Written while we are on the road with the team to return the vehicles to Namibia before taking a flight to Paris (we have been without Internet for 3 days)
I can already hear the comments: Serge is not a sailor and with no experience how could you expect him to succeed?
For your information, the majority of the people who have rowed across the Atlantic Ocean had no maritime experience and some had never slept on a boat or had the training Serge received. Training on a row boat is always complicated because you are dependent on third parties, on good wind and current conditions, tides, etc. To go to sea in a row boat costs money and needs a lot of organizing. Serge trained more than some and less than others but he was ready.
To return to the famous Mozambique Channel:
Why Majunga to Angoche? This route has been rowed by Erden Eruç and it was feasible, even if from one year or season to another the conditions are not the same and the arrival at the coast would not have been easy.
A particularity of the Mozambique Channel: As its name indicates, it is a channel, not an ocean. Here you find unpredictable currents and waves which run in all directions over a relatively short distance. It is a place where navigation is difficult, even for sail boats and sailors don’t hazard out full of innocent enthusiasm on their pleasure crafts. We knew it would be the most technical maritime portion and the most complicated part for the rower.
The first mistake in the possible solutions:
After 6 days of fighting the turbulence: The heading west was taken too soon. There are several reasons for this: poor communication at the end of the day on April 22, between Serge and the routers about the heading to hold. The east wind was taking Serge away from the coast and he wanted to distance himself from the coast to avoid the possibility of being pulled back to it. April 23 it was too late and nobody, first of all Serge, reacted to do something different. We waited too long. Serge had an unsolvable problem with the water-maker. It was bad luck!
Serge’s analysis now of the situation: « I was not in as good shape as I should have been , having covered 1000 km on foot and only allowing 2 days rest, which was not enough because they were spent preparing the boat.”
The northern route was suggested as a possible solution. Even thought it was longer and the logistics to manage the boat were simpler at Pemba than at Angoche, it did not take into account the proximity of Mayotte and Grande Comore, an area where there is a great deal of clandestine navigation and where one can never be off one’s guard. But we all opted for that route and we did not choose to return to Majunga for a second start by the southern route.
In hindsight, the northern route was hazardous if you take into account the fact that oars are not sufficient to row against a south-east trade wind, with a 20° margin of maneuver against an unfavorable wind and a strong current. Once past Grande Comore, failure was certain, even if the routers told Serge on Tuesday, May 4th that he would reach the coast of Mozambique on Friday evening. Wednesday evening, the wind increased and I learned from the locals that it would increase even more, to reach its climax Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Serge was already weakened physically and on Wednesday evening he was conscious of the fact that arrival at the coast was a lure, even if he was told the contrary until Thursday, when the routers said he would arrive at the coast on Sunday evening. For you runners, just imagine you are on a 100 km race and at the 80th km you are told that instead of 20km left to run, when you are exhausted and the conditions are bad, there are 40 km to run. Where would your morale be? But Serge did not have the possibility of throwing in the sponge, he was in his nightmare.
Thursday, I began to tell him to take care of himself, to tie himself down because the conditions are not going to be easy. I could not imagine that he would be in the heart of a storm but I knew that it would be rocky. He confirmed it. On Thursday, Serge put his nose outside at 5H; the sea was too rough for him to stay outside. And then, bad luck, his inside BGan telephone stopped functioning. From then on communications became difficult. More bad luck.
Friday the routers were silent. Now Serge is in the storm and as he says “when you know what is coming you can get ready but if you don’t know it is worse”. However, he is clear headed and my recommendations concerning the fact that it is going to be rocky make him prepare his cabin for a possible capsize.
Another error, Serge was not looking at the charts of the winds and currents, because he was guided by the routers, who gave him the heading to follow twice a day. Serge followed the heading given to him, or tried to follow with all the elements at his disposal: the rudder, the floating anchors and the dagger board, and God knows that security was his first priority. Serge was in harness all the time he was outside. He did everything he could to keep the heading requested, even rowing more in the evening and early in the morning. And he got up x number of times during the night to verify his heading, use or remove the floating anchor and the dagger board and adjust the rudder.
