Powell man celebrates birthday in middle of trans-Atlantic row

Carl Christensen of Powell, skipper of the rowboat Woobie for team Fight Oar Die, battles through the Atlantic Ocean with teammates and fellow military veterans Luke Holton of Alaska, John Fannin of Texas, and Eric Stratton of Denver during the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Christensen celebrated his birthday on the boat recently, complete with a birthday cake and song. (Photo courtesy Lars Kristiansen, Atlantic Campaigns)

POWELL — In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean last week, Carl Christensen couldn’t believe his crew members were singing happy birthday to him after presenting him with a cake they’d hid in the bottom of their boat for more than a month.

The Powell resident is the skipper of the Woobie, a 28-foot row boat entered in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. The all-American, all-military veteran ocean rowing team set sail 33 days ago and, hopefully, only has 17 left to go as of Tuesday, Jan. 14.

“We’d like to finish by the end of the month, but it all depends on the weather,” Christensen said by phone during a Monday break.

Two crew members row for two hours and then swap seats for two hours of rest, repeating the process around the clock during the 3,000 mile race. Christensen has tendinitis in both elbows, severe pain in his hands and his shoulders and lower back are in constant pain. His birthday celebration on Tuesday, Jan. 7, was a special memory amid the monotony of the race, helping to take his mind off the pain for a moment.

Christensen’s wife Heather and daughters Patricia and Lynea sent a birthday card along with some candy and protein bars, which he shared with the crew.

“We’re all homesick,” he said in a call made difficult by high winds.

Billed as the toughest race in the world, Christensen, Luke Holton of Auke Bay, Alaska, John Fannin of Universal City, Texas, and Evan Stratton of Denver set sail from the Canary Islands on the unsupported race on Dec. 12. Their 60 days of supplies included freeze-dried food packets, nuts, protein bars and a large bag of Gummy Bears.

Food is just one of many challenges the team of veterans face. Christensen is dreaming of his return, saying the first thing he plans to do depends on where his plane lands.

“If we fly into Billings, I’m going to Buffalo Wild Wings,” he said. “If we land in Cody, we’re going to Arby’s.”

Until they finish the race, the chocolate chip birthday cake may be the best food the crew eats for the 50 or more days they’re afloat. Sponsor Talisker also sent a few whisky shooters for the celebration, Christensen said.

For the past week, rain and wind has slowed Fight Oar Die’s progress. Their hope isn’t to win the race, but they want to beat last year’s team record of 54 days. Powell’s Chris Kuntz was a crew member on that 2018 team.

“The daily grind of the race wears on you both physically and emotionally. Not everyone can handle it,” Kuntz said last fall. “Sometimes you could go 14 miles in three hours of rowing. Other times you simply couldn’t move because of the current.”

By the end of the race, each member will have rowed approximately 1.5 million strokes.

“We all hurt,” Christensen said Monday.

Team Fight Oar Die competes to help bring awareness to the mental and emotional needs of service members through publicity. Christensen’s message to veterans on day 32 was blunt and to the point: “No matter how bad it sucks, just keep going.”

Within the next few weeks, the team will finish the race in Antiqua, one of the two major Islands in the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, in the West Indies. Thirty-five crews joined the race this year, including seven solos, seven pairs, four trio teams, 15 four-man teams and two five-man teams. Fight Oar Die is in the middle of the pack, with over 900 nautical miles left before crossing the finish line.