|Tue 10 Aug 2004|
Who pays the price when it all goes wrong?
THEY took on the mighty Atlantic and almost
succeeded in beating it. They were just 300 miles from finishing their
attempt to break the record for rowing across the ocean from west to east
when a freak wave smashed their boat.
They had caught only the tail end of Hurricane Alex, but even that storm’s last gasps were enough to tear their boat, the Pink Lady, in two.
The four-man crew - a journalist, a former Royal Marine, a former SAS diver and a fireman, who had been attempting the record to raise money for the British Heart Foundation, were plunged into the stormy waters off southern Ireland.
An RAF Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft from Falmouth located the crew’s life raft. Coastguards initially scrambled a rescue helicopter from RAF Chivenor in North Devon to recover the men, but it was turned back because of potentially dangerous weather conditions.
They were rescued on Sunday by a Scandinavian container ship after an officer aboard spotted the men in their 6ft diameter life raft being pounded by 45ft waves.
Today, the four men are glad to be alive and are celebrating being back with their families. One of them, former SAS diver Pete Bray, 48, from Bridgend, south Wales, was being hailed a hero after he twice dived into the broken craft to get the crew’s life raft and survival kit.
But are these men really heroes? No-one can deny Bray’s bravery - but it was his choice to be there in the first place.
And yes, the crew was attempting to raise £50,000 for a very good cause, to help save people’s lives - but when the rescue costs the taxpayer money - estimated at £120,000 - and puts other lives at risk, does that cancel out the benefits?
Of course, they were also trying to break a record - to better the 55 days for the 2100-mile journey set in 1896 by two Norwegian fishermen and equalled 17 years ago by Briton Tom McClean. But was this a record worth breaking? The Pink Lady expedition had been two years in the planning and cost £200,000. Does the benefit to mankind compare to the risks involved? Only ten of the 29 attempts to row the Atlantic from west to east have been successful and six men have died trying to achieve the feat.
And it has emerged that this is the second time Bray has been plucked from the Atlantic after an abortive crossing. In the summer of 2000 he set off from Newfoundland in a 27ft kayak in a bid to complete a solo, unsupported Atlantic crossing.
So should the public be picking up the bill for adventurers wanting an adrenalin rush and a place in the records book?
One of the crew, Jonathan Gornall, 48, a journalist from London, described his relief at seeing rescuers arrive: "The highlight of the whole trip was the sight and sound of an RAF Nimrod - I have never seen anything so beautiful in my life."
Beautiful, but expensive. This fixed wing military aircraft costs £3000 to run in fuel every hour. Its vigil over the rescue scene - taking into account crew training - is estimated at £90,000. Military assets used in rescue operations are paid for by Search And Rescue, a Government-funded organisation. And they are used frequently - a Nimrod is called out from RAF Kinloss in Morayshire on average once a week. A spokeswoman for Maritime and Coastguard Agency headquarters says each incident was treated with equal urgency regardless of how preventable it was.
"I can’t say for sure that rescue operations for record breaking attempts have not diverted resources away from other cases but we deal with a lot of requests for advice.
"In the case of the Pink Lady crew, the commercial vessel that picked them up were just following a maritime code - that is to offer assistance to someone in distress. These kind of operations are normally well equipped and prepared, and it is rare that they need rescued.
"We had 319 search and rescue incidents last weekend and many of them were preventable. But you can’t say some people should not be rescued, that is like saying smokers should not be treated on the NHS." She refused to comment on the possibility of charging people for rescues. But this idea has been mooted before - often by mountain rescue teams in the north of the country after their members have been put at risk by a foolhardy expedition into the mountains.
AS Mary Scanlon, Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said: "I would never wish to discourage anyone from enjoying the great outdoors. But if they expect excellent service from other people who risk their lives to rescue them, the least they can do is to take all possible safety precautions.
"For people who do stunts to break records and self-publicists, they are enjoying a privilege and out of goodwill they should at least make a contribution to the pot, if not pay entirely for their rescue."
The Pink Lady’s expedition is just the latest of many record-breaking attempts that have gone wrong - and which have ended up needing rescuing.
Pete Berry, an Edinburgh dentist, managed to smash the world record speed for sailing the Atlantic between Plymouth and La Rochelle in France in May 2001. But he then ran into trouble - a net attached to the ship’s hull gave way and he plummeted into the water. A first rescue attempt to pull the experienced sailor from the waters off France failed before he was eventually pulled to safety.
In another dramatic rescue, Jennifer Murray from Somerset and Colin Bodill, a flying instructor from Nottingham, were on a Pole to Pole record attempt when their Bell 407 helicopter came down 700 miles north of the South Pole in December last year.
A distress beacon was picked up by a rescue centre in Chile and relayed to the control centre in Kinloss, which sent out a back-up team from a base on the northern section of Western Antarctica. The most famous would-be record-breaker is probably entrepreneur Richard Branson. When he attempted to circumnavigate the world by balloon in 1998, his dream of being the first man to achieve the feat was also shattered by the weather.
At the time he called this a glorious failure. Branson was rescued off Hawaii by two American coastguard helicopters. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence confirms that a Hercules was used in the rescue and such aircraft cost £40,000 to prepare and launch for a flight.
But the MoD spokeswoman says: "No matter how much this costs, you can’t put a price on a human life. This is not a consideration for our teams, we respond to every call-out regardless of the circumstances."
But a Virgin spokeswoman says she did not believe a Hercules was used in the rescue and adds that a donation was made to the American coastguard for the rescue, although she could not confirm how much.
MANY record-breaking trips, including that of the Pink Lady, do have one clear point - raising money for charity. And the charity that the Pink Lady’s crew was raising money for, the British Heart Foundation, says it still backs such attempts, despite the dangers and costs involved.
A spokesman says: "It is fantastic from our point of view that these men risk their lives to raise money for charity. But they are not doing it for that sole reason. It is part of our history to push the limits, why else would we put a man on the Moon? They are sportsmen and athletes who like embracing challenge, and if they can raise money at the same time, then why not?"
So are these people are keeping that great British tradition of a spirit of adventure alive?
As far back as the 16th century, adventurers were pushing the boundaries of our knowledge of the world. Sir Walter Raleigh, led an expedition to the New World between 1584 and 1589, and brought back potatoes and tobacco to Britain, changing the face of food and commerce at home.
In the early 20th century Captain Robert Falcon Scott became the first person to explore Antarctica extensively by land, one of the aims being to find out more about the area’s animals, weather and geology.
And just this month a team of Edinburgh geologists set off for the Arctic Ocean where they will brave unbreakable ice-floes, polar bears and temperatures of -20C in an effort to find clues to the fate of the world hundreds of fathoms beneath the Arctic Ocean.
The £6 million expedition to drill samples of rock from more than 1500ft beneath the seabed, will provide evidence of the way the climate has changed over the last 50 million years.
Does that compare to rowing in one particular direction across the Atlantic in a slightly faster time than the last people?
As Sir Vivian Fuchs, a geologist who conducted an expedition through the frozen wastes of the North Pole more than 40 years ago, says: "If you are going from A to B, you ought to find something out. The value of exploration lies in the gaining of knowledge, not establishing a record."
Ocean Rowing Society
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