Ocean rowers feared for lives after epic journey ended early

Terri Judd
Tuesday 07 January 2014 03:37
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In the middle of the night, Simon Chalk and Bill Greaves felt something – possibly a whale – smash into their 23ft rowing boat and flip it over.

For the next 14 hours, buffeted by high winds and 16ft waves, the pair clung to the capsized hull of their boat off the coast of Western Australia.

"Something hit us. The hatches were closed and the boat did not self-right," said Mr Chalk, one of the duo who were attempting to make a record-breaking crossing of the Indian Ocean. "We were under the boat and bleeding. We knew there were dangers of sharks, as well as hypothermia. It took us an hour to dive under the boat to retrieve the EPIRB [emergency beacon]."

On Friday, two days into their 4,400-mile trip, a journey that has only been successfully completed once, the pair feared they were going to die.

But just after lunchtime on Saturday Australian coastguards reported that the crew of the Elssea rowing boat had been taken safely on board a merchant ship, about 60 miles off the coast. An air force helicopter then transferred them to Geraldton, north of Perth.

Mr Greaves, a former Grenadier Guard, said: "I'm glad to be alive. There were a couple of occasions last night I thought this is it but, you know, I'm glad to be here now."

Recalling their ordeal, Mr Chalk added: "I was scrambling back up and he was scrambling, and we were helping each other to stay awake and keep with it really."

Mr Chalk, 30, and Mr Greaves, 41, from Newton Abbot in Devon, had left from Kalbarri in Western Australia in an attempt to beat the 64-day record set in 1971 by Sweden's Anders Svedlund. They planned to row to the volcanic Reunion Island, a French territory east of Madagascar.

Mr Chalk said, in what seems, with hindsight, to be a sadly prophetic statement: "I'm not sure why it's only been rowed once before but I'm sure we'll find out when we are out there."

Despite their ordeal, the two men were in good health yesterday and due to return to London within a week.

Kenneth Crutchlow, executive director of the Ocean Rowing Society, said: "To put this rowing trip together would have cost about £100,000. I should think they are devastated that they got two days into the trip and somehow they effectively lost the boat.

Mr Chalk's mother, Lesley Bowden, added: "We're relieved they're safe but devastated that they're not going to achieve what they wanted to do."

In 1997, Mr Chalk, a property developer, rowed across the Atlantic in 64 days with George Rock aboard the Cellnet Atlantic Challenger.

Mr Greaves had little experience of rowing but "jumped at the opportunity" of the Indian Ocean trip. "I just thought it sounded like a great idea," he said before leaving. "It's going to be a great adventure."

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