Just after 4am, a light appeared on the horizon. The small rowboat had been adrift in the Atlantic for over a month, but her navigation light maintained her vigil as bright as when she had started her journey across the ocean six months before. The trade winds had carried the boat hundreds of miles from where her two crewmembers were forced to abandon ship. On the morning of May 16 2014 the lonely journey of the rowboat Sedulous ended when we made contact about 100 nautical miles north of the Virgin Islands.
Hannah Lawton and Lauren Morton, both UK natives, met when they joined their university’s women’s rowing team. Years of friendship, countless hours of training under their belts, and many medals won, they looked toward graduation carrying a void in their hearts. They had experienced the loss of a good friend, Eleanor, who had rowed beside them in high spirits as she battled cervical cancer. Eleanor’s fight ended when she passed away in May 2012, but her friends vowed to carry on her adventurous spirit and zeal for life. They chose to commemorate her by rowing across the Atlantic in what is known as the ‘world’s toughest rowing race’ and use the race as a vehicle to raise money for two local cancer charities.
The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge is a biennial trans-Atlantic rowboat race from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to English Harbour, Antigua. The trip usually takes forty to ninety days, depending on the rowers and the conditions they encounter. For Sedulous, it became clear early on that it would not be an easy trip. Shortly after the start the autopilot controller malfunctioned and constantly tried to redirect them back to the Canary Islands. Not a deal breaker but it was a luxury lost. One mechanical failure followed another as their boat was stripped of a dagger board and their GPS. Then, one of the two batteries caught fire, burning a hole through their paper charts. They were forced to jettison the scorched battery and then ration their power usage, which also meant rationing their water. The toughest blow was when a wave smashed their rudder and rudder box off the stern of the boat. They spent many days trying to rig a repair and finally settled for steering by dragging lines and a drogue off one side of the boat to help point their bow down the waves.
Ninety-six days into the race, Sedulous was about 700 nautical miles from the finish line when rough seas capsized and rolled her a full 360 degrees, giving Lauren a nasty gash on her head. With almost no food left, they realized that finishing was not on the cards. Hannah and Lauren made the tough decision to retire from the race and abandon ship. They set off their EPIRB and were picked up by the Belgian cargo ship Lowland Opus headed to Bécancour, Canada. As they left their boat they turned on the AIS and navigation lights, in hopes that another boat would not hit her. Using permanent markers, the girls wrote their names and contact information on the inside of the small cabin with the faint hope of someday being reunited with a boat they had come to know as their third crew member.
As the ocean and their misbehaving boat tested Hannah and Lauren’s dedication and resolve, I was also awash in challenges while trying hard to stay the course with my own boat.
My husband Sasha and I had a dream of bringing real pizza to our fellow boaters in the Caribbean. So we decided to build the Virgin Island’s first commercial-grade ‘food truck’ boat. We have both been sailing professionally in the Caribbean for over ten years, mostly working as crew on private charter yachts. Given our background in boating, it came as a total shock to us and to our friends when, in June 2012, we purchased a thirty-seven foot aluminum motor-sailer hull in desperate need of rescuing. Everyone said, “Of all people, YOU ought to know better!”
Our boat, originally named Pagan, had been built in England and sailed to Antigua where she was abandoned on the hard for a number of years. Over time termites moved in and devoured the interior. Our friend Kevin Gray, of Tortola, has a knack for finding boats in need and getting them into the right hands and that’s just what happened with Pagan. Kevin removed the interior with a shop-vac and a shovel and sailed the boat from Antigua to the BVI. Eventually he found us – knowledgeable and crazy enough to take on the project of rebuilding her from the bare hull frames.
In October 2013 Sasha and I quit our yachting jobs to be full-time boat builders. We re-named our boat Pi, launched her, and moved aboard. Living in a tiny construction zone, running low on money, eating only ramen and beans, and ‘learning as we build’ was our daily routine.
One random Monday, I received a phone call regarding a rowboat called Sedulous that was drifting within range of the BVI. Sasha was working on St. Thomas and I was elbow-deep in making trim on board Pi in Nanny Cay Marina.
“How soon can Pi be ocean ready?” demanded the voice on the other end of the line.
I looked around and guessed, “… umm in a month or two?”
“Not good enough, we have a weather window in two days, you’ll have to be ready by then,” insisted our friend Kevin Gray. “Oh and it’s for some charity thing and I know you like that kinda stuff,” he added.
I knew this was our opportunity to pay forward all the support and kindness we’d received over the past two years. I spent the next two days packing away tools, stowing as much as possible, and in the end wedging the table saw against the shop-vac, against the not-yet-installed fridge door on the floor of the galley because that was as good as it was going to get.
Tuesday evening Sasha hopped a ferry back to Tortola. Wednesday morning, Pi set sail from Nanny Cay to the North Sound of Virgin Gorda to gather supplies. With the generous help of several friends, including a couple who were getting married that evening, we were able to get the boat fueled, washed, stowed, and fully outfitted with safety gear, an extra towline, and a satellite phone. We were ready to go.
As Sasha and I motor-sailed out to find the abandoned vessel, we began talking about the parallels between Sedulous and Pi. Both boats were built in England for the purpose of crossing to Antigua. They were both abandoned at some point during their adventure. They fell into the capable hands of Kevin Gray who began the salvage process. And, finally, the reins passed to us and we worked to get the boats back on track.
After motoring for eleven hours, Sasha recalculated Sedulous’ potential drift based on the seas and wind we were experiencing and altered course 22 degrees to starboard. On Friday morning at 04:19 we spotted a light on the horizon and our gut told us to head for it. By 04:30 our AIS confirmed that the target ahead was in fact Sedulous. After making visual contact with the vessel in the pre-dawn light we determined that Sedulous was right side up with no obvious damage, so we hove-to and waited nearly an hour for sunrise.
Within an hour we had Sedulous in tow. It was a squirrely ride. The rowboat, with her relatively large aft cabin, wanted to weathervane and point towards the wind. She would glide forward on a wave and be pushed further alongside us by the wind. At some points, she would almost pass us. We managed to get her straightened out by rigging a line off her stern to add a little drag. After twelve hours of towing, we anchored on the west end of Anegada just as the sun set on Friday evening.
From Anegada, it was an easy tow down the Sir Francis Drake Channel to Road Town where Sedulous waited a few days while Sasha and I went back to work for the week. The following weekend we had Sedulous back in tow behind Pi and headed to the cargo dock in Crown Bay, St. Thomas. On Sunday morning we helped load Sedulous onto a freighter to continue her trip home to the UK where she was finally reunited with her team members, Hannah and Lauren.
Now that Sedulous has reached home, Hannah and Lauren will fix her up as they plan to row again in the 2017 Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge. Next time, with the experience they gained through their first campaign, they will be better prepared and will not only cross the finish line, they hope to smash the UK Women’s speed record.
While Sedulous undergoes repairs, Sasha and I will finish construction and officially launch Pi as our ‘food-truck’ pizza boat business. The pizza boat will offer to-go New York style pizza in anchorages around St. Thomas starting in the fall of 2014. Of course, Sasha and I plan to sail to Antigua to cheer on Sedulous and her team in 2017 and we have promised each girl a free pizza when they reach English Harbour. We are sure they will be hungry when they arrive!
For more information about Hannah and Lauren, read their blog at: www.insfriends.co.uk