I was tremendously saddened to hear that Angela Madsen has died during her first solo row, an attempt to become the first paraplegic and oldest woman to row from California to Hawaii. She was about half way through her journey, at the furthest point from land, and had just celebrated her 60th birthday at sea.

Angela Madsen with New Zealand rower Tara Remington, at the Pete Archer Rowing Center in Long Beach, on May 15, 2014. (Photo by Sean Hiller/ Daily Breeze).

After Angela failed to respond to text messages on Sunday, Soroya Simi, who was making a film about Angela’s bid, contacted the US Coast Guard. They sent a plane, and the crew spotted Angela in the water, still tethered to her boat, apparently lifeless. Her body was later retrieved by a cargo ship.

Angela had told her wife, Debra, that she was going to make some repairs or adjustments to the sea anchor deployment apparatus on the bow of the boat, which would require her to go into the water. I was always very careful about going into the water (apart from the one time when I wasn’t, and very nearly came unstuck and lost my boat: see The Stupidest Thing I Have Ever Done), and I would imagine that Angela would have been at least twice as careful as I was, having limited use of her legs after being left paraplegic by a botched back surgery, intended to remedy a basketball injury, in 1993. I am sure she would only have got into the water if the repair was absolutely necessary.

We will probably never know exactly what happened. It’s not much fun trying to do repairs, or even scrub off barnacles, while in the water. Unless the ocean is absolutely dead calm (i.e. almost never), the boat is wallowing around, and could possibly hit you on the head and knock you out. You’re trying not to think too much about what wildlife could be below you, wondering whether to take an exploratory nibble to see if you taste good. You’re also trying to ignore that fact that the ocean is around two miles deep on average, which can be a bit of a freaky thought.

I am guessing that, most likely, Angela grew exhausted and didn’t have the strength to pull herself back on board. Unlike me, she was smart enough to stay tethered to the boat, so she didn’t become separated from it, but maybe her limbs weren’t strong enough to pull herself up and onto the deck. I used to get back on board by placing a foot in the grab-line, and then using the horizontally-stowed oars as climbing bars to pull myself up. I needed the full use of all arms and legs to get safely back into the boat.

Whatever actually happened, it seems it’s the way she would have wanted to go. Angela’s wife, Debra, says that, “Angela was living her dream. She loved being on the water as you could see from the photos she sent.”

Filmmaker Soraya said, “This was a clear risk going in since day one, and Angela was aware of that more than anyone else. She was willing to die at sea doing the thing she loved most.”

So I hope that her last moments were peaceful, a calm release of her soul into the deep blue waters of the Pacific. My sympathies are with Debra, and all who knew and loved her.

With Angela in January, 2009

I don’t claim to have known Angela well. We met only a few times. But she was a great inspiration to me as an indomitable woman to lived life to the fullest. Her brothers told her she wouldn’t make it in the military – she proved them wrong. A sporting injury was compounded by failed surgery – she went on to become a medal-winning Paralympic athlete. She lost her job, her marriage, and ended up living on the streets – she bounced back and created a rowing programme for people with disabilities. She came out as gay – she married Deb and became a vocal LGBTQ activist. She was a legend.

I was surprised how much the news of her death affected me. My personal belief is that death is not necessarily traumatic (see my interview with Sue Brayne in The Gifts of Solitude, which has informed my view of what happens when we pass over), and that it is  not necessarily the final end. Maybe Angela had done all she came here to do in this lifetime – to be sure, she did a lot. So maybe it was a more selfish sadness that I was feeling, that her light is no longer here to shine on this earthly plane – except that it is still shining, for as long as we remember Angela and her courageous spirit.

(Angela’s story is told in her book, Rowing Against the Wind.)


Other Stuff:

Lia Ditton has recently set out to also row to Hawaii, starting from San Francisco. She is hoping to beat my time, which shouldn’t be too hard if conditions are favourable. I was built for style, not speed. 🙂

The Explorers Web report is a little confusing – it states that Lia is the only female competitor to finish the single-handed Transatlantic Race, which unless there is a fine technical point that they haven’t made clear, I know for a fact isn’t true – because I’ve done it too. (But there again, EW also rashly concluded that I had abandoned my Pacific row in Hawaii in 2008, because I had shown no signs of moving on again for several months – whereas if the writer had looked at my website, they would have seen that it was always intended that it would be a three-stage row over the course of three years.) Also, the speed record is not one of my four official Guinness World Records. The definitive list of ocean rowing records is on the Ocean Rowing Society website. Whatever records she may or may not break, I wish Lia a speedy and safe crossing.

One Way Ticket podcast: I had fun doing this podcast interview with Steven Shalowitz for the One Way Ticket Show, with thanks to Nancy May for effecting the introduction. The premise of the show is that you get to choose a one-way ticket to a place, state of mind, or date in the past or future. I chose the year 2067. Tune in to find out why!

I’ve just heard that Mike Hawley passed away yesterday after a battle with cancer, aged 58. Mike was another live-out-loud character, the gracious host of the EG Conference in Monterey where I spoke in 2012 and attended in 2018. I also saw Mike and Nina at one of those “pinch me, I must be dreaming” dinner parties in Cambridge, Massachussetts, in 2017. The dinner was at the home of fellow MIT/Marvin Minsky alum Danny Hillis, founder of the Long Now Foundation, and the other guests included philosopher and prominent atheist, Daniel Dennett (aka one of the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism”), and his wife, Susan. Mike was a fabulous pianist, and entertained us royally. He was one of those people who makes you feel like he’s genuinely delighted to know you, even though his friends must have numbered in the thousands. Mike was a true Renaissance Man, and a wonderful, warm human being. My thoughts and sympathies are with his wife, Nina, and their son and daughter.

TEDxStroudWomen: I am curating this event in Stroud, UK, on 29th November this year. Applications for speakers are now open. If you know someone who has a great idea worth sharing (on the topic of women and/or our event theme, Emergence), please invite them to apply via our website.


  • Thank you, Roz. I had a very nice chat with Angela about 10 years ago at one of the gatherings in San Francisco. She was unassuming but bigger than life to me. Will never forget, I can see her as though it was just yesterday.
    Oh, and even though I think I know why 2067, I will listen to the podcast … something to do with your favorite number 23, I suppose.

  • You have such a good memory, Doug! Thanks for sharing your recollection of Angela. And yes, you’re on the money regarding 2067, but there’s also an element of curiosity about the future in general, and I didn’t want to go too far out into the future in case there are no humans left… 🙁

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *