Almost three months ago I found myself looking up at a gigantic crude oil tanker, whilst getting smashed against the side of it by seven-meter waves. “How the hell did this happen” I thought to myself.
It was the 7th July and we were 250 miles off the Australian coast and five days into our mammoth row from Geraldton to Mauritius, a distance of almost 4,000 miles across the Indian Ocean! Both myself and my rowing partner (Ash) knew we were going to encounter some hostile weather during the crossing at some point but we didn’t expected it to come so soon.
Wind speed started to exceed 45 knots (over 50 mph) causing the sea state to become extremely rough, at least for a six-meter rowing boat anyway. Both Ash and I were no longer able to row due to the conditions so took shelter in our small cramped cabin, it was like a sauna in there. All of a sudden I could hear the roar of a wave coming towards us, it sounded just like a freight train, so loud I will never forget the sound and will certainly never forget the moment it hit us.
Ash Wilson & James Ketchell speaking to Austrailian news crews before their departure.
For a split second everything went dark and I could see various objects flying through the air. We had been rolled by a monster of a wave that picked the boat up and threw us over like a dinky toy. The roll happened very quickly in reality but where my senses were heightened it all felt like it was happening in slow motion. The next sound I heard was a loud “Thud” I looked down and saw that Ash who was lying next to me had been thrown into the air and that “Thud” was Ash’s head as it hit the cabin wall.
I expected to see blood poring from his head but luckily there was no open wound. Ash however was lying completely unconscious. I instantly started to shake him and call his name eventually he came round feeling faint and dizzy! At this point I knew that our attempt to row across the Indian Ocean was over. I had to put safety first, the ocean was not going anywhere and we could always come back and try again.
I activated our emergency beacon and within minutes the satellite phone rang, it was the Australian Search and Recuse. They confirmed our position and advised that we were too far off the coast for a helicopter rescue and that a commercial vessel would come to our aid instead, and would be with us in two hours.
The boat itself in the Geraldton habour
It was the longest two hours of my life, I stupidly kept looking at my watch when I thought that at least half an hour must have passed, only to find it had been ten minutes.
Eventually the 100,000 ton crude oil tanker called the Dubai Charm reached us. The next problem was going to be boarding. The seas were building and by this stage almost every wave was close to rolling our boat, the James Lewis.
Ash was winched to safety by the crew of the ship who’s seamanship skills were extremely impressive. I managed to take a leap of faith off our boat and on to a rope ladder that had been strategically placed for me to grab. As I jumped onto the ladder I had a feeling of deja vue. Almost four years earlier I was crossing a ladder high up on Everest and it almost collapsed as I was crossing a large crevasse. I really hoped this ladder was not going to fail on me, as I took one slow step at a time in order to reach the top to safety 40ft above me. Video of our rescue was captured and reported on Australian news service, 9 News, here.
A shot of another tanker, pre-storm, in calmer seas
The experience certainly put things into perspective, both Ash and I were lucky to be alive. It made me think about what I have been fortunate enough to have experienced over the years, and what I do have as opposed to what I don’t have.
Most people will only find out who they really are when something goes drastically wrong in their life. For me the rescue made me realise that despite the ordeal I still love the ocean and am very much looking forward to getting back out there to try again.
Everyone has the ability to be whoever they want to be if they simply keep going and never lose sight of their goals.
Out for now
All pictures courtesy of James Ketchell