SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Three times, Victor Mooney tried to row across the Atlantic. Three times he failed. One boat sank. Another lost its freshwater system. A third sprang a leak and left him drifting on a life raft for two weeks. As he planned for a fourth attempt, his wife made it clear it would be the last.
“I’m going to give you all the support you need, but this is it. We have to close the book on this one,”’ Mooney recalled her telling him.
Now the 48-year-old Brooklyn native has finally completed the roughly 3,000-mile journey.
Mooney was recovering Saturday in the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten, a day after reaching shore and ending a 128-day ordeal during which he lost 80 pounds.
The trip was fueled by his desire to bring attention to the need for HIV testing and to honor a brother who died of AIDS in 1983.
“Not everyone has to row across the Atlantic. You can wear a red ribbon,” he said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “We all have a responsibility to do something.”
On Feb. 19, Mooney left the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa in high spirits. But those faded as big waves and violent currents began to toss his 24-foot boat around, alarming nearby boaters who radioed him.
“It was a tanker who said, ‘Do you know where you’re at? Are you OK? Are you in your right mind?”’ Mooney recalled.
He paused, and the devout Roman Catholic, who had placed crucifixes all over his boat, reminded himself to be still.
The weather began to improve, and Mooney also received help from an oceanographer and meteorologist, among those he chatted with by radio while crossing the ocean, saying he never felt alone.
Mooney settled into a routine, awaking at 4 a.m., then rowing for about an hour at a time and taking 30-minute breaks until 7 p.m. But the ocean remained rough for most of the journey, often erasing his progress.
“Sometimes you can row 10 miles, and then you wake up and you’re 15 miles behind,” Mooney said. “You get those days, and you’re like, ‘Oh, man.’ ”
He would devour several portions of freeze-dried food in one sitting and eventually ran out. He resorted to fishing until his tackle line broke, so he began to scoop fish up with nets or rely on flying fish jumping into his boat.
Then a shark attacked his boat and punctured it.
“I can remember like it was yesterday,” Mooney said. “They circle your boat. They go around, they go under, they go around.”
He felt the hit and scrambled to repair the damage while the shark chased fish milling underneath the barnacles attached to his boat. He reminded himself to be still again and prayed, thinking about his wife and other supporters.
“Sometimes just putting on deodorant, smelling that fresh deodorant was encouraging, inspirational,” he said.
As he neared the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten, he had a final conversation with a nearby tanker.
“He said, ‘Mooney, I have a big ship, do you need a rescue?’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘No, I don’t need a rescue, I want a burger. Do you have a burger for me?’ ”
Medical officials have not yet allowed Mooney to eat that burger, feeding him instead small portions of oatmeal and light sandwiches as he recovers.
“I haven’t weighed 140 pounds since 6th, 7th grade,” he said with a laugh.
In St. Maarten, he plans to eat well and replenish his energy with help from doctors and supporters, including a government team from Anguilla – his intended destination – who visited him on Saturday.
Once he regains his strength, Mooney plans to row to the British Virgin Islands and then another 1,800-plus miles to New York and eventually home to Queens, where he runs a nonprofit South Africa arts organization. It’s a journey he said he never plans to do again, but he urged people to get tested for HIV and to keep fighting to find a cure for AIDS.