By Joe Anuta
A Forest Hills resident who plans to make yet another attempt to row across the Atlantic Ocean has drawn praise for being an advocate for AIDS awareness. But his fund-raising tactics have been criticized for blurring the line on charity and enraged many members of the tight-knit ocean-rowing community.
Victor Mooney has been featured in major newspapers, magazines and TV broadcasts for his three failed efforts to row from Africa to the East Coast of America in the name of AIDS awareness. Now he plans to try again.
“The response has been overwhelming,” said Mooney, who has already raised $75,000 worth of donated equipment for the upcoming trip.
Each of Mooney’s previous attempts ended days into the trip. He has said that in all three cases technical problems were to blame.
In 2006, Mooney’s hand-built boat started taking on water five hours after he began his journey from Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa, to Brooklyn. Three years later, Mooney’s water desalinator, which enabled him to produce potable water, broke 13 days into his journey along the same path, he said. During his most recent journey, Mooney rowed for mere hours before he said his boat began taking on water.
In each instance, he was rescued from seaï»¿. Mooney maintains that his efforts were genuine, but several of the people he petitioned for help in planning for his trips begged to differ, saying his preparation was largely cosmetic and his lack of knowledge about long-distance rowing appeared to be more suited to a PR stunt — an allegation the Forest Hills man firmly denies.
The 46-year-old, who has worked in public relations for a Brooklyn community college, ASA The College of Excellence, said he wanted to raise awareness about voluntary testing for AIDS after his brother was diagnosed with the disease in the 1980s. In press releases, he has also claimed to raise money for AIDS medication. On earlier versions of Mooney’s website dedicated to his trips, goreechallenge.com, he is pictured at several high-profile political and AIDS events, often with big names like former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva or former Mozambique Ambassador to the United States Armando Alexandre Panguene.
Mooney admitted his rowing ventures are a costly way to raise awareness of the disease, and he said he never had any intention of misleading people over fund-raising. But over the last seven years he has angered many other rowers who share his hobby.
It is claimed Mooney owes roughly $30,000 for the first two boats he lost at sea after he was rescued. In the first case, it is alleged he never paid two young rowers from the Midwest the full amount for a $6,000 boat. For his second boat, a Massachusetts boat builder said Mooney nearly bankrupted him by racking up $25,000 worth of work the rower had commissioned for a boat before skipping out on the bill.ï»¿
Another rower from Seattle named Wave Vidmar claimed Mooney copied his blueprints and used them to raise $12,000 at a Miami boat show.ï»¿
And that same rower had questions about the authenticity of Mooney’s attempts and claimed that as far back as 2004, Mooney’s website said he was running a 501(c)(3) charity. Yet the charities bureau of the state attorney general’s office has no record of it and is looking into the situation.
In an interview with TimesLedger Newspapers last week, Mooney defended all of his dealings and said: “I don’t think I deceived anyone. I really believe that I can do it.”
But his account of his journeys and preparation differs drastically from his detractors.
In 2004, Mooney was relatively unknown to the rowing community. He needed a boat for his first attempt and got in contact with the two young rowers from the Midwest named Sarah Kessans and Emily Kohl, who were selling a kit.
A mutual contact named John Ziegler, who builds boats in New Jersey, brokered a deal between the two parties.
“We needed cash fast and he claimed to have it,” Kessans said. “Nobody in the ocean rowing community had heard of him or knew him. His story sounded legit.”
Kessans and Kohl wrote up a contract. But after Mooney paid the initial $1,000 to ship the boat, he stopped responding to requests for the remainder of the money.
The two women eventually sued Mooney in Queens Civil Court to recover the funds and won their case in 2007. But they never saw any of the money.
“Since our initial dealing with him, he has lied to, cheated and completely alienated himself from the entire ocean rowing community. He stole our boat kit,” Kessans said in an e-mail to TimesLedger Newspapers.ï»¿
Mooney acknowledged the dispute with Kessans and Kohl and said that he was still attempting to pay the money back to them.
“A lot of people who do these rows, a lot of them carry a lot of expenses,” Mooney said. “Out of 10 people who cross the Atlantic, you might find one who is fully sponsored.”
But around the same time as he was facing the lawsuit, Mooney tacked on more expenses to his tab for his second voyage, according to Martin Hardy, owner of Composite Yachts in Trappe, Md.
Mooney had asked for Hardy’s help in building a boat. Hardy agreed to do the project for $10,000, since Mooney said the trip was for AIDS awareness, although it cost far more. And Mooney paid Hardy that $10,000 and provided TimesLedger Newspapers with a copy of the cashier’s checks.
But the rower pushed the project further, according to Hardy, who took out a $35,000 loan from the bank to fund the project. Eventually, Mooney wanted the entire boat outfitted with rowing equipment, electronics and navigation devices and agreed to pay for all the additions, Hardy said.
When Mooney failed to pay for the additional work, it put all of Hardy’s assets in jeopardy.
In one of the many e-mails Hardy sent to Mooney about the payments and supplied to TimesLedger, Hardy said, “You put me in a very bad financial situation. My business and my home are at a huge risk … Please let me know what is really going on so I don’t continue to look like a fool and a liar to my bank and my family.”
