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Lost, but not forgotten!
By Jonathan Gornall

March 20, 2003

A memorial to ocean rowers who died at sea will keep their feats alive
 FOR THE North Atlantic in mid-November 2001, it was a good day for fishing, and Gerry Concannon and Tom Walsh, out from the Co Clare port of Kilkee on board The Molly Bawn, were taking advantage of the calm to shoot long lines in pursuit of dogfish.
With their many hooks set and their boat drifting, they were reluctant to haul in their lines and investigate what at first they took to be the grey corpse of a whale, rising and falling on the even swell.

It was only as their drift brought them closer that they realised that this was no whale but the upturned hull of a small boat.

The search for Nenad Belic, a wealthy 62-year-old American cardiologist who had set out from Cape Cod on May 11 to row the Atlantic, had tailed off since the coastguard had picked up a signal from the emergency beacon on Lun, Belic’s boat, at the beginning of October, 2001, 230 miles west of Valencia Island on the southwest coast of Ireland.

Belic’s son, Adrian, had flown from California and hired an aircraft to join the search for his father, and had spotted the Lun’s empty liferaft, but nothing else.

The discovery of his boat put an end to hopes that Belic would be found alive, but triggered an extraordinary chain of events that would touch a community well acquainted with tragedy at sea and bring together in death seven men who had lost their lives in terrible solitude.


The memorial to the ocean rowers

Awaiting the return of The Molly Bawnwas Tom Byrne. An architect who had grown up in the town, he was the owner of a four-wheel-drive vehicle and volunteered to haul the boat from the water. Like many in the area, he had first-hand experience of the cruel sea and accepted both its blessings and its curses. As a student, Byrne had worked as a deckhand on a trawler, taking the place of a man who had been drowned off the boat. “People here have a very fatalistic attitude to the sea,” he says. “It takes people.”

And yet, what he saw on that dark night touched him deeply. “When the little boat was towed up, it was a dark and cold November evening,” he says. “I’d never even heard of ocean rowing and I was struck by the human aspect of the tragedy.”

Inside the barnacled hull he found a fishing rod, a small bottle of Tabasco sauce, and some of the rower’s notes.

As chairman of the recently formed Kilkee Civic Trust, Byrne decided that the dead seaman should be commemorated, and the raising of a memorial became the trust’s first official function. It was only when he contacted the Ocean Rowing Society in England that he discovered that Belic was not alone and that seven rowers had been lost at sea since 1966.
Although the body of only one had been found, all the boats had, curiously, found their own way home. Kilkee, it transpired, was a fitting location for such a memorial, selected by the sea itself.

Six of the seven rowers died in the North Atlantic, attempting the grim journey from west to east. Of 13 attempts, only seven have been successful. Because of the cold, the often riotous seas and the devastating storms, the route is a far tougher prospect than the more-travelled east-west southern Atlantic course.

At 11am on Saturday, a small party will gather on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic for the unveiling of a simple memorial to the seven men: a six-foot, four-ton chunk of locally mined limestone engraved with their names.

Among the party will be Belic’s son, returning to Ireland for the first time since his fruitless search for his father, and the rower’s two sisters, flying in from Croatia. Peter Bird, a man who made one successful east-west Pacific crossing and five attempts west to east, dying on the last in 1996, will be well represented by his family, including his 85-year-old mother Joan, making the trip from London.

But it is the absences from the gathering that will emphasise the poignancy of the occasion. The Ocean Rowing Society has been unable to contact any relatives of the others, including the first to die, David Johnstone and John Hoare.
 
John Ridgway and Chay Blyth, two men whose fates are interwoven with their erstwhile rivals and whose names could so easily have replaced theirs on the limestone, won’t be at Saturday’s ceremony. In 1966, the two paras became the first to row across the Atlantic in the 20th century after Ridgway heard a radio interview with a journalist, David Johnstone, who was planning to row the ocean, and decided to mount his own challenge.

Setting out from Cape Cod on June 4 in the open dory English Rose III, Ridgway and Blyth made it, washing up on the Aran Islands 92 terrible days later. Johnstone and Hoare didn’t make it, drowning some time after 98 days at sea.

Andrew Wilson was the youngest of the victims. He was just 22 when he set out in his home-made 20ft boat from Newfoundland. Nothing was seen or heard of him until a crofter on a remote Scottish island found the wrecked Nautica in April 1981.


John Ridgway and Chay Blyth
after crossing the Atlantic in 1966

 
His mother, Iris, and other members of the Holy Trinity Church, Bracknell, had prayed for his safety every Sunday. After Wilson’s boat found a home in Exeter maritime museum, Iris became an annual visitor, leaving a solitary rose on Nautica’s deck. She is now thought to be dead.

Byrne will speak at the unveiling of the stone on Saturday. As a spokesman for the Belic family says: “We are very grateful to Tom Byrne and the people of Kilkee for taking to heart the sorrows of those the rowers left behind. For us, Kilkee will remain both a beautiful place, and the right place to visit and reflect upon the loss for generations to come.”

Three Britons are at sea right now, and there are many other solo and double-handed projects planned. Byrne was taken aback when the Ocean Rowing Society requested that space be left on the memorial for future additions.

“More deaths are inevitable,” says Kenneth Crutchlow, of the society, who was a close friend of Peter Bird and will be in Ireland for Saturday’s ceremony. But for him, the occasion will be as much a celebration as a commemoration.

“The world is full of people who say ‘I would have loved to have done that’, but these men died doing what they wanted to do, and there has to be some worth in that.”

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