Epilepsy no obstacle to ocean adventurer "Hurricane Halsey"


Apr. 24, 2000

Press Democrat News Services

GUERNEVILLE -- It wasn't supposed to end this way. Not with Andrew Halsey soaking in the sun, sipping tea on a redwood deck overlooking the Russian River.


No, Halsey was supposed to have ended his attempt to row a 28-foot boat across the Pacific Ocean more than three months ago by cruising underneath the Sydney Harbor Bridge just as Australia's millennium celebration fireworks display ignited.


Instead, the 43-year-old former Sonoma County resident was plucked from the ocean earlier this month after finally conceding that, this time, he had lost his battle with the forces of nature.


"I survived five hurricanes and one tropical storm. I ran out of most of my food the second week of February and dropped about 70 pounds. My batteries were so low I was in danger of losing my ability to navigate," Halsey said during a weekend stopover in Sonoma County. "I would have been foolish to carry on."


But the fact that Halsey didn't make it doesn't mean he didn't succeed at something. Halsey feels he proved to himself and to people with epilepsy that they can undertake huge tasks, even though seizures prevent most from operating machinery like cars.


Many must think the Englishman a bit daft to begin with.


Halsey set out last July from San Diego with the plan of rowing to Australia, a trek financed by corporate sponsors and dependent upon the weather and consistent resupply from passing boats.


"I underestimated the weather and the effort it took to row back over territory I had covered until the storms blew me off," Halsey said. "Out there, the 130-mile-an-hour winds sounded like jet engines were descending upon my head. It was heartbreaking, just heartbreaking to row the distance all over again."


Halsey is one of those rare adventurous souls who climb mountains and cross oceans because the challenge seems insurmountable. He is a member of the Ocean Rowing Society, whose devotees use specially built boats, freeze-dried foods and portable navigation equipment to cross international boundaries and time zones.


He had planned to celebrate the arrival of the millennium in Sydney, which shows just how far off course Halsey ended up. On April 7, he issued a distress call and he was picked up by a South Korean fishing vessel near Christmas Island in the South Pacific. After recuperating at a U.S. Coast Guard station in Hawaii, he arrived in the Bay Area on Friday and heads back to his North London home later this week.


Halsey is former employee of Stan Bennett's Health and Fitness Center, which was one of the few American co-sponsors of the ocean voyage. The rowing society has ties to Sonoma County because its director, Kenneth Crutchlow, was once a local promoter here, and the society's Web master is Tom Lynch, a Guerneville contractor and Internet consultant.


"Ocean rowing has become one of those extreme adventure challenges you see on television," said Crutchlow, who now lives in England. "It used to be one guy in a boat with dried beans and a radio. Now, you need a special boat and corporate sponsors to buy the food, the navigation and the communication equipment and the Global Positioning System."


Crutchlow estimated that ocean rowing ventures like Halsey's cost $75,000 to $100,000 to outfit.


The Ocean Rowing Society estimates that over the last century there have been 94 trans-ocean attempts, with only 47 being successful. Society officials calculated that Halsey was picked up about 2,500 nautical miles from San Diego, about a third of the way to Sydney.


Six rowers have been lost and presumed dead, including Peter Bird, a British rower and former Sonoma County resident who disappeared while making his fourth attempt across the Pacific in 1996 on a Vladivostock to San Francisco trip.


Halsey made an Atlantic Ocean crossing in 1997, going from the Canary Islands to the West Indies in 116 days. That trip was made in the same boat, christened the "Brittany Rose."


The boat has food preparation and water purification facilities, a water-tight hatch for protection from the elements and is self-righting during turbulent weather. He also carried a Magellan Communicator, a device for sending and receiving electronic mail that kept him in touch with Ocean Rowing Society officials who were tracking his progress.


He took along his medication for episodic epileptic seizures, but he figures he had fewer of them because "there are fewer ions at sea and I was more relaxed."


"I remember one e-mail from a woman who said that she heard of my voyage and vowed to live a little because her parents were always so protective of her because she had epilepsy. My message is that you do not have to sit at home in a padded room with a crash helmet on," he said.


"I truly feel I don't suffer epilepsy, I have epilepsy. Although I don't drive because I might put others in danger, I can try to row an ocean."


To the proverbial question of what Halsey did with his time, he has a ready response: "There is always something to think about. You watch the whales, the dolphins and the birds. You notice the weather. You check your equipment and you do your charts. You sing a lot. The ocean has a relaxing effect on you if it is the only thing you see as far as the horizon."


Halsey said he may attempt a Pacific crossing again next year.


"But first," he said, "I will check the weather."