In early November, the unthinkable happened. Images of the 20ft Self-Righting Rowboat Lifeline, once skippered by US Paralympian Angela Madsen, surfaced in a report by Agence France-Presse (AFP). Madsen’s boat, according to the article, had run aground on a remote section of Mili Atoll, a thin ring of coral islets in the Marshall Islands.
the Lifeline had been adrift for over a year and contained video footage of the last days of Madsen’s life.
Madsen had been trying for 60 days to become the first paraplegic and oldest woman to row solo from California to Hawaii when she drowned on June 22, 2020. The 60-year-old had been trying to repair the Lifelinethe bow cove in anticipation of a tropical cyclone that was battering her position in the distant Pacific.
A German freighter en route to Tahiti was able to pick up Madsen’s body a day later, still attached to the Lifeline by his lifeline. However, due to the approaching storm, the ship’s crew had to leave the boat behind, along with dozens of hours of GoPro footage that Madsen had captured for a documentary produced by 25-year-old filmmaker Soraya. Sim.
Immediately after Madsen’s death, Simi and Madsen’s wife, Deb Madsen, decided on a two-pronged approach to recovery: Deb would focus on returning Madsen’s body to Long Beach, California, and Simi would work looking for a ship and crew in Hawaii that could locate and recover the Lifeline. But the boat’s GPS signal quickly died out, and in late July a hurricane passed over the search area in the central Pacific, complicating the effort. Deb Madsen then launched her own research effort, but that too proved empty.
The pictures of the Lifeline, leaning on rocks on a beach lined with coconut trees and surrounded by onlookers, were taken by Benjamin Chutaro, a Marshall Islander who photographed them during a visit to Mili, where he has family.
For being lost at sea for over a year and drifting nearly 4,000 miles, the Lifeline appeared to be in very good condition except for a few damaged solar panels, rust spots on the forward cabin, and a crack on the starboard hull, which Chutaro says likely happened when the boat crashed. struck the reef just before running aground.
In the AFP article, Chutaro said he believed the boat had only recently reached Mili. But after returning to the atoll in December to investigate further, he now believes it happened several months earlier.
“In September we have royal tides,” Chutaro said. “It makes sense that the boat then came ashore; otherwise it would have just been thrown into the reef and probably sunk – and no one would have ever known the boat was there.
By the time Chutaro learned of the boat’s existence, her life jackets, lines, and rigging had been stolen. Madsen’s GoPro cameras and the treasure trove of video footage they contained were also nowhere to be found. “Material wealth in the outer islands is zero,” Chutaro told me. “It is quite logical [that these items are gone].”
“When something floats on these remote islands, it’s fair game,” Giff Johnson, editor of the Marshall Islands Newspaper and AFP wire article source, told me.
Chutaro removed the Lifelinefrom the EPIRB and, when he returned to the capital, Majuro, took it to the United States Embassy, who used the information from the device to track down Deb Madsen. It was after Deb contacted Chutaro directly that he decided to return to Mili in late November to try to recover the microSD memory cards from the cameras.
On his second trip, Chutaro was still unable to find the equipment. He thinks whoever took the electronics might be willing to hand them over. “There’s a group of us now trying to make sure we can get the SD cards,” he said. “But the caveat is that if people have opened up [the cards], they may have inadvertently destroyed them.
Chutaro has since returned home to Majuro. But a US military official, who left for Mili on a scheduled patrol in December, promised him he would continue searching for the SD cards while he was there, Chutaro said.
“It’s remarkable that the boat ran aground,” said Simi, the filmmaker. “But now that it is, it is distressing to learn that the images are still missing but hopefully still recoverable.”
Simi assumed there were five or six GoPros on board, along with a night-vision camcorder, a waterproof hard drive, up to ten batteries, about 20 microSD cards, and other accessories like cords and adapters. .
When Chutaro first told Johnson about Lifeline’s discovery in early November, the publisher contacted US Ambassador to the Marshall Islands Roxanne Cabral, as well as Marshall Islands Police Department Deputy Commissioner Eric Jorbon. Neither Cabral nor Jorbon had previously heard of the launch’s discovery, but said they would investigate. Since then, Cabral’s office, Jorbon, and Chutaro have all been in contact with Deb Madsen, keeping her up to date on all Mili news. Currently, SD cards are still missing.
According to Johnson, abandoned ships and shipwrecked people regularly wash up on the shores of the Marshall Islands, due to the prevailing westerly current in this region of the Pacific. “If you look at the Marshalls, we’re two vertical island chains, basically north-south,” he said. “So anything that comes in from Hawaii or the United States, there’s a good chance you’ll come across one of those islands.”
Deb Madsen declined to comment for this article, but Simi told me she and Madsen were okay with the movie being done if, by some miracle, the dozens of hours of footage Angela captured at sea could be recovered.
“Angela’s story deserves to be told and her legacy celebrated,” said Simi. “It would mean everything to finish what we started.”