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


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It's over: all we ever do is row ...


August 10 2004

Back on dry land after his transatlantic rowing expedition ended in disaster, our correspondent says being rescued from near death is like being given a second chance - and he intends to take it
BEING rescued from imminent death is like being reborn. Itís like being given a second chance. Iím going to hang on to that sense of privilege; Iím not going to waste it, and I keep telling myself that even as the elation of survival gives way to a gnawing sense of disappointment. For the second time in my life I have not crossed the Atlantic in a rowing boat, and I have not broken any records.
Three years ago I spent 48 days at sea, rowing the Atlantic solo, before I gave up and hopped on board a passing yacht. Afterwards I thought ďThatís it, Iím never doing that againĒ. But I quickly realised that it was unfinished business. Everyone said ďLet it goĒ, but I just couldnít. I kept a bit of wood from that boat and hung it round my neck, intending to take it all the way across the Atlantic. Itís still hanging there now and it still hasnít made that journey. Now I know that it wonít.

Immediately after we were rescued, as we sat on the Scandinavian Reefer, exhausted, battered but, above all, alive, not one of the four of us had a doubt in our minds that enough was enough. But a few hours later, after bacon and eggs, a bit of sleep and warm, dry clothes, my fellow crew members ó Mark Stubbs, John Wills and Peter Bray ó began to say ďWell, maybe . . .Ē This time, however, I know that I wonít be exposing myself to this again. I donít want to face the physical and mental exhaustion, but most of all I donít want to face the disappointment.

Before this adventure turned to a near disaster, before my 39th night at sea nearly turned into my last night on earth, I had the chance to do a lot of thinking about my life and about lives in general. What are they for? Whatís important? What isnít? Two hours in every four were spent rowing, and there was not much to do except think. You re-examine what youíve done, what you plan to do, and you start to thing about the things in life that you ignore or take for granted: friends, family, loved ones. Youíre always looking for something extra special: rowing the Atlantic, learning to fly, whatever it was.

I started thinking about the time and energy that Iíd put into this kind of adventure over the past three or four years. What if Iíd put that energy and dedication into a relationship? I might be happily married and at home right now. Rowing the ocean highlighted for me how wonderful ordinary life really is. I would crave a book to read ó and the company of my girlfriend. I wanted to see my son, hear what he had to say about this. I have plans to enjoy ordinary life. I want to look at that side of my life and examine what drives me. What drives me to ignore those more human things? Iím hoping that if I take anything out of this, itís the value of ordinary life. Thereís no such thing as ordinary life: itís just a life lived well. It means being a decent person, being there for people who need you as much as you need them. I want to work on my human skills.

I thought about all of this even as it seemed that the end was in sight. We were going to make it and, whatís more, we were going to beat the record. But all the while that we were hoping for triumph, Hurricane Alex was stalking us. When Lee Bruce, a weather router in the US, first mentioned the hurricane to John Wills, it was just a ďby the wayĒ. Then, after three or four days, it became apparent to him that it was heading our way. But our hope was that it would diminish. It came down from a hurricane to a tropical storm. Every day the good news and the bad news was always the hurricane. It began picking up the energy from another low. I couldnít help thinking about The Perfect Storm, the systems coming together. Then we realised that Hurricane Alex was working in our direction. ďWhat do we do?Ē we asked. Bruce said: ďIt should be survivable, but I canít advise you.Ē It was almost as though this thing was born off the Carolinas and went hunting for the smallest boat it could find in the Atlantic. There was a sense that it had become personal between us and this storm.

The night before the hurricane hit, I managed to call my girlfriend, because I knew that we were in for something extraordinary. We were waiting for a hammerball. I managed to tell her that I loved her. I said: ďWe might not have any contact for a few days.Ē She knew what was going on.

So we dropped the sea anchor and waited. John and I were in the rear cabin. I was lying on my stomach, he was sitting in the well, his knees drawn up to his chest. The roof arches above you and thereís 2ft of head room. Youíre lying in this very small environment, thumping down with every wave. Some of the waves break under you, but some break over you. We were thinking ďWe have 12 hours of this to get through, but after that it will be calm again and weíll be able to go off at a cracking paceĒ. I hadnít quite got to sleep when I suddenly slid across the boat.

I heard a roar and the boat was hit by a double impact. Suddenly I was being crushed ó and then I grasped that I was under water. I knew it was over. The boat was full of water, and there was total darkness. I was under water and just flailing around. I didnít know which way was up or down, and all my senses went at that point. I can remember absolutely no panic any more. I thought, ďI must make an effort to get upĒ. I kept running up against the boat trying to find air.

