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Tale of the crossing attempt

UpdatesPosted by Chris Todd 25 Oct, 2012 13:10:39

Irish Sea Crossing 7 Oct 2012 .... a voyage in many respects!

The weather forecast: Wow…things happened so quickly it is hard to know where to start…so I guess I’ll start with the weather forecasts. Ever changing and unstable! Just a subtle shift in the position of the high pressure is enough to change the forecast from light Easterly winds into light Westerly winds (which would prohibit a crossing attempt). So the forecasts were forever giving us the run-around. On this occasion the weather initially looking good for a crossing on Monday/Tuesday (8th/9th Oct) and we set about making preparations in a progressive and controlled fashion, half expecting, like so many times before that the forecast would change and become unsuitable….

The slow plan to go: However, the conversation on Friday that set this steady action plan in place changed radically on Saturday morning. The weather forecast had changed over night and the window now looked good for a crossing starting Sunday lunchtime and ending Tuesday lunch time. There were some slightly higher than desirable winds forecast (peaking at 14 mph for a short time during Monday night), but over all it was the desirable 7 kts or less. The bonus was that the tides were the smallest I had ever seen them and … although, not the best forecast for wave height I have seen, the waves were looking good with forecasts of around 2 feet.

The "go" decision gets brought forward: The safety boat is kept in a tidal harbour and due to the tide times needed to leave no later than 5am Sunday, so at 09:00 on Saturday the decision was made to go for it. Saturday was a bit of a dash to finish some final adjustments to the Tredalo, sort kit, pack and get to Wales. Needless to say it was a lot of work, so I was very glad to have had the help from my wife, Joy, and supporting crew member, Dale. Joy and I arrived in Wales in the early hours of Sunday morning. I got a good 5 hours of sleep but couldn't eat much for breakfast on Sunday morning....when daylight broke I could see the weather was looking epic. Mirror flat sea in the bay. Perfect.

The launch: Set up of the Tredalo started at about 9am on the beach, with the arrival of Dale to help, and everything went smoothly. The arrival of the safety boat was a magnificent sight. To see it speeding across the flat calm sea was very reassuring. It was great to see Gail and Annie from the WBA and to see a lot of folk from the RNLI. When things were all set I had a moment to realise that I hadn't eaten anything and so started the steady guzzling of lovingly prepared flapjacks (a good mixture of fat, sugar and carbs) that would continue for many hours to come. The tide times meant that we needed to leave Trearddur Bay at around 13:00. With a few delays - I’m not sure if getting the safety boat anchor fouled on a submerged mooring chain in the bay should have been taken as an omen?...but I thought nothing of it - and we set off.

Tredalo leaving Trearddur Bay, Sunday lunchtime 7 Oct 2012.
[Thanks to Rachel Sayer for this photo...]

Leaving the Bay: It was fantastic to see so many people there to see us off. I haven’t worked out if they were there to see us, or just there anyway. Nevertheless it was great to see everybody waving me off with good wishes as we set out of the bay. Howard…a local fisherman, was very kind and offered to give Joy a lift out some of the way in his boat…so Joy was able to accompany us for the first ½ mile or so of the journey. This sort of interest and helpfulness typifies what I have experienced throughout this challenge. Amazing!

RIB Energy, the Safety Boat, and Tredalo leaving Trearddur Bay.
[Thanks to Rachel Sayer for this photo...]

Getting stuck in: I have to say, when the local boats returned to the bay, and all that remained was the safety boat and I, then, I felt that we were “on for the task”. All the months of planning, all the little hiccups and set backs, all the distractions……. all left behind. There was a moment of liberation. I call it the “airport lounge feeling”. When you get to the airport departure lounge….there is nothing more that can be done, you have done it all. Now it is time for the journey. Pure single minded focus set in. All the distractions of the morning had made it easy to forget that I still had the little job of spending the best part of two days on a mobile stepper machine.

