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

 


Indian Ocean 2002 - Unexpected Challenge


The intension was to set off from Kalbarri, Western Australia and row 3210Nm to Reunion Island, off the coast of Madagascar.

The route has only ever been rowed once before in 1971 by Swede - Andres Svedlan. His successful attempt was conducted single handed. This was the first double handed attempt to row the Indian Ocean and an attempt at the overall world record.

Our team is Simon Chalk (29) and Bill Greaves (41) from Newton Abbot in Devon. The boat used in the record attempt is a challenge class ocean rowing boat - the most proven ocean rowing boat ever designed. Our boat was successfully used in the 1997 Atlantic Rowing Race named "Cellnet Atlantic Challenger". For the Indian Ocean record attempt the boat was renamed ELS-SEA - and sponsors by ELS Ltd (Entertainment Leisure Services - Swindon).

We arrived in Australia on the 25th April 2002 and proceeded to clear the boat from customs. We had unexpected delays due to the trailer clearance which in Australia required an addition license. We finally cleared customs on Friday 3rd May 2002.

Early Sunday morning on the 5th May we left Perth to travel the 693Km journey to Kalbarri. We past the city of Perth and took photography of the boat with the city line in the background. Our intended leaving date from Kalbarri was to be the 6th May but already this date had been missed due to the customs issues. At about 8.00pm on the Sunday we arrived in Kalbarri. The reception was instantly of disbelieve but overwhelming support.

For the next 7 days we made final preparations to the boat and waited for a break in the weather. The hospitality shown to us by the town was incredible and a good deal of local knowledge was passed to us by the fishermen. Late on Sunday evening the decision was made to set off from Kalbarri on the 15th May (weather permitting) at 10.30am. Our weather information was gained from satellite information - as used by the local fishermen.

The weather then eased back from the previously stormy week and the swell size had generally calmed by the morning of departure. We had given a talk at the local school and linked into the local town news paper and made all necessary connections with rescue services etc. An all ships warning had been issued to allow larger shipping to know what we were planning to undertake. The Department of Transport inspected and signed off all the equipment onboard the boat and customs gave us final clearance to leave Kalbarri.

Start Morning

We launched the boat early in the morning of the 15th May and made various final checks to the boat. Fixed and calibrated the rudder, checked charging circuits, watermaker was run up and VHF radio check with Kalbarri VMR. At 10.30am exactly after some emotional goodbyes we released our bow line and slowly moved away from the jetty. We were going to attempt to row out of the hazardous river entrance which had reefs with a tow boat on stand bye.

The send off itself was fantastic!! The whole town came out to see us off including the school children that we had given the talk to. In all there were nearly 2000 people lining the shore, setting off flares, Horns, cheering and clapping. It soon became obvious that the boat would not be able to rowed passed the reef and a tow was asked for. We were towed about 50M past the reef and then head off on our own. It was an incredibly emotional time with so many thoughts running through both of our minds.

The weather was very calm. A swell was running inshore at about 0.5 - 1M and we had a slight off shore breeze between 5 - 8 knots. The rowing was heavy but strong as the boat was fully laden with provisions.

Safety Equipment

The following safety equipment was carried onboard ELS-SEA when leaving Kalbarri on the 15th May 2002.

Argos Tracking Beacon X 2 with emergency function
406 Mhz EPIRB X 1
121 Mhz EPIRB X 2
VHF Handheld Radio X 2
VHF RD68 Fixed Radio X 1
Life raft 4 Man X 1
Off Shore Flare Pack
SSB Radio with weather fax software
Laptop Computer with charting info
Satellite Phone with fixed and mobile aerial
Lifejackets and Lifelines
Foul weather clothing with three layer

This is a basic outline of safety equipment. In addition to this there is the normal boat equipment including Nav light, search light, ropes, sea anchor and drogues etc.

Good Progress

The first 24 hours at sea were hard work. Settling in to a watch system of 2 hours on and 2 hours off. There is always an enormous feeling of emotion when leaving friends and family behind to set off to sea for an undefined period of time.

