Date: 17 Jun 2018 16:34:12
Title: NY2SY Statement

As I write this, I am looking down on the ocean from my cabin window onboard the M/S DOLFIJNGRACHT. Just a couple of days ago I was looking across it from the deck of my ocean rowing boat ALBA.

I'm not sure if it wise to write anything so soon after the events of my rescue but I feel that I should say something given all the incredible support that I have received, before and since I had to abandon my solo row. My thoughts and emotions remain quite raw and my mind feels quite confused about everything. Adrenaline and fear can influence your memory of events in strange ways but I have written this account as best I can remember and have re-read it several times to make sure that it's an accurate record of that night.

Firstly, I have nothing but gratitude and admiration for the crew of M/S DOLFIJNGRACHT for their actions on the night of my rescue. I'm still amazed that they managed to get me onto the ship from the liferaft at all given the conditions at the time. I have said that I feared for my life as I came close to the ship but that is no way meant as criticism of the crew in any way and I hope that my account here will make that clear. The fact that I am here writing this is thanks to them.

The incident leading up to my rescue happened around midnight on Thursday 14th/ Friday 15th. I had deployed my sea anchor the previous afternoon in anticipation of the bad weather which was forecast and had been already battering me most of the day. The weather seemed to ease off slightly during the afternoon but then picked up again later. I had already been knocked down (the boat was put over on her side but didn't capsize fully) once earlier that day but it happened again that night, and much more violently. I was sitting up trying find a snack from my ration pack when it hit. The impact of the wave threw me into my control panel and sent everything flying around in the cabin. It takes a moment or two for the boat to right herself and for you to realise what has happened. Ocean rowing boats are built to withstand this, and worse, but when I looked through my hatch window I could see that my wind generator had been badly damaged. There was no sign of the hub and blades and the frame had been bent over to the starboard side. The base of the generator was attached to the top of the hull on the front cabin and I feared that a hole might have been opened up given force involved in causing the damage. It was this that made me decide to go out and see what the situation was. I was taking a lot of waves across the deck and every so often a wave would smash against the aft bulkhead. I noticed that some of the holes that I had filled in with Gelcoat during the refit had begun to leak slightly. It was nothing serious but showed the force of the waves hitting the boat. I donned my foul weather gear, put on my lifejacket and harness and then readied myself to open the hatch at the right time. One of the golden rules in ocean rowing is to always keep your hatches closed, even during good weather, as it just takes one wave to cause problems for you. This was in the forefront of my mind but I felt that I had to investigate any possible damage to the boat. I waited and waited for the right opportunity and then went for it. Carelessly, perhaps stupidly, in the darkness and my tired state of mind, I forgot that the exterior footwell of the boat fills up with sea water unless the bilge pump is used regularly to empty it. It was, what I consider personally, a design flaw on the boat but one which I had become used to and got into the habit of making sure I operated the bilge pump regularly. But during the storm it was filling up before I could even empty it and, up until the wind generator was damaged, I had absolutely no intention of leaving the cabin.

As I opened the hatch door the boat pitched and water from the flooded footwell started to come into the cabin over the bottom lip of the hatch, catching me unawares in that moment. And that's all it took, that short pause and then BANG, the wave hit. I got thrown to the rear of my cabin and water seemed to pour in from everywhere. By the time I got myself sorted and back to the hatch door it was too late, my cabin had been swamped. I fumbled with the door and managed to pull it shut but it must have suffered some sort of damage as I could only seem to secure the top latch. I knew straight away that this was serious but I tried to keep focused  and assess my situation. Then a few minutes later the boat got knocked down for a third time. This sent water washing all over the cabin and into my control panel. My boat wasn't sinking but I knew that I was in a bad way and that it certainly wasn't going to improve in any way. The decision to trigger my EPIRB wasn't instant but I knew that it was inevitable, given my circumstances and the weather at the time. My boat was now wallowing in the water at the stern and some of my systems began to fail. I had also lost my wind generator and possibly suffered a breach to my forward hull.

I felt a mix of emotions as I saw the strobe light on the EPIRB begin to flash, confirming that a distress signal was now being transmitted...relief, disbelief, anger, guilt, sadness, regret. Relief that someone might be able to help me. Disbelief that I was in that situation. Anger that events had unfolded as they did. Guilt that I was causing others to have to venture out into such conditions to come to my aid. Sadness that this clearly meant my row was over and that my boat would be lost. Regret...I'm not sure why I felt this. Regret that I hadn't just stayed put in my cabin? Or that I hadn't remembered about the water in the footwell? Or perhaps that I should have tried something else to try and salvage the situation? I'm still not sure. Unfortunately, you don't get to make your decisions in hindsight.

Part of my preparations before starting the row were to memorise my routine should I ever have to abandon my boat. First, I broadcast a 'Mayday' call using my VHF radio in the hope that any vessels in the area might be able to assist me. I then deployed my liferaft and secured it to the side of my boat. Finally I got hold of my emergency Grab Bag and prepared to leave my boat. It was while I was getting my liferaft that I noticed that my VHF antenna had been broken and was hanging off by it's internal wires. I had no idea if my 'Mayday' call had been broadcast properly or heard at all. I took the decision to remain with my boat and not get into the liferaft immediately as I felt my boat was more likely to hold its position on the sea anchor whereas the liferaft would likely get caught in the wind and drift rapidly. I was still getting bashed around by the seas but I remembered being told that you should only ever step up into a liferaft, or something like that, use it as a last resort.

