BUENA VISTA — Imagine embarking on a road trip from Baltimore to San Francisco — 2,800 rolling miles of American highway ahead, with plentiful stops for sustenance and respite.
Now take away the land and the air-conditioned SUV. Replace it with endless miles of ocean and a 28-foot boat powered only by human stamina. Rest comes in the form of a seemingly endless string of two-hour catnaps, wedged between backbreaking shifts pulling oars.
No snooze button, no days off, no excuses — just open water from the California coast to Hawaii. Two thousand eight hundred miles.
Daunting? Sure. But Buena Vista resident Kelsey Pfendler says she wouldn’t want it any other way. The 29-year-old is a modern-day vagabond who runs rivers as a raft guide, patrols ski slopes when the snow flies and lives out of a revamped 1984 VW Vanagon with 310,000 miles on the odometer.
“My whole life has been trying to figure out how to be in the middle of nowhere in a boat,” said Pfendler, who has lived in this Chaffee County town for the better part of a decade. “I have such a huge respect for water, and there’s nothing more powerful than the open ocean. But that shouldn’t be the reason for not doing something.”
That something is the World’s Toughest Row, Pacific edition. The grueling race across Earth’s largest ocean launches in June from Monterey, California, and ends in Hanalei Bay on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Pfendler is part of a four-woman team, dubbed Hericane Rowing, that will power one of about 20 boats competing in the race. More teams may still jump in as the starting date approaches.
They will attempt to break the women’s record for the course — currently 34 days, 14 hours, 20 minutes.
“I think she has a chance to beat it,” Travis Hochard, the general manager of River Runners, said on a brilliant August morning. Nearby, Pfendler readied a group for a 10-mile rafting trip down the Arkansas River. “If her team is anything like her, I’m sure they’ll do great things.”
They’ll need to, said Evan Stratton, who serves as a safety officer for World’s Toughest Row. He completed his own 50-day ocean voyage four years ago, in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, as part of the Fight Oar Die rowing team made up of U.S. military veterans.
Whether it’s 45-knot wind gusts or 25- to 30-foot waves — or both — a potentially fatal event is just one bad ocean swell away, the former Marine said.
Stratton would know.
He was the weather router for a Fight Oar Die team that nearly perished in the waning days of 2022 when its boat overturned and emergency communications largely failed.
“You’re going across the ocean in one of the most primitive ways you can,” said Stratton, who lives in Aurora. “More people summit Mt. Everest in a year than do an ocean row. It’s one of the only sports in the world where you can’t train to the task you’re going to be in.”
But that doesn’t mean training is off the table — far from it.
“I came out here to work on the river”
Though Pfendler doesn’t live anywhere near the coast, she is no stranger to water — or to the ocean.
“I spent a lot of life with water,” she said.
Pfendler sports several tattoos with nautical themes, along with an illustration of Mt. Marcy — New York’s highest peak — on her right bicep. It hints at her origins: She grew up in the tiny town of Lee Center in the Adirondack Mountains, just over 100 miles northwest of Albany.
She was on the water early. Shortly after her 18th birthday, she was guiding her first raft trip. Many more followed, mostly on the Black and Moose rivers in northern New York.
“I didn’t know this was a job,” she said, recalling her introduction to the world of guiding.
Pfendler’s attention soon shifted west, where the rivers run longer and the water churns harder. In 2016, she made the Arkansas, with its world-class rapids cutting canyons through the Rockies, her destination.
But the annual rafting season is short in Colorado’s high country, so Pfendler supplements her income with trips through the Grand Canyon in Arizona. She works ski patrol, emergency response and avalanche control at Colorado’s Copper Mountain during the winter. She also joined the ambulance crew in Chaffee County just as the pandemic was spreading across the state.
“I vaccinated this whole place during COVID,” she said.
Pfendler’s transport and bed are one and the same: her Vanagon. Inside, there’s a diesel heater, a propane stove and a solar-powered fridge. On a small bookshelf toward the rear sit several outdoor-related titles — “Roadside Geology of Colorado,” Anne LaBastille’s “Woodswoman,” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” both in English and Spanish.
And of course there’s Don Lago’s “The Powell Expedition,” an account of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers, including through the Grand Canyon, where Pfendler has spent so many days on the water.
