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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

North Atlantic rowing record smashed

A four-strong rowing team beats a 114-year-old record for crossing the North Atlantic Ocean, prompting a National editor to recount his own experience.

A four-strong rowing team beats a 114-year-old record for crossing the North Atlantic Ocean, prompting a National editor to recount his own experience.

Well, it should have been us, of course. In 2004 I was part of a crew of four Britons who came closer to breaking the record for rowing across the Atlantic than anyone had before. We set out from St John's, Newfoundland, and in 38 days we slogged our way across almost 2,000 miles of ocean, through conditions that ranged from the merely bad to the horrendous. We were within four days of reaching the Isles of Scilly when we lost our uneven race with the unseasonably early Hurricane Alex.

Few will truly appreciate the achievement of the four men who have just crossed the pond in a little under 45 days, but I and the three others who battled it out with the Atlantic on board the carbon-fibre Pink Lady in 2004 are among them. The short, choppy violence of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland has to be experienced, as does a long night spent straining through fog to hear the telltale lap of ocean against iceberg, its invisible passage lowering the temperature and raising the hair on the back of one's neck.

The sheer, grinding routine of rowing two hours on, two hours off, day and night, cannot be explained to anyone who has not bent to the oars in such a fashion, for more than five weeks on end. The numbing exhaustion, the robotic discovery that human bodies are capable of so, so much more than we generally give them credit for, has to be endured. So too do the savaged hands, the agony of salt-water boils and a demand for calories so high that no amount of eating dehydrated food can meet it - at which point the body starts to eat itself, starting with any fat and then turning to those muscles not essential to the task in hand.

Highlights? Whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles, birds; unknown creatures streaking through the night sea, trailing bright green, eerie comet tails of luminescence; the exhilaration of surfing - oars up, at impossible speeds and on the very edge of loss of control - down the faces of monstrous Atlantic rollers. One false touch of the rudder... For us, it all ended at 3am six years ago this coming Sunday. Alex grew bored with slapping the eastern seaboard and tracked out across the Atlantic. As it did, it lost its hurricane status but ran into two other systems and we found ourselves at the heart of our own perfect storm.

Rowing was impossible; even maintaining a ship watch on the deck became pointless - and suicidal. We retreated to the two "cabins" - more like double coffins, each with a hatch - donned our survival suits and waited. At about 3am I heard what sounded like a train; a killer wave, bigger than the rest, that struck us like a missile. I nearly drowned but escaped from the wreckage just in time, thanks to sheer dumb luck and a lot of thrashing about.

Surfacing to experience the storm at sea level, however, didn't seem lucky at the time. Then, because I had undone my suit while in the stifling cabin, I almost drowned again as it started to fill with Atlantic. Metres from the wreckage, using all my strength just to keep my face in the air, I'd have gone down for good for sure if Pete, our SAS diver, hadn't suddenly appeared and done his thing. In the liferaft, we were mortified to learn from the Coastguard via our satphone that the RAF had despatched a Nimrod search-and-rescue aircraft to find us. As dawn broke and the big beast wheeled overhead, flashing its wing lights and drenching our senses with the beautiful perfume of aviation fuel, we were just plain thrilled.

But the Nimrod could only watch over us (and shoot footage for the news). When we learnt Alex was coming we had broken our backs for three days, rowing three at a time to get within helicopter distance of the southwest of Ireland, but the Sea King had had to turn back. In the end, we were rescued by a banana boat - an interesting stroke of luck for a crew sponsored by an apple company - officered by Danes and crewed by Filipinos, who performed miracles to drift down on our tiny liferaft without crushing it under the gigantic ship's wildly rolling hull.

I was close to hypothermic, my watchmate John had a bleeding head gash and we were all close to done in - yet we managed to scamper up that rope ladder to hot showers and a full Danish breakfast like four freshly rested monkeys. Do it again? Well, never say never and all that, but 55 days was one thing; 43 is something else entirely. Skipper Leven Brown and his crew have earned their place in history.

jgornall@thenational.ae