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Navy prepares for daring rescue of rowers

June 04, 2003

THE crew of HMAS Newcastle was this evening preparing for a daring night-time rescue of two British adventurers stranded in a rowboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Rob Abernethy, 31, and his injured co-adventurer Mike Noel-Smith, 45, sent a mayday on Monday when Noel-Smith's condition deteriorated after he was knocked unconscious while fixing their boat's rudder on Saturday.

Since then the rowers have battled wild seas in their damaged craft, which has rolled over repeatedly as they wait for rescue, 1400 nautical miles (2590km) off the WA coast.

Speaking via satellite phone today, Abernethy said Noel-Smith was feeling a little better, but they were both "absolutely gutted" about having to abandon the trip, which was to aid a British children's charity.

They had been chasing solo Briton Simon Chalk across the Indian Ocean in a bid to break an unofficial record for rowing from WA to Reunion Island, off Madagascar, set by Swede Anders Svedlund in 1971.

"We have worked so hard to prepare everything for this trip - and it is hard to have it snatched away in such a cruel twist of fate by something like a head injury - that you have to take very, very seriously," Abernethy said.

He said Noel-Smith was "stabilising a lot better from what he was."

"He's now eating and drinking and he's been out on deck for a bit of fresh air," he said.

"His eye's still flickering and he's still got monumental headaches but then conditions out here are not great."

Abernethy said the HMAS Newcastle had been "absolutely fantastic" and had given valuable medical advice.

Deputy Maritime Commander Nigel Perry said the British ex-servicemen would be plucked from the boat about 11pm tonight in a rescue mission involving a helicopter and boats.

Commodore Perry told reporters in Sydney the Newcastle's commanding officer, Captain Gerry Christian, was in regular contact with the men "mainly to provide reassurance and to let them know that we're on our way."

The Navy frigate will launch its helicopter before nightfall to locate the boat.

But the captain believed boats from the ship might be needed to ensure a safe rescue.

"Because the boat is of a very light construction the downwash from the helicopter is liable to capsize the boat," Commodore Perry said.

He said it was difficult to estimate the cost of the rescue.

"Our focus to be honest at this stage is really on rescuing these people."

The Newcastle was on duty near the Cocos Islands and had planned to visit Bunbury in WA before returning to Sydney.

Its planned route after rescuing the Britons would have it return to Fremantle by 8.00am on Monday.

But if Noel-Smith requires urgent medical attention the Newcastle could sail him to Cocos Islands by Sunday.

The rescue will be the second of British rowers in the Indian Ocean in a year.

Simon Chalk and his partner Bill Greaves, 41, were rescued last May after being capsized by a whale, three days into their record bid.

Chalk is now 97 days into his solo Indian Ocean bid.

AAP

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