Monday, 2 February 2009

It's not the destination but the journey that makes life so unique!

Well we've been back home two months now and it's taken time to settle back into life on terra firma but I thought it only right that I share the full story of our last few days at sea. Since we've returned Ken tells me his missing "being on that darned boat" and the phone didn't stop ringing for a week with press, radio and TV all wanting interviews about our trip. Funny how time flies and it all seems so long ago now.

As you will recall we landed in Cape Verde on 7 January 2009, courtesy of a 200 thousand tonne cargo ship called the Maersk Varsberg.
In the lead up to the fateful day when the Maersk Varsberg crossed our path, we had once again been in tremendous rough seas, with the winds blowing against us and preventing us from rowing. Only a few days earlier we had made the tough decision to turn south and surrender to our failing solar panels. Without any possibility of recharging the equipment on board it would have been irresponsible and down right dangerous to continue on our voyage across the Atlantic to Antigua. In our hearts we knew we could still do it, we both had the mental and physical strength to continue and had we been twenty years younger without a care in the world we would have thrown caution to the wind and just gone for it. But with our family and friends back home, to continue without any communication for another forty days would have been darn right selfish. We had no lights, no radar, no VHF radio, no satellite phone and no desalinator. We were literally rowing in the dark in every sense, so we were making our way south to the Cape Verde Islands, where we planned to get new solar panels fitted and then to relaunch off to Barbados. We would be too far south to reach Antigua from Cape Verde, so Barbados it would be.

There we were in RITA being bashed, rocked and whipped by the 20 foot waves which showed no signs of abaiting. With the sea anchor out yet again there was nothing more to do but sit it out and wait for more favourable weather. We spent most of our time trying to keep dry, squashed up in the cabin. With no charge on the iPod we had no music, it was too rough to read and Ken and I were both feeling deflated so there was little to talk about. I remember just drifting in and out of sleep. Then suddenly I hear some choice words from Ken. The man who wakes for no one had by pure chance woken up for his tenth Snicker bar of the day and as he looked out through the hatch he saw a huge, and I mean huge, cargo ship heading straight for us.
We both jumped into action, there was no time to deliberate, the cargo ship was only hundreds of yards away and heading in our direction. Clearly with no radar from RITA they didn't know we were there and with the deep swell of the waves they just couldn't see us.

Ken grabbed a flare but as he tried to set it off it just fell apart in his massive Hell Boy hands. As he went for another I managed to catch the broken one and release it with a pair of pliers. Unfortunately the second flare was taken by the wind and flew off in the wrong direction. It had been some years since either Ken or I had set off flares (the last time for me was in the Royal Marines some 19 years ago) and I think we had both forgotten the shock you get from the force of the blast. The force was so powerful and violent that it took us both by surprise. Everything was happening so quickly, it felt like a frantic juggling act as we both tried to alert the cargo vessel. I grabbed another flare and this time it shot over the bow of the ship. They'd seen us at last and how I'll never know, considering the cumbersome size of the vessel and how close they were to us, but they managed to change course in the nick of time and avoid colliding with RITA.

The crew on the cargo ship decided to turn back to see if we were ok. It was a Turkish crew and they were on their way to Africa with tonnes of potatoes. They could see we were travelling nowhere in the high seas and they offered to help get us out of the bad weather. They were heading to Sao Vicente in the Cape Verde Islands, not the island we were hoping for but they said they could tow us to calmer waters so we could continue our journey to Sal (the island where we were hoping to port and fix our solar panels).

It had been such a close call, thanking our lucky stars (I had seen eighteen shooting stars the night before and might have seen many more if the boat had hit us!!)) that Ken had seen the vessel when he did, we thought the sooner we could get ashore the better. Who knows the next passing vessel may not have seen us at all. It was dangerous to continue without power and hence no radar as a means of detection and no lights at night. So we agreed to some help from the Turkish crew of the Maersk Varsberg.

The crew shot a line towards our bow but the wind lifted it back over their boat, so they shot a second line which we tied to the bow of RITA. The plan was to extend this line with the 200m rope we had on board, so that we could be towed from a distance at a reduced speed. Unfortunately the Varsberg had returned to our leeward side and the waves were pushing us closer to her hull. Poor RITA was rapidly being drawn by the huge swell of the waves towards their boat. In what seemed like seconds we were being thrust against the side of the cargo ship. We tried to row away but the strength of the waves was too much and in no time the bow of RITA was split as it smashed against the metal hull of the cargo vessel. It felt like David and Goliath but this time Neptune was on the side of Goliath and we hit against the metal hull a second time. The beautifully crafted safety rail from Len Nevilles had kept in tact and strong but with the second brutish blow from Goliath there was no contest. The fist of Goliath smashed down hard and the metal buckled under the sheer force. Our dream was being shattered before our very eyes.

It all happened so quickly. With every swell of the waves RITA suffered another blow. The Captain of the Varsberg insisted that we abandon our vessel and climb on board. I tried to explain that I could not afford to just let RITA float away with all the equipment. My heart was sinking. I was desperate to retrieve what we could. We had no choice. We couldn't stay on RITA but I insisted we at least take the desalinator with us. It had been loaned by Jim MacDonald at Mactra and he had already agreed to loan it to another rowing crew on our return. The Captain refused to allow us both back onto RITA and since I had suffered a shoulder injury in the transfer between the two boats, he sent Ken back down. Hell Boy did his stuff and managed to get the desalinator and a few personal belongings. It was no mean feat as the waves continued to bash RITA and the holes in her sides grew bigger. The desalinator had been well secured so it was no easy task releasing it.

We were safe but RITA was cut loose and floated out to sea. In no time she was just a small speck on the ocean. Hopefully she wouldn't be lost forever. Wherever she would go I hoped she might bring some joy to whoever found her. Maybe someone less fortunate than myself would find her. I was devastated. Years of work and dedication floating away, an emotional time as once again RITA was taken.

The crew of the Varsberg took good care of us, providing us with a cabin, fresh towels, food and drink. They even gave me a pair of secondhand sandals as I had no footwear and just the T-shirt and shorts I stood up in. I had been physically injured but I did not feel that pain. The pain was from my shattered dream. I knew in time I would bounce back, but right then on that boat watching RITA disappear into the horizon, my heart felt wrenched from my body and I was empty inside. Who knows where my next journey will take me and what adventures lie ahead. Despite our tremendous disappointment it had been an experience of a lifetime and one that both Ken and I will reminisce about for years to come. "It's not the destination but the journey that makes life so unique" and it was certainly one hell of a journey.

Thanks again to everyone who supported us, friends family, loved ones and of course our sponsors. I'm sorry that not every sponsor got a mention in my daily blog. It was my intention to pepper the blog with special thanks throughout the journey but with the trip cut short, few were mentioned. Needless to say I am truly grateful for your support.