The last time I took to the keyboard to blog I hadn’t at all expected that the next time I did so would be at my desk at home in Rutland. But here I am. And how grateful I am to be here. Alive, all limbs intact.
Since being picked up by the Japan Coast Guard and then flying home, it has been a whirlwind couple of weeks as my mind and body recover, with much to sort out and deal with. As such, it has taken a little while to get to this point of being able to write about what has happened, is happening and will happen. Suffice to say, we took a beating and have been knocked back, and it is with a heavy heart and teary eyes that I must let you know that my good pal Gulliver the rowing boat won’t be coming back. Unfortunately, during the pick up the Coast Guard removed some things they thought I might like to keep – the Yellowbrick tracker was in that pile, so sadly we have no means of tracking him. My hope is that he washes up on the other side, perhaps in a year or so, given the track record of tsunami debris reaching that coast.
It might seem strange that I should be so attached to a boat, but that’s what happens. We were a team, each looking out for the other. Any boatie, especially the soloists, will tell you what it’s like. It is gutting and feels like I have lost a friend. Were it not for him being so brilliantly built, I wouldn’t have made it out of the storm in one piece. Jamie and Emily at Global Boatworks did another marvellous job in building such a fine boat.
Ahead of the storm’s arrival, we knew it was going to be a very rough ride. Weather router Lee was closely tracking Mawar as it progressed North in Typhoon form from the Philippines, updating us on the likely conditions. Mawar means ‘rose’ in Indonesian, so I had nicknamed the storm system ‘Rosie’ in a bid to make it seem more friendly.
A row like this is a huge undertaking and my team and I had worked hard over the last 30 months liaising with the Japan Coast Guard and Weather Bureau to make sure we were as prepared as possible and that they were happy with our plans. We took on the North Pacific knowing the risks but with the best team, knowledge and boat we could build, hoping that the likes of ‘Rosie’ would leave us in relative peace. After all it was not Typhoon season in Japan. Alas ‘twas not to be this time.
Out at sea, as it got closer to the 6th June when the centre of the system would be within 100 nautical miles of Gulliver and me, the wind forecast figures grew. Weakening from its typhoon form, we would be facing a violent tropical storm with sustained winds of 55-60 knots, gusting over 65 and more. By now I had prepared Gulliver as best I could and could only take to the cabin with my helmet, strap in and wait the worsening of the conditions. I had also agreed with my project manager, Sara, that I would text her using my Iridium Sat phone every hour or so to let her know that I was OK.
As predicted, by the evening of the 6th the wind and sea was a roaring mess. Knockdowns and capsizes became the norm as waves throttled us from all angles. Water had started to leak into my cabin via the hatches and before long a ribbon of water was streaming in through my main hatch, like a tap left open. Given the extraordinary force of the waves I wasn’t surprised and I gritted my teeth each time a wave smashed directly into the bulkhead, waiting to see what would happen.
As night fell the conditions worsened, both inside and outside the cabin. Wave heights were up at 10 metres and still growing. The sea anchor was now taking huge strain – I could hear it and feel the g-force as I was thrown back in the harness as Gulliver was swung round into different wave sets. Over and over. A few times Gulliver was upended off the back of a wave then slammed down again with an ear-splitting thud, followed by another roll. By daylight we had rolled eight times and been knocked right over onto the side many more. The waves were now at 15 metres. Worst of all, the damage to Gulliver had clearly reached a critical state:
– Everything inside the cabin was wet, the electrics box and water maker included
– The sea anchor had gone from the bow of the boat and was attached only by its retrieval line on the side of the boat. This was holding us broadside to the waves meaning increased capsize risk
– The retrieval line was getting caught around different parts of the boat, breaking off critical equipment
– All of the communications aerials were damaged or ripped away
– I could hear that the rudder was damaged and it sounded like it was damaging the hull
– One of the safety rails had been ripped out, pulling holes into the cabins, potentially opening up the forward cabin to flooding
– The satellite dome on the front cabin had also gone, as had the GPS antenna, all serious leak paths into the front cabin
– And Gulliver was clearly taking longer to right himself after each capsize, given the water he had taken on
With all this damage and knowing that I already had water coming into the back cabin, there was no option but to call in for help. My feeling was that with the further inevitable capsizes there was a very real likelihood that the forward cabin would flood and I would be trapped in my cabin under water.
