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

 


 12 Aug 2004

JAMES BLADON
JBLADON@C-DM.CO.UK

 

WORLD RECORD BID SWEPT AWAY AS ROWERS ARE RESCUED

 

Four British rowers heading for the Isles of Scilly were thwarted in their world record breaking attempt on Sunday by a freak 60ft wave.

The islands were due to be the rowers' first sight of land after a gruelling transatlantic crossing when disaster struck 39 days and 1800 miles into their epic journey. John Wills, Mark Stubbs, Pete Bray, and Jonathan Gornall were attempting the fastest crossing by rowing boat from Newfoundland to Falmouth, when Hurricane Alex ended the adventure in dramatic fashion - as a huge wave smashed the Pink Lady in two pieces.

The dramatic final chapter of the story was particularly poignant for John Wills, who has a number of relatives in the Newlyn area and used to holiday on a farm in St Buryan every summer as a boy.

Speaking from his Guildford home yesterday, Mr Wills said: "It wasn't quite the ending any of us envisaged, but what was particularly galling was to get so close and not quite make it.

"The part I was most looking forward to was rowing past a memorial stone bench we have to my father at Porth Chapel - it would have been a very fitting way to end the trip."

With the team in touching distance of their goal they ran into the heavy weather that battered their 10 metre boat before the final telling wave dashed hopes of success.

Mr Gornall said: "John and I could hear the roar of a particularly big rogue wave.

"It sounded like an express train and hit the boat like a missile in the dark. That's the only way I can describe it. The next thing I know I'm under water unable to breathe. I didn't immediately think I was dead. It was an unreal nightmare. All I could do was try to swim."

Mr Bray was later dubbed "our hero" by fellow oarsmen after his brave efforts to ensure their safety.

After the rowers were thrown in to the freezing Atlantic ocean and, with hurricane force winds whipping around them, Mr Bray dived underwater to retrieve a vital life raft from a piece of the hull that had been separated from the rest of the team.

The crew were eventually picked up by the Scandinavian vessel Reefer, 370 miles west of Bishop's Rock Lighthouse - amazingly suffering only minor bumps and bruises despite their ordeal.

On arrival in the Irish port of Foynes on Monday morning, skipper Mark Stubbs paid tribute to the "incredible team effort".

Crewman Jonathan Gornall said he owed his life to Mark Stubbs and Peter Bray for the work they put in retrieving the life rafts from below the water.

When Pink Lady's distress beacon was activated, Falmouth Coastguard coordinated the rescue effort, scrambling a helicopter from RAF Chivenor in north Devon.

However, due to the appalling conditions, it was forced to turn back.

The crew were on track to beat the current transatlantic rowing record of 55 days set in 1896 and were aiming to raise £50,000 for the British Heart Foundation in the process.

Although there is talk of another attempt in the future, for Mr Wills it will be his final attempt at beating the record to which the four came so close.

He said: "I won't be doing it again - it was a very tough experience and I couldn't put my wife and family through all that again."

John's cousin, West Cornwall journalist Douglas Williams, of Newlyn, told The Cornishman: "He is a great lad, very athletic and adventurous and full of spirit and daring, and a huge fan of Cornwall."

But for now, at least, John is taking a few weeks off from adventures to get used to life again on terra firma and reflect on what might have been - not least the Cornish welcome the crew missed out on.

"I was really looking forward to a Cornish pasty and tub of Jelberts when we reached Falmouth - and I was hoping someone would take the hint and have one ready for me!"
 

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