Rower Adam Kreek happy to be back on dry land after boat capsized in Atlantic

Adrenalin and instinct — plus thoughts of his expanding family back home — helped guide Adam Kreek to safety during his harrowing ocean capsize.

The Canadian rower had to swim underwater to escape his overturned boat Saturday in the Atlantic Ocean, but the Olympic gold medallist and his crew are back on dry land in Puerto Rico recovering from their journey and pondering how to salvage their vessel.

“You’re overcome with adrenalin, shock, a bit of fear, and then you just get to the business of living,” Kreek told The Canadian Press in a phone interview Monday. “Life is awesome, so it’s worth fighting for. Especially when you have an awesome wife like Rebecca, a kid on the way, and another kid.”

Kreek, fellow Canadian Markus Pukonen and Americans Patrick Fleming and Jordan Hanssen were into Day 73 of their voyage from Senegal and about 1,370 kilometres from Miami when their boat was hit by a series of steep waves.

Kreek, a Victoria native and member of the men’s eight that won gold at the 2008 Beijing Games, was in the cabin with Fleming when it quickly filled with water.

“First thing I thought of was Pat and I pushed to try to get him out the door, I popped back up in the cabin, took a big gulp of air, filled my lungs and took a second, composed myself and went back under and swam through the door,” Kreek said, describing what sounds like a Hollywood movie.

“It’s crazy, it’s unbelievable. When it’s happening, you’re just doing it, you’re completely in the moment, you’re not really fearful, you’re just acting,” the 32-year-old said. “We had spent so much time together as a team, we’d been preparing for four years for this, and we’d been on that boat for 73 days. We were the symbiotic man machine where everyone was looking out for one another and making sure we were all safe.”

The U.S. Coast Guard deployed two planes in response to their call for assistance, eventually locating the capsized boat.

Kreek’s wife Rebecca Sterritt, who is mom to their two-year-old son Jefferson and is also seven months pregnant, said it was a frightening few hours before she heard her husband was safe.

“We got a message that the life raft had been deployed, but they couldn’t tell at that point how many people were in the boat, so you panic,” Sterritt said. “Then it was another four hours before they were able to drop a radio to the crew and communicate and find out that they were relatively uninjured and alive.”

Japanese shipping company Nippon Yusen Kaisha sent a car carrier to pluck the four rowers out of the water.

“It was amazing, they don’t need to do that,” Sterritt said of the rescue crew. “They went totally out of their way to go off-course and pick them up and then drop them another 27 hours out of their way to Puerto Rico.”

Kreek, a three-time world champion, Pukonen, and their American teammates were attempting to row more than 6,700 kilometres between Senegal and Miami in an effort to set a Guinness World Record for their unassisted, human-powered row. The journey was also an educational and scientific mission, sponsored by the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

Pukonen is a native of Tofino, B.C., who once traversed the Georgia Straight from Vancouver to Nanaimo on a standup paddleboard in 10 hours.

The adventurers ran into trouble early in the trip when two oars snapped and their wind generator broke down. It was otherwise relatively smooth travels until about 6 a.m. Saturday when the steep waves crashed into their nine-metre boat.

“I don’t know that we could have done anything different to avoid it. Bad things happen on the ocean, that’s just what she does,” Kreek said. “Everyone performed admirably. You hate to be the people to call for rescue, you don’t want to be that person who’s out there unprepared. But I think we were in a real situation where it was actually deserving of a distress call.”

On Monday, the rowers were enjoying pizza and beer and sleeping in a hotel bed in Puerto Rico, and Kreek predicted there would be some hangovers Tuesday. They planned to spend a day figuring out how to salvage their boat — the “James Robert Hanssen” named for Hanssen’s late father. The boat is worth about $200,000 and has on board countless hours of video footage that the four hoped to turn into a documentary.

They rowed in shifts, two at a time. Kreek gained 20 pounds in preparation for the trip but lost much of that along the way. They ate a diet consisting of mainly whole grains. When they weren’t rowing, they slept or collected data for two studies — one on sleep with the University of Calgary and another on ocean science with the University of Washington.

“It’s a human experience being on a vessel like that,” Kreek said. “You end up becoming very close with your teammates.”

Kreek, who’s been away from home since mid-December, and Sterritt spoke once a week by satellite phone “but the connection, we’d talk for two minutes and then it would time out,” Sterritt said.

Kreek had access to email, but Sterritt said it was “like old-fashioned mail, it would take four to five days for him to upload the messages.”

Kreek said he’s not considering a second attempt.

“Life is pretty short and to make an adventure like this happen requires a lot of effort,” he said. “I married my wife and we decided to have kids because I wanted to spend time with them, they’re the people I want to hang out with.”

Kreek, who has a motivational speaking business with his wife, said the family is looking forward to exploring Canada’s national parks by RV next.

“Exploring the world that way, having family adventures which are a little less harrowing and dangerous and also get to tap into our deep love of the outdoors,” he said.

Despite the fact the trip didn’t have the ending they envisioned, Kreek said he felt the four accomplished more than they could have imagined.

“Getting that world record was almost like icing on the cake or a little extra gravy,” he said. “Our main goal was to research the ocean, to inspire the next generation to be curious.”