“If I had to pay rent, I wouldn’t be able to fund this race,” she said of the World’s Toughest Row. “This is how I can make these dreams work.”
Kristen Hofer, one of three Oregon women who make up the rest of Hericane Rowing, says Pfendler may live a thousand miles away, but her tireless, no-limits attitude isn’t muted by geographical barriers. Her teammates already see her as a team leader who will be key to turning aspirations into accomplishments.
“We were kind of blown away by her background and her sense of adventure,” Hofer said. “This feels right.”
The concept of ocean rowing came to Pfendler a few years ago while she worked as a crew member on a private sailboat that plied the Mediterranean Sea. There, she met some rowers who were getting ready to head across the Atlantic.
“It just sat with me for a while — and then I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Pfendler said.
Just over a year ago, she ventured onto the online platform of the race, then known as the Great Pacific Race. She met Hofer, 30, and Hofer’s 29-year-old sister, Jennifer, as well as Sierra Myers, 29, who went to school in Oregon with Jennifer.
The trio, seeking a fourth teammate, had interviewed nearly a half dozen candidates, a process they equated to speed-dating. When they met Pfendler, it didn’t take long to seal the deal.
“She is such a calm, capable and confident person,” Jennifer Hofer said. “We had to have her.”
But calmness and confidence are only a part of the equation, said British rower Roz Savage, who made history journeying solo across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans more than a decade ago.
“These women are going to be in an exhausting, scary, immensely challenging situation — battling sleep deprivation, doubt and fear,” said Savage, a speaker, author and candidate for the U.K. Parliament. “Even the best of friends can find it hard to be kind to each other with so much going on. Little things can blow up into big arguments.”
“A lesson in being hungry for your goals”
That’s where Scott Jones comes in.
As the Colorado-based host of the “Athlete on Fire” podcast, he leans on his experience as a long-distance runner and ultra-marathoner to train and inspire others. In July, he put the women of Hericane Rowing through the ringer. It was only the second time the team had gathered in person.
“You’re going to be on a boat together for 30 to 40 days working your butts off,” he said in a recent interview with Pointypress. “How do you relate to these people when you’re tired and physically and mentally out of it? If you can’t keep your cool, you can’t make good decisions. And if you can’t make decisions, bad (expletive) happens.”
Over four days, Jones subjected the foursome to a battery of challenges to test them not only on physical and mental skills but on their ability to manage sleep deprivation. Ocean rowers typically spend two hours in the cabin and two hours on the oars, rowing both in the blazing sun and under the cover of darkness, for days and nights on end.
Jones started the regimen by putting the team on rowing machines at a Centennial gym — setting the bar at 20,000 meters before they could come off. They bought food for their long weekend and took an icy plunge at Jones’ house in Bailey. Shortly after dropping into bed, exhausted, they were jostled awake and told to complete a 500-piece puzzle.
“The purpose was to make us as tired as possible — and then give us a bunch of unpredictable situations and find the cracks in the relationship,” Pfendler said.
The weekend continued with a 4:30 a.m. wakeup to trek 15 miles from Bailey to Guanella Pass. And then there was a trip to the Lowe’s in Silverthorne, where Jones instructed them to buy materials and construct a pushcart.
“They built a glorified dolly that didn’t really work,” Jones said.
On an evening hike to the top of a hill near Palisade, Myers began to experience discomfort in her ankles on the steep ascent. As progress slowed, tension built. But Pfendler largely kept her mounting frustration bottled up inside.
“I do not communicate well when I’m at my edge,” she conceded.
The next day meant multiple floats in a four-person raft on the Colorado River, with the women hauling the vessel back to the starting point 10 times. They ended up in Glenwood Springs, where Jones told them to hustle on the streets for money. He likened the effort to “old-school friggin’ panhandling” that would provide a valuable lesson “in being hungry for your goals.”
Fundraising, while not a part of physical training, is a necessary part of preparation. Participants have to pay a $25,000 entry fee and provide their own rowing boat. The Hofer sisters estimated the total expense of the race at close to $100,000.
While they are still raising money, Hericane Rowing has managed to land an angel investor who covered the $50,000 or so cost for a nearly decade-old Rannoch R-45 rowing boat. It will be shipped from the Netherlands to Los Angeles in December.
