The ORS Int. is the official adjudicator of ocean rowing records for Guinness World Records

 


Guardian Unlimited

 

Our 'brutal fight' with Hurricane Alex

Rowers rescued after giant wave sinks Atlantic record attempt

Monday August 9, 2004    

Lee Glendinning

 

As the enormous wave heightened and its crest began to break, the four men heard an almighty roar before it crashed - tearing their rowing boat in two and plunging them into the freezing sea.
For almost six hours through the night until early morning, the rowers from the Pink Lady clung to a small life raft before they could be rescued yesterday morning by a Danish cargo ship 370 miles off the Isles of Scilly.

The nine-metre (30ft) waves had battered the lurid pink, hi-tech boat since around midnight and the crew fought through the tail of Hurricane Alex, describing it as a "brutal combat" which they had been dreading for days.

But just before 2.30am the rogue wave, which crew member Jonathan Gornall described as a "killer blow" to their mission, smashed their boat in half.

  Four British rowers aboard their boat the Pink Lady before it split apart in stormy seas

Four British rowers aboard their boat the Pink Lady before it split apart in stormy seas. Photograph: PA


"The next thing we knew we were under water, fighting to escape the rear part of the vessel - which, on inspection afterwards when we surfaced, appeared to be completely smashed by the tremendous wave," he said yesterday.

"I just remember hearing it coming - unlike anything we have experienced before," he told the BBC.

The men activated their emergency distress beacon and for the next six hours their only channel of communication was a fuzzy phone link to the coastguards at Falmouth, Cornwall, who were desperate to maintain contact until the men could be sighted.

Being caught in such a storm, Mr Gornall had previously written, was like being in a coffin.

"Your mind played tricks on you, huge waves smashed into the side of you and water went everywhere - it was very, very scary ... you felt you were in the wildest place on Earth," he wrote during the first leg of the voyage.

After 39 days at sea, the crew had been "tantalisingly close" to reaching Cornwall and their target of a 54-day transatlantic journey which would have broken the previous record by 10 days.

Led by 40-year-old skipper Mark Stubbs, a firefighter from Poole, Dorset, the men intended to row 2,100 miles to reach the Bishop's Rock lighthouse by August 23.

The team, which also included ex-SAS diver Pete Bray, 48, of south Wales, digital mapping specialist John Wills, 33, of Elstead, Surrey, and Mr Gornall, 48, a Times journalist, of London, left St Johns in Newfoundland, Canada, on June 30, in their rowing boat, which was sponsored by Pink Lady apples to raise £50,000 for the British Heart Foundation

To block out the howling winds they would play music on the crew iPod. Concentration needed to be exceptional to negotiate icebergs in thick fog. But their spirits were raised on nights when the seas were calm, and when they came close to whales and dolphins.

With more than half their challenge completed - having rowed virtually non-stop in pairs for two hours at a time - the men were in survival mode and desperately hoped that the deterioration in the weather would not be as bad as predicted.

When they last talked to their weather analyst and adviser, Lee Breen, there was concern about the fallout from the hurricane which was predicted to hit at 3pm on Saturday before calming slightly and then returning with more force around midnight.

For three days, they had discussed the effect Hurricane Alex might have on their mission, but the team, who all have extensive Atlantic rowing experience, had hoped it would be something they could overcome.

When the tail of the storm hit the boat, the men were as prepared as they could be and had battened down, hoping to row out the violent weather.

"There would have been whistling noises, and spray from the crest of the waves breaking over the boat," Lee Breen explained. "I can't say for sure, but it would be reasonable to expect in this weather that winds could reach force 10 or 11."

Coastguards initially scrambled a rescue helicopter from RAF Chivenor in north Devon to recover the men, but it later turned back because of the dangerous weather conditions.

An RAF Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft from Falmouth located the life raft, and a mayday signal was broadcast to alert passing vessels before the Danish ship Scandinavian Reefer picked up the crew. When they were rescued, the men were 370 miles west of their destination, feeling battered and devastated, but safe.

One of the rowers was suffering from hypothermia and another had slight concussion but they did not need urgent hospital treatment. They spent yesterday recovering, bound for the port of Foynes in County Limerick where they were expected to arrive this morning. "They were rattled initially but certainly a lot more chipper when they knew rescue efforts were coming to them," a coastguard spokesman said. "They knew they were in a perilous situation but these are tough, experienced guys - they knew this could happen, they were professionals and they were prepared."

The current record for the transatlantic journey was set in 1896 by two Norwegian fishermen and equalled 17 years ago by the British rower Tom McClean. Of the 29 attempts to row the Atlantic from east to west, only 10 have been successful and six men have lost their lives in their attempts.

Mr Gornall said yesterday the men were all grateful to be alive.

"It's a shame we didn't make it, but at least we can assure ourselves it wasn't anything we did wrong," he said from the Scandinavian Reefer. "It was just, you know, you take on nature and you take what she delivers and on this particular occasion she delivered a killer blow."
 

  1983-2001 Ocean Rowing Society

Design by REDTED