I made contact with the UK Coastguard using my satellite phone but had difficulty hearing what they were saying. During out short conversation I did make out that any vessels in the area had been requested to come to my aid. There was also something said about an aircraft but I'm still not sure what.

After a couple of hours I noticed a vessel appear on my chart plotter and it was clear that it was heading for my position. This was the M/S DOLFIJNGRACHT. My chart plotter stopped working shortly after that so I just had to wait until they contacted me on my handheld VHf radio.

She was still about 30mins from my position when I first spoke to the Captain and he confirmed that they were indeed coming to my aid. Eventually I could see her lights intermittently through the swell and she slowly came closer to my position. It was still quite dark so the Captain said that they would standby until there was more daylight before deciding the best course of action. Between us, we agreed that I should take to my liferaft and drift across to her position. I took a last look at my possessions washing around the flooded cabin, secured the hatch door as best I could and then climbed over my oar rail into the liferaft. I realised then that I had left the EPIRB onboard and returned to get it. Although the ship was nearby, there was no guarantee that I would get aboard so I needed to keep the beacon with me should I find myself washed away and adrift. It was then that I caught sight of the YB tracker and instinctively changed the signal time to 24hrs so that my boat could still be tracked.

Once I abandoned my rowing boat and took to the liferaft I then had to try and paddle about 600m across to the ship. This was really difficult in the waves and swell and felt quite surreal at the time. To watch my rowing boat disappear into the spray and crests and then try and make some sort of progress toward the ship with a small plastic survival oar was a very strange thing to experience. I kept getting swamped by waves and knocked about in the swell. Despite the size of the M/S DOLFIJNGRACHT (156 metres), I lost sight of her several times as I slid into the troughs and then suddenly she was just there above me. There was nothing else her Captain could do in those seas other than try and hold position as I tried to bring my liferaft alongside somehow in the hope of grabbing a line. Her bulbous bow was rising clear of the water in the swell before crashing back down and I can still see the grill over her bow thrusters in my mind. It was at that point that I thought my liferaft was going to get crushed under her. I was shouting, screaming and paddling, just desperately trying to get away from it. Finally, a wave caught me and took the liferaft clear, just a short distance but enough for one of the crew to through a line down to me from the bow deck. I managed to grab hold of it after a couple of attempts and even as it ran through my hands as the waves continued to push me down the side of the hull, squeezing my fingers and burning my palms, I wasn't going to let go. For a moment, the side of the ship seemed impregnable until suddenly a rope ladder appeared, clattering against the steel hull.

At the time I though that it was a 20 metre climb up to the deck but it's actually only 10 metres, an example of how your memory can work in such situations. I was exhausted but you keep going until you know you are safe. I kept climbing the swinging rope ladder and then felt my jacket being grabbed and I collapsed on the deck of the ship.

It's only since that I have considered how the crew of M/S DOLFIJNGRACHT must have felt during the rescue. They had become involved in a situation not of their choosing and must have felt a great sense of responsibility for the potential outcome. Their actions that night are to be commended and I will never be able to thank Captain Goorden and his crew enough for what they did.

The ship is now continuing it's voyage to Canada and we are due to drop anchor at Les Escomins, near Quebec, on Tuesday 19th June. Unfortunately, I won't be able to disembark the ship until she goes alongside in the port of Gros Cacouna on 28th June. It's just as frustrating for some of the crew who are due to leave the ship and return home at the end of their time aboard. There will be some paperwork to sort out due to the nature of my unscheduled arrival into Canada  (i.e I don't have a visa) but hopefully not too much further delay. Then I will have to organise getting back home to Scotland.

I have committed 8 years to NY2SY and this was my third attempt. After having to abandon my first row in 2014 due to injury, I knew that I would return to try again but decided that I would carry on my preparations without telling anyone. I just wanted to focus on getting ready and not get caught up in any other distractions. Returning to New York last year but being unable to even start my row was a huge disappointment but I wanted to keep going. I didn't want to give up. Returning this year presented new challenges, not least deciding to relocate further south to begin my row from Norfolk VA.

Now my row is over and my boat is abandoned at sea. She will continue her own journey which will end somewhere, sometime. It's a horrible feeling to have to leave your boat behind, it's hard to explain, and I know that my safety is the main thing. It's not the loss of the material value of the boat that hurts so much, but what I felt she represented in a wider sense. Please don't misunderstand my sadness as self pity, I'm sad for everyone who helped in anyway in NY2SY. I cannot express how much I wanted to make it across to the otherside. I tried my very best, I really tried, and the sense of disappointment is overwhelming. Of course, I'm still very emotional about it all and perhaps such statements will sound melodramatic but I can only express how I feel at this time.

I had decided that this would be my last attempt, though I kept this to myself in case anyone thought that it was going to influence any decision to start (e.g. risk starting without a suitable weather window). Also, I am acutely aware that I have failed twice now and have had to request assistance from rescue services and other agencies on those occasions. This was always at the back of my mind after 2014 but I hoped that it would never happen again. I have no wish to be regarded as some reckless thrill seeker who just heads off across the ocean with no preparation or regard for the possible consequences. I'm also concerned that such opinion might reflect badly on those who were kind enough to sponsor me, those who assisted my preparations and my chosen charity, SAMH.

I undertook this challenge as a result of my own experience of depression and the impact it had on me and those around me. We all take our own unique path through our lives and my one took me out onto the ocean. I'm not sure what lies over the horizon now but I very much hope that some good has come from all this over the past few years.

Your generous donations helped SAMH. Your support and messages kept me going over the past few years. Your belief and faith in NY2SY strengthened mine.

Remember that you are not alone, I know that I wasn't.
Thank you.


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