On Final Approach
Off course and months behind schedule, Jacob Hendrickson continues to propel his custom-made row boat toward what he hopes will be a triumphant landfall in Australia.
The former Air Force pilot began his marathon journey in July 2018 for what had been charted to be a 9,150-nautical mile journey from Neah Bay in the northwestern corner of Washington state to Perth on the west coast of Australia. He has admitted the schedule was an optimistic view of a daunting physical and mental challenge for one man to accomplish alone.
Hendrickson has been tracked by a team on the mainland who have stood by in case the adventurer ran into forces of Mother Nature that threatened his survival. He also had an emergency beacon stowed in his protected cabin that connected to a satellite operated by the Federal Communication Commission.
Early entries in his weekly blogs at JacobAdoram.com allowed anybody to keep up with his observations and growing doubts about the magnitude of the challenge he had taken on. His initial blogs allowed followers to share his sea-level observations and his musing about the journey he had undertaken.
He has rowed his custom-built 28-foot Emerson with prevailing currents and often against unpredictable weather patterns that threw him hundreds of miles off course. As of mid-April, Hendrickson was meandering east of the Solomon Islands and true north of New Caledonia with a 10.7 mile-per-hour wind at his back.
The aviator was forced to make a decision last December at the five-month point of his crossing that he later described as “not really a decision at all.”
He had lowered his sea anchor due to a low-pressure system that was apparently passing north of the Hawaiian Islands. He waited and drifted before contemplating the safe choice of turning back toward Hawaii because he was running low on provisions.
“Should I continue past Hawaii as planned? We already know it's not as planned; I'm a couple of months behind schedule. Should I continue past Hawaii even though I'm short on food? That's the real question.
“We also know there is no question, I'll continue.”
But that’s when Hendrickson also showed his first signs of doubt.
“The wheels haven't fallen off yet, or the rudder, or the rudder drive that sounds like imminent death (I'm working on it). Pending catastrophe between here and Hawaii, I'll continue.”
He welcomed a visitor to his solitary journey on Day No. 189 when a blue-footed Booby checked out the unusual craft before finally coming in for a social call.
“The Booby is interested in Emerson,” Hendrickson wrote. “Between passes low in the troughs, he hesitates directly above the boat, eyes darting left and right. The tail feathers spread, the wings broaden, giving the Booby an extra few seconds of reconnaissance before slipping back into a trough.
On the next pass, the Booby commits—it’s time for a landing. Emerson is 28 feet long, with plenty of flat surfaces. This Booby instead decides to land on the thin edge of the raised hardtop, about 3 feet from my face.
“He ignores me entirely.”
The solo sailor admitted having an extended conversation with the unusual sea bird, admitting to the Booby that he was rowing and not paddling like a bird on the surface of the water.
The conversations with himself evolved into trite observations of his surroundings.
“I don't have cup holders anywhere, with the exception of makeshift devices constructed with 550 parachute cord. It's just a thin rope, so the improvised cup holders only hold until about 35 degrees of roll. After which, I have a projectile coffee mug on my hands.”
That was the same day that the native of Austin, Texas, faced the reality that he would no longer be able to update his Garmin map because the device had caught fire through what was an apparent short in the charging cable.
“Well, it was more of a red, smoldering, smoking, rubber dripping situation,” he wrote. “Everything is under control, just no more text messages.”
The fighter pilot spent as many hours as he could observing and supervising the construction of his custom-built rowboat at Schooner Boatworks in Portland, Oregon. Hendrickson flew A-10 Warthogs in Afghanistan while he saved up enough money and recruited sponsors to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars he estimated would be needed for the solo crossing.
The boat was the concept for the ocean-going rowboat, the last boat designed by the legendary boat designer Eric Sponberg before his retirement. Hendrickson’s boat was featured in an article on the famed designer authored for an issue of “Boat Builder” magazine.
Sponberg was so proud of the craft he designed for the Air Force pilot, he included it on his personal website. For his safety, Hendrickson has worn a four-point harness to prevent him from being tossed overboard in rough seas. His 28-foot boat weighed only 22 pounds before being stocked with provisions for the voyage.
The would-be captain was on hand to be part of the testing of the boat while under construction. The innovative design of the craft allowed it to right itself even if it was toppled over by high waves.
“I sat in the boat with the four-point harness when the boat was flipped during a test run,” he recalled. “My head was under water for only a few moments before the boat righted itself and I was vertical again.”