About 14:00 - just leaving Trearddur Bay behind.
[Thanks to Bushman Trackers for this data]

The comfort of the safety boat: As we progressed it became obvious that the safety boat (call-sign “RIB Energy”) had a preferred cruising speed that was slightly higher than mine. RIB Energy therefore adopted a “zig-zag” pattern behind me, and then when the crew obviously got bored with that, they occasionally encircled me, in a slow lazy fashion. It was a great comfort to hear those great big diesel engines burbling away in the distance behind me. There were times when I couldn't hear the safety boat and these lasted right up until the point I became conscious of this fact….which precipitated an immediate look behind me to find her. She was never too far away. Loss of contact with the safety boat would be a bad thing. It featured top in the risk assessment and would have required me to start the “loss of safety boat drill” immediately.

Out at sea: Conditions for the first few hours were perfect. Slight seas, wave heights of ½ ft to 1 ft. and the water had an oily appearance - very calm. Winds were light Easterlies as forecast, I would guess at 5 mph, but it was hard to tell from the Tredalo. It was a weird picture of the world. Nothing but open ocean and the blur of flickering paddles as the Tredalo wheel turned. Progress was swift and we were soon out past the furthest reaches of the Holyhead promontory, but many miles south of it. It was at this point that I saw the only other vessel on the whole voyage…a ferry leaving Holyhead…probably bound for Dublin. Not long after that time I saw a formation of four “flying penguins” pass by just ahead of me flying at what must have been about 20 feet above the waves. They may have been Puffins or Kittiwakes – I’m not sure - but it made me feel that I was “proper” out at sea now.

Flat calm sea at the start of the crossing - sadly it didn't stay like this.
[Image courtesy of Barcroft Media]

Hard work but fun with the Safety Boat: Whilst I was getting down to some hard graft and sorting out some finer details of kit arrangement – not easy when you have to be holding on with two hands most of the time – I had the odd moment to observe the crew onboard the safety boat. The safety boat crew had a duty/rest/sleep rota – I could see those on “rest” amusing themselves by fishing off the back of the boat or by standing at the bow looking longingly towards the West like Leonardo DiCaprio. Fun times with the sun gently setting, each hour a little lower and the waves a little bit larger. I had worried that I would have nothing to aim for…no landmarks on which to pin my motivation…. but it wasn't like that at all. Although it was hard work, the ever changing skyscape was delightful to watch and was a great distraction…it seemed to draw me longingly westwards and occupied my thoughts. (Don’t tell them, but the occasional radio call from the safety crew might have helped a bit too).

Progress was swift: After just over two hours Neil informed me that we had hit 10% of the westward distance. A tenth of the way? In two hours? Surely not! But it was true, the progress was far swifter than any planning or testing had indicated and that was a huge motivator….this meant that if things stayed the same that I would only have to go through one night and not the two we were all dreading. Get in there! As dusk set in the waves were noticeably more “significant” the Tredalo was being rocked from plus 30 degrees to minus 30 degrees roll angle in a time period of 1 to 2 seconds every 5 to 10 seconds. In short, it was now “rough” (in Tredalo terms). Thirty minutes before dark I stopped to don warmer clothes. Always something that I had dreaded…but I had planned for, everything was “zip on” – even the trousers. The worst thing to put on were the gloves….you need to use both hands in the process…and whilst doing that it is very hard to hold on whilst being kicked about by the waves.

Position approaching 18:00
[Thanks to Bushman Trackers for this data]

Preparing for the Night: Pleased with the transition into warmer clothes we continued into the darkness. I configured the Tredalo for night ops which included raising the telescopic light mast, sorting a few torches and attaching glow sticks to my life vest. This was it...the dreaded long night. Due to the lack of a fixed visual reference, the safety boat took pole position and eaked out a good distance ahead of me, such that I could simply aim for the mid point of it’s zig-zags. This saved me the effort of monitoring my GPS heading, which saved not only batteries but precious physical effort too.

Position at about 20:00 hrs.
[Thanks to Bushman Trackers for this data]

A quite routine: The comms between myself and the safety boat crew had steadily diminished as time went on into the night. I didn't want to make any calls as I suspected that the crew duty/rest/sleep pattern was now in full effect. So I decided that it was going rather well and that we were properly “game on” and settled down into a brainless rhythm for the night, long since having lost sight of the land of Wales and only now able to see the red anti-collision lights on some industrial towers, if I made the effort to look back. I was feeling great, I felt much stronger than I had expected to and with the prospect of only 24 hrs at sea instead of the predicted 40 – 48 hours I was feeling absolutely fabulous.