The boat was working well. Ample power and communications with hourly radio checks for the first 12 hours. The lights of Kalbarri soon faded into the distance that first night and it was obvious that by first light we would have lost sight of land completely. Bill was getting to grips with steering the boat and keeping a course which saw us average about 2 knots.

Sea sickness was an issue but this was expected, I always suffer from sickness in the first 3 days and by now have learnt to deal with the feeling.

The first night there were a number of boats fishing on the shelf and we had radio conversations with a couple of them.

We took a fix and log of the general conditions in the morning, roughly 24hrs after leaving Kalbarri. We had rowed about 44 miles in our first day and this without assistance from the wind was better than expected. The wind had filled in slightly from the day before in our direction which was great news. Spirits were high and we decided to stay in the watch system until reached the shelf where the swell length deepens and becomes more stable. We had now lost sight of land and VHF radio contact to VMR had finished. We received a phone call on our sat phone journalist so we decided to turn the phone off until we got clear.

Day 2

Wow! Just what we wanted. Throughout the day the wind really started to fill in to our direction. The oars became lighter in the water and boat speed had increased firmly over 2 knots. We had previously spoken in length about the possibility of being pushed back onto the coastline if the wind had moved against us and now the best thing possible had happened - we were being pushed towards the shelf. We rowed solidly all day, trying to maximise the boat speed and advantage. The eating pattern was disturbed not only by sea sickness but also by this enthusiasm to move forward to safety. Bill saw his first flying fish about lunchtime and on the edge of sight some whales were seen travelling in shore.

Into the evening the wind was still increasing. We started surfing down waves for the first time. This was fantastic!! The sky was overcast and gave no clues as to the duration of a potential storm or whether the breeze would stay constant.

Through the night the wind steadily increased further. We now had a large swell with waves breaking. The wind was gusting 30-35 knots and looking to further increase. As a precaution we started closing the cabin hatch whilst off watch just in case we were hit be an unexpected large wave or "Greeny" as it's known by the locals. We put out a line from the stern of about 30 Meters in length. This was designed to keep the boat stable while running down waves. Due to the wind and swell direction being the same and the fact that it was taking us in exactly the right direction, it was felt that a drogue was not needed at this time. The boat felt safe and stable and was always facing the same direction of the waves.

About 4am the morning of the 17th May we decided to get some sleep and both got into the cabin. The nav light was switched and oars stowed. We were pretty tired and it was a good opportunity to sea how we dealt with sleeping in the cabin together. There was very little advantage of rowing the boat at this point because the boat was moving so well in the direction we were planning to head.

We didn't get much sleep and I had kept an active watch within the cabin. At day break I went up on deck to check the trailing line and the general state on top. The wind had seemed to stabilise and we were looking forward to getting stuck into an effective days rowing.

Day 3

Fantastic!! Great boat speed, great direction. Within another day and a half we would have reached the shelf and beaten our estimated time by days. The record was going to be ours. Spirits were high. I saw my first whale in the Indian Ocean at close quarters, actually it was in the next swell that was passing through. It was huge! It gracefully moved away from us and broke the surface about 100M meters from our position.

We recorded 9.2 knots whilst surfing down a huge wave, it was not unusual to see 5-6 knots constantly while surfing. The sea had seemed to level, if this was the peek of the storm then it was a great help to us.

Early evening the wind picked up again. There was very little point in trying to row. Putting the oars in the water would have slowed us down. We were travelling at a good 3 knots plus and the sea had picked up slightly more again.

At about 8 pm I decided the best thing to do would be to get some sleep that night. Make the boat safe, keep an hourly watch and run with the nav light switched on. We stowed the oars again, checked the trailing line, checked the hatches and the boats direction and then I went to bed. Bill stayed on watch a little longer and settled down in the cabin at about 8.30pm.

Disaster

Just before 9pm on the 17th May I was abruptly awoken by what seemed a huge collision. Instantly the boat moved sideways and then upside down. Bill had just checked the boats direction and wind direction about 2 minutes before the impact.

