Peter Bray in his boat prior to being rescued by the RRS James Cook. Image: David Shale.
Rescued rower returns home
Atlantic rower Peter Bray, forced to abandon his craft as it rode into the path of Hurricane 'Bill' in mid-August, was returned safely back to the UK a few days ago. NERC's Marion O'Sullivan went to Falmouth to witness his return.
He had spent the past three weeks aboard the Royal Research Ship James Cook, along with a team of scientists studying the marine animals living in the rocks and canyons of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the underwater mountain chain that runs along the ocean floor.
I joined the BBC and ITN news crews meeting the RRS James Cook when she arrived in Falmouth to find out what had happened during the rescue, and to see how Bray had fared during his unexpected stay aboard a research ship.
It was fairly hectic as the BBC Real Rescues film crew were also coming aboard to document the rescue for their next series, so media interviews had to be coordinated to fit around the ship's itinerary. And, of course, it was business as usual for most of the ship's crew, technicians and scientists who were offloading the scientific equipment and samples.
RRS James Cook rescues Atlantic rower, Peter Bray. Footage: David Shale
The Master of the James Cook, Peter Sarjeant, talked me through what had happened when the Mayday relay message came in. He said, 'When a Mayday alert is received a master is duty-bound to respond - unless unable to because of their own vessel's circumstances, or it is considered unreasonable to do so. At 110 nautical miles we were the closest ship to the rowing boat, so the Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Falmouth detailed us to attend.'
The research was temporarily abandoned while the ship went to rescue Bray. His 22 foot, white-hulled boat, ironically named the Black Knight, was tricky to spot among the breaking wave-tops kicked up by winds of around 35 knots.
'Once VHF contact had been made with Peter Bray, I advised him on what positional and drift checks would be conducted before deciding on a preferred method of approach,' said Captain Sarjeant.
Under the direction of Chief Officer Matt Turner, careful preparations were in place for action to be taken had Bray been injured, or if he had fallen overboard during the rescue attempt. Thankfully, these were not needed.
The James Cook has a dynamic positioning system - a combination of propellers and thrusters - that allows exceptional control of the ship, even in rough seas. 'Even so, it took some studied assessment,' said Captain Sarjeant. 'A four to five metre swell was running and there was also a risk of Black Knight's sea anchor being fouled by the James Cook as we closed alongside.'
After gathering his belongings and checking that his boat's satellite tracker was switched on, Bray picked his moment, stepped onto a pre-rigged pilot ladder and was quickly helped onto the deck.
So how did he feel about the rescue? 'It was fantastic' he said. 'I couldn't have wished for a better boat or a more skilled crew to pick me up.'
There was no swift transfer to shore, though, as the programme of research had to be completed. Although the James Cook is very comfortable, life on board a research ship is no picnic. The scientists and crew work round-the-clock shifts to obtain ecological samples and sedimentary cores - long tubes of mud containing clues to past climates.
Bray, who is very active and likes to keep busy, worked his passage by cutting and stencilling labels for a myriad of deck vents and by cleaning some of the ship's social areas. He soon made many new friends among the ship's complement. He showed me his cabin door, on which some joker had pasted a picture of Action Man, alluding to his former work with the SAS.
Had he got involved in any of the research? 'No, I couldn't help with the research but it was fascinating to watch', he said. 'The scientists are just so enthusiastic! One day we had a load of mud samples brought up onto the deck and they couldn't wait to dive in and see what was in it.'
Bray said he was very pleased to see the James Cook, but was 'gutted' that after reaching the mid-point of his journey in 43 days he then had to abort his attempt to set a new time for rowing from Newfoundland to the Isles of Scilly.
He had embarked on the challenge to raise funds for the Help for Heroes charity, which helps military servicemen and women. 'Many of our soldiers and other military people returning from war zones are suffering as there are no hospitals for them,' said Bray. I'm fit and healthy so if I can get a sponsor to retrieve my boat, and if she's survived the storms and gales in good nick, I'd like to go back and do it again.'
Professor Monty Priede from the University of Aberdeen's Oceanlab was leading the ECOMAR project aboard the RRS James Cook. Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the project involves researchers from Aberdeen, Durham, Newcastle, Oban, Oxford, Plymouth, Southampton, St Andrews, Moscow, the Azores and Portugal.
Their findings will be recorded as part of the Census of Marine Life, a global 10-year scientific initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of life in the oceans.
The BBC Real Rescues series has been scheduled for broadcasting from 2 November to 27 November, BBC1 9.15am -10am