Rowers close to record are saved after boat is split by hurricane

Four rowers were pulled to safety from stormy seas in the Atlantic yesterday after a hurricane split their boat as they edged towards a record breaking voyage.

Four rowers were pulled to safety from stormy seas in the Atlantic yesterday after a hurricane split their boat as they edged towards a record breaking voyage.

The British oarsmen had been at sea for 39 days since setting off from Canada but became caught in Hurricane Alex at 2.30am yesterday.

Waves of up to 60ft battered their boat, Pink Lady, and snapped it in half, forcing the men to clamber into a life raft. They clung onto the sides of the raft for six hours as it was battered by ferocious winds and high waves.

The men - Mark Stubbs, 40, a firefighter from Dorset, Jonathan Gornall, 48, a journalist from London, John Wills, 33, a digital mapping specialist from Elstead, Surrey, and Pete Bray, 48, an ex-SAS diver from South Wales - had been on course to break the 108-year-old Atlantic crossing record of 55 days. They had only 370 miles left to row in the 2,100-mile voyage to Falmouth.

Mr Gornall, who was in the rear cabin with Mr Wills when they were plunged into water, recalled what happened after the "rogue" wave hit the vessel.

He said: "The next thing we knew we were under water, fighting to escape the rear part of the vessel which, on inspection afterwards when we surfaced, appeared to be completely smashed by a tremendous wave. I just remember hearing it coming - unlike anything we have experienced before."

The rowers activated the boat's distress beacon and climbed into the life raft wearing survival suits. They were picked up 300 miles west of the Isles of Scilly by a passing Danish freighter, the Scandinavian Reefer.

Mr Gornall said fellow crew were "very grateful to be alive" after the terrifying experience and were philosophical about the failed mission.

He said: "It is a shame we didn't make it, but at least we can assure ourselves it wasn't anything we did wrong.You take on nature and you take what she delivers and on this particular occasion she delivered a killer blow."

Mr Stubbs added that the men were "rattled but safe".

At first, coastguards had scrambled a rescue helicopter from RAF Chivenor in north Devon to recover the men, but it had to turn back because of the hazardous weather.

A spokesman said one of the rowers was suffering from hypothermia and another had slight head injuries, but they did not need urgent hospital treatment.

He told the shore team manager, Bob Barnsley, that the crew had been "very lucky".

"When it hit them, they were battened down and they were well ready for it. They rowed most of it out, but they got caught by the back end of it - it hit them with its tail, if you like," he said.

Kenneth F Crutchlow, executive director of the Ocean Rowing Society, said the boat's break-up brought into question its "real strength".

"The first thing, of course, is the safety of the crew, but I am sure in due course questions will be asked about what happened," he said.

Pink Lady, which was unveiled at the London Boat Show in 2000, was the first four-man ocean rowing boat and was "an absolute one-off", he added.

The 10m boat was built by the yachtsman and adventurer Pete Goss's firm, Goss Composites.

The rowers were hoping to raise £50,000 for the British Heart Foundation with their efforts.

Tina Fotherby, of the sponsors, Pink Lady apples, said the men were disappointed to have failed when they were so near to completing the voyage in under 54 days.

"They had gone through the Grand Banks, the treacherously shallow fishing area off Newfoundland and they were within a week of breaking the record. They have gone through a heck of a lot," she said.

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 for the journey was set in 1896 by two Norwegian fishermen, and equalled 17 years ago by Briton Tom McClean.

The British team, who all have extensive Atlantic ocean rowing experience, had been rowing virtually non-stop in pairs for two hours at a time. Their 10-metre boat was built by Goss Composites, the firm run by the yachtsman and adventurer Pete Goss.

¿ Five British divers were rescued from the Red Sea in Egypt yesterday after being swept from the dive site by strong currents. The Red Sea Diving Union said the five Britons, who were accompanied by five Portuguese and two Belgians, were found near an island off the coast of al-Quseir about 11 hours after they were reported missing. A Foreign Office spokesman said consular staff had spoken to one of the divers and there were no reports of any injuries.

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