The roof of our tiny cabin had now become the floor. All our unfixed belongings had joined us. I looked towards Bill and asked if we were righting? After a short pause the answer came back "No". I asked again in disbelief "Are we righting" to response now shorter "No we're no F**king righting came back". There was a strange silence as if the wind had stopped completely.

A brief conversation followed "we need light" Bill reached down and through the computer out of the way and switched on the cabin light now on the floor. We could see the water level rising through the cabin door because the nav light was still on upside down. I reached for a torch and found it in the pouch where it had been stowed. We now had light. "Lets try and rock it" Bill said. So we pushed ourselves against the side and tried rocking the boat from side to side. The boat did not want to move.

Water was trickling in through the bulkhead compass. By this time there was probably about an inch in the bottom of the cabin. Another brief discussion "we need to get out, what do we need?". We didn't know whether we were sinking completely or if the boat had been forced under water. There was no reference to tell us we were still on the surface.

It was decided. We need an EPIRB 121Mhz, the 406 was outside. We need a lifejacket. The other lifejacket was on deck because we had used it whilst rowing. All our flares were in deck storage and wet weather clothing was all outside the cabin.

The water level was still rising. The sat phone was floating and you could feel the water on your legs. Right we need to get out. Bill was closest to the hatch. We decided that he would open the hatch and swim to the right. I would then follow and swim to the left.

"Are you ready" Bill asked. "Yes" I replied. Bill leant forward and opened the hatch. The force of water was incredible. Instantly the cabin filled. I took a breath and waited. The cabin had to fill before you could physically swim against the current. Bill swam out and disappeared, I quickly followed behind. The lifejacket and EPIRB wanted to float and as soon as I got out of the hatch they lifted and got tangled around the rowing gear. They were snagged and I struggled to move anywhere.

There is a small foot well under the boat and I found my head in an air pocket. I thought quickly, do I get out or wrestle the lifejacket and EPIRB. I heard Bill shouting for me, he had obviously got out and was hanging onto the boat. I took another breath and dived back under the boat leaving the equipment behind. I popped up on the left hand side of the boat - by this time exhausted and gasping for air.

So we were upside down in a self righting boat, 117 miles from Kalbarri and 64 miles off Shark Bay. Only a few days before the locals had told us all the shark stories. Nobody knew we were in trouble and we had absolutely no way of getting hold of any emergency equipment. Bill was wearing a pair of shorts and I had shorts, fleece, pair of gloves and one shoe. At this point there was a mad two minute of quiet swearing.

Clinging to the side of the boat I walked around the hull holding onto the guy ropes and emergency rudder lines, past the rudder and next to Bill. Another brief discussion - "we need to get a beacon off or we're dead". The Argos was the first thing we went for. To guarantee rescue, the ideal would have been to set two beacons off, one Argos and one 406 EPIRB. Bill dived under the boat but couldn't reach the beacon. He then tried a couple more times. I then tried and had absolutely no chance.

Next the EPIRB. Bill dived about 6 times to retrieve the EPIRB. He could get hold of it but couldn't release it from the mounting. If we were in flat calm it wouldn't be a problem but the boat was rolling and lifting continually and then smashing back down. I then dived with a feeling of complete desperation SUCCESS - The EPIRB came free. The feeling of relief was immense. I then activated the EPIRB over an hour from first becoming upside down.

We through the trailing line over the upturned hull of the boat and climbed on trying to stay clear of the water. This proved impossible to achieve. Every 10 minutes or so a larger wave would cross the boat and wash either one or both of us off. We tried lying on the boat and eventually found sitting was a much better way of holding on. Time passed incredibly slowly and it wasn't long before we started to feel the cold. By this time we were both bleeding and being in the water would be a real danger.


I tried to re-assure Bill that the EPIRB would bring rescue quickly. But it is difficult to believe and put all your faith in a small orange flashing beacon. I cant even guess at the number of times we were washed of the boat. It took a huge effort each time to clamber back on the hull. The bottom line was that the water was warm and the boat was incredibly cold. We tried huddling together but the sea wouldn't let us without losing balance. My jaw hurt through cold, there was a feeling of wanting to sleep. Every muscle was painful, even holding your head up was a huge effort and then you would be knocked in again. An aggressive burst of energy was needed to keep fighting this crewel unrelenting sea.

