Atlantic Odyssey: Exclusive first hand account of how a world record attempt ended in near disaster
Writing exclusively for The Independent, Mark Beaumont recounts the incredible events that saw an attempt to row across the Atlantic end in near disaster. A crew of six men were 27 days into a gruelling challenge to row from Morocco to Barbados when just 500 miles short of their destination, their vessel capsized. This is the story of the panicked moments in which ‘Sara G’ overturned, their attempts to MAYDAY, the call to loved ones and their eventual rescue.
January 31st at 10:55am and I was rowing hard in the final five minutes of my shift. Ian, as always was in front of me, Yaacov behind and we were going fast, just over 500 miles from our destination in Barbados. The swell and winds were coming from the east and it was an average, fairly predictable sea. I was completely dry, which was as good a gauge as any as to how big the waves were. My thoughts were on what I was going to eat during my two-hour break and looking forwards to a short sleep. None of us had slept more than 90 minutes at a time in the 27 days since we had set out from Morocco.
Despite the huge fatigue from four weeks of very hard rowing, spirits were high as the trade winds had finally reached us and for the last 48 hours our speed had picked up considerably. We were tantalisingly close to World Record pace – just another six days.
I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t hear it coming. The boat pitched up without warning, the stern cabin in front of me lifting quickly as a large wave sped under us. Sara G then pitched wildly to my left. I instinctively let go of the port side oar and held onto the metal safety rail like it was a monkey bar. There was an awful moment in equilibrium as we perched perfectly on our side. In all the huge seas we had seen, she had never been this far over and yet I still thought she would self-right. I can’t remember anyone calling anything, I can’t remember much at all except I was then upside down, in the water and fighting to get my shoes out of the rowing straps. They were stuck. I managed to pull my feet free, leaving both shoes tied in and kicked for the surface.
For Aodhan it was worse. He was lying down in the bow cabin. Thrown to the side, he struggled to the hatch door as it swung open and the water flooded in. He quickly realised that Sara G wasn’t going to self-right and had to pull himself out and swim for the surface. Simon and Matt also had to swim out. The timing couldn’t have been worse. With both hatches open for those few minutes during the change of shift, both fore and aft cabins were flooded and there was no chance she would self-right, as designed. She was completely capsized and taking on more water. For those first 10 minutes, we didn’t know if she would completely sink. Holding onto the upturned hull, we had very little time to act. If she went down before we set off an emergency beacon or salvaged a life raft then our chances of survival were nil.
Every emergency you ever train for allows for a short period of time to prepare – get lifejackets, pull the life-raft, and get the grab bag of supplies. Our reality was clinging onto our upturned vessel with nothing. Anything was progress from that point.
Within five minutes Ian and Matt had ducked down and salvaged the EPIRB (emergency beacon) – setting that off would at least let the UK coastguards know that we had a MAYDAY situation. Salvaging the life-raft wasn’t as easy. It was in a hatch on the rowing deck of the boat, which was now upside down and submerged. Worse still was that an air pocket was holding it firmly in place and it took Aodhan, Matt and myself nearly twenty minutes to wrestle it free. The whoosh of air as this auto-inflated was the first moment of great relief – we now had a chance.
So as not to puncture the life raft on the riggers of the upturned hull, we tied it off on a long line before each swimming over and climbing in. Yaacov had taken on quite a lot of water during the capsize and had been hyperventilating when he’d surfaced. Feeling weak, he struggled with this swim, but managed to pull himself along the slack line to safety.
We counting the small blessings that it was daylight and being so near the Caribbean the water was fairly warm. Even so, after so long treading water and holding on, I was shaking with cold. Simon had spent most of the first half hour lying on top of the upturned hull, looking after the emergency grab bag – this was such an important lifeline. It had the first aid, some fresh water and foil blankets that would keep us going for a few days.
Inside the life-raft was incredibly cramped, not that this mattered initially and we took stock of our situation. Everyone was uninjured, very much alive. The raft had a cover and we closed ourselves in to stop waves coming in. The floor space was very wet and we set about the fairly futile task of sponging it dry, whilst figuring out what to do next.
Water was the main priority. We could be there for 12 hours or 12 days. Within the first hour Ian and Matt swam back to Sara G and managed to duck down and retrieve two of the water bottles that were clipped on deck. We now had another litre and a bit. Ian came back to the life raft joking and jovial, a thin veil for being pretty shaken by the trip back.
It is hard to remember how long anything took over the next hours. It is hard enough to remember what order they happened in. Most of the team closed their eyes for periods, either asleep or doing their best to pass the time quickly. We had no idea how long we would be there and speculated about whether a plane would fly over to spot us, or how close any ships could be.
It was clear that to get rescued quickly would mean going back to Sara G to find other emergency equipment. And if we weren’t rescued quickly we would still need to go back to find more food and water. In the first moments of the capsize I had ducked back under to close the stern hatch and discovered I could see clearly. This amazed me, especially as I wear contact lenses. Matt knew he couldn’t see in the salt water, but wanted to come with me to assist. During the afternoon we made two return trips. At first we were concerned that by reopening the hatches, Sara G could take on even more water and sink further. My other concern was that to get to the hatches meant swimming down underneath the safety rails and back up into the upturned boat. Having never been a strong swimmer, I wasn’t confident about holding my breath long enough to do anything useful. Luckily, the boat had settled just high enough to allow a small air pocket in the foot-well. I could turn my head into this and tried to keep my lungs full. However, the swell kept coming in and closing this space off without any warning, but it was enough to work with. We needn’t have worried about the cabins flooding further, they were already full and the hatches opened easily. Finding anything useful was difficult in that dark, flooded, upside down world. The first time I resurfaced I brought with me a fire extinguisher. Despite our situation, Matt joked at the absurdity. The next trip was more successful and I will always remember Matt’s relief when I resurfaced holding a GPS tracker beacon. This was the lifeline that we needed – rescuers would know exactly where we were.
