IT WAS the rower’s equivalent of the four-minute mile: to cross the Atlantic in under 30 days of gruelling, relentless oar strokes. Yet, in the end, all it took was two rogue waves and just ten seconds to dash dreams of a world record and almost cost the six-man crew their lives.
The skipper of the Sara G has spoken for first time of the accident that almost killed his crew, including Mark Beaumont, 29, the Scottish adventurer and long-distance cyclist, and left them adrift in a life raft in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.
Speaking on a satellite phone from the Nord Taipei, the cargo ship that rescued the six men in the early hours yesterday, Matt Craughwell said they were lucky to escape with their lives from a “traumatic” experience.
Hungry and thirsty from having to ration their water, and exhausted after 27 days of rowing, with little more than 90 minutes’ sleep at a time, the team had endured two days of heavy seas when, at 11am on Monday, disaster in the form of two converging waves struck.
The team was 90 seconds away from stopping to change shifts with the three current rowers when the waves picked up the vessel and dashed the bow down into the water, spinning it 110 degrees.
As water began pouring into the boat, it became dangerously unbalanced and ten seconds later capsized, throwing them into the water but leaving one team member trapped underwater by his straps. He eventually managed to escape. “All six crew members made it out, the three rowers and the three that were just about to change. For the next 15 minutes we battled to get the life raft out and secured to the boat, then we set off the alarm to initiate a response from Falmouth [Coastguard].” Mr Craughwell, who was skippering his third attempt to break the world record, said there was no time to be frightened.
“To be honest, frightened is not a word I would use,” he said. “It was a fight-or-flight response from everyone. It happened so quickly that one of the rowers was in the upturned boat for about 15 seconds because he couldn’t remove his feet from the harnesses that we sit in when we row. Three of us were inside the cabins when the boat went over and it filled with water very very quickly.
“It was quite a relief when we capsized and called out the names and we knew that everyone had made it out the vessel.”
Among the crew was Mark Beaumont, 29, from Perthshire, who broke the record for cycling around the world between August 2007 and February 2008. He travelled 18,296 miles in 194 days through 20 countries and finished at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
His journey was documented in the BBC series The Man Who Cycled The World. He also published a book with the same title. Beaumont held the circumnavigation world record for two-and-a-half years until Vin Cox set a new time of 163 days, 6 hours and 58 minutes.
In another television documentary, Beaumont cycled from Alaska to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, climbing the highest peaks in North and South America along the Rocky and Andes mountains.
Since then, he has rowed in an Arctic expedition, but described the Atlantic Odyssey trip as the most challenging of his career.
After escaping into the life raft, which the team tethered to the boat, Beaumont and Craughwell went back on to the boat to secure equipment to assist in their rescue and to activate a distress beacon which would alert the Coastguard at Falmouth, Cornwall, who were monitoring their voyage, that they were alive but in urgent need of assistance.
As Mr Craughwell explained: “Our immediate intention was to see if we could recover the boat, but within two minutes it was futile. The boat was sinking lower and lower to the point that we got into the life raft and sent the alarm out.”
The skipper went on: “We spent approximately three to four hours in the life raft recovering from the event. Then me and Mark Beaumont decided we needed to go back to the vessel to recover some equipment that we knew we would need to make the rescue easier. Also to let people know we are alive.
“We set off one [alarm], which could have gone off automatically, so we decided we needed to go back and set off another activation beacon, the kind that would let everyone know that we were in a situation where we were in need of recovery. The time went incredibly slowly, and it was a traumatic experience.”
The crew of the Sara G, five of whom are British and the other an Irish national, were taking part in the Atlantic Odyssey challenge to row from Morocco in north Africa to Barbados in the Caribbean.
As well as Matt Craughwell and Mark Beaumont, the crew were Ian Rowe, a 45-year-old father of four; Aodhan Kelly, 26, from Dublin, Simon Brown, 37, a father of three from Wiltshire, and a father of two, Yaacov Mutnikas.
Writing on their blog on Sunday, Mr Craughwell said the boat was struggling to make headway because of “no wind and swells from every direction”.
They were 27 days into their journey when the 36ft (11.1m) vessel overturned at 11am on Monday, 520 miles from their destination. Falmouth Coastguards, who co-ordinated the rescue with authorities on Martinique, said the rowers were picked up from the raft they had lashed to the hull of their overturned boat at 1:10am by the Nord Taipei, a Panamanian ship.
A second vessel, the Naparima, was due to reach the overturned boat’s location by 4:30am, but was stopped after the rescue.
Earlier, a Coastguard spokesman said: “The shore contact for the Sara G managed to get through to the crew via satellite phone and ascertained the boat had capsized and they had abandoned to the life raft.”
The crew had already endured 2,000 miles and had just 500 miles to go when the accident happened. Yet it was an unfortunate culmination of bad luck, as the weather turned repeatedly against them.
The trade winds they hoped would assist their crossing failed to arrive and the days prior to the sinking had been their slowest. Mr Craughwell said: “The last couple of days have been some of the slowest yet with heavy seas, poor swell and hardly any wind.”
Cloudy skies had presented their own problems, as the lack of sunlight meant that they were unable to recharge their solar-powered batteries. The two 12-volt batteries controlled the auto-helm and the desalination machine, which was used to convert seawater to drinking water. As a result, water rationing was introduced.
Yesterday, when asked if he was disappointed that he had failed to break the record, Mr Craughwell replied: “It is too soon. To be upside down in the middle of the Atlantic and make it into a life raft, a vessel where we woke up this morning and had a breakfast and a cup of tea, puts everything into perspective.
“We are all just thankful that we are all here in one piece.
“I would like to say thank you very much for the rescue co- ordination. Sitting in the life raft knowing that people were coming to rescue us was the only solace we had in the entire event.”