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All oar nothing: How four men conquered the Atlantic

FAR OUT in the Atlantic, the giant liner made its way carefully through the fog. Captain Nick Bates and his crew of Queen Mary 2, the largest Cunard liner ever built at 148,528 tons, were looking for a tiny vessel, slightly less than 24ft long, a mere dot on the map of the ocean.

• The Artemis sets off from New York. Pic: Amory Ross

The crews of both the 1,132ft long liner and the rowing boat Artemis Investments were in touch by radio, but it was still an amazing feat of navigation when Captain Bates brought his giant of the sea out of the fog to pass slowly and gracefully alongside the pocket-sized boat.

High on its decks, the passengers of Queen Mary 2 gathered to gaze at the small but extraordinary apparition which appeared out of the mist. They saw four men in a blue and white rowing boat trying to cross the Atlantic from the United States of America by the power of oars alone - what else could the liner's passengers and crew do but cheer them to the echo, while Cunard's flagship sounded hailing blasts from its twin horns?

For Leven Brown from Edinburgh and Don Lennox of Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, it was the high point of a voyage which has yet again made them record breakers. With colleagues Ray Carroll from Ireland and Lyvar Nystad of the Faroe Islands, they have smashed the record for the fastest-ever row from the USA to Great Britain.

It's a Boy's Own story of epic proportions, in which they braved near hurricane winds, mountainous seas, capsizes, swampings, men overboard and even a 45ft tree in their path in mid-ocean. Brown called the record attempt "the Everest of ocean rowing", but last night was too tired to truly celebrate the peak of his remarkable achievements to date. All he and his colleagues wanted was a bath in fresh water and a beer or two.

Brown now personally holds six world records for ocean rowing, including the Atlantic double of fastest east-west crossing and fastest US-Europe crossing. Another record came during the voyage when he and the Artemis Investments crew covered 118 miles in 24 hours for the longest distance achieved in a single day of Transatlantic rowing, beating a mark they themselves set in a previous boat.

Their arrival in St Mary's in the Scilly Isles yesterday was achieved in slightly less than 44 days, 11 days less than the record set by two Norwegian-born American citizens, George Harbo and Frank Samuelson back in 1896. Those original ocean rowers were twice helped in mid-ocean by Norwegian vessels and cadged a lift, whereas Artemis Investments has been completely unsupported.

By any standards, the crew have reached new heights in the extreme sport of ocean rowing. The previous record of 55 days had withstood more than 60 attempts to break it and was reckoned to be the hardest to beat of any ocean row, and is possibly the most hazardous undertaking in any sport - five men have lost their lives on this route alone, out of seven ocean rowers lost at sea during recognised ocean crossings worldwide in the past 44 years.

According to www.oceanrowing.com, which has compiled records since 1966, the previous best unsupported row from the US to the UK took 60 days in 2005, so to row from New York to the Scillies, a distance of 3,246 miles as the crow flies, in 44 days is simply phenomenal.

Their home for that time was purpose-built by Rossiter of Christchurch near Bournemouth. The hull is made of a fibre glass and kevlar glued together with epoxy resin, giving exceptional strength for a light weight of just 300 kgs. On either side of the boat are the riggers, which are an upmarket form of rowlock, and a movable seat and slide system for each rower.

The cramped sleeping quarters in the sheltered stern also house the navigation systems, which are state-of-the-art GPS computers that survived a drenching when the boat capsized. They are connected to two autohelms, similar to an aircraft's autopilot, which both broke during the voyage, though Brown and engineer Carroll managed to cobble together one from the broken pieces.

Two very important items of equipment were the stainless steel rudder which survived massive waves intact and the sea anchor for really rough seas which they did not have to use as much as they thought - crews with lesser experience would have resorted to it more often.

Eating up to 7,000 calories a day, the four men dined on high-calorie pack rations, chocolate bars and nuts. As they completed the row early, they were able to gorge themselves in the final stretch, eating five main meals in a day.

Brown, 37, the Borders-born stockbroker turned adventurer now recognised as the world's top skipper for ocean rowing teams, announced last year he wanted to beat the toughest record set on the original 1896 route. To do so he recruited three of the men from his previous boat La Mondiale in which the 14-man crew had set a record of 33 days, seven hours and 30 minutes for the east-west crossing from Gran Canaria to Barbados. Fellow Scot Lennox joined Brown again, once more taking on the role of medic and physio, though he did not expect to have to carry out a mid-ocean emergency operation on Ray Carroll's ingrown toenail - a Swiss army knife and pliers did the trick with no ill-effects for the Irishman.

Most rows across the Atlantic are done much further south with helpful east to west currents and winds, not to mention better weather, but Brown wanted to beat Harbo and Samuelson and prove it could be done without mid-ocean assistance.

Brown's love of rowing began at the age of 15 when he attended an adventure school run by John Ridgway, who along with Sir Chay Blyth, rowed from Cape Cod to Ireland in 1966 to become the first Britons to make the west-east crossing.

He was once asked why he did his various rows, which have included being the first man to row solo out of the Bay of Cadiz in emulation of his distant ancestor on his mother's side - Christopher Columbus. He replied: "Because someone told me it could not be done by a normal guy like me."

The start of the voyage was disastrous. On their first attempt, heavy seas damaged vital equipment and they limped to Long Island for repairs. A second start saw them beaten back by a ferocious storm. It proved to be third time lucky as Artemis Investments set out from New York harbour on 17 June, and from the start they made good progress, maintaining a punishing schedule of more than 70 miles a day.

Brown had a technique he devised and which he had proven aboard La Mondiale, which sadly was lost at sea last year after a collision with a whale. Dividing his four man crew into two equal teams, they rowed two hours on, two hours off, around the clock, so that the boat was never stationary, although wind and currents forced it back on several occasions.

It worked, as the record proves. Their constant companions were whales - orcas and pilot whales - and dolphins while even in summer they had to keep a lookout for "growler" icebergs floating under the surface.

On 29 June they set the new distance record of 118 miles, yet the very next day rough seas swamped the boat and they capsized. On 10 July they reached halfway and celebrated with some treats, then all four promptly caught food poisoning.

More giant seas saw Ray Carroll tipped overboard, but he got back safely. The crew were then mystified as a tree twice the size of their boat came floating by.

By far the most memorable moment of the voyage was the close encounter with QM2. Reporting from Artemis Investments, Brown said: "What a great honour it was for us to see the finest ship on the ocean from our small rowing boat.

"The QM2 is awesome - she was about quarter of a mile away when we spotted her approaching us eerily out of the fog. Majestic is the only word to describe her.

"We have never seen so many people cheering and waving - they were lined all the way along the rails shouting questions to us. Our VHF radio had been 'patched' to their Tannoy system so we were able to shout answers back to the various questions." The tribute paid by Captain Bates and the passengers of Queen Mary 2 to the four men of Artemis Investments is surely the first of many that will come their way once the scale of their achievement is realised.

For their inspirational qualities, for their sheer dogged determination and the skill and courage to beat an ocean record that stood for 114 years, there is only one appropriate reward for Brown and his crew. A visit to the palace must surely be in order.

 
 
 

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