Row of Life: Paralyzed vet tries risky solo trip across Pacific

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) We all set goals in our lives, personal challenges to achieve a certain level of happiness, wealth or success.

But setbacks we may suffer in our pursuits rarely provide such positive energy to succeed as with Angela Madsen, a woman with the face of courage.

Madsen, a former U.S. Marine, became paralyzed from the waist down more than 20 years ago as the result of an accident and a bad surgical procedure to fix it. Driven to despair, she lost her job and ended up homeless.

But Madsen's steel determination was sharpened through association with veterans' groups. Her full story was highlighted recently on Eyewitness News Mornings. It is an amazing tale of hope and renewal.

Her latest amazing feat was an attempt to row a boat from Santa Cruz to Hawaii alone, although it may seem an impossible dream.

She departed Santa Cruz on June 9. But, winds were contrary.

"It was, like, 25-knot winds with 33-39-knot gusts of wind, and it generated 25-foot high seas," said Madsen in a telephone interview. "So it got pretty rough."

Along the way, there were sights and dangers few people ever imagine, much less encounter.

"I had a blue whale and her calf come up beside my boat. I had to pull my oar in so I wouldn't have contact with it. And killer whales. I got charged by a few killer whales. They, like, ramming speed come at you, then about 10 feet away from your boat they disappear. Never see them again. It's kinda frightening," she described.

Being thrashed by high waves and unable to make any westward progress against the incessant gale-force winds, it became clear after one week that she would need to abort this attempt.

Madsen called for help over the radio. A large container ship answered the call, coming to her rescue. Last Sunday evening, just before sunset, the huge ship came alongside her boat in high seas. The crew threw her life rings.

"They're throwing things down at me with their boat moving so fast and they're saying, 'Jump.' I'm not a jumper. I'm a paraplegic. I don't jump. As they made that first passing, I got sucked under their boat, and I can just hear my boat, my antennas getting scraped off, my nav lights getting broken," Madsen said.

Madsen's life and inspiring ambition after seven days at sea in horrific conditions had come to this. She and her relatively small vessel were being forced underneath a mammoth container ship due to dynamics beyond her control by a crew that was trying to rescue her.

"I'm looking out, and there's 15 feet of the hull to one side of me and the propeller about three feet away. And I'm shot from beneath this container ship in my little boat. In the turbulence from the water. I'm thinking, 'My boat is going to roll.' And he wanted to come back and try it again? Nooo. We're not going to do this again," she said.

The ship sailed on, leaving Madsen's boat damaged. She called the Coast Guard around 2 a.m. Monday. A helicopter arrived about 3:30 a.m. in the dark and cold of the eastern Pacific. She was about 100 miles west of Point Conception.

"They lowered a swimmer into the water. He came over and jumped up on the boat," Madsen said. "We had a little discussion about what we were going to do. Made the plan. So they winched me up in the basket and I had a one-hour helicopter ride to Santa Barbara."

Back home safe and sound in Long Beach, Madsen is not deterred. This was merely a bump in the road, she said.

"The seven days that I spent out there in those conditions, that's definitely a confidence-booster," Madsen said. "Also, that I had to be rescued is one thing, but that's actually making a smart decision on my part. I could fight and stay out there, fight and stay out there. That proves no point and just endangers myself and other people. So, making the call to quit on this one was the right call."

Her boat is currently lost at sea, west of the Channel Islands drifting southeast, but the Navy and others are looking for it.

"It's a little damaged from being run over," she said. "I've now been run over by a container ship!"

But, there are a host of accomplishments this intractable lady can cite. Her tenacity has brought her this far and will carry her to her goal. But it will be next year that "The Row of Life" to Hawaii takes off again.