, there is caring for the crew; making sure they have what they need to do the job. Enough food, enough water, enough rest. Making sure they are all healthy and well. Making sure they are caring for themselves and each other and not just physically. 

What we do out there is so tough and people can get so worn down that they need to be lifted up with praise and recognition rather than torn down with criticism, negativity and put downs. There are far more people in this world that know, are familiar and even are comfortable putting people down than know how to be positive or positively motivate people. I try and encourage positivity! This is probably not in the job description, it is just how I roll. 

I try and make it as positive an experience as I possibly can for myself and the crew. I also try and communicate the how and whys of everything I do to those who are going to participate so not only do they have a clear understanding, but they can communicate it to others. I never know if they will do it again or not. What I do know is they will talk about it. They will do interviews, they will answer questions. Some will do presentations and public speaking.  I like to make sure they are informed. Again, not in the job description, just how I roll.

Sunrise at sea

3. One of your passions must be the ocean, and I am interested to know what is at the heart and soul of what motivates and drives you; how do you manage to overcome the physical challenges of being a differently-abled person who is also dealing with the impossible condition of Myasthenia gravis considering the physical demands of these rowing expeditions?
The Myasthenia gravis is not impossible. It is inconvenient. It is an auto immune disease that is ocular or effects the muscles in the eyes. I have bouts of temporary blindness or double vision. The eyes will cross or eye lids droop or not open at all. I got diagnosed with it when I was playing wheelchair basketball for both a men's and women's team and also training for rowing on our national team. I was doing high cardio prolonged activities, traveling extensively and enduing lots of stress. I dropped the high cardio wheelchair basketball and continued rowing since vision is not all that important for rowing and that reduced the amount of traveling and some of the stressors that trigger the Myasthenia. I managed it with medication in the beginning and then managed it by eliminating the triggers and boosting the immune system through nutrition. It is controlled with medication but I find the medication is only necessary when my immune system is compromised. I did not have a problem with it on any of my other rows. The stress of getting the boat ready (for the ROC Expedition, Big Blue Row) and trying to deal with that crappy airport wheelchair I had to use when the airlines lost mine after refusing to bring it to me at JFK, being victimized by cab drivers (in Morocco) because of the wheelchair and the rowing schedule combined with the viral infection at the start of the trip, triggered my Myasthenia gravis. I had to go back on the medication for awhile. On the boat or anyplace I have adapted by becoming keenly aware of my surroundings; everything in its place as if I were visually impaired because I am, from time to time, visually impaired or blind.
I was born and raised in the mid-western state of Ohio. My dad always had motor boats on the Ohio River and I was quite the river rat. I can't remember learning to swim but I spent 3 years on a diving team and 5 years on a swim team all before entering high school. First duty station in the Marine Corps was Southern California so I was naturally drawn to the ocean and the sport of surfing in 1980. One of my goals before becoming disabled was to surf in a major surf contest. I had finally achieved the level of skill to compete in a surf contest and was in the process of going after my dream, and then after the operation on my back, I thought I had lost everything. 

I not only made it back into the surfing line up but have since achieved my goal of surfing in the Women's World Championships of Surfing in Biarritz France in 2006.

The Women’s World Championships of Long  Boarding 

Biarritz, France 
 July 3-9, 2006

With my ASP membership, entry to the contest, travel and accommodations arranged, all that was left for me to do was to determine which board to take and to get some practice sessions using the board I would be surfing with in the contest. I had my 9’6 stealth pope bisect board which I had previously taken to Hawaii and had an awesome time. I purchased it specifically for traveling and at the time of purchase, pope bisect did not have a 10’ board. I took my 9’6” to a few local spots and on the small wave days, it was a bit more challenging. I usually ride a Harbour 10’ San O epoxy surfboard. Then I received an e-mail from Pope bi-sect and I went to their website and saw that they now had a Bob Miller 10’ Pope Bisect in stock and it looked like something I would be interested in.

As the departure date drew nearer, I began checking the surf and weather forecast for Biarritz. The forecast was for small wave conditions and some rain. I have surfed Biarritz in 2-3 meter waves and was thinking the 9’6” would work but after seeing the forecast and webcams I decided to call and inquire about the 10’ bi-sect board.

