Newport Beach Veteran to Row Across the Atlantic To Raise Attention of Vet Suicides

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Robert Owens / photo by Richard Simon

As Chinese sage Lao Tzu observed in 500 BCE, “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.”

Likewise, a similar odyssey in a 24-foot boat begins this December, when 71- year-old Robert Owens of Newport Beach, along with 11 others, takes the “first” of many thousands of rows across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands, en route to an Antigua landfall 3,500 challenging miles and 40 to 50 days to the Southwest.

Antigua is located on the central coast of the island of Fuerteventura.

Owens, a US Air Force “Pararescue” veteran who usually accomplishes his record-setting efforts solo, will be joining a team of seven men and five women in the attempt. He’ll be the only American among an international crew, several of whom already have singly rowed across the “pond,” one woman having accomplished that feat twice.

An endurance athlete, Owens was recognized as “the fittest and mentally toughest 66-year-old in the world” by Joe de Sena, founder of the global Spartan Games, in which competitors race seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.

In all, Owens has finished 12 Ironman triathlons, and is one of the original Ironman finishers from the 1980 Honolulu event. As for being the fittest, “I don’t believe that’s true, but it was nice for de Sena to have said that,” Owens beamed.

Owens said that he sees this crossing more a mental than a physical challenge.

Robert Owens / photo by Richard Simon

However, it still takes physical preparation. To that end, for several months now, he has been focusing on lower back, hips, glutes and hamstring conditioning, coupled with air and weight squats — including completion of a half-Ironman marathon — to maintain overall readiness.

Owens sees this exercise more as a mental game rather than an anaerobic challenge, he emphasized. The team has settled on an efficient cadence of 18 strokes per minute, or 1,020 strokes per hour, 24-hours a day. Those numbers obviously will vary according to weather and sea conditions, health and fatigue.

Assuming everything goes well, the number of rowing strokes per person over the full course could total more than 1,224,000. But divide that in half per individual, for rowers will alternate three hours on and three off for the 40-plus days. One and one-half hours into each “watch,” the athletes will shift from port to starboard, and vice versa.

Dining consists of freeze-dried packaged food prepared over a tiny backpacking stove during off hours. Although navigation and communications are maintained using state-of-the-art, solar-powered electronics, plumbing is as primitive as the invention of the bucket— positioned topsides above the forward cabin behind the rowers.

Robert Owens / photo by Richard Simon

All privacy or modesty has been tossed overboard, along with biodegradable facial wipes.

For general clothes washing, the laundromat is called the Atlantic and or Caribbean, easily located just on the other side of the gunwales. But there aren’t too many clothes to worry about: each rower is allowed one tee shirt, and one pair of shorts. But Owens said he’ll cheat just a little bit, and stuff an extra shirt and shorts into his one-foot by two-foot duffle bag.

While not rowing, team members will be sleeping or reclining three abreast in the very confined, water tight cabins, located at the bow and stern. If there is any praying to be done, it probably will be for fresh air at the end of the rest period.

Each rower has her or his reason for the crossing. Owens’ purpose is to raise money for and attention to his favorite cause: veteran suicide prevention. This was underscored recently when one of his dear friends, a career Navy SEAL with apparently everything going well, inexplicably committed suicide.

Whenever possible, Owens talks to a wide variety of groups about veterans’ issues, which he ties into a general theme on the importance of physical conditioning.

His goal is to raise $100,000 for his cause, the Courage Foundation. As of mid-October, he has brought in more than $15,000. To contribute, Owens can be reached via his website,; or the link,

Although he and this teammates will be facing backwards for 3,500 miles, Owens is truly looking forward to what he calls his greatest adventure to date.

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