By Rene Huge
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CODY — “Do you want to do a rowing race with me?”
That’s the question veteran Beau Maier, 32, of Cody, was asked a little over two years ago.
He didn’t take long to reply.
“Sure,” he said. “Where?”
Alex Evans, also an Army veteran, then told him where: “Across the Atlantic.”
They were at yet another funeral for a good friend and fellow military man who had taken his own life. There had been far too many of these kinds of gatherings and the pair was ready to do something about it.
Thus, Fight Oar Die was born. These men are the first all-veteran American team of four to attempt to row across the Atlantic Ocean in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge that began Dec. 12. The team plans to row 3,000 nautical miles from LaGomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua, West Indies.
Maier and Evans quickly recruited two more fellow veterans, Bryant Knight in Castle Rock, Colo., and Chris Kuntz, who’s been living in Powell for the past 12 years.
When Kuntz started telling people he was going to be on a team rowing across the Atlantic in what is dubbed “the world’s toughest race” he said, “More people have been to the moon and scaled Everest than rowed the Atlantic. We’ve got to take this to the extreme – we’re sick of the numbers. This (suicide) shouldn’t be happening.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a study in 2016 showing an average of 20 U.S. veterans committed suicide every day in 2014.
“I wish people would look at these numbers – and say it shouldn’t be like that,” Kuntz said.
This is part of their goal – to raise money and awareness for the struggles of returning veterans.
Maier said their message to anyone, and veterans in particular is, “Hey, you’re still okay and you can do anything. We want to make enough noise to remind these vets to get up and get moving again.
“We forget we’re (tough) enough to do stuff when we come back and reintegrate. All of us on the team had our own reintegration problems,” Maier added. “There was a period in my life when I stopped living. I was breathing, walking around, but I didn’t know who I was, what I was missing or how to get a hold of it.”
That changed after a chance meeting with an older veteran.
“There was a Vietnam vet – I didn’t know him – but he grabbed me one day and said ‘I don’t know what your problem is but you’ve got to live.’ He probably saved my life, Maier said. “Rowing across the Atlantic is just a vehicle crazy enough to make people look our way.”
After the team was formed, Dr. Jacob Hyde, a military psychologist and faculty director at Denver University, also signed up eager to research how the minds of soldiers function in extreme situations.
The Fight Oar Die team has been subjected to a battery of psychological testing prior to its departure – as Maier said, “to make sure we’re not all insane.”
The team will have daily communication with Dr. Hyde while on the trip and he will be conducting other psychological examinations while they are out there.
This gives Maier’s mother Coletta Kewitt a sense of calm.
“I’m really happy they’ve been working with Denver University,” she said. “It gives me a sense of peace to know they’ve got that lifeline with Dr. Hyde.”
Maier said the goal is to figure out how to get soldiers more prepared to got to war instead of trying to help after the fact.
“Fix it before they go rather than after,” he said. “With all this support and research happening and doctors working with us, it’s so much more significant than four guys just rowing across the Atlantic.”
Maier said he and his teammates should be well prepared for the trip due to their shared backgrounds.
“Military guys have an advantage,” he said. “We’ve been trained to eat the same things, get little sleep and work within small groups to solve problems. We thrive in that kind of environment and are built to do this.”
Woobie, the name of their ocean rowing vessel manufactured by SpinDrift, is packed for 60 days. Woobie is a term all military people can relate to.
“It is that one comfort item, like your “blankie,” that you always have with you,” Maier said. “We thought the name was fitting.”
Team Fight Oar Die hopes to complete the race in less than 45 days. The record is 33 days. They will take three hour shifts and each will row for three hours, rest for three hours, row for three hours, rest for three hours … on and on for about 3,000 nautical miles until they reach Antigua.
The team has been diligently training, including many hours in the gym for the past two years.
“We row every other day, doing weight training, getting stronger for those 40 foot seas,” Maier said.
Kuntz chuckled when he recalled figuring out his training plan.
“What workout can I do to make this work?” he said. “Guess I better knock the dust off the Buns of Steel workouts. I didn’t know my legs were going to be part of this.”
He just did all the workouts.
“A lot of mental endurance is required,” Kuntz said. “It’s like training for a marathon, you’re fighting mother nature and yourself at the same time.”
The team met “Woobie” in Alabama and spent three weeks rowing and training in the Gulf of Mexico prior to flying to La Gomera off the coast of west Africa. They completed sea survival training and became sea navigation certified.
Their $200,000 carbon fiber boat weighs in at 500 pounds, before loading, and is well equipped with solar panels, a desalinization system for drinking water, navigation capabilities and an Automatic Identification System to help ensure they don’t run into other vessels out on the ocean. Woobie is 28 feet long, five feet wide and six feet tall.
As of Wednesday, it’s where they are all living. There are two small sleeping cabins on either end of the boat.
The teams are required to haul enough food to sustain each individual on 5,600 calories per day. Their food weighs about 800 pounds. While most of their food is dried food from Backpacker’s Pantry out of Boulder, Colo., they are also required to take 12 days of wet meals in case of emergency or lack of drinking water. Additionally, rowers will have 25 gallons of emergency drinking water in case they need it to ballast the boat or if the desalinization pump goes down. They also have a backup hand pump if that happens.
These men are prepared.
Kewitt said when her son first told her he was going to do this her reaction was, “ No, no you are not doing that.”
She has come around to accept the fact that yes, he is in fact doing it and she is keeping up the prayers.
“We never stop praying for our children,” she added.
“When they were in the international airport preparing to fly to Spain, Beau called and told me he feels like he’s being deployed again. These guys have already dealt with (post-traumatic stress syndrome). When you’ve been through something like that – I can see how you could easily slip right back to how you felt before.”
Kewitt said she hopes that, with Dr. Hyde’s help, the four men can get through the experience without any PTSD and do something meaningful for future men and women, so that, “when they are in dire times – to help them be better prepared and come out the other end able to live within themselves, their families and society.”
Kewitt hopes to be able to meet them in Antigua when they arrive. Talisker Whisky helps make travel arrangements.
“We are hoping to be there when they finish,” Kewitt said, adding with a laugh, “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, unless of course, I ever decide to do it.”
Kuntz and the others aren’t focused on just finishing.
“We’re not in this to lose, we’re in it to win,” he said. “We want to make a strong statement to remind people to stop taking their lives, start living them. You’re not broken, you’re awesome.”