x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The man who saved my life tries for record

A former SAS boat specialist and diver embarks on a journey that has killed at least five men.

Peter Bray hopes to become the 20th person to row across the Atlantic, from west to east, since 1896.
Peter Bray hopes to become the 20th person to row across the Atlantic, from west to east, since 1896.

Apart from a minor cut on my nose, the worst injury I sustained as a result of being shipwrecked in the Atlantic in 2004 was an impressive bruise on my right arm, pummelled repeatedly by the man who had just saved my life. Peter Bray and I, along with fellow Britons Mark Stubbs and John Wills, had set out from St John's, Newfoundland, on June 30 to beat the record for rowing across the Atlantic. Alert for icebergs carried south from Greenland on the Labrador current, we endured the short seas of the Grand Banks, hitched a ride on the Gulf Stream and, in conditions that ranged from eerie dead calm to awesome brutality, set about the business of rowing two hours on, two hours off, in two-man watches, for what we hoped would be the next 45 days.

In the event, it was 39 days before an Atlantic storm snapped our 7.3-metre carbon-fibre boat clean in two. By then, we were within little more than 320km of our objective, Britain's Bishop Rock lighthouse. On course to shatter the record of 55 days, we could almost taste the fish and chips awaiting us, along with our loved ones. Failure sucks. Today, almost five years later, if the weather window opens on cue Pete will set out again from St John's, this time alone, to finish the job. He hopes to beat the record for a solo, unsupported row of 64 days.

Since 1896 there have been 42 attempts to row across the Atlantic "the hard way", from west to east; 19 have succeeded, 23 failed and five men have died trying - three of them alone, doing what Pete is now attempting. Not that he will be dwelling on such things. For a man who spent much of his army career dealing with the darker things of life, he has an extraordinary ability to look on the bright side and it is unusual to catch him without a smile on his weathered face. He is also no stranger to the perils of the Atlantic; in 2001 he became the first person to kayak across, solo and unsupported, reaching Ireland in 76 days.

On the dark, storm-thrashed night of Aug 8 2004, I was pleased to see that smile. At first, we did not believe our shore-based weatherman when he told us that an unseasonably early hurricane was heading our way. The good news was that Alex was mutating into a mere storm. The bad news was that he planned to meet up with a couple of pals - at our place. All we could do was don survival suits, stream the sea anchor - little more than a gesture in the conditions - retreat to our two twin-coffin-sized "cabins" and seal the hatches.

We had all seen the Atlantic have a bad day before, but those were tantrums compared with the apocalyptic madness now unleashed. The boat rolled, pitched and yawed, grabbing air, slamming down and submarining repeatedly. The noise was deafening, drowning out thought; the thunder of a thousand drummers pounding on the hull combined with the unearthly, subhuman screams of the wind. Something had to give and, in the dark hours before dawn, it did. With hands and feet braced against the walls of the aft cabin, above the din I heard the sound of an approaching train. Odd, I began to think, but the thought had barely formed when we were struck with the force of an explosion.

Instantly, I was under water, fighting for my life in the tangled shards and debris of the wreckage, yet gazing down and watching my efforts with a serene detachment. Blessed are the tricks the mind plays to spare us. I was close to taking that last, lung-flooding breath when, to my surprise, I surfaced. So far as I could see in the maelstrom, I was little better off. Perhaps two metres away, I spotted what was left of the boat, upside down, torn clean in half and swept by monstrous, breaking waves. Of the others, there was no sign. As I struggled to kick-start my brain, I realised that instead of rising and falling with the waves, my head was going under and staying there. Resurfacing demanded a superhuman effort. There was no way I could reach the wreckage.

Because it had been so hot in the cabin, I had undone the big zip across the chest of my survival suit and pulled the rubber neck seal over my head. Big mistake. Now the survival suit, instead of saving me, was filling with Atlantic and drowning me. That's when Pete appeared from under the boat, grinning like he was having fun. A former boat specialist and diver with the SAS, he probably was. He hauled me to the hull, buying me just enough time to reseal my suit and squeeze out the worst of the water. As the other two appeared, Pete twice dived back under, retrieving our grab-bag - with flares, GPS and satellite telephone - and life raft.

Once we were in it, our faces lit only by the flash of the strobe light on our emergency beacon, the cold of the sea reached my core and I began to shiver uncontrollably. All I wanted to do was sleep; hypothermia, I can tell you, is a fine way to go. Luckily for me, Pete and the others were not ready to share the life raft with a corpse. We spent the next few hours singing and talking rubbish, with Pete punching me every time I started to doze off. Later, as the crew of a boat sponsored by a brand of apple, we faced the final, but welcome, ignominy of being rescued by a banana boat.

As we slumped exhausted in the wardroom on board the Scandinavian Reefer, Pete began talking about "the next time" and selected a DVD for us to watch. It was the first time I had seen The Perfect Storm, but I dozed off before the ending. @Email:jgornall@thenational.ae