How to learn life’s lessons? Row across the Atlantic Ocean

Former Bainbridge Island resident Richard Tarbill will be part of a four-man crew that will attempt to row across the Atlantic Ocean. - Sean Trew photo / Courtesy of OAR Northwest
Former Bainbridge Island resident Richard Tarbill will be part of a four-man crew that will attempt to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
— image credit: Sean Trew photo / Courtesy of OAR Northwest

The words are easy to say.

Courage. Initiative. Teamwork.

They’re far harder to make part of life. Maybe rowing across the Atlantic Ocean would do it.

That’s part of the reason Boeing flight test engineer Richard Tarbill, 30, and three friends are going to make such a voyage.

On April 7, they’ll leave Seattle for a training circumnavigation of Vancouver Island. In December will come an expected 60-to-80-day Atlantic voyage from Liberia to Venezuela.

Even Tarbill himself, who often has been asked why someone would undertake such adventures, says he’s not completely able to explain his motivations.

He cites some time-honored phrases of “because it’s there,” or to “discover yourself.”

All fall short. Later, he relates something he’s noticed in life, about things like working on problems in cubicles.

“You can isolate yourself from the rest of the world,” he said. “You can do that for 30, 40 years. I chose not to do that.”

Only about 450 people are known to have rowed across oceans, he adds.

Tarbill grew up on Bainbridge Island, lives in Seattle near University Village, graduated from the University of Washington and rowed on the Husky crew. He’s worked for Boeing since 2004.

Meanwhile, four University of Puget Sound rowers had founded an undertaking called Ocean Adventure Racing Northwest, or OAR Northwest, resulting in a Guinness World Record 2006 71-day Atlantic crossing from New York to England.

In 2010 the group’s emphasis evolved from seeking records toward education and research. The crew also changed and now includes Tarbill; Adam Kreek, of Victoria, B.C., a 2008 Olympic gold medalist; Greg Spooner, of Bellingham, Whatcom County, a 2006 expedition member; and Jordan Hanssen, of Seattle, also a 2006 rower.

“A year ago, we were just going to row across the ocean, but now it’s become so big,” said Tarbill.

Tarbill says his work at Boeing has helped him prepare for the ocean voyage, noting that he’s taken part in a wide array of experiences in his flight-test job, including work on both the 787 and 747-8. The work has ranged from 787 brake tests at Edwards Air Force Base in California to a 1 million-pound takeoff in the 747-8.

“Flight test is a dynamic environment,” he said, adding that he has to work with people who often have vastly differing philosophies and outlooks on life.

“Ultimately it’s about finding a way to get it done together,” he said. “My butt is literally on the line if I don’t approach the tasks with a level of seriousness and urgency. The laws of physics and Mother Nature are usually unbending forces that rarely yield to the wishes of man.”

Tarbill now reels through a list of vastly expanded goals for the Atlantic crossing, from recording water salinity and oxygen content to the effects of sleep deprivation and the teamwork needed for four people to exist on a tiny boat, a 29-foot four-person ocean rowboat built in England.

“What happens if you don’t work together?” he asks.

All the discoveries will benefit a variety of sponsors, including title sponsor Canadian Wildlife Federation, a 50-year-old conservation organization, and Right To Play, an international humanitarian organization.

Such skills would seem to be of immeasurable value in dealing with life, or perhaps in helping a company prosper, or benefitting students.

“I hope so,” said Tarbill.

Information about OAR Northwest can be found at

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