Position at about 21:00 hrs.
[Thanks to Bushman Trackers for this data]

The beginning of the end: My recollection of time is not good. Although I had a watch, I was not relying on it to mark any part of the passage of the journey as I had thought I would. So, I say with some uncertainty that it was about 21:00 when I felt the steering forces go light. The waves were giving me a rocky ride now, to the point where my arms, shoulders, and back were starting to feel the strain of constantly holding on. Without constant directional correction each wave would veer the raft off course, so it was immediately apparent that something was wrong when the force on the tiller bar in one direction almost completely disappeared. With my head torch I was able to see that one of the two rudders was missing. The constant rolling of the raft over many hours, caused by waves coming in from the starboard side, had weakened the rudder attachment point to the point of failure. Hoping that there was some other explanation, other than the one that I had plainly seen for myself, I called in the safety boat for a visual inspection.

Its true!: The safety boat cruised slowly by and turned on a spot light turning night into day and then came the radio transmission “confirm, missing one rudder”. It was real… This unplanned failure caused a fair bit of rapid thinking. On my part, I started walking again. I was kitted out for hard physical work, and standing around being dripped on in the breeze wasn't good for me. So I carried on walking and steering with one rudder whilst, collectively, we drew up a plan.

What to do next: We had three options. One: turn back. Two: alter course to run with the waves to reduce bending on the remaining rudder or Three: maintain course and try to somehow protect the remaining rudder. Option one was quickly ruled out as the Tredalo still had a functioning rudder and could theoretically make it to Ireland with a single rudder. Option two was considered for a time but due to the wave direction there was a concern that this would effectively mean heading southwest and would not enable the westward progress needed, so option three was selected and all efforts on the Tredalo went into managing to steer with the rudder lifted (as if preparing for beaching) rather than in the fully down position as when deployed for steering. By ensuring that the rudder was lifted as often and as much as possible, the hope was that this would reduce the bending stresses on the rudder mounting point.

Lights over Ireland: It was at this point that we all noticed that the way we wanted to head (i.e. west) was lit for us by a beaming bright glow in the clouds above Ireland – a wonderful sight. The visual cue reduced my workload of keeping a heading but the constant fighting with the rudder steering and rudder lift controls effectively doubled my physical workload. The steering required 100% concentration if I was to maximise the amount of time the rudder was lifted and save any chance of making it to Ireland. If I diverted my attention, even just for 30 seconds to make a radio call, I would find myself 90 degrees off heading…so it was hard going. I felt that at every moment I was fighting for the success of the crossing and somehow the faith that everyone had placed in me, and most importantly the success of the endeavour for both charities.

Pressing on with one rudder: The next hour or so was spent with huge exertion wrestling with the controls hoping that this would save the remaining rudder. Perhaps because of the extra effort, I had stopped eating. Perhaps it was because of the constant looking down at the controls instead of at the horizon (the beckoning clouds, that were still there), I don’t know, but I had become aware of an uneasy feeling. I stopped drinking carb drink and switched entirely to water. Pure fresh cold crisp refreshing water. And through all the mayhem there were occasional glimpses of a stability that would get me through the night to the hours of dawn.

This can't be happening: This feeling was shattered by a lack of response to a steering command, as the craft yawed off towards the south, and when the craft remained unresponsive even with the rudder controls set to the full “down” position. I stopped, inspected the craft using the light of my head torch and now saw the familiar sight of the rudder steering mechanism being washed by the waves, but completely lacking in the company of a rudder. To continue would have been impossible. As soon as I stopped to carry out a visual inspection I started to feel like a pinball in a pinball machine, jostled by the waves, seemingly from every direction. I called in the second rudder failure to the safety boat and set about releasing the pre-attached tow-rope from it’s stowed position on the Tredalo. I don’t know if it was the sudden halt to the crossing attempt and all that it meant to me, or if it was the head down activity in a wobbly sea, perhaps combined with some physical exhaustion, but within a minute of the second rudder failure I was overcome by sea sickness and generously donated my last hours worth of water intake to the Irish Sea. It was now some time around 22:00.

