The fallen tree: Man rows across Atlantic, gets stuck in Assawoman Canal

Date Published: 
October 23, 2015

Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Victor Mooney kneels on his boat, pointing towards his most recent challenge in rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, a fallen tree laying across the Assawoman Canal near Ocean View.Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Victor Mooney kneels on his boat, pointing towards his most recent challenge in rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, a fallen tree laying across the Assawoman Canal near Ocean View.What does a Delaware tree have in common with sharks, pirates and near-starvation? It’s just another setback that hasn’t prevented Victor Mooney from sailing from Africa to New York.

Residents near Bethany Beach were surprised to see a man in a wetsuit knocking on doors in the Water Side development on Oct. 8, seeking to borrow a chainsaw. But a tree had blocked the entire Assawoman Canal, and Mooney’s one-man rowboat could not pass.

Mooney is on the last leg of the Goree Challenge, a 5,000-mile Transatlantic journey that began in early 2014. He rowed himself to the Caribbean from the African coast, mirroring the route of Christopher Columbus.

The magnitude of that could take a moment to sink in.

Without a motor or sails, Mooney crossed the Atlantic Ocean, using only his arms and oars for power. The mission began in 2003, with several failed attempts over the past decade (including twice from Goree Island, Senegal). The current trip launched from the Canary Islands on Feb. 19, 2014.

By rowing the Atlantic, Mooney hopes to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS.

“This affects so many people,” Mooney said. “HIV/AIDS is not discriminatory,” affecting everyone from urbanites sharing needles to senior citizens in Florida having unprotected sex.

His interviews are a soundboard, encouraging everyone to get tested for the virus.

Mooney began this journey for “all those who died of AIDS, including my brother,” in 1983, he noted. He has another brother still fighting the disease.

This epic journey is no fundraiser, although people worldwide have donated money, food, water shoes and even a boat or two. International health organizations have cheered him on.

Logging time in Delaware

Mooney has worked his way up the East Coast, through North Carolina’s Dismal Swamp and Virginia’s uncharted marshes, grateful for an escort in rougher conditions. With the warnings of Hurricane Joaquin on the way and a nor’easter set to lash the coast, he took refuge in Ocean City, Md., from Sept. 22 to Oct. 6. That Thursday morning, Mooney waited for the sun to rise and illuminate his path from Fenwick Island through the marsh.

Perhaps it was a low bridge, Mooney first thought when he saw the blockage ahead of him. But when he realized a tree had fallen, he couldn’t stop laughing.

“It was surreal, because I faced many challenges,” he said, including pirates off the Haitian coast, a shark punching a hole in the boat and three previous attempts to row the Atlantic. “You plan for things to happen. You have a life-raft, but no one says, ‘Bring a chainsaw.’”

Born in Brooklyn, raised in Long Island and living in Flushing, N.Y., Mooney expected an immediate response to his Delaware doorbell ringing. But the quiet Water Side development didn’t hear those doorbells until Joanne Levy answered and got the ball rolling.

Since the Assawoman Canal is State-owned, Mooney and his hosts spent the day hoping the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control would sail down with its own chainsaw.

“It’s interesting,” Bob Levy mused, staring at the boat that afternoon. “I think we’re probably going to have him as an overnight guest.”

“I’m praying someone will come and make a nice cut,” Mooney said, so he could continue his journey. “I want to get home and see the family, but I’m not rushing. … They were kind enough to open their doors to me.”

Mooney had already tried hoisting the deceptively heavy tree. Having fallen during the nor’easter, it rested beautifully over the Assawoman Canal — a tall, slender trunk, capped with a tuft of greenery. Dappled sunlight brushed the forest floor on either side of the canal.

“When I saw the [Assawoman] canal and the scenery, I thought, ‘I’m home again,’” Mooney said of the beauty and tranquility. “Maybe there’s some reason that the Father said, ‘Stop.’”

In the face of death

Having turned 50 on Oct. 19, the public affairs specialist had just spent his second birthday at sea. He never knows when he’ll come or go, but he might rest for a week in a place before continuing his travels.

