In January of last year a long ocean rowboat set sail on the Atlantic Ocean – Its point of departure, Dakar, Senegal on the east coast of Africa. Its crew, a band of four rowers, both adventurers and educators from the OAR Northwest organization based in Seattle. Their destination – Miami, Florida, over 6770 km away. The goal – scientific data collection, ocean conservation education and coincidentally, at that distance, a possible world record as the first successful row from mainland Africa to the mainland U.S.

Dubbed the Africa to the Americas Expedition, the task at hand was no light pleasure cruise. Awaiting was a daunting 60-100 day journey of rowing for endless hours alternating between two-man shifts. That test of human endurance amidst everything the high seas could throw at the small craft – winds, the daily sun beating directly down, and enormous waves all around in stormy conditions. But this was also no casual crew on board. The four included Adam Kreek, a former Olympic gold medalist rower from Canada, Markus Pukonen, an adventurer from Tofino, B.C., Jordan Hanssen, an experienced winning Atlantic rowing racer from Seattle and Pat Fleming also of the OAR Northwest organization. Along with everything on board needed for survival and keeping energy levels high, a large variety of gadgetry was making the journey. From the standard sea voyage items like GPS and satellite hookups for communications and navigation, many solar-powered to specialized gear for the scientific duties of the voyage. Measurement devices for tracking ocean biology, air and water chemistry and digital storage equipment to hold all the research data like camera cards and hard drives. After months of preparation, all the pieces together to launch, the goal was before the crew in the open expanse of ocean and this was not to be any sort of usual rowboat trip.

“You have to come to terms with the fact that you’re this tiny little thing that can be eaten by the ocean at any moment”

With the expedition underway, the four rowers experienced numerous challenges from nature threatening to ruin their voyage. Wind and wave conditions constantly slowed the pace, rocking and relentlessly bashing up against the boat while oars struggled to cut through. The rowboat really wasn’t that big – six-feet wide at the deck and four-feet high down in the shared cabin area and storage sections. Wind-powered generators failed early on and so solar-power was the main reliance to keep devices charged and GPS tracking signals pinging out so followers could keep watch of their status on dry land. In an interview with Sportsnet Magazine, Markus Pukonen describes the learning process. “You have to come to terms with the fact that you’re this tiny little thing that can be eaten by the ocean at any moment,” he says. Regardless, they remained vigilant in their trek and make their way across the Atlantic. Recording of data, doing live classroom broadcasts and filming video footage for a documentary continued on while the rowing pushed forward.

With the end in sight, maybe 2 weeks left of rowing, on day 73 now in the month of April, disaster struck when some unusually shaped waves pummelled the ship. Getting thrown around by waves was the norm for the boat, but these seemed to hit in such a way and force that not only did the boat first get partially submerged but then it capsized — throwing two crew members into the cold ocean water and worse, filling the cabin area through an open hatch. Though built with a design feature to automatically right itself in a capsizing, the flooding of the cabin prevented the boat from turning back over. After escaping the cabin area and finding their crewmates in the water, they tried to right the boat for hours before realizing they needed to signal for help. The U.S. Coast Guard helped coordinate a rescue and arranged for transport to land in Puerto Rico. They had survived the disastrous end to their journey, escaping with their lives, sighs of relief from team members and family on the land and fans around the world. However, while the crew was safe & sound, the rowboat was still out in the water, floating upside down aimlessly. The gadget-laden research vessel, loaded with equipment, film and now storage devices holding huge amounts of science data was lost at sea! Another rescue mission was hatched, to first find the abandoned ship using emergency beacons, and then get it back to land, requiring tugboat assistance. They had come so close to finishing the journey but nature had altered the outcome of the voyage.

The boat was successfully retrieved and the immediate disaster subsided but the journey wasn’t over. Other than a world-record left standing in an ‘attempt’ state, all of the digital storage media was severely damaged and hard work presumably lost. OAR Northwest had staff ready to start work on the film production and sifting through all of the expected research data but what they found on the capsized boat was all the hard drives corroded by salt-water and camera cards and video recordings drenched. With the situation turning grim again, it was suggested by fellow researchers that maybe not all was lost, and that an expert in digital media recovery could maybe help out. A call was made to CBL Data Recovery and inquiries made about what could be done and the potential for anything being salvaged. CBL is no stranger to water-damaged data and nature taking its toll in many different forms from tornados and earthquakes to flooding and was ready to spring into action and evaluate. Markus hand delivered every device and media card they had to CBL’s data recovery lab in Markham, Ontario, Canada just outside Toronto. CBL’s customer service team received the project in just about the same state the drives had been found in the ocean, minus the water. Rusty metal hard drive enclosures, salt-encrusted edges from ocean water and digital camera cards with plastic covers concealing what sort of damage and corrosion had been eating away at their electronic circuit board components for days since the salvage. CBL lab technicians got to work right away in the clean room assessing the situation — which meant carefully prying open hard drives and using previous disaster experience to physically clean dirty storage platters. Analysis showed a good chance for recovery on all of the water-logged media. Item by item, digital devices were recovered. The data was delivered back to Markus in stages as challenges were overcome. Specialized techniques to access damaged platter data and then proprietary software to extract it. CBL made sure to keep the OAR Northwest team abreast of the progress through dedicated customer service reps the whole way. Finally, video recordings, data files and camera photos were brought back from the brink.

In the end, CBL’s technicians won the battle against the elements. Almost all of the data was completely recovered and returned to the grateful OAR Northwest team. Weeks of video footage, intended for a documentary film about the expedition and scientific data intended to further ocean education and research projects was all recovered and is now being edited and compiled. CBL was pleased to offer its aid to the weary crew. Like their resilience out on the open sea, the data was resilient and with CBL’s expertise in recovering all types of digital media this harrowing rowboat expedition’s tale came to a positive close.

References and Further Reading

Learn more about OAR Northwest’s journey and work here: