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The Mystery of the Boat that was Mistaken for a Submarine

by Sarah Czarnecki and S. Lile

Emerson and the Porpoise get situated in the museum courtyard as the Shenandoah looks on. Image courtesy of Jacob Hendrickson, 2020.

Just a week ago, under the near cover of darkness, a one-of-a-kind vessel arrived at the Harbor History Museum. It was placed in the Museum's courtyard for all to see. Yet, passers by wondered what the mysterious vessel could be. Was it a submarine? A marine life pod? A super secret spy boat? The truth is, Emerson, the boat in question, is none of those things. It is so much more. So much so, the boat is in the Guinness Book of World Records along with its owner and human engine Jacob Adoram Hendrickson.

What people find on closer inspection, is a high-performance rowboat used to cross the Pacific Ocean. But to get the full picture of what this boat is and all that its owner accomplished, we have to venture back across time and an ocean to 2013 when Jacob began to percolate an idea: What would taking on the challenge of rowing across the Pacific look like? Could a person make it across the Pacific, solo, non-stop, and unaided? What would it take to succeed?

Hungry for a challenge that would push him to his limit, Jacob committed himself to making the row, working tirelessly to raise funds, train his body, find a boat, and plan every single detail of his risky endeavor. Finally, in 2018, five years after the tiny seed of an idea had taken root, Jacob embarked on what would become his record-breaking row, carried across the sea by a boat called Emerson.

The journey began in July 2018 at Neah Bay, Washington, and ended with a stormy beach landing in June of 2019 at Cairns, Australia. After spending 336 days rowing across the Pacific Ocean, with only himself and the sea life to keep him company, he had earned his place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest solo, non-stop, unaided row across an ocean. With his entry in the record book, he de-throned Erden Eruc of Turkey, who previously held the title with his 312-day row back in 2008. Yet Jacob's journey was more about the rediscovery of heart, soul, and determination than breaking records.

The route across the Pacific. Although the statute miles were just over 7,000, Jacob actually rowed about 10,000 miles total due to weather and current setbacks. Map courtesy of Schooner Creek Boatworks and Jacob Hendrickson.

Jacob and Emerson have been back on land after their 336-day row for about a year now, with the vessel rousted from storage at the Schooner Creek boat shop in Portland where she was built. Jacob has graciously loaned her to us for the next few months, and in the true spirit of Quarantine Slapperdashery, we've created an outdoor exhibit that encourages COVID-safe viewing even though the main museum galleries remain closed. Even more safe, is reading this article. So, if you're curious about this mysterious boat, read on to discover her unique story. How was she constructed? What exactly makes her unique? How well did she serve her purpose of carrying Jacob across the Pacific? We know the outcome of her and Jacob’s story, but the mystery lies in all the steps it took to get there.

Who is Jacob Hendrickson?

Even before his record-breaking row, it was clear that Jacob wasn’t one to settle for being average. Originally from Houston, Texas, he was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force for 12 years, flying combat missions before eventually becoming a defense contractor. Anyone who knows about what it takes to become an Air Force pilot knows that this, in and of itself, is no small feat. In 2015, he pedaled across the country on a recumbent bicycle, all while his boat was being designed and built back in Portland. To pay for the construction of his boat, he flew all around the world, balancing his work with time spent in Portland with the boat team at Schooner Creek and preparing for his cross-country bike and eventual row. There is a certain tenaciousness one needs to break a world record of this caliber, and Jacob has proved he has just that.

The larger question in all of this, of course, is what compelled him to take on such a momentous task? To speak with him now about his voyage, he seems to reflect on it with a certain clarity one can only gain from hindsight. He told Speak Out Loud that, back in 2013 when he was still a pilot in the Air Force, he came to the realization that he “wasn’t living life properly,” but rather, “completing a series of tasks” to get through life. It seemed as though he simply felt lost and hoped that a challenge would help him find his way.

Designing for the Unknown

Emerson was designed by naval architect Eric Sponberg. She is 28-feet long and weighs 2,590 pounds minus the weight of the rower, food, and other supplies. She is a balancing act of length and weight; too long and heavy and she would be unwieldy, too short and she would not fit all the necessary equipment.

Emerson, named for Jacob's favorite dog, was custom designed by naval architect Eric Sponberg and built at Schooner Creek Boatworks in Portland, OR. There is a compartment for everything, including a water purifier and 1,000 pounds of food. Solar panels on the roof provided enough energy for all of Jacob's needs, from boiling water to running the navigation equipment, lights, and a laptop. Plans courtesy of Jacob Hendrickson.

In an article he wrote for Professional BoatBuilder Magazine, Sponberg states of his design framework, “you don’t want to be outside the norms unless you are trying to prove something unusual.” The irony of this statement is that, although “Emerson” was designed largely within the realms of conventional standards, the journey she was being built to undertake was, in a way, meant to prove something unusual. Her very existence falls outside the norm. Aside from the sheer length of the adventure, you can never know what the open ocean is going to throw your way. To design her, Sponberg and Hendrickson had to point blindly in the directions where they felt problems could arise and attempt to address them before the row began.

When one reads about the design and build process of Emerson, it feels almost as though Jacob outfitted her as one would dress a child going out in the snow. He took care in ensuring comfort as well as utility while at the same time making sure she was ready to face all elements of the journey ahead.

Everything had to be accounted for in her design; efficiency, storage, stability, ventilation, rowing position, and comfort were all weighed against one another. To add to the challenge, Jacob had certain requests about which he was adamant (a perk of having a custom-built boat is that you can make special requests). According to Sponberg, the ability to see the horizon over the aft cabin as well as the possibility of a 360-degree view were paramount for Jacob; necessities taken from his days as a pilot. He also wanted to be able to stand fully upright in certain areas.

If you look at the design image below, you will see that the visibility challenge was tackled with a 3-paneled window on the aft cabin as well as a globe-top window in which Jacob could position himself to gain a 360-degree view of his surroundings. The addition of foot wells provided the ability to stand upright.

Another special feature on the boat is a hardtop “roof” over the rowing station. This was added as a measure of protection against possible inclement weather. The hardtop afforded Jacob protection as well as extra space for placing solar panels that would charge the three deep-cycle marine batteries needed to power the navigation, steering and fresh-water equipment.

The Long Haul

“The first row is silent, as I've made customary. I get a sense for how the boat is responding to the environment. It's not entirely obvious or self-evident how the boat will respond. Seemingly identical conditions can produce wildly different results.” (From Jacob’s Blog. Nov 26, 2018)

To row thousands of miles unassisted is no small feat. It takes immense faith in oneself, physical ability, and mental fortitude to spend nearly a year alone doing nothing but the back and forth of rowing. Yet this was the entire point of the journey: Hendrickson was hungry for a challenge that would shake up the way he lived his life. The row, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Although he officially embarked on his ocean row in July of 2018, he began preparing for it much earlier, systematically tackling problem after problem in the slow-going process of designing, training, and planning for his row.

As mentioned earlier, the idea came about in 2013. Jacob was able to get out to Portland in 2014 for the design and build process of Emerson. It was then two years before construction on her even began. During this time, Jacob was communicating back and forth with Sponberg and flying to raise money to fund the build and the rest of his expenses. Once the build began in 2016, it would be another two years before Emerson would get out on the water. Jacob mentions his frustration with the seemingly sluggish process of it all, saying that he “knew the preparations were going to be daunting, especially with a custom design and build, but it's been exhausting.” (June 15, 2017)

Yet, despite his frustration with the demoralizing pace of the preparation, Jacob stuck with it. He took navigation courses, got in touch with a dietitian for food-planning, and worked at slowly training himself physically and psychologically for the demands of his impending row.

If we take a step back from the 336 days spent rowing, we can see that Emerson, herself, was a challenge. A challenge to design, a challenge to fund, a challenge to move. She asked of Jacob perseverance years before he even embarked. In order to get her built, he needed to be dogged in his determination, for she was the first hurdle and the first step; without completing her, his mission was impossible. She taught him perseverance and patience from the very beginning, and he rose to the challenge to meet her so they could take on the Pacific together.

“In a way, it became my close friend...”

If you were alone for nearly a year, towards what would you turn for companionship? Jacob mentions looking to the ocean and sea life in moments of solitude. Equally, he mentions Emerson. “In a way, it became my close friend” he says of the boat, “It was the one thing I had that I paid very close attention to and I knew exactly what was going on with it.”

In one interview, Jacob says Emerson became almost like his “Wilson” – a reference to the Tom Hanks film, Castaway. She provided some sense of austere companionship in the absence of human contact.

Emerson was also a landing pad for visitors. From flying fish to blue-footed Boobys, the boat was a tiny island amidst the massive sea. Photo courtesy of Jacob Hendrickson.

Patience was not the only thing Emerson gave to Jacob. At one point near the end of his journey, Jacob rowed through Hurricane Anne, which soaked his sleeping cabin, lost him some food, and tossed he and much of his equipment about the boat. According to his blog post about the event, the winds and waves had Emerson rolling about 75-80 degrees. “I can't help but imagine if I were in a different, lighter rowboat, I would've tumbled over during that spell. Emerson is remarkably stable, and for that, I'm grateful." Sponberg’s meticulous design process endowed Emerson with the ability to provide stability to Jacob, not merely in terms of seafaring capacity, but also in the place he had chosen to call home for nearly a year. She was designed for stability on the open ocean, granting Jacob the peace of mind necessary to accomplish the task at the crux of his journey; re-evaluate his standing in life.

Emerson gave Jacob the space he needed to reflect on himself and his life trajectory. The boat was both transport and sanctuary through 15,000-foot-deep waters filled with creatures both curious and hungry. Without her, the much-needed space for unprecedented physical and mental challenge never would have been possible. According to Jacob, the trip afforded the opportunity, “to take a while to widen the aperture and try to look at yourself from a third-party view.” His time out on the open seas made him more aware of himself and of the world around him. “I never really set out to seek meaning in life and now that’s a whole new way of looking at the world and it’s obvious to me now why you would want to seek meaning, you know; because it’s the best way to connect with who we are as humans.”

Jacob reached Carins, Australia on June 8th, 2019, 336 days after setting out from Neah Bay, Washington. He and Emerson may no longer be alone with one another out on the Pacific, but it seems as though their time together has impacted him in myriad ways. He now mentions slowing down before making decisions to ask himself what would really make him feel fulfilled or satisfied. He talks about extending this mindful practice outwards towards his interactions with others; “Is everything I’m saying truthful and am I saying what I mean? If I’m not, how can I be clearer?”

Perhaps we can all learn from Jacob's journey; drawing on a shared determination to connect with our true selves and each other. After learning of Jacob and Emerson's journey, onlookers will forever see her as the symbol of bold determination.

We hope you’ll come by and take a peek at this magnificent vessel where she is exhibited with the Porpoise, another notable rowing vessel of a much different era. Until then, as Jacob would say at the close of his blog posts, "Paddle On."

The Harbor History Museum's Maritime Gallery, Courtyard, and Midway Schoolhouse. Emerson is the red and white vessel under the canopy. Drone footage courtesy of Jacob Hendrickson.



The Ocean Rowing Society list of world-record, ocean rowing accomplishments:

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