About 22:00 hrs. Point of most westerly progress. Second rudder failure.
23 miles of distance covered, measured in a straight line.

[Thanks to Bushman Trackers for this data]

Boarding RIB Energy: In the few moments that it took the safety crew to configure for towing I couldn't see the point of fighting my wobbly legs, so I took an unexpectedly comfortable lie-down in the wheel. The relief from the feeling of a spinning head was only brief, as in no time at all I drew to my feet as I watched the safety boat approaching alongside. Dale, who I would affectionately describe as a “gentle giant” plucked me bodily from the Tredalo and I was on board. The crossing attempt was over. Neil and Dave rapidly secured the Tredalo for towing with some skillful rope work, whilst I sat there, on the floor of the safety boat cabin – like a sack of potatoes. I can remember feeling void of emotion. Not cold, not hungry, not thirsty, just tired, exhausted and feeling ill with my head spinning.

Tredalo on tow: I have since learnt from the crew that the normal procedure for towing on a long rope was highly unsuccessful, with the Tredalo often yawing off heading and generally misbehaving. It’s hulls are not well suited to turning and the raft is greatly affected by the waves – this seems to have made it very difficult to tow. Subsequently, a more stable towing position was found, with the Tredalo hauled close to the safety boat. This was much better, but the Tredalo was no more happy about being towed than I was about being on board the towing vessel!

Blessed with a good crew: Now looking back on these events, the last hours of the fight to save the second rudder had not only brought on sea sickness that I had been fighting through, without realising it, but also physically drained me more than I realised. The two together meant that I was a complete washout on the boat. After being sick again on the boat, narrowly avoiding the skippers spag-bol in the crew’s cooking pot, and instead targeting a nearby bucket, I recovered enough to walk around a bit. This was just enough to realise that I was getting in the way and would be better off making myself scarce. I got out my quarantined emergency bag with my sleeping bag and warm clothes, had something hot to drink, some chocolate and drifted off to sleep as we all made back towards Wales. I can recall how lucky I felt at the time to have such a good crew. It was so nice to know that I didn't have to lift a finger…and that all necessary actions would just “be taken care of”. So a massive, huge, thanks to Dave, Neil and Dale who took over and just sorted things, and took good care of me, whilst I was awash with a mixture of sea sickness (which initially only got worse on the safety boat) and the exhaustion of fighting to save the crossing attempt for the last hour or so.

The end of the end: It was after several hours, the tracker trace shows, we were almost halfway back to Trearddur Bay when I heard the command “stop the boat, stop the boat”. The Tredalo had broken up whilst under tow. By the time I made it to the aft deck the Tredalo was just being cut away and was sadly lost at sea. It is evident that the craft was not up to the extended period of towing against such rough seas. That moment cemented the final closure of this Irish Sea Crossing attempt.

The tracker beacon was secured to the Tredalo. Last reported position!
[Thanks to Bushman Trackers for this data]

Feelings on reflection: I am prone to looking back with “what ifs” and “if only”s and I have had a few nights of disturbed sleep whilst my brain sorts and files all the experiences, but overall I can’t think of any decision made that I would not want made the same way given the same circumstances and I am content that I gave the challenge my all. I gave it every possibility of success within the constraints I had - I had reached the point where the only way to know if the Tredalo and I were ready, was to give it a go. So I don’t count this as a failure, I count this as a success, in more ways than one. My biggest upset, though, is that having received so much effort from so many people, and so much media interest, I am saddened to have been so far away from my charity targets, only achieving 14% or the target. Perhaps one day I will try again and earn my Guinness and perhaps reach the original £20k charity target.

Finally, don't believe everything you read in the papers: There has been much press coverage – not all of it very accurate. Some papers reporting that I only got 9 miles, some even reporting that I was “lucky” to be picked up by “a passing vessel” - which, is clearly ludicrous…. So, just for the record…the authorities were aware of the planned crossing, we were in regular contact and kept the Coast Guard fully informed with locations and status updates and at no time did we ask for, need, or receive any external help during the crossing attempt.

Thanks to all that have contributed, supported, helped, and donated to help the Wiltshire Blind Association and the RNLI charities that this event was designed to support. Please also take the time to read my previous "thanks" post....

Thank you
Chris Todd

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