San Juan County Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Pfetzer said there were “lots of lessons learned” during Team Guardian’s 51-day mission to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
Pfetzer, 43, Lt. Jarrod Slindee, 35, and retired deputy Sgt. Mike Hogue, 58, were recently celebrated by San Juan County officials for successfully completing the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge and raising money and support for first responders in the Four Corners region.
Pfetzer’s understanding of the challenges first responders face began with his own father.
Pfetzer’s father took medical retirement after 20 years as a police officer. He didn’t sleep, Pfetzer said. “I grew up with a dad who was unwell from the job.”
Providing resources for first responders was a goal for Team Guardian. Pfetzer and Slindee talked to professionals and researched training opportunities when organizing Team Guardian Initiatives, and have introduced numerous trainings to support fire, police and dispatch operators.
The team also honored a fallen deputy, Katie Becenti, by naming their boat Katie Ella. Becenti reportedly took her life in 2020 while on duty.
Participating in the Talisker challenge not only allowed the team to raise awareness, it appealed to Pfetzer’s athletic interests.
A Rhode Island native, Pfetzer spent many hours fishing with his grandfather, an avid fisherman. He grew up about a mile from the ocean, which afforded him opportunities to become very comfortable in the water as he learned to scuba dive and to pursue nonwater-related sports.
Pfetzer was the only member of his family to engage in mountain climbing. He attempted two Mount Everest assents with commercial expeditions at 15 and 16 years old. Those experiences taught him the importance of teamwork, communication, perseverance, and mental and physical toughness.
The inspiration to participate in the Talisker challenge stemmed from several books and films.
“Deep Water,” a documentary about sailboat racing, and “The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst,” a book about Crowhurst’s around-the-world solo sailing journey, sparked Pfetzer’s initial interest in sailing about 15 years ago.
“A Fighting Chance,” a book about two men who were the first to row across the ocean, renewed his interest, and he said to his wife, Robyn, “This would be fun. I want to do this.” Robyn said, “Absolutely not … no way. People die doing that.”
His wife’s attitude softened after reading Crowhurst’s story and watching the documentary “Losing Sight of Shore,” the story of a team of six women who rowed 9,000 miles from California to Australia.
When Pfetzer told Robyn about the plan to join the Talisker challenge, her response was more positive than expected. He said he wondered if that was at least partly because she doubted the trip would actually happen.
Training and preparation began in the fall of 2018.
“They say the hardest part of the race is getting to the start line. There’s so much to do, so much prep,” Pfetzer said.
The official rules required proof of a specific number of training hours and performance of specific skills and drills, including deployment of a 12-foot para-anchor, a parachute-type anchor that helps steer a boat in the face of high winds.
“A lot of the prep was learning all about ocean rowing, and we started a nonprofit at the same time. We said we’re not going to do this if it’s not benefiting this cause … so that’s why we were very passionate – before we even rowed – bringing in training and putting money aside for treatment for first responders,” Pfetzer said.
The team trained on the water at Navajo Lake, learning how to move around on the boat, improving their rowing technique and practicing using the para-anchor.
The para-anchor proved vital to staying on course in the face of strong northern winds during the final few weeks of the challenge.
Their ocean training took place in May 2022. They completed a 36-hour row in the English Channel, then a 55-hour row and a 10-hour row along the Atlantic coast from Florida to South Carolina.
The team embarked on its trip Dec. 12 from La Gomera in the Spanish Canary Islands. They arrived Feb. 2 at English Harbor, Antigua, in the Guadelopue Passage of the Caribbean area.
They also completed required training in Atlantic Ocean rowing, navigation, first aid and sea survival, and became licensed to operate very high frequency radios. They became proficient at operating the chart plotter, the boat’s electrical systems and automatic identification system, which alerts other boats in the area to its presence.
Some lessons were only learned once out on the water, such as keeping the seat bearings oiled and packed with Vaseline every few days to ward off saltwater corrosion after they malfunctioned and had to be replaced early in the trip.
Staying physically health during the trip required careful planning.
“By race rules, based on your weight, you have to carry a certain amount of calories per day per person,” Pfetzer said.
The team’s menu included dehydrated packets of beef stroganoff and stew, chicken dumplings, eggs and biscuits and gravy, which they sampled before the race to pick out favorites. They had each had three meals a day, plus a snack bag, in order to consume the necessary calories.
“I ate like a pig from Day One. If those guys didn’t eat from their snack pack, I was eating it,” Pfetzer said. He lost the least amount of weight, about 15 pounds. Slindee lost about 27 pounds, and Hogue lost over 20 pounds.
The crew rowed 17 hours a day, two hours on and one hour off, and a four-hour sleeping break. The oars were always manned by a least one person. Hogue admirably kept pace with his younger mates, Pfetzer said, but “we all struggled at times.”
The crew’s supply of drinkable water came from use of a seawater desalination system, a supply 0f 40 liters of fresh water, 30 liters of reserve water in the bottom of the boat, which went untouched, and bags of water in their emergency supply bags.
The team not only faced rough waters, high winds and 20- to 30-foot swells, but also mental fatigue and emotional stress.
Keeping up morale when the journey got dark was a challenge. “You got a job to do – you gotta row. You talk and build each other up,” Pfetzer said.
He encouraged teammates by saying, “Listen, in two weeks this is all going to be over … and this is all going to be a memory. All you gotta worry about is the next oar stroke.”
“We’d joke with each other … but sometimes you just gotta let each other work through it. Like for me, if I’m going to be grumpy, I’m just going to be grumpy for a little bit. More often than not, spirits were good on the boat,” Pfetzer said.
The team stayed in touch with family using satellite phones, and Pfetzer used a Garmin inReach device connected to his cellphone for texting, but the time away from their families wore on them.
It was really hard when closing in on their destination, Pfetzer said, knowing that family and friends awaited their arrival. They basically seemed to hit a wall at one point.
“The winds are coming out of the North, and we gotta turn the boat northwest and row to try to go west,” Pfetzer said, but they worked extremely hard, rowing all day to finally get back on course.
They finished the challenge in the early morning hours of Feb. 2. They were greeted by family, friends and San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari. “I don’t regret this ocean row at all, but I wouldn’t do it again. It’s a lot of time away from family, and our wives made a lot of sacrifices. The other members of the team agreed with that sentiment during their welcome home event. Pfetzer and his wife love to hike, fish, camp and mountain bike, so those pursuits will consume their leisure time once again.
“The best way I can describe the whole thing is humbling. The support from the community, the rowing with the team … the size of the ocean and the challenge it was. We’re grateful to God, it’s all his story … for allowing it to happen,” Pfetzer said.
This article was republished March 6 to include information about where and when Team Guardian started and completed its journey.