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Concussed rower capsizes in 'worst imaginable' storm

From Matthew Brace in Brisbane and Sam Lister

June 04, 2003

A BRITISH rower adrift in the Indian Ocean who smashed his head on the side of his boat has survived a further brush with death after his vessel capsized in a fierce storm and began flooding.

Mike Noel-Smith, 45, was attempting a record-breaking 5,000-mile journey with Rob Abernethy, his rowing partner, when he was concussed three days ago a capsized in a fierce storm and began flooding.

Mike Noel-Smith, 45, was attempting a record-breaking 5,000-mile journey with Rob Abernethy, his rowing partner, when he was concussed three days ago after their boat was thrown by 25ft waves. The rudder, anchor and emergency anchor have been destroyed by the storms, leaving the pair stranded on one of the world’s loneliest stretches of water.

A rescue mission, led by an Australian frigate, has begun, but fears are growing for the rowers after they almost drowned in a relentless spell of bad weather.

As Mr Noel-Smith suffered worsening nausea and repeated blackouts early yesterday, he and Mr Abernethy, 31, were thrown upside down after the 23ft boat was struck by a huge wave. A second wave righted the craft three minutes later.

Mr Noel-Smith’s wife, Elizabeth, described last night how she had sensed problems even before being told of their latest mishap. Speaking from the couple’s home in Much Dewchurch, Herefordshire, Mrs Noel-Smith said: “I was lying in bed last night and I suddenly felt this terrible churning feeling, like my stomach had turned round. I knew something had happened.

“When the boat turned over they had the nightmare of all the water trying to rush through into the hull. It can’t have been at all pleasant. And they are both being thrown around a lot because the boat has lost both its sea anchors.

“The last few days have not been pleasant at all. I have great faith in Mike because he has such a strong spirit, but I won’t be happy until he is safely on the rescue boat.” Neurologists have recommended that Mr Noel-Smith be evacuated urgently, but the nearest rescue ship, HMAS Newcastle, is not expected to reach him until this afternoon at the earliest.

The pair, both former army officers, were attempting to row across the Indian Ocean from Carnarvon, Western Australia, to Reunion Island, east of Madagascar. They had hoped to raise ?250,000 for meningitis research, and to beat the 64-day record for the journey.

The voyage, which began in April, has been blighted by problems in the past few days. First, purification equipment failed, severely restricting water rations, and then they were hit by the violent storms at the weekend, 1,500 miles off the west coast of Australia.

Mr Noel-Smith was torn from his seat and smashed against the side of the boat during the storm. The impact of the blow left him with serious head injuries, as well as making the boat highly unstable.

Mr Abernethy, from South London, sent an e-mail to organisers, describing the storm as “the worst imaginable”. Mr Noel-Smith had initially said that he wanted to continue, but Mr Abernethy told the organisers that he was too ill to carry on.

Chris Cherrington, the project’s director, said: “Mike refused to consider giving up and hoped he could shake off the injury. But he has become increasingly nauseous and disorientated, and Rob says he drifts in and out of consciousness.” The two men must wait for rescue amid weather that is still described as severe.

The pair, who were backed by the children’s medical research charity Sparks, had wanted to beat the unofficial record for the journey, which was set in 1971.

Paul Connew, a spokesman for Sparks, said: “ The most important thing is that they are rescued as quickly as possible. We’re all hoping fervently the weather doesn’t get any worse before the Newcastle reaches them.”

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