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April 2020

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Doing Things the Hard Way

New York Local 3 member Milan Svetlik does things the hard way. It's not that life is easy. It isn't. In fact, his recently got much harder. It's that the world always seems to be conspiring against living a heroic life, and, more than anything, Milan wants to be the author of his own story and make it unique.

The short version of the story is this: Man from Europe returns to Europe. If it was about anyone else, an airplane would be involved, and it would be easy. But this is not anyone's story; it is Milan's, so expect it to be extravagantly, uniquely hard.

This spring, Svetlik will attempt to do something that has never been done before. It's been tried, but never done. This May, Milan Svetlik will skip the plane and row 3,200 miles from beneath the Statue of Liberty back to Europe, to a tiny isle off the coast of England.

"I was always adventurous," he says mildly.

Among the readers of this newspaper are numerous hard men and women who do famously difficult and dangerous jobs. For the last decade, Milan did not have one of those jobs. Until he was laid off in January — always the hard way with Milan — he was a project manager for public projects working in an office. He isn't physically exceptional. He has a sweet smile, thinning hair, the pale skin of a New York City subway rider in winter, but there are hints that he is more than he seems.

Svetlik's forearms are cabled with muscle and, when he was a kid in the 1980s in Czechoslovakia, he improbably dreamt of becoming a deep-sea diver. He came to the United States in 2006 with nothing but a backpack and finished top of his class at dive school.

"I was told that I didn't have much chance to separate myself without being the best," he said. So, he became the best.

"I went through the process to be a tender on the boat, assisting on boats in the Gulf of Mexico, and then I started to dive. Eventually, I felt like there was no progress for me and opportunities were limited," Svetlik said. "The need for this work is very inconsistent and fading away. And I like to work."

So, he came back to New York.

"I did what I set out to do," he said.

However, as much as he loved being back in New York, Milan's post-deep-sea-diving life needed a heroic dream.

He thought about climbing Mt. Everest. Not for him. Too crowded, too obvious. Then he heard, almost coincidentally, about ocean rowing.

"I almost felt it was custom-made for me," he said. "I can do it alone without support. I rely on my own skill, physical and mental. I don't need a team. I don't need a Sherpa. I am proving myself to me."

You might rightly say to Milan that this is not quite Lewis and Clark territory. The Ocean Rowing Society's records have hundreds of successful trans-oceanic rows.

The details matter, however.

Of the hundreds of attempts to row an ocean since 1896, only 52 started on the west side of the Atlantic and proceeded east. Just 18 were completed. That's every attempt, not just solo rows. Two out of three attempts — not just solo rows — ended in failure for the last 125 years. Most were rescued, but not all.

"I am aware of what I am getting into. There will be 20-foot waves, 30-foot waves," Milan said. "The boat will flip over, roll over. I won't be able to row. I will have to wait out storms."

He paused.

"At some point you will have to get used to rolling over," he said.

It gets worse for Milan. There have been 17 solo attempts from Canada. Ten succeeded. Milan is, of course, leaving from New York, not Canada. From the U.S., there have been 31 solo attempts. Only six have made it, but never from New York.

He noted that the boat he bought — re-named Czech Mate — already made the trip. Its previous owner, Bryce Carlson, rowed from Newfoundland, a journey nearly 1,200 miles shorter than the one Milan plans.

"He capsized in the first 10 days a half a dozen times," Milan said.

So why not follow in Carlson's wake and leave from Canada?

"It would be common sense. It is the shortest, but it's been done," Milan said. "I am a New Yorker. I am proud of being an immigrant. It has a deep meaning. Leaving around the Statue of Liberty, it is very significant."

Milan is choosing the hard way to do the hard thing. He is following in the footsteps of a pair of immigrants, the very first men to row an ocean on purpose and live: George Harbo and Frank Samuelson from Norway. Everybody doing any staring-death-in-the-face at the end of the 1800s seemed to be Norwegian or Swedish.

They left Battery Park June 6, 1896 in an open rowboat smaller than a Chevy Suburban, named the Fox. They had a sextant and a compass and 60 gallons of water and, in the words of the New York Herald, "provisions — principally canned meat."

They wore life belts of reindeer leather and were secured to the gunwales of the Fox by "three fathoms of line" — about 18 feet.

A correspondent for the New York Herald wrote at the time "They are confident that fortune is ahead of them, but seafaring men say it is nothing short of suicide."

No one took Harbo and Samuelson seriously.

Fifty-five days later they landed on the Isle of Scilly, one of the westernmost islands of Great Britain, their logbook signed by captains of ships they had passed affirming that they were duly found mid-ocean with no sail deployed. They had hoped to make a fortune on the lecture circuit displaying the Fox to throngs of admirers. They were given 10 kronor by the King of Sweden and promptly forgotten.

Yet, the record for two people rowing across the Atlantic still belongs to Harbo and Samuelson and it took 114 years and a crew of four people to beat it at all.

Milan is not asking for help, though he is back at the Local 3's imposing hall looking for work before his late-spring departure. The layoff was a surprise — a painful and poorly timed one at that — but if he was thrown by that, he wouldn't be the kind of man who rows alone across the Atlantic.

If any of his IBEW brothers and sisters felt inspired, he would be proud if they donated something to the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which helps disadvantaged kids play sports. He hasn't told the charity. It's an excellent cause; he just isn't going to hassle anyone about it. Donations can be made through

While winter roared in New York he was stuck rowing on a machine, hours each day. When spring broke, he was back in Czech Mate beneath the watchful eye of Lady Liberty, soon to leave her far, far behind.

"If I get through the first two weeks, I will have a good chance," he said.

Follow Milan Svetlik's journey at



New York Local 3 member Milan Svetlik has spent months training in his one-man rowboat, Czech Mate. This spring, he plans to row solo from the Statue of Liberty across the Atlantic to Europe.


George Harbo and Frank Samuelson, pictured here in their rowboat, the Fox, were the first to row the Atlantic and survive in 1896.