We spoke to each other occasionally but mainly dealt with our own thoughts. I didn't want to share my fear, it was to selfish. What if I placed fears in Bill that weren't there already. Thoughts of family, thoughts of ambitions - there were so many thoughts. Materialistic values had gone. You would give anything to see one more sun rise or to reach my thirtieth birthday. Selfish thoughts really but thoughts that you could only ever appreciate when you know that the chances of living are stacked against you.

About 2 am on the morning of the 18th May. We hear aircraft. Both at the same time. The silence is broken. There's lights in the cloud. "They're looking for us", "They know we need help". "Not long now Bill" I said. I held the EPIRB skyward, first in the right hand, then in my left. The other hand always attached to the rope on the boat. For about an hour the plane could be seen. "Why cant they see us". Eventually in exhaustion I placed the EPIRB on top of my head. I became the EPIRB…

As quickly as the plane had appeared then it had gone again. About 20 minutes before it left we saw a faint flare on the horizon. Could they be looking for someone else? Our hearts dropped. This was the lowest time. I honestly didn't know if I could make it till the morning and I'm certain Bill felt the same way.

"They'll be back at first light" Bill said trying to keep spirits up. I kept quiet. There was an enormous sense of guilt on my part. This was my idea, my boat - why didn't we right. What could Bill be thinking. Then the selfish thoughts, If Bill dies how can I go to his funeral? How can I face his family? If he goes then I go. For the first time I understood the survivor guilt thing. Right we're going to survive. It's only another four hours till light. Those 4 hours were on the boat, off the boat, on the boat - maybe a longer period then off the boat.

The first signs of light took an eternity to come. And then the time to full light felt even longer. I was desperate to read the instructions on the EPIRB, just in case I hadn't set it off correctly. I knew it had but at this stage every reassurance was needed. Bill's mood had dropped massively in those early hours after the plane had left and now barely had the strength to grip the rope. I have no idea what I looked like but at first light the real affect was showing. Bill's lips were blue, his cheeks were completely white and his hands swollen from their normal size. I tried to reassure him that the sun would bring warmth but reassurance wasn't carrying much weight anymore.

About an hour after true light, we heard the sound of an aircraft. For about half an hour we watched the plane grid its way across the sky gradually getting closer. Then very close "it must see us" we talked to each other. Waving arms, whistling and shouting - please, please just see us. Then the plane came back over and acknowledged with a dip of it's wing. Yes!! A wave turned to a fist of joy. If you can describe the feeling of joy it must be like winning the world cut or scaling Everest. All ambition had turned from rowing an ocean to survival and at this point survival had been by far the greatest challenge.

On the horizon about the same time we saw a large ship. We thought at this time that it was a cargo ship on it's normal passage. The plane stayed with us continually circling overhead and dropping large orange flares to mark our position. It soon became apparent that the ship was now heading for us. It was unclear what would happen next. Is a helicopter going to pick us off the boat? Would the ship have a rescue launch? Is the spotter plane going to drop a liferaft?

For the next hour we both discussed what would happen next. Continually being knocked of the boat by a sea which by this time had started to ease. The boat was sitting low in the water now compared to when we first went over. We had brief discussions about how much longer she would stay afloat. The shark fears grew in my mind. What if we were attacked now so close to rescue - how cruel would that be? The rudder broke away from the boat, stayed attached by the emergency lines for a short time until finally it floated away. With that the ensign became detached. It's an horrendous feeling of loss to be helpless and see your ensign floating away from your stricken boat - out of all the times that night this was the closest I had come to breaking down.

The ship stopped about a mile from us as if standing station. The thoughts grew that perhaps a helicopter was close by. With no ability to communicate it is difficult to guess or prepare for what happens next. Then the vessel "Bulk Africa" started towards us - they were going to pick us up. "I hope they have a launch" I muttered to Bill. This ship was huge compared to our tiny rowboat. I believe the captain said 238,000 tonnes. There was still a strong wing and although the sea had dropped back, it was still quite a swell in the rowboat. The ship slowly came onto us. They are trying to pick us up. We made out the crew standing on the side of the ship with bouys and ropes. My God that's impossible I thought.