It hasn’t been a completely sequential journey, either, and Mooney had plenty of opportunities to question God. That shark put a hole in his boat just as Mooney was entering the Caribbean.

Pirates hijacked the Spirit of Malabo on Oct. 30, 2014, off the coast of Haiti. Mooney had crossed the Atlantic, but the boat was stripped. He flew home for the holiday season, grateful, at least, to see his family for the first time in months. After straightening out the paperwork in Haiti, Mooney found a Floridian to perform pro bono repair work on the boat. The following spring, the Spirit of Malabo was sailing north again.

“All waters must be respected,” said Mooney, noting that he has learned three ways not to sail.

His first, homemade boat sank hours after launching in 2006, and in 2009, the water desalinator broke down. In 2011, his boat was damaged in transit, and despite repairs, it still took on water at sea. Mooney said he spent 14 days on a life-raft before a cargo ship took him to Brazil. On Day 2, another passing vessel had ignored him.

“I cried like a baby, because I didn’t want to die,” Mooney said.

Alone in the ocean, he seemed a long way from World AIDS Day in 2004, when he had met Pope John Paul II.

But he opened his “wet, soggy Bible” to Psalm 91, which speaks of God and angels protecting those in danger. Mooney was eventually recued, believing a guardian angel had remained at his side.

He learned early on never to row at night, unless under a full moon. He had also lost about 80 pounds, having mistaken amount of freeze-dried rations needed to fuel a grown man who must row all day. (He gratefully devoured a pizza after reaching the mainland.)

Mooney and his dad used to paddle in the Adirondacks, but that was nothing compared to the sky-high waves Mooney faced at sea.

His current boat, called the Spirit of Malabo, was built in Rio de Janeiro, with a smooth and streamlined wooden hull, reinforced with fiberglass. (Malabo is the capital of Equatorial Guinea, which sponsored the watercraft.) The Brazilian Navy approved its seaworthiness. Besides websites and hashtags, the boat is painted in the colors of the Brazilian flag and decorated with sigils of Equatorial Guinea and the United States of America.

The Spirit of Malabo is 24 feet long and 6 feet at the widest. Mooney sleeps in a tiny enclosed compartment. But at 1,500 pounds, the Spirit wasn’t exactly something Mooney could lift around a fallen tree in a Delaware canal.

“It’s been an incredible journey,” said Mooney, whose mission always points back to HIV/AIDS.

“Never give up,” he said, “because we all face challenges in life, and until we find a cure for this disease, HIV testing is a definitely a prerequisite in ending the scourge. We still face discrimination for folks living with the virus,” although diagnosis isn’t necessarily a death sentence.

Bringing down the tree

In the end, it was members of the Millville Volunteer Fire Company who were the heroes of the day.

“The team came in, cut the logs up, opened up a big space for me to get through,” Mooney said reported at day’s end. “Work still has to be done for local authorities, to cut more wood to make it more accessible.”

But Mooney said he was delighted for a hot shower and hospitality before continuing on to New Jersey.

“It was beautiful, so many folks that came on board,” Mooney said. “I will be leaving in the morning, catching the tide at noon.

“I’m sure I’ll revisit this community — not by boat, of course,” he quipped.

After rowing through the sheltered waters of Delaware, Mooney crossed the Delaware Bay to spend several days in Cape May, N.J. He’ll follow the winding New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway to Manasquan Inlet.

That leaves about 40 miles of ocean to New York Harbor, where Mooney has a delivery to make. He’ll donate the Spirit of Malabo for permanent display at the United Nations headquarters.

But, first, he wants a slice of Junior’s cheesecake when he reaches the Brooklyn Bridge.

Right now, Mooney’s trying to stay dry as autumn settles over the water, following the same advice all the way home: “Never give up … and don’t be afraid to fail.”

Updates on his journey are posted regularly on Facebook and Twitter and at www.GoreeChallenge.com Funding continues for the project and future book, at www.gofundme.com/spiritofmalabofund and www.gofundme.com/goreechallengebook.