The safety precautions went beyond the design of the craft. Hendrickson said the row boat was equipped with the latest in electronics to guard him against any unforeseen situations. He described the high-tech safety measures his own Risk Management Plan.
By the time Hendrickson made his decision to forge ahead on that fateful afternoon, imagination had become his best form of entertainment. That included many lengthy conversations with himself.
Early entries in his blog were focused on the physical challenge, including descriptions of the aches that riddled his body.
“Physically, I'm holding up well,” he wrote on December 5 of last year. “I'm not taking medications for any ailments, so I'd say that's excellent. I'm still working through various joint and muscle pains, but nothing worth complaining about.”
By Day No. 230 on March 6 of this year he was much more philosophical.
“I can't think of anything I know with certainty. Not even 1+1=2 works anymore, since apparently on the quantum scale 1+1 doesn't just mean 2. It seems we don't need absolute certainty to survive, since we are all here. The stories of our ancestors say we don't need certainty, we need something called faith. Faith isn't knowing either, it's something else.
“As far as I can tell, nobody truly knows anything. It's obviously terribly unproductive to just declare nobody knows anything.”
The images and impressions that he had held inside for so long as a cadet at the Air Force Academy and being ordered to deliver deadly weapons against unsuspecting enemies that were only specs in the sand when he flew sorties in Afghanistan had suddenly become vivid images that surrounded him on his small craft in the middle of the Pacific.
“I know there are some things in life that improve my situation, and others that are detrimental, and sometimes I get it wrong,” he wrote in his blog on one especially dark night. “I know feelings influence my decisions in some manner even if I don't understand how or why. I know there are certain ways to act that are acceptable, and I know I've gotten that wrong too.
‘It's like a self-correcting sine wave, overshooting certainty, oscillating closer and closer to some semblance of knowledge, but never truly arriving. Maybe somewhere in that narrowing oscillation lies wisdom.”
Hendrickson had hoped his experience as an aviator together with his working knowledge of navigation would allow him to take on the challenge many said was impossible. The currents and the winds at sea level, he said, present a different range of challenges than flying Mach 1.0 at 30,000 feet.
“The currents can act like the wind, but that’s where the similarities end,” he explained. “For a journey of this length, I had to make considerations as to the types of freeze-dried foods I could take along, how much toothpaste to pack, how much butane I would need to boil water, what type of music would inspire me and, most importantly, when I need to deploy the sea anchor.”
When he passed into the Southern Hemisphere, the Milky Way and other familiar constellations were no longer in their usual place in the night sky. Hendrickson began his journey with a full complement of electronic equipment to help guide him across the lonely stretches of ocean. But he continued to rely on his sextant and his compass to remain true to his desire to duplicate the efforts of sea captains who sailed the uncharted seas centuries ago.
“I've determined I'm unable to visualize how the earth is oriented within our galaxy using casual observation. I keep looking at the band of Milky Way rotating above our heads, then imagine that we are also in that Milky Way, then imagine the earth spinning and orbiting within some arm of the Milky Way, but unsure where I am relative to the band of stars above,” he wrote. “Up, down, north, south, all that gets confused in my head, mainly because I'm not sure if there's a north for the galaxy?”
Then his thoughts passed from philosophy to physics.
“Is the location of where we think the Big Bang took place, the cosmic north? How have I not figured this out before?”
And then beyond the Earth sciences.
“The sound rushes back in. Awake again. The sensation of waking always fascinates me. Especially the sound. It's the conscious awareness that sound is again available for sensory input that is peculiar. It feels like a forgotten crescendo found an opening back into space and time.”
He wrote that he was certain that he would run out of the pre-packaged, high-protein meals he had stored below deck. Hendrickson contemplated eating less but eventually utilized the fishing gear he had brought along to catch some fresh meat.
Hendrickson was realistic about the degree of difficulty he had created for himself before he made his first pull on an oar. He was aware that his physical limitations or forces beyond his control could force him off course enough that he could miss his ultimate goal altogether.
“Odds are that I very well may end up in Hawaii or California,” he confided with friends. “Wherever my journey ends, it will be a valuable learning experience for my life.”
At his present rate and direction, Hendrickson could make landfall on the Solomon Islands or the tiny atoll of Vanuatu before he reaches his ultimate goal of Australia.
Regardless of where he sets foot on dry land, the solo navigator told friends he is looking forward to sitting down at a table for a meal of food that is not dehydrated and not freeze-dried.
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis in California and has received acclamation for his work in the areas of sustainable energy and the insurance industry. He is the author of three books that document colorful periods of history in Washington.