Mooney again acknowledged that he owed Hardy money, but said that he thought he could better pay him back by successfully completing a journey.
“I do hope that if I’m successful, I can make amends to all my creditors,” Mooney said last week. “I take full responsibility for all debt that I owe. I don’t think just because you have debt, you should stop and go under a rock.”
Hardy might disagree.
“I think he’s a liar, ï»¿and he obviously did whatever the minimum that he could get away with to reimburse me,” Hardy said. “We’ve had people that didn’t pay their bill, smaller sums of money, but never a situation like this where we were doing something as a charitable cause and then totally got screwed.”
The same year Vidmar, the Seattle-based ocean rower, said he posted plans for a boat he wanted to build on his website. Yet he saw photos of Mooney soliciting money at a Miami boat show with the same design.
“I thought there must be a mistake,” Vidmar said. “He had taken the pictures of my boat and blown them up. There is no question.”
The boat design was created by a naval architect named Dough Frolich, who confirmed Mooney used the plans, but said he did not mind.
Frolich said Vidmar did not own the plans because he never paid for them.
“Victor did lift the renderings from somewhere without permission, but at that time they were in the public domain and not specifically marked with a copyright,” Frolich said in an e-mail.
But Vidmar disagreed, and said that he and Frolich had a contract, designed the boat together and Mooney had no right to use the plans.
Vidmar also questioned more of Mooney’s fund-raising tactics.
On earlier versions of Mooney’s website, goreechallenge.com, he claimed to run a 501(c)(3) charity called South African Arts International Ltd. The name of that organization could not be found in the attorney general’s charities bureau database, which is required by law.
The organization was listed as a corporation in another state database.
A spokeswoman said charities must register with the state so the attorney general’s office can keep an eye out for misconduct and that Mooney’s charity needs to register to come under compliance.
Mooney said he believed he filed for the charity when he became part of the Division of Corporations database and would do whatever it took to bring South African Arts International into compliance.
“It’s been very difficult trying to do this type of effort, but I’m always been upfront with everyone and this is just a rough time,” he said. “But you do the right thing and eventually you’ll get the support you need.”
Mooney’s support largely came in the form of in-kind donations, not cash.
“I’m not a good fund-raiser,” he admitted.
About 130 companies gave rowing, communication and water desalinator equipment for his last expedition, Mooney said. But it is precisely because of some of those donations that Vidmar and others were suspicious of Mooney’s latest rescue.
Mooney said that mere hours after rowing roughly 2 miles off the coast of Sao Vicente, an island off Cape Verde, his boat began to take on water.
He tried to pump the liquid out of the boat, but Mooney said it came too fast and it began to sink.
He provided TimesLedger Newspapers with a photo of the boat lying on its side, partially submerged in the ocean. Vidmar said it appeared the boat was simply capsized and the cabin flooded with water.
Mooney grabbed some journals, some ginger root and bags of water — but by his own admission no food — and boarded his life raft. He then drifted on for 14 days before being rescued by a container ship, the MV Norfolk, which had been alerted to his presence.
Mooney’s story is supported by emergency beacon data provided by the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System, a division of the U.S. Coast Guard, which tracked his location with GPS.
But Mooney should have been able to call for help using the sophisticated satellite equipment donated to him, Vidmar claimed.
In an earlier June interview, Mooney said that he did not think he needed to call for help until it was too late.
“My initial reaction was I’m not really too far so I’m sure I could get some help,” he said. “I’ll just sit back and relax.”
Vidmar further claimed that Mooney should not have been in the life raft to begin with since the boat was made of such buoyant material that it could have stayed afloat, even if it broke into pieces.
“That particular boat, in its design and construction, is unsinkable,” Vidmar said.
But Mooney maintains he had to abandon ship.
“They didn’t see it,” he said.
But Vidmar was dubious about the story.
“He had gotten into this life raft and didn’t bring any food but brought books,” Vidmar said. “This was not somebody that was going to be rescued, this was someone who was staging a PR event.”
Other rowers have questioned the sincerity of Mooney’s journeys.
Kenneth Crutchlow is president of the Ocean Rowing Society, based in London, and came in contact with Mooney about seven years ago, when Mooney demonstrated a serious lack of knowledge of ocean rowing.
“When we saw his attitude, just talking to him, we realized that his knowledge of how to use the equipment was zero,” Crutchlow said, pointing out that Mooney said he wanted to put a hammock on the deck of the boat. “He was not preparing seriously.”
“As far as we’re concerned, Victor is a fraud ï»¿and his biggest interest is having his photo taken with people like the pope and Hillary Clinton,” Crutchlow said, referring to pictures Mooney had up on his previous website.
Mooney apparently did not check his boat before heading out on his latest journey. Many rowers spend several nights in their boat before starting out on a journey of that magnitude, said Crutchlow.
Mooney released a statement last Thursday saying he will be purchasing another boat from a Brazilian for his fourth attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
“This has never been about personal profit or fame,” Mooney said. “It’s not easy, but you make the decision this is something that you can do, and I will try my best.”
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.