THE TEST OF MORTAL LIMITS

68 Days 23 hours 18 minutes. For coming days, those numbers will be printed and reprinted in newspapers. They’ll be recited and cogitated on national television programs. They’ll even be scribbled in record books alongside running lists of numbers just like them. These numbers belong to Team Oar Northwest.

Last month, the four-man boat crew that includes 23-year-old Crane School graduate Brad Vickers touched land – and walked for that matter – for the first time in more than two months. The oarsmen heaved, pushed and elbowed their way across 3,290 point-to-point miles of Northern Atlantic Ocean water to win the 2006 Shepherd Ocean Four Rowing Race. The James Robert Hanssen crossed the longitude of Bishop’s Rock on August 18, 350 statute miles ahead of the second place team, Yorkshire Warrior, and 650 miles of the third place team. The fourth team surrendered on the race’s first day.

Team Oar Northwest rowed for another three days and 80-plus miles to Falmouth, England. In doing so, they became the first Americans to complete a mainland-to-mainland unassisted row from the U.S. to the U.K.

Still overseas sightseeing, the oarsmen were unavailable for comment last week. What follows is a short chronicle of their experiences told through Vickers’s father, Keven, the crew’s online diary and their website’s thick compendium of statistics.

What the four-man crew endured was a grueling joust of swirling wind shifts, 30-foot angry waves, blinding lightning flashes and thunder cracks. The horizontal rain drove so hard they could not hear shouted speech from 10 inches away.

An excerpt from their daily log describes the ocean in more haunting detail: “The ocean is a power and a controller. It alone decides how we live our lives. We give up assumption; we submit. The only certainty the sea disgorges is uncertainty. We think of loved ones waiting for us and we long to be with them so much, it hurts. Since we have no other choice – we submit.”

In one instance, large “phosphorescent” swaths of glowing water, much larger than a dolphin, larger than a great white shark, as large as a whale, forged its way toward the boat. The moment of contact raised the boat high then dumped it into a lowly channel. The glowing “lump” remains a mystery.

The oarsmen’s yearning for food was constant. Breakfast consisted of grapenuts with powered milk, Fig Newtons or fruit chews. Every seventh day, gumbo. Daylong snacks of cheese, jerky and candy bars calmed the queasiness a bit. Dinner stable was polenta, a mush of chestnut meal, farina and cornmeal.

The daily oar regimen: two men rowed for two hours while the other two attempted to sleep in the 5-by-8-foot forward cabin of their 29-foot boat. The small aft cabin stored communication equipment, food tins, two extra oars, two smoke signal machines, a life raft, flares, a supply of sunscreen and two extra-wide brim hats. Daily radio contact was made with occasional passing freighters and French fishing boats.

Knowing the Herculean risks, a fair question lingers: Why would these four friends – Vickers, Jordan Hanssen, Dylan LeValley and Greg Spooner – challenge Mother Nature to such an extent? A couple decades ago, 3-year-old Hanssen witnessed his father die of an asthma attack. When the boys got together, they named their boat in honor of Hanssen’s dad and devoted all monies raised from the expedition to the American Lung Association.

Shortly after the end of the race, once the applause and congratulations had simmered down, the crew toted one of their oars to the peak of Mount Knocknarea, near the small town of Sligo in Ireland. It was there that Hanssen’s dad had been born and where his ashes had been scattered. Atop Knocknarea the boys planted the oar firmly into the ground in memorial devotion.

The extraordinary event ended a short time ago, but the accolades continue. An appearance on NBC’s “Good Morning America” occurred on September 12. Talk is ongoing for CBS’s “Dave Letterman Show,” and more to come – all tributes to our thirst to challenge the mortal limits.