But even the most ferocious hunger for success can’t overcome what nature might serve up on the open water.
Brooke Downes was one of the four members of Lat35, the women’s team that set the record for the Pacific crossing in 2022. A professional rower who lives in Santa Barbara, California, she said those 34 days didn’t come easy.
A couple of weeks into the race, ocean conditions suddenly went limp. What had been progress of 70 miles a day on the oars slowed to 15 miles as the winds died and the ocean currents came to a seeming standstill.
The World’s Toughest Row organizers strictly prohibit an emergency engine or even the use of a sunshade, which could be jerry-rigged into a sail to help propel the boat.
With the water flat, tempers grew short. Downes, the lead navigator, became the target of some of that ire.
Helpless, the team decided to ease tensions by taking a break.
“On that fifth day of the stall, we decided to stop rowing and go swimming,” Downes said. “It brought spirits up.”
She credits the interpersonal skills she and her Lat35 teammates honed in the months leading up to the launch for getting them through that challenge.
“We had tons of things we called each other out on, and the key is to resolve it on land before you get out there,” Downes said. “If you see an issue, get it out of the way now. You don’t want it coming up in the middle of the ocean.”
Two hours on, two hours off
That’s easier said than done when living in a cramped space with three others, traveling through four time zones under blistering sun, driving rain and ink-black nights — and across often-churning seas, Downes said.
Sleep is always in short supply, continually disrupted by the two-hours-on, two-off schedule. That, more than anything, Downes said, can do a number on team members’ moods and on the collective disposition on the boat.
“The body does adapt a bit to the pattern, but you always want to sleep more,” she said. “You have to be lying down when you get dressed, so it’s really easy to fall back asleep.”
Sleep shifts are done in cabins at each end of the boat, enclosures that also provide storage for rain gear, clothes, sleeping bags and electronics. It’s the only place on the boat where a team member can get respite from the elements outside.
While sleep is the top priority, other things must get accomplished when a rower is off the oars.
Primary among those: making meals and connecting to land via satellite phone for weather updates or guidance on navigation. Meals are dehydrated offerings that come in a surprisingly wide range of flavors and cuisines, from mac and cheese to beef stroganoff to pad thai. For Downes and her Lat35 teammates, it was necessary to down 6,000 calories a day.
“If you’re skipping a meal, that’s bad,” she said.
Race rules require that each boat carry 55 days of dry meals, accounting for the most weight on the boat aside from the rowers themselves. Drinking water comes from the ocean, made safe for consumption by a solar-powered desalination system.
Bathroom activity is done on deck, in the open, using the time-tested “bucket and chuck it” method.
“You don’t want to risk anything tipping over in the cabin,” Downes said.
Music and audiobooks can allay the inevitable boredom that comes with rowing for hours and days on end. Downes said country, rap, pop and reggae filled their days and nights.
Because of the inherent danger of ocean rowing, the World’s Toughest Row requires safety devices and equipment onboard, including emergency beacons, satellite phones, a handheld GPS and VHF radio, a solar panel and an open ocean life raft. Any time team members are on deck, they must attach themselves to the boat by harness and tether.
If the very worst goes down, each boat has a ditch bag filled with emergency water and rations, communication and signaling equipment, and a medical kit.
And while an emergency boat covers the basic footprint of the race, it could take a day or two to reach a vessel in distress. That’s how Downes found herself repairing the automatic tiller arm on Lat35’s boat two times in three weeks, with no help from the outside.
Near-disaster on the Atlantic
Fight Oar Die’s Stratton said that once the shoreline fades into the mist, there’s only one certainty for a rowing team: “Things can and will go wrong.”
They did for the Fight Oar Die team of four American military veterans that crossed the Atlantic last year, with Stratton as their weather router. When they hit heavy seas on Dec. 28, things didn’t just go sideways — they went literally upside down. Waves were churning 30 feet high while winds were roaring at 30 knots.
At 3:30 a.m., in pitch black, the men were hit by a gust that they describe on the Inverted in the Atlantic website as akin to being struck by “a freight train.”
“They’re on top of a wave when a massive gust of wind came through and flipped them upside down,” Stratton said.
