Skip to main content

Nasty storm batters Atlantic rowers

Four are left in 43-degree water after their boat is smashed by the remnants of Hurricane Alex

Mark Stubbs remembers hearing the deep rumble grow louder as the white water bore down until finally, with the thunder and power of a freight train, the wave rolled the 30-foot rowing boat over.

“It pulled the boat around, rolling it and twisting it at the same time,” says Stubbs, 40, captain of a four-man team on the rowing boat. Tons of water crushed the carbon fiber pod over Pink Lady’s tiny aft cabin.

“We heard two large cracks as the boat rolled over and crashed,” says Stubbs, a Dorset, England, firefighter. “It broke the back end of the boat.”

Pink Lady lay upside down in North Atlantic seas Aug. 8 like a wounded turtle. “Myself and Pete [Bray, 47] were in the forward cabin,” Stubbs says. “Because of the way she was lying, we knew she was not going to reright.” They opened the hatch, let the cabin fill with water, then swam out. In the aft cabin, John Wills, 33, and Jonathan Gornall, 48, clawed their way out past jagged chunks of carbon fiber that had crashed down on them when the cabin top gave way.

“It sounded like an express train, and hit the boat like a missile in the dark,” Gornall, a journalist, wrote in a report in the Times of London. “That’s the only way I can describe it. The next thing I know, I’m under water unable to breathe. I didn’t immediately think I was dead. It was an unreal nightmare. All I could do was try to swim.”

Outside, it was pitch black. Gornall, whose survival suit was unzipped, struggled to swim as his suit filled with water until Bray grabbed him and swam him over to the capsized hull. Everyone had gathered there, as they had trained to do, grabbing lifelines along the rowing deck.

Attempting to row across the North Atlantic from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Falmouth, England, in fewer than 55 days, the four British adventurers were 300 miles shy of the finish — and 10 days ahead of the west-to-east rowing record — when they crossed paths with remnants of Hurricane Alex. Weakened to a nasty North Atlantic storm, Alex had met up with another low and intensified, its winds strengthening to more than 60 knots and piling up seas 40 to 50 feet high.

The rowers had been hunkered down below in their cabins for five hours in their survival suits. They had set a sea anchor to hold their bow into the wind. “We were getting kicked every couple of minutes,” says Stubbs. The roar of the breaking white water was deafening. “We couldn’t hear each other talking,” he says.

Each time the white water grabbed the high-tech carbon-fiber rowing boat, the line on the sea anchor would grow taut and strain so loudly against the hull that they thought it might snap. Then the wave would rumble over Pink Lady, tossing the crew around inside.

Stubbs says he was almost relieved when Pink Lady finally capsized, and he could escape the coffin-like cabin, and relentless beating and banging and bruising. Stubbs says they had known for four days that Alex was coming, but they couldn’t escape it. They couldn’t outrow it, so they convened a meeting well before and again talked through their plan if they had to abandon ship. They would keep the life raft canister strapped to the sole in the forward cabin and store two grab bags filled with survival essentials — an EPIRB, Argos beacon, GPS, inflatable life jackets and Iridium satellite phone — in a forward compartment. They deactivated automatic inflate devices on their life jackets because they wanted to swim with maximum efficiency if the boat capsized, and they didn’t want to risk being carried off by wind and waves as they swam for the life raft — a possibility if they wore their PFDs fully inflated.

As they clung to the hull, Bray, a commercial diver and veteran of Britain’s elite Special Air Services military unit, drew the assignment of diving back inside the overturned hull to collect the life raft canister and two survival bags. “He was our hero,” Stubbs says. He found the raft and unbuckled it, grabbed the survival bags from a compartment — in darkness — and did it “pretty quick,” says Stubbs.

They deployed the life raft, looping its painter around the hull to secure it while they climbed in, then pushed off and retrieved the line. Ordinarily, they would have stayed with the boat, but Stubbs says they feared it might be thrown on top of them or its broken and jagged carbon fiber might puncture the raft’s tubes and sink it.

Inside the raft, shortly after 1:30 a.m., they activated the EPIRB.

Stubbs says they had decided to carry the device with them instead of deploying it in the water. Within 20 minutes they were talking to Falmouth Coast Guard by satellite phone. The Coast Guard had received their distress signal, but the EPIRB — with integral GPS — hadn’t sent the raft’s position. Stubbs believes the raft’s canopy may have interfered with the beacon’s ability to fix their position. They used a hand-held GPS from their survival bag to determine where they were, and passed the information on to the Coast Guard by phone. Fifty miles away, the Danish freighter Scandinavian Reefer was en route from Central America to Foynes, Ireland, with a cargo of bananas. The Coast Guard asked its master to divert to Pink Lady’s position to take the men aboard if possible. Stubbs says the master wasn’t at all sure they could in those conditions, but at the very least it could block the wind for a couple hours while they waited for a rescue helicopter. The ship wouldn’t arrive until about 6:30 a.m., the helicopter three hours later. Neither Pink Lady’s crew nor the Coast Guard were all that sure the raft would hold up in those seas long enough for help to come.

“Twice big waves hit us, and the raft imploded,” Stubbs says. The canopy collapsed on top of them, but it never capsized. Gornall was suffering from hypothermia, Wills from a head wound and chest bruises where the cabin top had fallen in on him. They put plastic bags from the survival kit on their heads to prevent heat loss, and sat on the survival bags to insulate themselves from the 43-degree F water.

Arriving on-scene, the crew of the 460-foot Scandinavian Reefer fired a grappling line over the top of the raft. Bray grabbed it, and they used that to pull themselves to the ship’s lee side. Rising and falling in the 30-foot swell, the raft was in danger of being crushed under the ship, but Stubbs says two of them steadied it with the line while the other two clambered up a rope ladder. Then the other two followed.

“It was a fantastic team effort by the guys on the ship,” Stubbs says.

Rowing two at a time in two-hour shifts, the British oarsmen were trying to break the 55-day west-to-east trans- Atlantic rowing record set in 1896 by Norwegian fishermen Harboe and Samuelsen, and equaled in 1987 by Briton Tom McClean. Stubbs led four crewmembers in 2002 in a trans-Atlantic record attempt that ended after 21 days in mid-Atlantic when the boat’s rudder broke. Bray became the first person to canoe across the North Atlantic in 2001. His first attempt, in 2000, nearly ended in disaster when a faulty valve sank his boat.

“I feel, at the end of the day, we did our best,” Stubbs says. “Even if we didn’t do it, we came awfully close.”

Married and the father of 10- and 13- year-old girls, Stubbs isn’t sure he’ll try again. “I’m not saying no,” he says. “I’m just reflecting on everything that happened. I’ve got to take time out with my family and put everything back into perspective.”