The 2-piece surfboard design is the easiest for me to travel with being differently-abled and requiring a wheelchair for ambulation. The case is approx. 5’x3’x8” and fits vertically on the footplate of my wheelchair. I place the carrying strap around my neck to keep it from falling forward. I place my duffle bag with cloths and what not on my wheelchair backrest like a backpack and go wherever in the world I want to go to surf independently. Then it is best not to share the information about being disabled. This assures that they will not automatically deny you entry.

I called Karl Pope and arranged to meet him at the warehouse location in Santa Barbara. I told him what I was doing and what conditions I expected. We talked about surf history and the history of the bi-sect. I found it all very interesting. I could have stayed there and chatted all day. I looked at all of the boards and found the one I liked. It is epoxy and is light for a bi-sect board, not as light as the carbon fiber hollow core stealth but it is so similar to the 10’0” board I regularly surf so I decided to trade my 9’6” for the 10’0. This took place the day before departure so I really had no time to surf it. I had my board and myself all packed up and ready to go all the time never knowing if they would allow me to participate in the contest. Feeling anxious, yet trying to be positive and hopeful, just not too much. Trying to be realistic, minimize disappointment and have a back up plan should they have not allowed me to participate. I always have a back up plan.

The flight was uneventful and I arrived in Biarritz on July 1. My baggage and surfboard did not. Some really cool people offered me a ride to my hotel and I checked in with no problems. On the morning of the second I took a cab to the contest site to see how far it was to my hotel and how to get there without getting lost. It cost me 8 euros, not too bad. It was downhill most all the way there. It took about 5 minutes to push in my chair. I got to the venue and checked in without any problems. I was stoked! There was not the least bit of concern on their part about my entry and they were not going to turn me away. I pushed up the hill 30 minutes back to my hotel to find the airline had delivered my duffle bag. There was no sign of my surfboard. Many surfboards were lost and some never arrived. Simone Robb received hers about an hour prior to her first heat.

I had my board shorts and a couple of rash guards in with my clothing. I was hoping the water would not be too cold. Surf report indicated about 65 degrees fahrenheit. My wetsuit was in the bag with the board. I got to the surf village and began inquiring about borrowing a surfboard. They had several soft boards for the volunteers that they allowed me to use. Ah! just to get in the water was wonderful. I did not care what board I had at that point. The waves were bigger than the days before the contest, but not as clean. There was a good rip going south. The temperature was more like 68, no need for the wetsuit. They had used plastic zip ties instead of a string to attach the leash to the board. It snapped on my second wave and I had to swim for it. Go back out? By the time I got all the way up the beach and the access ramp to see all of the foam boards with plastic zip ties, I said forget it and went back to my hotel.

I had my heat sheet and was to surf in heat two on the first day. The first heat was to begin at 11:00 AM. I got on the phone and called the airlines about my board and they still had not found it. I went to sleep that night having nightmares about foam boards and zip ties. In the morning, still no sign of my board, I chose to go to the contest site early instead of waiting for possible delivery of my board. They directed me to look behind one of the tents for a board. There was this big yellow board. It was a 10’0” or 11’0” looked to be about 5” thick what looked more like a big wave or stand up paddle board and that was it. I took it out for a practice session or I should say it took me. It paddled great going out. I would select that board for the Huntington Longboard Crew Paddle around the pier on New Years Day but not for anything else. I could not get it to turn which in certain conditions is okay, but the first day of the contest looked like 2-3 foot waves in the afternoon at Bolsa Chica, with 10-15 knot onshore winds.

Contest Day 1. Monday July 3, 2006: Things just could not be any worse for my heat. I did not advance past the first round. That was never my plan though. I was not there to compete against these women, the best women long boarders in the world. I went there to surf with them. During the contest heat I had both a right and a left take off which were identical. Up to the knees, try to turn the board, catch the rail, end of story. I needed a 3.70 to advance. Screw trying to turn the board. My next wave I was just going to try a parallel take off to the wave, having the board turned more in the right direction and just to go straight. No wave came before the buzzer sounded and I was done. I took a wave in after the buzzer, going straight in the white water where I did a switch stance and a sit backwards ride. I was disappointed that I could not have done more. I spent the rest of the day watching the contest and socializing with some of the other surfers in Surfers Village. They served lunch every day and it was actually good. Evian and Fosters were the sponsors so there was plenty of free water and Fosters beer. Surfer’s village was very accommodating with plenty of places to hang out. There was a VIP tent, A Media tent and a couple of other tents just for the surfers. There was a changing area and an area for free massage treatments. There were a couple of free coffee vending machines to get espresso in the mornings. A big screen where you could see surf videos, the actual surf contest or the band that was playing on stage. There was a band or some entertainment every evening and it was all free. It was a very well organized event and the location was perfect. Surf conditions are variable any place you go. It was small surf but it was pretty clean and consistent.