The second trip back was mainly to find a desalinator, so we could make fresh water. As much as we fought with the hatch and hacked it with an axe we couldn’t open it, so we had to give up. Diving back underneath I instead tried to find another emergency bag. Feeling weak and finding nothing useful after a long period underneath, I was about to give up when my hand fell on a handle. I knew it was for a waterproof case. Grabbing it and thrusting it out to Matt, I swam for the surface. It was the laptop case that also contained a satellite phone.
That last trip back to the boat was by far the worst. Matt and I had already agreed that we were too weak to go back to the boat that day. Matt went ahead and I could see he was struggling. The line was constantly slack from the swell and I fought to keep my head above water. Every time I looked back at the life raft it seemed no closer. Half way across I saw some wooden slats that I had thrown out from one of the cabins. It was less than a few meters away and I reached for it to help me float. But as much as I kicked and stretched out, the swell kept us apart and I eventually had to give up. The relief to get back to the raft was immense and I stayed next to it for a minute before Aodhan helped me climb back in. I immediately had to lean back out to be sick after all the salt water I had swallowed.
There was very little battery on the phone but it was enough to call back to the UK and say that we were all fine. Matt’s wife was able to keep brilliantly calm and reported back that a vessel was on its way and should reach us by 1am. We were getting rescued. The conversation aboard fell to everyone back home and the relief with being able to tell families that we were okay.
From then on it was a very slow waiting game. As the evening drew late it got colder and eventually got dark. The seas picked up a bit and we huddled together, sporadically checking Sara G.
By 11.30pm we were all extremely uncomfortable and playing silly word games in order to stay awake. After dark we had decided to keep everyone awake as it would have been very easy to all slip into a shock-induced slumber and miss the rescue ship. Matt made another call on the VHF radio, just in case there was a vessel within distance. Incredibly a call came straight back. It was the captain of the Nord Taipei, a Taiwanese cargo vessel. Since just gone 11am, only a few minutes after our initial MAYDAY, she had redirected and covered 120 nautical miles to reach us. We scrambled to look out the life-raft and couldn’t quite believe the sight of the white navigation lights on the horizon. Whilst we could see it, there is no way it could see us, a tiny speck in the dark ocean waves.
After punching the raft and shouting in excitement, Matt set about lighting a few rocket flares to guide the Nord Taipei closer. We all knew that the rescue would be very dangerous, especially at night and in choppy seas. It took three passes before the captain was able to bring the Nord Taipei’s vast 177m hull near enough so her crew could throw lines down for us to catch. The second time we missed, the life raft drifted under her vast bows. Simon aptly described it as something out of Star Wars, a vast mother ship dwarfing us in the darkness. The waves that broke off the bulb at her waterline threatened to flood the life raft and we all knew it would be a disaster if we were hit or flipped.
Third time lucky and one by one we were able to grab hold and to climb a rope and wooden ladder that had been dropped over the side. The Chinese crew pulled incredibly hard on our safety lines so that I hardly felt like I was climbing at all. They practically lifted me up that ladder and a few strong arms dragged me over the rails and onto deck. Before joining the others on the ground, huddled under a blanket, Yaacov and I looked back down and saw Matt clinging onto the lowest rungs of the ladder. We were all safe.
For the next 10 days we crossed back 2,500 nautical miles of the Atlantic Ocean to Gibraltar, where friends and family met us.
I cannot speak highly enough of the Taiwanese and Chinese crew that both saved us and then looked after us so well. The captain and first officer were particularly generous. I think they found it very odd that they rescued six hairy, unwashed men, most of whom were just dressed in boxer shorts; and remarkably the only items that we had with us were a satellite phone and two laptops!
There was a lot of time aboard the Nord Taipai to think back over what had happened. After an ordeal like that, it no longer mattered about the World Record or the Atlantic crossing that we had focused so obsessively on for so long. We all knew how close we had come to not surviving and so returning alive is all that matters. We also all realised what a tough time it must have been for family and friends back home. The level of support from the public, sponsors and everyone we know has been staggering and the whole crew will forever be grateful for such kindness.
As for Sara G, we have now given up hope that she will be salvaged. She will either wash up one day somewhere in the Caribbean, or be brought back around east on the Atlantic currents.
We set out to try and be the first to row across the Atlantic in less than 30 days. That soon became impossible without any help from the trade winds, but until day 27 we didn’t give up hope of breaking the World Record. However, when our luck ran out it was simply a case of surviving. The training that we all went through paid off and it is thanks to having such a resourceful team that we managed to survive the closest scrape of our lives. We did survive and so ultimately the expedition was a success. No regrets. Then again, the Atlantic isn’t a place I will return to any time soon!Tagged in: atlantic, Atlantic Odyssey, World Record
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