Midway into his historic, 57-day journey across the Pacific Ocean, 28-year-old John Wagner found himself in a simple, if exhausting, rhythm: Row, eat, sleep. Row, eat, sleep. Row, eat, sleep.
"Some days, when it was dead calm, it just felt like forever," the Winter Park High graduate admits. "You'd be half-asleep as you were rowing, so you'd slump forward and bang your head against the spare oar, which woke you up — at least for a while."
The four-member crew — himself, an Aussie Ironman triathlete, a California actor and an Irish doctoral student who is the lone woman — just became the first mixed-gender team ever to row from the coast of California to Hawaii, roughly 2,400 miles.
The inaugural Great Pacific Race allowed no motors, no sails and no midway stops for rest or provisions and drew only 13 entrants. Only six have made it to the finish line, and one remains en route. Wagner admits now he came prepared to lose his life in the effort.
"I didn't want to die," he says, "but I knew it was a possibility. You never know what's going to happen out there."
His footnote in ocean rowing history began June 9, and the crew struggled just to make it out of Monterey Bay in uncharacteristically fierce currents. Several competitors never did.
For the first 14 days, Wagner's Pacific Warriors battled high winds and 30-foot swells. Divided into pairs, the team would row three hours on, three hours off around the clock. For nearly two months, sleep came in spurts of only an hour or two at a time.
The remaining "off" hours were spent eating, drinking, trying to get texts and weather reports via satellite phone and tending to raw wounds.
"You're starving and tired and you have salt sores in unspeakable areas that you need to address, and you're soaking wet. We were in hell, really," Wagner said.
"I loved it."
Growing up in Central Florida, Wagner "loved anything to do with water," says his mother, Margie Wagner, who lives in Baldwin Park. As a teen, her son learned to backpack, sail, sea kayak and hike across wilderness.
In the years since, he has lived mostly in Missoula, Mont., studying anthropology and starting an eco-friendly wooden sunglasses business. He has taken up white-water rafting and sky diving.
Margie Wagner anxiously followed her son's journey via a GPS tracker and the occasional text message or satellite phone call. "John did a good job of keeping in touch and being very upbeat, which was reassuring," she said. "Of course, he wasn't telling me everything."
What surprised John Wagner was the loneliness and monotony. For 37 days, they encountered no other sign of life except an occasional bird. Once the crew reached the midway point, temperatures were routinely over 90 degrees, and the wind always seemed to come straight at them.
"After my shift rowing, as soon as I would get in the cabin, I'd shut the door and I would scream as loud as possible," he says. "And that would last about three seconds."
After Day 14, their motorized water purifier broke, and the remainder of the journey required an hour a day each to pump enough for drinking and cooking. Clean water for bathing was no longer a luxury they could afford.
As his body grew gaunt — he lost 38 pounds during the journey — Wagner tried to quell his anger and frustration with a sense of acceptance. He would need it.
Just as they began to near the finish line, they learned Hurricane Iselle, the first to hit the main islands in more than two decades, was bearing down on them.
Wagner was determined to beat the storm. But the race organizer, calling by satellite phone, wanted the rowers to accept a short tow into the bay, getting them off the open ocean before conditions deteriorated. At first the organizer suggested. Then he insisted.
Wagner was crushed. Even though it would count as an official finish — because the team was within sight of land by then — and even though their record would be intact, it felt like defeat. He cried at first. Then he fumed.
Even as they were allowed back in their boat for the final five miles to Waikiki Beach, it felt like a fraud.
"I was still so angry," he says. "And then it hit me: Everything I'd learned on this trip, everything I'd been through, I could either choose to let those last few miles spoil everything — or I could just get over it and enjoy the moment and my family that had come so far to see me finish."
And in that moment, John Wagner decided to smile. He spotted his mom running along the shore, happily screaming. And he tucked away a lesson.
"It's not about that major victory at the end," he says. "It's about all the little victories along the way."
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