Spirit of Cardiff – mid-Atlantic drama

Followers of the Company85 Global Challenge Facebook page¬†will note that over the last few weeks, I’ve been taking the occasional look back as we pass various 10th anniversary milestones of the epic voyage that Alan Priddy and I undertook in 2002 in the 33ft RIB Spirit of Cardiff. This time 10 years ago we’d set off from St John’s in Newfoundland, with just a stop in the Azores and five days to our welcome return to Gibraltar. After 100 days, and numerous beatings at the hands of the weather, not to mention a catalogue of other trials and tribulations, Alan, Steve Lloyd and I were physically and mentally exhausted, with weeks of sleep deprivation having taken a serious toll.

Of course, by now we’d overshot the Cable and Wireless Adventurer round the world record by more than three weeks, but provided we made it back to Gibraltar, we would still establish a world record circumnavigation for a powerboat under 50ft. I remember vividly the bright light on the horizon lingering seemingly endlessly throughout my first watch that first night out of St John’s. It was the Hibernia oil platform, and little was I to know at the time just how crucial a role it would play in subsequent events.

The following morning Steve Lloyd complained of feeling unwell, and before we knew it, he was gripped with terrible pains in his chest, and numbness creeping down his left arm. Alan and I realised we had a serious problem on our hands, not least because by now we were 320 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. And only when we got on the satphone to the Canadian Coastguard did we realise how big a problem that would be.

The nearest Search and Rescue helicopter was a CH-113 Labrador based in Gander. It had a limited range, so it would have to fly from Gander to St John’s, refuel, on to the Hibernia oil platform to refuel again, and then come on to us. But we were a good hundred miles beyond the limit of their range, so we would have to turn back to meet them.

That nine hour journey will remain ingrained in my memory for the rest of my life. In most situations, when someone suffers a heart attack or stroke, medical attention is likely to arrive in minutes. How quickly we closed that gap might determine whether Steve lived or died, and if he lived, what quality of life he might enjoy afterwards. We were in a hurry in a nasty following sea, and Alan drove that boat like a man possessed. There were times when I wondered whether Steve would die, or whether we all would.

The first inkling we had of the huge rescue effort on our behalf was a voice in our radio from a Royal Canadian Air Force C130 Hercules, scrambled from its base in Halifax to act as spotter in order to avoid the helicopter wasting fuel searching for us. Ironically, by now the sea had calmed down, there was a beautiful sunset, and Steve was almost back to his usual chirpy self.

After removing all our aerials and flag pole, and turning the boat into the wind, we could see the Labrador approach us from behind, the downdraught from its twin rotors flattening the sea in a blizzard of spray. Two men were lowered down to us, one of them a paramedic. He confirmed Steve needed immediate hospitalisation, and before we knew it, they were winched up into the helicopter, and Alan and I watched the Labrador depart along with the Hercules, which had been circling overhead.

By now there was no question of Alan and me turning back on track towards the Azores – we wouldn’t have had the fuel, and of course we were more concerned about Steve, so we started on what would be an overnight return to St John’s. The guys in the Hercules called us up to invite us for a drink (they were going to spend the night in St John’s before heading back to Halifax, but we wouldn’t get back in time for that), and to tell us they’d shot some spectacular video of the rescue. Sadly we never got to see that, but my own video is – though I say so myself – also pretty spectacular, even if it was an ending we couldn’t possibly have imagined. You can see the full documentary here.

The postscript to it all is that Steve had indeed suffered a heart attack, and after surgery he was fine. Despite exhortations from many, Alan and I decided it wouldn’t be prudent to continue Spirit’s journey. A crew of two for a major ocean crossing wouldn’t be particularly sensible, and besides, neither of us was really up to it anyway.

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