Illustration by Cristela Tschumy.
When George Pagano was rowing at the University of Nebraska, he and his teammates would often rise at 4:30 a.m. to practice. It was certainly difficult—particularly on those icy flatlands mornings. But the early start afforded the Media resident a pristine look at a Midwest sky largely free of light pollution and dotted with stars and celestial bodies. It was a minor reward for the sacrifice, but those familiar with the sport of crew understand that any gift is most welcome.
This past December, Pagano and his partner, Caitlin Miller, began churning through the 3,000-mile Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge with 25 other boats. As of Feb. 4, they were winding down their trip from the Canary Islands to Antigua.
As its two members experience just about every sort of physical trial, Team Cranial Quest is hoping to raise $50,000 for ALS research. But like those dark mornings in Lincoln, there are other bits of compensation. “On the ocean, the view of the skies is 10 times better than anywhere on land,” Pagano says. “It’s great to see the stars and the sunrises and sunsets, along with the aquatic life.”
Some might say that there are far easier ways to experience the Atlantic Ocean than cramming two people into a boat with 60 days’ worth of freeze-dried food and other supplies in an attempt to cover 50 miles every 24 hours.
Pagano, however, was just fine with the no-frills option, sacrificing comfort for the opportunity to row two hours on and two off, grabbing sleep in short bursts and eating the modern equivalent of K rations. He was driven to the water by the memory of his maternal grandfather, who died of ALS in 2003. Twelve years on, we still struggle in the fight against the disease. “I want to build awareness about ALS,” says Pagano. “There’s no cure. We can only manage it.”
A 2011 Haverford School grad, Pagano started rowing there as a freshman. He’d played soccer and basketball at Drexel Hill’s Holy Child Academy, but he quickly developed an affinity for crew. His senior year at Haverford, he was co-captain.
At Nebraska, Pagano joined the Cornhusker team, a club program. He spent his first two seasons in an eight-man shell and his last two in a pair, which features one oar per person. As a junior, he rowed in the club national championships, where his boat finished 10th out of 20. In 2015, he graduated from Nebraska with a business degree—and memories of those early- morning practices.
Two years ago, he showed a video of the Talisker Challenge to Miller, who was president of Nebraska’s rowing program. A native of Luverne, a small town in the southwest corner of Minnesota, she was far from smitten. “It wasn’t exactly something she was going to pursue,” Pagano says of Miller’s initial reaction.
But they kept discussing it, and soon their desire to travel outweighed what some might consider the good sense of avoiding 3,000-mile trips across the ocean. “George and I became fast friends after meeting at the Nebraska rowing club,” Miller wrote in a December 2015 email from Morocco, not long before departing for the Canary Islands. “He’s a very kind, hardworking person with a lot of rowing experience. George is also very calm and doesn’t have a quick temper, which will be a good thing when we get into stressful situations on the water.”
Raising the $1,500 entry fee was the easy part. Securing the transportation was a much bigger challenge. Crossing the Atlantic can’t be accomplished in an ordinary rowing shell. The rough seas would turn one to sopping-wet kindling.
Local sporting goods stores don’t stock the kind of craft necessary for such a trip, so Pagano and Miller had to raise more than $100,000 to purchase a boat, which features a pair of small “cabins” and storage space for supplies.
“We were hoping to get more sponsors,” Pagano says. “My parents were extremely generous. I am absolutely going to have to take care of them when they get older.”
Pagano and Miller were familiar with hard work. But the idea of 12 hours of rowing for two months goes well beyond preparing for a 2,000-meter race, which usually takes about seven or eight minutes. Their regimen was framed around building endurance, instead of bulking up, so they did more work with lighter weights.
The pair will not be alone on the ocean—there are 26 teams attempting the challenge, most of them are from the United Kingdom. Nine are four person boats, including one quartet of military men who’ve had legs amputated. Four others are trying to make it solo. Pagano and Miller are the lone coed tandem.
Team Cranial Quest was in 17th place at press time, but there’s no prize for first. “Some teams do it to win it,” says Pagano. “Others do it for the accomplishment. That’s where we are.”
Throughout the journey, Pagano and Miller will never leave the boat—except maybe to jump in the water for a quick dip. A pair of support vessels follow the fleet in the event of craft failure, or if the elements overwhelm a team.
Aside from that, Pagano and Miller are on their own—and that means for everything. Just ponder spending 60 days in a confined area with someone.
“You can think about what’s going to happen, but it’s tough to get a lot of wisdom ahead of time,” Pagano says. “You can train yourself to get into shape, but psychologically, you can’t simulate it.”
Even in the darkest moments of an early Nebraska morning.