Thus began 18 hours of setbacks and bouts of bad luck on the high seas that nearly ended in the drowning of the entire team. The two rowers who had been tossed into the ocean tried to right the boat, but to no avail. A life raft was deployed and the men grabbed their emergency communication equipment.
Their satellite phone, soaked to the electronic guts, proved useless. And the beacons, which still worked, sent a signal that was never acted on by officials in Cape Verde, according to their website. Fifteen hours into the ordeal, and fast running out of time and options, the team made contact by VHF radio with a cargo ship that was sailing to Montreal. It was 15 nautical miles away.
“The fact that they got a ship in these conditions is unheard of,” Stratton said.
Eventually, they found each other. By rope ladder, each man climbed from the raft, which had been punctured amid the chaos, to the deck of the Hanze Goteborg. They spent the next 13 days sailing to Canada.
“They probably had a few hours left before the life raft would have sunk,” Stratton said. “The team did everything right but that’s the risk of ocean rowing — that some things can go wrong that are out of your control.”
Hericane Rowing will be using a boat that has made a couple of Atlantic crossings. Dubbed “Rose,” it was the rowing boat for The Dutch Atlantic Four, the team that won the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge in 2018.
Marcel Ates, that team’s captain, gives the boat high marks and says if Hericane Rowing follows safety protocols, the journey should be safe.
“In my belief, the R45 is the best and fastest rowing boat for a 3 to 4-man crew,” he said. “Safety comes with the crew. As long as you keep safety as a standard — always, and I mean always, stay connected to the boat with your lifelines. Even in moments of no wind and no waves … Rules like this make ocean rowing safe.”
Pfendler said her approach is to learn everything about Rose in the next nine months.
“I’m trying to learn everything about that boat and what can go wrong so that I don’t have to learn how to fix it — I can fix it,” she said.
“Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t”
But knowing one’s vessel inside and out doesn’t remove the risk of an ocean row. Savage, the British rower who in 2008 tackled the same general route Hericane Rowing will attempt next year, said weather is always the predominant arbiter on the water.
“It’s not the ocean that makes conditions difficult, it’s the weather. And weather changes all the time,” she said. “Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t.”
For Hericane Rowing, Savage said, the biggest challenge will likely come at the start.
“The hardest part of getting from California to Hawaii is getting away from the California coast,” she said. “The prevailing winds are onshore, blowing the rower back towards the shoreline. Winds and currents pushed me a long way south (to nearly level with Mexico) before I could make much progress west.”
But once in progress, the payoff of an ocean row is singularly rich, Downes said. Lat35 watched whales and tuna swim past them, though no sharks. (And too much plastic waste.) The view of the heavens at night is unlike anything a person can get on land.
“So many stars — it was like that every night,” Downes said. “The sunrises and sunsets were insane.”
The reward for the four women of Hericane Rowing for making — and especially completing — the journey will “probably be the most amazing experience” they will ever have, Savage said.
“I believe we’re all capable of far more than we think we are,” she said. “Playing small just gives us an excuse not to be all that we can be — to leave it to others, to pretend that we don’t have the power or the courage to do something really special with our lives.”
Pfendler doesn’t play small, even if she stands 5-foot-3 and weighs 130 pounds. Her arms are visibly muscled.
She works mostly with men in the guide industry and admits that “everything is harder when the person next to you is 8 inches taller.”
But not so hard that it dissuades her from trying.
Pfendler cut out the roof of her Vanagon and installed a shell for more space. She keeps a 3-inch-thick repair manual for the van within easy reach. She just changed out the timing belt and water pump. Next task: re-doing the suspension on the 39-year-old vehicle.
“I just force things to happen,” Pfendler said. “All life is, is convincing people you can do something.”
That includes convincing her three teammates that they made the right choice when they picked her as the fourth member last year.
Though that may have been the easy part of it all. Convincing the ocean to believe in her and the rest
of Hericane Rowing next June is the far more demanding task ahead. Pfendler says this is where her respect for the ocean, and the age-old power it holds beneath its undulating surface, will be crucial.
“If you approach with respect and reverence, it has more compassion for you,” she said. “If you respect the hell out of it, usually it lets you pass.”