About 75 people filled the San Juan County Commission meeting room Thursday in Aztec to welcome home and honor Team Guardian members who rowed 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to honor first responders.
Capt. Mark Pfetzer, Lt. Jarrod Slindee and retired Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Hogue met the crowd after spending a few weeks to recover and enjoy family time.
The crew rowed from La Gomera, Canary Islands to Antigua, Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. The team’s boat, “Katie Ella,” was named in honor Katie Becenti. Becenti, a San Juan County deputy, who reportedly took her life in February 2021.
Steve Lanier, San Juan County Commission chairman, hosted the celebration.
Lanier read a new resolution, No. 22-23-51, which tated in part: “Guardian Initiatives will leave a legacy for the Four Corners first responder community by raising awareness, facilitating training for the first responders and their families, sharing resources, and assisting with treatment costs.”
Sheriff Shane Ferrari, County Manger Mike Stark, Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett, Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein and Jim Crowley, representing Aztec, all spoke in recognition of the team’s harrowing 51-day adventure.
Laughter and applause erupted when Lanier called the team up to receive a small toy paddle as a memento.
“We decided you would never want to hold a full-sized one again,” Lanier said.
The team embarked Dec. 12 from the Canary Islands on the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, to raise funds in support of first responders in the Four Corners. Pfetzer, who was boat captain, came up with the idea to raise awareness of the stress that first responders face.
They arrived in the early hours of Feb. 2 at Antigua in the Caribbean area.
The crew faced its own fears and hardships along the way.
Pfetzer, 43, said that for him, it was the fear of the unknown.
“I’m rowing and I’m watching my wife on the dock and I’m holding it as best I can to keep from crying … but the fear of the unknown is there,” he said.
For Slindee, the crew crossed a big hump on Day 32. They were dealing with head- and crosswinds and weren’t getting anywhere, he said. “We were just down in the dumps and couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
But when they called the weather router, they found they couldn’t blame the weather.
“It’s your output boys,” the router said, leaving the crew no choice but to row harder. The next day was a “good day,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Pfetzer said the biggest wave was “probably 20- to 30-foot swells.” He said they learned how to ride those waves, which typically doubled their speed, from about 2½ mph to 5 mph.
He said no one fell out of the boat, but extreme rocking from side to side almost caused them to fall out at times. They were always tethered in, Pfetzer said, but “it was crazy how when you’re rowing the waves would suddenly hit straight from the side, especially at night sometimes.”
Hogue said he volunteered to do the first cleaning of the boat’s hull to remove the life-forms that can build up and affect speed. He said when someone gets separated from the boat you have 12 to 15 seconds before they are out of range to get the lifeline to them if they’re untethered.
Slindee said one of the “greatest experiences was the wildlife … the whales, dolphins, the sharks.” He recalled fearing that marlins would puncture the boat, which has happened in previous years’ challenges.
Slindee said the journey showed him it was the same with first responders – with good and bad days, with really tough situations to face.
“It was a great experience, and I’m happy to have done it, and we thought a lot about our first responders,” he said, becoming emotional when he noted that the following Saturday was the anniversary of Becenti’s death.
Initially reluctant to participate in the challenge, the cause persuaded Hogue to join the team.
Hogue, 58, now a pastor in Albuquerque, recalled how he had returned to the area for first responder training and was asked to join the crew.
“No, I don’t think I can do that,” Hogue said when asked to join the challenge about four years ago.
But after more consideration about the important cause of the mission, he called them back and decided to move forward with the training. Hogue, who joked that he “floats like a rock,” said that at one point after departing La Gomera he might have been tempted to jump ship.
“There were times when if a big boat came along I would have gone,” he said.
The team also faced challenges outside of weather and dangerous sea creatures.
There were “days where you put three alphas in a small area” and it was a challenge to “not tear each other apart,” Hogue said.
Age was also a factor. Hogue said they made it because of the support and help from his much younger mates.
“Jarrod had to step up at times because I didn’t have it. Thank you so much,” he said, adding that after the journey, he gave them both a joke T-shirt that said, “Helping the Elderly Across the Atlantic.”
The challenge not only raised awareness but also funds.
During the Q&A, Pfetzer told the audience that they raised about $265,000, including about $2,000 since their return, almost hitting their goal of $100 per mile.
Funds raised will go toward training and services for first responders, particularly for volunteers who may not have insurance coverage.
Asked if they would do it again, the crew agreed that one experience on the open seas was enough, and that their wives would agree.
Pfetzer said it was in Week Two that he called his wife on their rented satellite phones and told her to sell the rowing machine.
“When I get home I don’t want to see that rowing machine in our house,” he told her.
This article was republished March 6 to include information about where and when Team Guardian started and completed its journey.