The most frustrating thing of all was that I was powerless to do anything else to prevent or repair the damage, given the sea conditions. To open that hatch would have meant a wave into the cabin and irrecoverable capsize and even if I had made it out I risked being swept overboard and seriously injured, if not drowned.
For the next 32 hours I lay and waited for the Coast Guard’s rescue boat, willing Gulliver to keep righting through each capsize. From time to time I confirmed my position on the VHF radio with the Coast Guard plane which overflew us and, later, over fellow rower Charlie Martell aboard his boat Blossom who had also suffered serious boat damage a few hundred miles to my North. Sara and George stayed up through both UK nights with me, sending me messages and trying to keep me calm. I know Mum didn’t have much sleep either.
I had been able to drink very little – condensation on the hatch above my head was often all I could reach to quench my thirst – and had eaten just a couple of Mars bars and boiled sweets throughout. Sweltering and airless through the daytime sunshine, at night I did my best to keep warm in a soaking cabin that got wetter with each roll and direct hit. My skin was chaffed and soggy from lying strapped to a soaking bed and I had a thumping headache after twice colliding with the cabin roof while not strapped in during a roll. We added twelve more rolls to the tally during the wait.
By the time I was picked up by Japan Coast Guard Vessel Zao, both Gulliver and I were battered. I was exhausted and Gulliver was in very poor shape. Thankfully by this time – 1700 on the 8th – the wind had dropped to below 20knots and the seas were calmer, making the rescue possible. However, the Coast Guard had already said they would not be able to take Gulliver aboard, so I prepared to abandon him, with the knowledge and hope that we could track and salvage him later on.
It took until the morning of the 10th to make the 500 miles back to shore. The Coast Guard crew took very good care of me and I smiled when the Captain said, ‘See you again. Never give up’ as we went our separate ways back in Japan.
Arriving on shore in Sendai I was met by friends from Tokyo and Choshi. It was emotional and I am so grateful to them for being there. I spent a few hours in hospital on a drip to rehydrate before being driven south to rest for a few days with friends. I then flew back to the UK and was delivered up to Rutland. It all feels rather surreal still right now. To have swapped the rolling blues of the North Pacific for the rolling greens of the Rutland countryside in such a short space of time is rather mind-boggling, and not just for me. This storm battered more than just Gulliver and me. And Charlie and Blossom. Our families and teams, and sponsors and supporters and followers have also taken a hit. I am just thankful we made it out alive. (Charlie and his boat Blossom were picked up the morning after I was by the crew of MV Last Tycoon, and they landed safely in Vancouver last week.)
I am very grateful to everyone for their support and kind messages – during this mad time and throughout the expedition so far. I travel solo mostly, but it is most definitely not a solo effort. Without the belief and commitment of so many people, we would never have even made it to Tower Bridge for the start of London2London. To the Japan Coast Guard and Falmouth Coast Guard for their efficiency, professionalism and support; to my Tokyo pals who looked after me and my Team Choshi friends for coming up to welcome me ashore; to my team and my family and friends; to sponsors and supporters and charities, schools and everyone following and joining in: thank you.
The next goal after getting back to normal and catching up with friends and family and sponsors, will be to plan how to continue the London2London journey in some form, staying true to the spirit and ideals which we set out with 14 months ago. I am determined that this is not the end of the journey, but will become a chapter in the story.
So for now, watch this space.
Until next time,
Sarah and, in his absence, Gulliver x
PS There is hope for Gulliver yet – I have had various notes from schoolchildren both at home and abroad saying they will look for him on the beach. They have also said I should never give up. Which is good, because it’s not in my nature to do so.