Already my lungs were beginning to ache and I thought, ďI canít hold my breath much longerĒ. At that point my hand grasped a rough pipe. I found myself out in the sea. There was some background light; I turned and saw that I must have come out from the rear. I came up alongside half of the boat. Then I realised that I was breathing again.

Somewhere under water I hadnít given up, but my mind had gone into a state of resignation. It was as if the mind were preparing itself for the inevitable. There was no sense of past life. I was quite logical, but quite resigned. Then I went into a second phase where I felt kind of saved.

Luckily the others got out, too. We stood a fighting chance. We were all wearing survival suits, made of rubber and with a close-fitting neck. John and I had pulled the suit open to get a little air. It was only when a wave picked me up that I realised what a mistake that had been. As the wave brought me down I just kept on going. I kicked like mad and at that point Pete Bray grabbed hold of me ó he seemed to be everywhere. He was the hero of the moment. He said: ďDonít panic, everything will be OK.Ē He stayed with me until I sorted myself out.
I managed to expel some of the water. I was still pretty heavy with water. The next thing, Pete dived under the boat and recovered the life raft and grab bag. We got into the raft. That was tremendous; then we thought, will it puncture on the wreckage?

We could see our emergency beacon in the water, flashing away, and we were in our raft so we had this tremendous sense of security. But that soon faded: we were in this little plastic raft in the middle of the Atlantic. The storm hadnít abated, it had given us a couple of momentsí respite, that was all. Then we heard the express trains, as we thought of them, starting up again, hurtling towards us. We zipped up the life raft and could see nothing, save for a ghostly light. We began checking one another out. John had blood coming from his head wound. I had a mark on my face. All we could do at this point was sit tight.

We did have time then to think. My mind was a bit foggy. My teeth were chattering like a madmanís. I started to get sleepy ó you have to stay awake. We all told stories. I told a tremendously dull one about my time as a cub reporter and how the printers used to set the type with hammers. Iíve never had such a good captive audience. We told the odd joke.

When I was in the water, before getting into the raft, I had a bit of time to think. At that point it was touch and go whether we would survive. I had time for a few regrets. Immediate regrets, such as not being able to see my girlfriend and my son one last time. I wasnít thinking that I had unfinished business; I thought I would have liked a bit more life to do some things. In the raft youíre so close to being saved that in a way it was the most dangerous time: it would just have been so cruel if something had gone wrong then. We had a satellite phone and the coastguard kept calling us back. We heard that a Nimrod had taken off, that a helicopter was coming up, that it would be with us in two hours. Then we heard that there was a ship nearby. But I didnít feel completely that ďThatís it, weíre safeĒ until I was on board the ship.

At one point, word came from the Falmouth coastguard that the captain didnít think that he could get close enough, that we might have to wait three hours. That was tough. Even when the ship did get alongside us it was touch and go. They fired a rope down to us, which we caught, and we had to clamber on to a ladder. There was a moment with each of us, when we had grabbed the ladder and the life raft pulled away from us, when we might have lost our grip and died. It wasnít until we were on deck, wallowing in the water there, that we were saved. Towards the end of an ordeal like this, the tendency is for people to give up responsibility for their own lives. We had to stay focused and it was tough.

Getting on to the ship was all about the brotherhood of the sea ó people who in extreme situations look after others, not just themselves. It brings out the best in everybody. You find yourself admiring human beings.

Since getting to shore, Iíve been thinking. Why was I able to face extreme disappointment, even the possibility of death, yet have shied away from certain things in my personal life? I think what it is, is this: when you are involved with other people, lovers and loved ones, itís not in your control. Iíve given myself over to a series of challenges in which only I was responsible. If it fails, itís you who has failed, no one else. Youíre not at the mercy of a second or third party. But then you realise that there is a third party, and itís the weather. But you canít control everything, and if you go through life trying to control everything and everyone around you, your emotional development will be stunted. Ocean rowing was a mental game that I wanted to a play to a triumphal conclusion. And that might have happened.

I cannot deny the frustration right now. Weíd been through a lot, we were on the way to Falmouth, all we had to do was get through this one night. But Iím not going to be beating my breast because we didnít make it across. No one could have worked harder than we did. When people climb mountains, try to get to the Moon or row oceans, thereís only so much they can control, otherwise thereíd be no point ó itís all about pushing boundaries. This is one boundary I donít need to push any more.

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