The ship got blown off us at the last minute and despite the crews frantic efforts, there was no way the ship could alter course. Hope then disappointment - followed by frustration but balanced by fear of the risk of getting onboard. Bill and I agreed, He would leave ELS-SEA first. I wanted to be the last person onboard. This may seem trivial but I built the boat and spent so much time at see with her that I wanted to say goodbye in my time. She had saved us but also let us down. She stayed afloat long enough for rescue but stubbornly wouldn't right for us.

The ship took an age to turn around, probably about an hour in total. The second time the ship came no where near us. But the captain was determined to try and approach from different angles. Another hour past with the same result, this time a little closer.

Our hopes were starting to fade that the ship would be able to get close enough. The next question was what happens next? If a helicopter was on the way how long would it take to get there. Another large wave knocked us clean off the hull. The rescue plane must be able to see what was happening - what happens next.

The ship came back for a forth approach. This now is over 3 hours from the first attempt. How could we be so lucky with sharks - we were both bleeding quite badly. Was it the weather putting them off? What difference would that make? The ship now approached completely differently. Under power the vessel was making an exact collision course. My God - we've survived so much and now to be killed in this way was unthinkable.

This huge bow was bearing down on us with a bow wave to match. It was colossal! Enormous. We spoke briefly about how to get hold of ropes and how to hang on and then it hit us. The bow wave knocked us clean off the rowing boat into the sea. There was a mad scramble for lines. I cannot reason why we both managed to find a line or what the chances of doing so were but then the physical strength to hold on. I wrapped the rope around my wrist and the crew member pulled me to the side of the ship. A life ring was thrown down and I grabbed it with both hands, quickly placing it over my head. This then got pulled in another direction, I was being strangled. I throw the ring back off and continued to be pulled along the hull of the ship.

Another life ring was thrown at Billy, it hit him square on the head almost knocking him out. About two thirds the length of the ship was a rope and timber ladder. The swell was running down the length of the ship so one minute the ladder was 10 feet out of reach and then under water. I timed my grab as the crew member pulled me in close and managed to wrap an arm around the ladder. Bill was right behind me so I tried desperately to move out of his way.

There was no strength. I managed 3 rungs of the ladder. Billy managed to grab the bottom rung. The crew sent down a noose and I quickly put it under my arms. I felt a huge tug and I bounced against the side of the ship. In no time I was hauled on deck - what a huge relief but at the same time any traces of strength drained from my body. Wrapped in blankets 4 faces fussing around and laid down on deck.

There was an uproar on deck. Bill had fallen off the ladder. Frantic movements they pulled back onto the ladder. Again he fell off this time loosing grip on his rope. I tried to see what was going on but firmly pinned down by a small member of crew. They finally managed to get Bill on deck and second huge feeling of relief swept over me.

We were hurried below deck and striped of clothing. New underwear, trousers and overalls were provided and we were dressed. New shoes and some warm water followed by soup and orange juice even a packet of cigarettes.

The crew made an incredible fuss of us. All the crew had photos taken with us. The captain sat down and talked to us for a short while. We were invited on the bridge where other photos were taken. It transpired that the ship was only 18 days old on her maiden voyage and it was the ultimate good luck to rescue life on the first passage.


One thing that stuck in my mind is how completely helpless we became in such a short period of time. The boat was well prepared with numerous safety systems onboard. But we never planned for the prospect of being upside down. It was impossible to get to any equipment. Next time we go to sea in an ocean rowing boat, there will be an axe fixed to a bulkhead accessible from underneath. With just one simple tool we could have got to everything we needed to get help and survive.

I will never understand why we survived that night or why we weren't taken by sharks but perhaps it simply wasn't our time.

About 40 minutes after being picked out of the water by Bulk Africa, we were airlifted by a Australian Air Force rescue helicopter to Shark Bay. From Shark Bay we took a light aircraft flight to Garaldton. We then headed straight back to Kalbarri - where the adventure had started from only 3 days before.

 


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