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Two men in a boat rowed 3,545 miles around the world

Posted in Adventure, Boats, Sea on Tuesday, 30 October 2012

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This edited article about circumnavigation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 775 published on 20th November 1975.

Above the sounds of the wind and the sea, the two men straining in their rowing boat to fight their way across the Atlantic heard the rumble of a ship’s engines.

Out of the evening gloom there loomed a black oil tanker that seemed as big as a mountain to the rowers in their small craft.

Derek King and Peter Bird, two Britons making an attempt to row around the world, had had many adventures since they had set out from Gibraltar in March, 1974. But this particular experience was looking as if it could easily be their last.

Too low in the water to be picked up by the tanker’s radar, they guessed that the men on board knew nothing of their existence.

A gust of wind thrust the rowing boat against the side of the tanker, which was now sliding by.

Peter grabbed a torch and began signalling to the ship. A look-out spotted their light, and floodlights were turned on bathing the boat in brilliant light.

Crawling through the sea at three knots – a slow walking pace – the tanker slid along like a wall of black steel.

A voice called over a loudspeaker, “Do you need anything?”

“No thank you,” shouted Derek and Peter at the tops of their voices.

Afterwards, in a book in which the two men described their experiences, Peter wrote, “At that moment it dawned on me just how real a danger we were in – hearing the boom of the engines, realising that no way could she stop before we reached the screw.

Derek, straining in the stern of the rowing boat with one foot on the tiller and both hands holding an oar to fend themselves off the tanker, could hear the great propeller and see the water whipped into a frothy foam by its thrashing.

On Pete’s face, as he pulled at the oars, was a look of fear and concentration and the strain of the great effort he was making.

“No. Not this way. Don’t let us die this way,” he cried.

With a shout that almost mounted into a scream, Pete put all his weight behind the oars.

Suddenly, the boat broke free from the tremendous suction being exerted by the towering tanker’s propeller.

Like a train shooting out from a tunnel, the rowing boat was thrust away from the tanker as it moved from the propeller’s suction area to a point where it received its full thrust.

They were both safe, but the experience left the men trembling.

For a long time, neither spoke. Then Pete said softly, “I never want a ship alongside again.”

But as they continued on their journey, the men’s confidence returned and their determination to avoid ships eased, for they were very grateful for the assistance given them by passing vessels during their unusual voyage.

They had begun their journey across the Atlantic from Casablanca in North Africa. After four days of rowing, a Canadian cargo ship spotted them, slowed and drifted towards them.

When they were within earshot, a voice from the bridge of the Canadian ship called out, “Do you want anything?”

“Bread, beer and ice cream,” called the rowers hopefully.

Soon, a cardboard box containing six litres of beer, a gallon of ice cream and a loaf of fresh bread was lowered down to them.

Once they were away from the ship’s protection, they found that the sea had become terribly rough.

To save themselves from being swept overboard, the two men remained in their sleeping quarters in the small cabin. While they lay there in their wet sleeping bags, the sound of a ship’s engines vibrated through their boat.

Sticking their heads out into the spray they saw an enormous freighter passing perilously close to them. It was a close shave.

Another adventure that shook them badly was Derek’s experience when he dived from the side of the rowing boat to have a swim. He returned with bad scratches on his stomach, caused by the fin of a shark which had swum close.

Undeterred, they went on, reaching St. Lucia in the West Indies 93 days and seven hours after they had left Casablanca. They had rowed for 3,545 miles, averaging 38 miles a day – two men in a boat against the angry ocean.

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