Atlantic rowers bested by weather

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Six teams retire from the Atlantic Rowing Race, including two Americans who capsized

Six teams retire from the Atlantic Rowing Race, including two Americans who capsized

Good weather wasn’t something that came often to the nearly 60 rowers competing in the 2005 Atlantic Rowing Race. The competitors — broken into 26 teams in solo, pairs and fours classes — rowed day and night in heavy winds and seas kicked up by three low-pressure systems, two tropical storms and the tail end of a hurricane.

The race, organized by England’s Woodvale Events and the fourth since 1995, kicked off Nov. 30 from La Gomera in the Canary Islands. As of early February four teams had yet to complete the 3,000-mile passage to Antigua, and six had been forced to retire due to boat damage, because they had capsized or both.

What follows are the stories of three of the teams that retired: Team Sun Latte of New Zealand, American Fire of the United States, and Digicel Atlantic Challenge of Ireland.

The challenges Team Sun Latte’s Tara Remington and Iain Rudkin faced were unlike those that other teams experienced. On Dec. 20, 600 miles from the start, Remington and Rudkin’s 24-foot wooden boat was attacked by a shark.

“I looked down into the water and told Iain to look, too. There were a number of sharks,” says Remington, who is 35 and spoke to Soundings by satellite phone from Antigua. “Then this one shark, about 10 or 12 feet long, swam under us and started doing quick-turning circles around the boat. It started hitting us over and over, bashing our rudder. We got into the cabin, closed the hatches, and went dead quiet. We were afraid we’d tip over or that it’d put a hole in the boat and we’d be done for.”

Remington says at one point during the attack Rudkin, who also is 35, considered taping a flare to a gas cooking canister and shooting the shark “ ‘Jaws’ style” but wisely thought better of it. After 15 minutes the shark apparently swam away. Remington and Rudkin weren’t taking any chances, though. They called the crew of Aurora, the primary race support vessel, and rowed hard for six hours.

“We weren’t going to sit there like a lame duck waiting for the shark to attack us again,” Remington says. The Aurora crew eventually caught up with Team Sun Latte and stayed with them until the rowers settled their nerves.

Remington and Rudkin encountered more trouble Jan. 15, 46 days into the race, when they discovered that their boat had developed a leak. Remington says she isn’t sure whether the shark attack or heavy weather was to blame. “We were in huge seas, squally, like 20 feet,” she says. “The winds were between 25 and 30 knots. We weren’t rowing at night because it wasn’t safe. No matter how much water we bailed from the boat, the compartment would fill up again quickly. One of us would row, and the other would have to bail.”

The pair contacted the crew of Aurora to ask if it had epoxy to fix the leak. With the support vessel on its way, Remington and Rudkin continued bailing for several hours. At about 11:30 a.m. both rowers were in the cabin when a wave capsized their boat.

“There was this deafening roar, then we were tumbling,” Remington recalls. “I hit my head and was in splitting pain. Water was everywhere. We were hit again, and the boat rolled quite hard, turning the boat upside down again. Axes and tool kits were flying around in the cabin. It was quite like being a hamster in one of those plastic balls.”

Once Remington and Rudkin were able to collect themselves they contacted Aurora yet again to report the accident. Unable to bail fast enough to keep up with the water, Rudkin deployed the life raft, and the pair climbed aboard. They rode out the huge seas for about a half-hour before the crew of Aurora was able to rescue them. “It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, since we’d contacted Aurora a couple hours before, and they were already on their way when we were hit,” Remington says. “We were fortunate to have been able to compete but had rotten luck, really.”

American Fire — the only U.S. entrant in the race — capsized the same day as Remington and Rudkin’s Team Sun Latte. Sarah Kessans, 22, of Salem, Ind., and Emily Kohl, 23, of Plainfield, Ill., spent 16 hours clinging to their overturned boat before being rescued by the crew of a passing tall ship.

About 18 hours before the capsize, Kessans and Kohl — both former Purdue University rowers and the second-youngest team in the race — had deployed their sea anchor because of what they describe on their Web site as “unrowable” conditions (www.americanfirerowing.com ). At about 4:30 p.m., the women say, a 10-to-12-foot wave slammed their port side and capsized the boat.

