Four British rowers whose boat was split in two by a rogue wave which ended their hopes of a transatlantic record have arrived back in safe dock today.
The oarsmen clung to a life raft for nearly six hours awaiting rescue after their boat was smashed in half in the early hours of Sunday morning.
The crew of the Pink Lady were dramatically pulled to safety by a Danish cargo ship in heavy seas 370 miles off the Isles of Scilly.
The ship has now docked at Foynes in the Shannon estuary. The oarsmen are due to give a press conference later.
They were nearing the end of their 2,100-mile journey from Canada to Falmouth, Cornwall, and until disaster struck had been on course to break the 108-year-old west-east Atlantic crossing record of 55 days.
Today, the four – Times journalist Jonathan Gornall, 48, of London; digital mapping specialist John Wills, 33, of Elstead, near Godalming, Surrey; ex-SAS diver Pete Bray, 48, of South Wales and skipper Mark Stubbs, a 40-year-old firefighter from Poole, Dorset – are preparing to travel home.
Mr Gornall said after the rescue he and his fellow oarsmen were “very grateful to be alive” after they were thrown into the water when waves up to 30ft battered their hi-tech rowing boat.
Writing in the Times, he said: “At about 2.30am John and I could hear the roar of a particularly big rogue wave. It sounded like an express train and hit the boat like a missile in the dark. That’s the only way I can describe it.
“The next thing I know, I’m underwater unable to breathe. I didn’t immediately think I was dead. It was an unreal nightmare. All I could do was try to swim. I didn’t know which way was up, how to get out or where I was and I was aware I was about to drown.
“I was in the water with huge waves still hitting us when I realised there was a lot water in my survival suit weighing me down. One wave hit me against the boat and I started sinking. I was struggling like mad to reach for the safety rope round the boat when Pete grabbed my elbow. Mark helped and I have no doubt I owe my life to them.”
Falmouth Coastguard scrambled a Nimrod marine patrol aircraft to locate the rowers and alerted ships in the area, and at around 8.20am they were plucked from the sea by the ship Scandinavian Reefer.
One rower was suffering from hypothermia and another had slight head injuries, but they did not need hospital treatment.
Following the rescue, it emerged it is the second time Mr Bray has been plucked from the Atlantic after an abortive crossing.
In the summer of 2000, he set off from Newfoundland in a 27ft kayak in a bid to complete a solo, unsupported Atlantic crossing. A return to Canada the following year ensured he made the trip to Ireland in 76 days.
But in the wake of the emergency operation, questions were being asked about why the purpose-built ocean rowing boat, which was also used for another abortive transatlantic record attempt in 2002, broke up.
Kenneth F Crutchlow, executive director of the Ocean Rowing Society, said Pink Lady’s disintegration “brings into question the real strength of the boat”.
He added: “Our understanding is that it has broken in half, which immediately tells us something serious went wrong. We would not expect that.”
Adrian Thompson, described as the boat’s designer on the Pink Lady rowers’ website, said he was “disappointed” he had not been consulted about changes made to the craft.
He said he had not been involved with it for four years and speculated modifications may have weakened the vessel, saying: “I know they’ve changed lots of things, but I have no idea what they actually ended up with.
“They could have cut another hatch in the deck – I really don’t know, but I would like to know.”
But Pink Lady team manager Bob Barnsley said the boat was “the best in the world” and even a large commercial ship would have risked damage in the Force 11 gales and towering seas.
He said: “In no way have the conditions this year been anything like typical. In any other circumstances that boat would have come across the Atlantic.”
Sponsored by Pink Lady apples, the four had been hoping to raise £50,000 (€75,000) for the British Heart Foundation with their efforts.
Only 10 of the 29 attempts to row the Atlantic from west to east have been successful, and six men have died in the attempt.
The current record was set in 1896 by two Norwegian fishermen and equalled 17 years ago by Briton Tom McClean.