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Frigate sets off to rescue injured ocean rower

By Barbie Dutter in Sydney

Filed:04/06/2003

An Australian navy frigate was steaming to the rescue of two British rowers in the Indian Ocean last night after a ferocious storm lashed their boat and left one with severe concussion.

Mike Noel-Smith, 45, was knocked unconscious and suffered a broken nose and eye injuries after being tossed from his seat, smashing his head on the side of the boat.

He was said to be lapsing in and out of consciousness yesterday as the pair continued to battle towering seas in their 23ft vessel, around 1,500 miles off Western Australia.

Mr Noel-Smith and his rowing partner, Rob Abernethy, 31, both former Army officers, had spent 44 days attempting to row 4,400 miles across the Indian Ocean, from Western Australia to Reunion Island, in record time.

On Monday evening they issued a Mayday, pleading for urgent medical assistance, after deciding that they had no choice but to abandon their fund-raising record attempt.

In an email to friends and family, Mr Abernethy explained why they had been forced to call off the venture. "Over the past 72 hours we have suffered physical damage to our bodies and structural damage to the boat to the extent that is unwise and reckless to continue," he wrote.

"Mike's head/brain is in a bad way. He has also broken his nose and damaged his eye and needs medical attention ASAP to ensure that there are no serious complications.

"He knocked himself out while adjusting the rudder on Saturday. Happily he was wearing a harness or he would not be lying next to me now. We have gone through the worst storm imaginable since then, which has compounded Mike's condition and damaged the boat in key areas. To top it all off we rolled the boat about 12 hours ago and remained 'turtle' for two minutes."

The guided missile frigate Newcastle has been diverted from patrol duties to pick up the rowers, and is due to reach them late tonight, local time.

In the meantime, rough conditions are forecast to continue. "This morning they were still in seven-metre [23ft] seas and 35-knot winds, and had rolled over several times," said David Gray, a spokesman for the maritime rescue co-ordination centre in Canberra.

"They have requested medical assistance and evacuation as soon as possible. They have been told to hold on."

Mr Noel-Smith, a father of three from Much Dewchurch, Herefordshire, and Mr Abernethy, from south London, had hoped to beat a 64-day Indian Ocean crossing by the Swedish oarsman Anders Svedlund in the 1970s.

Their aim was to raise ?250,000 for Sparks, a children's medical research charity, while becoming the first Britons to complete the trip. Chris Cherrington, director of the expedition, said Mr Abernethy had alerted him to Mr Noel-Smith's deteriorating condition.

"I took advice from a neurologist who said Mike should be evacuated from the boat as a matter of great urgency," he said. "Mike had a satellite conversation with his family and they urged him to accept Rob's pleas that he couldn't continue. No matter how disappointed he is and how desperate he was to continue he couldn't put his life at risk."

Mr Abernethy wrote in his email that he had decided against continuing alone. "Mike and I started this together, and although I would love to crack on and finish this for everyone, not only is the boat unable to do so, but I feel that my place is with my mate," he said.

The pair left Carnarvon, Western Australia, on April 27 and were chasing another British rower, Simon Chalk, who was yesterday 96 days into his solo attempt to cross the Indian Ocean.

In May last year, Mr Chalk and a rowing partner were rescued three days after launching a paired attempt to cross the Indian Ocean when their boat was capsized by a whale.

There has been controversy over the high cost to Australian taxpayers of rescuing international seafarers making apparently hazardous record attempts. However, Australian officials said yesterday that the two Britons would not have to pay for their rescue.

Sir Steve Redgrave, a vice-president of Sparks and an Olympic rowing gold medallist, said: "This is a tragedy for Mike and Rob. No two men could have worked harder or prepared more thoroughly than they did for this epic challenge.".

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