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‘Catastrophic’ capsize ends Olympian's Atlantic rowing expedition days short of its goal

Adam Kreek and Markus Pukonen at the helm of the James Robert Hanssen for OAR Northwest.

Erinn J Hale/Courtesy Canadian Wildlife Federation

For 73 days, they had rowed across the Atlantic and endured the extremes, from high winds to no winds, rough waters to still waters, until they were less than 900 nautical miles from their arrival port in Miami.

And then just like that, the Africa to the Americas' expedition was over; swamped by a pair of waves that left two of its crew members scrambling to get out of a water-filled compartment before all four were rescued and bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sunday.

Planned as a science-based, world-record row from Dakar to Miami, the transatlantic voyage was into its homestretch Saturday morning when the 8.8-metre-long boat was capsized 400 nautical miles north of Puerto Rico. The boat was constructed to self-right, but didn't. That put skipper Jordan Hanssen and Pat Fleming of Seattle and Canadians Markus Pukonen of Tofino, B.C., and Olympic gold medalist Adam Kreek, of Victoria, on emergency measures.

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Mr. Kreek's wife, Rebecca Sterritt, was relatively calm when she got the first call from OAR Northwest mission supervisor Greg Spooner saying the boat had capsized. The crew had taken part in several ocean exercises and had even undergone survival training taught by Q3 Marine Training Solutions in Anacortes, Wash.

It was a followup call that was harder to take. "The guys were easy to find because they activated their [Personal Location Beacons in their lifejackets]," said Ms. Sterritt, who is seven months pregnant with the couple's second child. "When the U.S. Coast Guard [planes] said they saw the boat and the life raft but couldn't tell how many people were in it, I lost it. I was bawling."

"There were three, four hours of not knowing. I was absolutely terrible. Then I got the call from Greg that everyone was okay and I was bawling again. It was such relief."

Ms. Sterritt shared a portion of the e-mail Mr. Kreek sent to her Saturday after the crew was taken aboard the MV Heijin, a commercial freighter that was carrying them to San Juan on Sunday. According to Mr. Kreek, he and Mr. Fleming had finished their rowing shift and were about to take a nap in the boat's small rear cabin at 6:20 a.m. ET.

"A small, boxy wave came over the stern, driving our bow into the water. After this, the buoyancy of our forward hull pushed the bow into the air and lurched our pitch to starboard," Mr. Kreek wrote. "It was at this exact time that a second wave came over the stern of our boat. In the hatch, we heard the threatening water trundling over the aft cabin and solar panels. Pat lurched forward to shut the hatch but the wave of water was too powerful and blew the stern hatch wide open. The wave filled the cabin, and the boat began to roll."

Mr. Kreek described what happened next as "literally living my worst nightmare. Trapped in a small, enclosed space quickly filling with water … I saw Pat at the hatch and pushed him out as hard as I could. I looked up in the cabin and saw an air pocket. I popped up and took a giant gulp of air then dove back underwater. I could see the daylight and swam out …"

With all four crammed into a small life raft, they waited until being spotted by Coast Guard planes that dropped supplies and a radio. The Heijin was nearby and hauled the four men aboard, dressed them in orange jumpsuits then fed them fresh corn soup.

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Ms. Sterritt wasn't able to fly to Puerto Rico because of her pregnancy, but Mr. Spooner arrived Saturday to co-ordinate efforts. The crew lost everything when their boat was swamped, including their passports. What they didn't lose was the belief they had accomplished most of their goals, doing conductivity and density tests on the upper layers of the ocean's surface while also conversing with students via on-line chats.

"It's bittersweet," Mr. Spooner acknowledged. "We were connecting with classrooms throughout North America. We had streamed data to scientists and anyone who was interested in it. The last little piece that would have capped the row was finishing it. But we still have to look at everything we accomplished and consider it a positive."

Mr. Kreek, who won Olympic gold in 2008 with the Canadian men's eight rowing team, offered this take on the venture: "A ship is safest in port, but that's not what it's built for."

The expedition was sponsored by the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

Editor's note: A previous version of this online article incorrectly stated that the MV Heijin is a Chinese carrier. In fact, the MV Heijin is a Panama flag ship managed by NYK Shipmanagement, a Japanese company.

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