Contest Day 2. Tuesday July 4, 2006: I went to the venue early and the conditions were small but the waves were clean. Simone Robb from South Africa pulled off not one but 2 - 360’s on one wave to advance. That was so cool! My surfboard was still on the missing list. I took big yellow out again early and had the same results. I twisted my left knee trying and ended up barely able to ambulate for the rest of the day. After applying ice all day to my knee I returned to my hotel room that night still completely lame. My hotel room was not accessible and I had to leave my chair out in the hall. I have not had to do the butt scoot boogie in a long time but I did that night.  I decided to talk to God.” I came here to do something and I have not yet done what it is that I came here to do so please can I just finish” Scooting around my hotel room on my butt I turned over on to my knees and kneeled as far as the pain would allow, then I bounced a bit on my knee and crunch, game on!

I could walk and surf on my knee and ambulate a small amount with my braces again.
Contest Day 3. Wednesday July 5, 2006: Contest activities canceled due to poor conditions. I socialized with some of the surfers and rested my knee. I was being careful not to push it to the point of non-ambulation again.

Contest Day 4. Thursday July 6, 2006: Small clean conditions still no sign of my surfboard. I always went early to the venue to surf before the contest. I took big yellow out being careful of my knee. The water felt great but I still could not surf like myself. The competition was getting closer and more exciting to watch. During the day my board had been found and delivered to my room. When I got back to the room I began to inspect the bag that was torn in two places. I removed the board and assembled it making sure it was okay and no parts were lost or damaged. The board was fine.

Contest Day 5. Friday July 7, 2006: I took a cab today because I thought screaming down the hills at 30 mph in the wheelchair with the surfboard may be too dangerous. Small and clean again. Finally an opportunity to surf my board. I went out for a bit before the quarterfinals began. There was a concert at a beach amphitheater not far from the contest site that we all went to this evening. Our group was sitting in the middle of the sandy beach just behind Linda Benson and some of the Parents. Linda looked back at me and made mention that my being there in Biarritz, France, traveling alone took guts and she shook my hand.

Contest Day 6. Saturday July 8, 2006: The Semi and Finals. The waves were slightly bigger and continued to increase in size throughout the day. I do not think it got bigger than 1.5 meters though. Still clean with some pretty fun waves. The tides and surf changes so radically there but Schuyler McFerran surfed the most consistently throughout. All of the contest results, news and interviews are posted and can be read on the ASP website. Between the Semi-finals and the Finals they had an expression session. About 25 people signed up to surf in it. It was crowded. With the tide the conditions were not very good. I decided not to participate. After the Final the tide was changing, it was not crowded and it was looking like a lot of fun so I went out then.

I was surfing the best I had surfed in a long time in chest to head high sets. Wave after wave. I had a beautiful ride that I took nearly all the way in to the rocks to discover that most everyone in surfer’s village was watching me. I was riding waves, doing switch stance, floaters and re-entry, cutbacks even a hang 5. They were all cheering and carrying on. I had my own personal expression session and did one of the things I had set out to do. Disability awareness and education, changing the perception of what people think or know differently-abled people can do! The other surfers from the contest began popping up in the line up and then I had done one of the other things I had set out to do. I had surfed with some of the best women longboarders on the planet. I had accomplished and done everything I had set out to do.
Contest Day 7. Sunday July 9, 2006. On the way down to the contest this morning the street looked like the Tour De France. The shop owners were all waiting for me to wheel by and were cheering. They watched me fly down the hill and push back up the the hill twice daily all week. I arrived at the venue for my pre-contest surf session. Simone was there early too. We went for a surf together. On the schedule for today is some kind of tag team surf off. Seems like fun. This one involves running on the beach to do hand offs so you know I am not participating in this one. I am sitting this one out. I threw out my old nasty been in the water everyday shoes, changed my cloths, packed up my surfboard and made ready to leave the contest site for the last time. After the tag team competition some of the surfers and Linda Benson went out for a final surf session. It was my turn to sit on the wall in surfer’s village and cheer as Linda took wave after wave, having what appeared to be, a surf session similar to mine just the day before.