So, Serge found himself in a storm, without really expecting it. He understood by himself that he would never reach the coast, that he was in distress and he didn’t know when it would end or where it would take him. He was also wondering if we on land would be able to save him and whether his batteries would give out and we would lose trace of him.
Friday, May 8, Serge and I were alone fighting the storm and if the sea had been like glass a few days before, that Friday, May 8th Serge found himself alone in a weakened physical condition, with his only objective to remain clear-headed and vigilant and prepare for this worst, i.e., to capsize.
Friday, May 8 at 21H45, I called Maxime to know what the weather forecast was for Saturday and Sunday and if the drift continued where it might take Serge and Middleton. He told me that if it were to continue like that due north, it would be to the coasts of Kenya and Somalia. I hang up and Serge is to call me on Saturday morning at 5H00. Given this information it seems unwise and irresponsible to let Serge continue to drift, especially because I fear he will be hurt or knocked out, which is always the risk in capsizing. Another piece of bad luck is that for the past 3 days the batteries seem to be weakening! And Serge is beginning to think that without batteries he won’t be traced.
Is it reasonable to leave Serge in the storm for another 24 hours? And if yes, where will he be after that? In an area where pirates take small craft to have hostages? Somalia is a lawless area and when you see a drift to the north at high speed with a capital H, you wonder, what is the most reasonable solution?
Friday, May 8 at 22H00: Serge calls for 3 seconds «Activate the rescue process”
To make an on-land comparison, if a runner is in the middle of the desert, lost in a sand storm and he does not know where he is or where he is headed, what does he do? And if his means of communication are getting weak and only work partially and risk to fail, wouldn’t he send up his flare? In the case of Serge, there was no possibility of stopping; he was drifting at 8km/hr, i.e., 200km in 24 hours.
Serge stayed for 60 hours helpless against a wild sea, and it was not a question of incompetence or stupidity. He stayed calm, happy to be alone in his nightmare with no team-mate on board. He remained clearheaded, remembering his lifesaving course, to stay clearheaded at all cost. He was naked in his hermetically closed cabin, wearing his helmet and braced before saying stop on Friday at 22H00. That last night he capsized, he was at the mercy of the wild sea.
This is where a few mistakes led us; but it was also a question of bad luck. We must remember that Serge, sailor or not, was dependent on a rowboat, without sails or motor and that he had to deal with favorable winds and currents which for 15 days were never present (except for a speedy race to the north between April 28-30). He did everything he could to hold the correct heading to the north, which was difficult, if not impossible, especially with the very bad luck of the storm in his path.
The Boat: When the distress process was activated, we knew that there was a 50% chance that Middleton would not be towed. The captain of the ship must rescue an individual in distress but not equipment and he is alone on board to decide. Serge boarded the Far Scotsman and asked that Middleton be towed. He learned later that is was impossible in spite of two attempts by the crew. At 9H30 I knew that Middleton had been abandoned.
Everyone did the best he could: Serge, the routers, the Captain, Timothy Boyd, and his crew on the Far Scotsman. We extend our thanks to them all.
This experience does not come from irresponsibility or lack of realism or a crazy idea. The madness was the sequence Land-Sea and Sea-Land. But the failure is bitter; the abandon of a craft evident and Serge takes full responsibility. Monday he spent the day speaking to the press, when some would no doubt have refused to do so.
For 2 years we woke, we slept; we breathed and sweated « The World Tour ». We knew the difficulty and more than anything else the length of the challenge. I knew Serge would be capable of resisting at sea because solitude has never been heavy on him and he has unsuspected reserves. But here Serge dipped into his reserves and the red light went on. He didn’t know how much autonomy was left, even if he said that in situations of survival this reserve is inexhaustible, it is what we call the survival instinct.
Serge was saved in a state of extreme weakness and he is psychologically scarred. We will never know what the outcome of that infernal drift might have been! It is surely better thus. We do not regret having activated the distress process but we are all in a state of shock and the scar will take time to heal.
I have many letters of thanks to send concerning these painful days we have been through. I will write another text on the subject. Briefly, I thank my team, René, Bertrand and David, who lived this crisis with great sang froid. Thank you for all your messages, which have poured in and to which I cannot respond without crying… My heartfelt thanks!