Rowing team defends cost of £120,000 ocean rescue

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A team of rowers who were pulled to safety after their boat was shattered by a hurricane, yesterday defended the cost of the £120,000 rescue operation but said that it would not hold them back from making a second attempt.

A team of rowers who were pulled to safety after their boat was shattered by a hurricane, yesterday defended the cost of the £120,000 rescue operation but said that it would not hold them back from making a second attempt.

The four men, Mark Stubbs, 40, from Dorset, Jonathan Gornall, 48, from London, Pete Bray, 48, from South Wales and John Wills, 33, from Surrey, were on course to break the 55-day world record, set in 1896 by two Norwegian fishermen, to row across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Britain when they were caught in the eye of a storm.

Their boat, Pink Lady, was split in two after they were hit by a freak wave and they clung to a life raft for six hours before a Danish ship, Scandinavian Reefer, picked them up 300 miles west of the Isles of Scilly on Sunday morning.

Speaking from Southampton airport, where the men were greeted by relieved relatives, Mr Bray, a former SAS diver, said he hoped to try the ocean crossing again.

"I can't accept failure. For me it is unfinished business. It would have been great to come back with a record, and we were only six days away from it. You do not get hurricanes in that part of the world at this time of year. We were caught out," he said.

Mr Bray, who was described by the team as "our hero", recalled the moment he jumped in among the wreckage after the boat split in two to retrieve the life-raft and survival equipment.

"I was in the front cabin so I didn't see [the wave] coming but I heard it rip the back of the boat apart. One minute we were on the floor, the next we were at the top of the boat. I had to go down underneath and get the life raft and the panic bags," he said.

But he was not deterred by the experience and said that he was determined to resume training and attract sponsorship for another trip .

Mr Stubbs, a fireman and the boat captain, said the ordeal had made him grateful to be alive.

Describing the moment Pink Lady was hit by giant wave, he said: "The most frightening part was opening a hatchway door, letting the water in and going out into violent seas. It's certainly made me think about what's important. All I want to do now is get home and see my wife and daughters."

Mr Gornall, a journalist, said he owed his life to Mr Stubbs and Mr Bray for retrieving the life rafts. He described how the freak wave whipped up by Hurricane Alex destroyed their boat and tossed them into the sea.

"We heard one [wave] coming sounding like an express train and then there were twin detonations and the next thing I was in the water and I knew something catastrophic had happened. I thought at the time 'I do not think I can hold my breath much longer'.

"We were underwater and that's all I remember, just holding my breath and fighting to find the surface.

"Sitting in the life-raft we did not think we had lost the record but we had won the greatest prize of all - life."

Bob Barnsley, the team's shore manager, said he was proud of the achievement.

"This was not a failure. Yes, we have lost a boat and no we did not finish it but we came away with four men alive who can take credit for what they have done," he said.

The team paid tribute to Falmouth coastguard, the RAF Nimrod and the captain of the Scandinavian Reefer, all of whom had taken part in the rescue.

It cost an estimated £120,000 to send an Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft from RAF Kinloss in Scotland to locate the stranded rowers and a helicopter was also scrambled from Devon.

Lauritzen Reefers, the shipping company which owns Scandinavian Reefer, said it had not yet calculated how much they had lost in fuel and time by diverting the cargo ship 50 nautical miles for the rescue.

But Mr Barnsley said the voyage had been worth undertaking in spite of the expense incurred. "I believe it was worth it. None of them went out there to get rescued, just as no fisherman or merchant ship does. It was undertaken in the spirit of adventure and it is people like these four guys that motivate us all," he said.

John Astbury, chief UK coastguard at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, commended the crew for having taken all the appropriate safety precautions and equipment to sea with them.

"What happened was unfortunate but they were well equipped with all the right gear. And the seamanship by the master of the vessel was excellent. This made the search and rescue easy," he said.

The voyage cost £200,000 to organise and they hope to raise £50,000 for the British Heart Foundation.

The men were in the 39th day of the 2,100-mile Atlantic crossing and were only 370 miles away from the finishing point.

WHAT £120,000 CAN BUY

  • Nearly five lung transplants could be performed at a cost of £24,081 each
  • Eight-and-a-half heart transplants: £14,114 each
  • Nineteen coronary bypasses: £6,324 each
  • Twenty-three knee replacement operations: £5,197 each
  • Over six-and-a-half years' salary for a newly qualified teacher
  • One-bedroom flat in Finsbury Park, North London

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