“Immediately water started pouring in from the vents,” Kessans and Kohl write. “We desperately searched for the vent covers, which were now floating around in disarray in our once-organized cabin. Looking out of the cabin hatch, Sarah noted the wave was so violent it had snapped numerous items, including the life raft, which had previously been tied on. Unable to open the hatch in time, she watched as the life raft floated away.”

The boat continued to take on water, and when the pair realized it wouldn’t right itself, Kohl activated their emergency beacon. The women opened a hatch, grabbed a PFD, their digital camera and a hand-held VHF (which they later discovered didn’t work), and took to the water. Holding onto the grab line, Kessans and Kohl were able to retrieve a second PFD and a sleeping bag from the water. They huddled together on the overturned hull.

“Every wave that passed soaked us, lowering our body temperatures, causing us to be extremely cold the entire time,” the women say on the site. “Even with the jacket and sleeping bag we shivered as the sun set and left us in the dark.”

To help keep their spirits up, Kessans and Kohl talked, told jokes and sang songs. But waiting without knowing when they’d be rescued was no simple task. “Severe pain started settling in as the adrenaline wore off, and kneeling for over a couple hours our blood supply to our legs had been depleted,” they write. “Every small break from the waves we got, we stretched out our legs as much as we could, with the keel going right down our chest and thighs, making it brutally uncomfortable. But pain had to be put aside in order to keep us warm and alive.”

Having received American Fire’s EPIRB signal, the U.S. Coast Guard launched a

C-130 search-and-rescue airplane. Nearly 14 hours after the signal was sent, the Coast Guard spotted the rowers and radioed the crew of the nearby tall ship Stavros S Niarchos. The vessel — Tall Ships Youth Trust’s 200-foot square-rigged sail-training vessel — had been sailing between Tenerife, Spain and Barbados. About two hours later, in 10-foot swells and about 1,300 miles east of Puerto Rico, the tall ship located the rowers. The crew launched a five-person life raft, Kessans and Kohl climbed into it, and they were taken aboard the tall ship.

American Fire’s shore coach, William Butler, a longtime sailor and author of “Our Last Chance: Sixty-Six Deadly Days Adrift” (Exmart Press, 1992), criticized the seaworthiness of the rowing boats and the scheduling of the race. “Though still rough, a more logical start would have been during the middle of March,” Butler writes in an open letter to Woodvale Events. “The storms out of the North would have abated, and all boats would be in port before hurricane season.” Woodvale Events did not return requests for comment.

Bad weather also battered Ireland’s team Digicel Atlantic Challenge, the first team to drop out of the race. Rowers Gearoid Towey, who is 28, and Ciaran Lewis, 35, were capsized by a wave Jan. 8, some 1,600 miles into the race. “I knew when it approached that we would be capsized due to [the wave’s] size, steepness and angle,” Towey recalls in an e-mail to Soundings. Towey says it was raining at the time of the capsize, seas were between 15 and 30 feet, and winds were blowing up to 30 knots. The wave tore their boat to pieces.

“I had a split second to warn Ciaran and then the water hit us full force. I thought we were dead meat,” Towey says. “Once we gathered ourselves and started deploying our emergency gear, I could feel our chances of survival increasing.”

Upon hitting the water, the men’s EPIRB was activated, and the Coast Guard launched a search-and-rescue mission. Towey and Lewis were rescued by the crew of a passing Spanish carrier ship, the Hispania Spirit, after spending five to six hours in their life raft.

Despite the conditions, most teams were able to complete the race. The four-man British team All Relative took line honors, finishing in 39 days, 3 hours, 35 minutes, 47 seconds, and beating the previous record of 40 days set by a New Zealand team in 2003. All Relative rower Martin Adkin, who turned 20 during the race, also became the youngest person to row across the Atlantic.

Looking back on the Atlantic Rowing Race, Team Sun Latte rower Remington tries to be philosophical. “It’s hard to deal with. It’s emotional,” she admits. “We’re disappointed but also grateful. It’s important to have a dream and to work towards it. We did that.”

When asked if she’d attempt rowing the Atlantic again, Remington was unsure. “I don’t know if Iain would do it,” she says. “As for me, who knows? I’d never say never.”

For more information on the race and links to team Web sites, visit www.atlanticrowingrace.co.uk