I got a ride with my board back to the Hotel and the event organizers were kind enough to arrange and provide transportation for me to get to the airport in the morning. It was an excellent trip. Not perfect but I got to do everything I wanted to do. My wheelchair held up for the entire trip. The bearings had finally disintegrated after I had connected to my final flight to LAX. I was treated with respect by the contest organizers and the other surfers. The flight back was uneventful and my luggage and surfboard were waiting for me at baggage claim. 

My surfing friends joke that I was a mermaid in another life and my rowing ability and strength earned me the Kraken nickname on my Great Britain row. The girls would say release the kraken when they could not get the anchor up or when they needed more power to the oar.

4. Please give us some details of your basic health habits.

I get up and sing that Carol King song like I used to do to my granddaughter when she would not get out of bed, goes like this: " you got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart, then people gonna treat you better, you're going to find, yes you will, that you are as beautiful, as you feel!

I choose the cycle of positivity and to move positively forward in my thinking and in my actions, it is a far more rewarding life style. I am self taught and imperfect but so far its working for me. I am always training for something, whether I have an event or not. I don't put anything into my lungs that is not air. I try for the most part to eat a balanced diet, there just has to be some dark chocolate and some red wine. I try to eliminate stress and alcohol or junk food I only consume in moderation.
5. Would you share some of what the experience of being on these ocean voyages has been for you? Some of your most vivid memories ( I mean, being a person who also loves the ocean, I find my passion inflamed by imaginings of the mental, physical and emotional challenges of such an expedition and also by romantic notions of rowing in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night but I am also cognizant of the difficulties, real challenges and fearful conditions that also must be a part of your experience).

Moonrise over the ocean

There are amazing sun and moon rises and sun and moon sets, there are panoramic ocean views, sky can be brilliantly specked with stars or can be so dark and cloud-covered you cannot see your hand in front of your face. 

Extreme gratitude is what you feel when you get any amount of light to see at night. There is only a certain amount of serenity at night as it is mostly tempered with anxiety as the walls of water that are crashing down on you are highly anticipated yet invisible in the darkness. There is no way of knowing when, where or how, just that it will repeatedly beat you and knock you off your seat till you change watch. It can feel like the longest 2 hours of your life. 

See it coming or not, it will still knock you off your seat. Being that low to the water everyone gets soaked and everyone gets pelted with flying fish. There are fish around the boat constantly. Dolphins, whales, dorado, tuna, sea turtles, sharks, jelly fish, even saw a few Portuguese man of war on this one. 

We witnessed nature, the food chain or big fish eat little fish many times when the Dorado would hunt the flying fish and the shark would then hunt the Dorado. As our food supply began to dwindle we nearly participated by trying to catch a wounded dorado that was swimming at the back of our boat for protection from the shark that had injured it. We thought it much too risky since the shark was following closely, waiting for the kill and the inevitable demise of that beautiful fish. 

When the sky has shades of magenta in it at sunset, the reflection of the water will be like a liquid silver and when it is yellowish, the water looks like molten gold. 

You are like the wind and the water, always moving. The water changes color and salinity or level of salt content changes and with it changes the smell of the sea. There is no smell of land, no pollution, only humidity. 

Even the water you drink is desalinated ocean water with no chemicals or chlorine in it. I look out over the ocean and at the GPS and think how privileged I am to be able to be at this place and at this time where no human being has been or may ever be again and I am thankful for my life! 

Then back to reality, a piece of plastic trash floats by and I am, once again, disgusted by the human race.

Ocean sunset

1 comment:

  1. I could not resist commenting. Exceptionally well written!

    Feel free to surf to my web site ... Sky Angebote (


This is the place where you leave a comment about information you have read here at HEALTH COACH. Thank you