US Coast Guard saves the day after Niall Iain’s rudder breaks

Niall Iain Macdonald continues to make progress in his NY2SY Solo North Atlantic Row – after a broken rudder threatened to end his challenge for good.

Niall Iain’s boat, ALBA, sustained the damage on Monday night in heavy weather, leading the adventurer to believe that was it all over.

Unable to repair it himself, Niall Iain briefly considered continuing his row with only the oars for steerage but after discussion with his shore-based support Leven Brown – and with more than 3,000 miles still to go – decided against it for safety reasons and called for help.

The US Coast Guards came to his aid on Wednesday. Amazingly, they were able to repair the rudder – a development that Leven Brown likened to “winning the lottery” for Niall Iain.

Niall Iain said he had gone “from the lowest low to the highest high” – and in a blog post late on Thursday he revealed what had happened.

He said: “I was hit by some really nasty weather on Monday night. Winds of 25-30kts had been forecast but these felt much stronger. I was sitting on my sea-anchor and throughout the night I could hear the sound of my rudder being pounded by the waves.

“The conditions were too dangerous for me to even open my aft hatch to see what was going on, in case the cabin was swamped, so I resigned myself to the fact that I would just have to wait until morning until I knew if any damage had been done. It was a long night.

“First light on Tuesday confirmed my worst fears, one of the holding pins on my rudder had been bent… I’m still trying to figure out how it happened, a one in a million chance it seems, and it happened to me.

“I tried to straighten it out by countering the bend using the bracket as a lever but, as I expected, the pin then just sheared off. I didn’t have the tools needed to effect a proper repair and my attempts at jury-rigging something failed miserably.

“The damage to the rudder was so serious that I really did think that NY2SY was over.”

After discussing possibilities with Leven, Niall Iain decided to contact UK Coastguards who in turn contacted their US counterparts in Boston.

He spoke with them several times during Tuesday about possible outcomes. 

He said: “There were no ships in my area to come to my immediate aid and I continued to drift in the strong current of the Gulf Stream. Eventually they informed me that a US Coastguard cutter (USCGC) was en route to my location but wouldn’t be on scene until the middle of the next day.”

His position, more than 800kms east of Norfolk,VA made a rescue challenging.

It also brought back bad memories of having to abandon his first NY2SY attempt in 2014 after just nine days after suffering an injury on board.

“I basically went into a meltdown as I thought that I would have to abandon the row, and my boat, again. Disbelief, shock, sadness.

“I managed to get my head together for a while and began packing some dry bags with various things that could be salvaged from the boat. I then just sat and waited for the Coastguard to appear. Just before they did, I scribbled a short note and stuck it to the chartplotter in the event that anyone should find my boat adrift, if I did indeed have to leave her behind.

“I was distraught at the thought of having to abandon my row, and possibly my rowing boat, again.”

This time, though, luck was on his side. 

When the cutter arrived, a crew came to him on a RIB to assess his situation. 

“They seemed to think that they could repair the rudder so I was taken across the the USCG cutter ‘Diligence’ where they began to to work on my rudder.

“Meanwhile, I was greeted by Chief Mess Officer Pedersen, Executive Officer Chapman and Commander Sommella and several of the crew. I was given a hamburger and some fries to eat and they kept me updated about the repairs they were carrying out.

“After four hours, they had the rudder ready and we went back across to ALBA to get it fitted. It needed some adjustments but I now have a working rudder that will allow me to continue my row, just when I thought it was all over.

“The crew of the USCG cutter Diligence were all very kind to me and all I was ever asked was ‘what do you need?’ and ‘How can we help?’. I am truly indebted to them all for what they did and thank you doesn’t seem enough.

“They basically saved NY2SY. I must give a special mention to Damage Control Assistant Drew Daniels who oversaw the repairs to the rudder and wanted to make sure that everything was OK and that I was happy before they would depart the scene. He and his crewmates did an amazing job.”

He said it had been “an intense and emotional 24 hours – but I am able to carry on with my row”. He added: “I need to get the boat sorted, and my head also, and then I will get back on the oars and get rowing again.”

In his blog, entitled ‘Back on Course’, Niall Iain said he had heard from the Diligence crew that Duncan Hutchison, who was trying to row solo from New York to Lochinver, had to abandon it.

“I was very sorry to hear this and I hope that Duncan is OK,” he said. 

“I never got much detail about what happened but I can empathise with how he must be feeling. Best wishes Duncan and don’t give up.”

The US Coast Guards, who took some pictures of their encounter with Niall Iain and his boat, spoke of their joy at being able to help the intrepid islander.


Lieutenant Commander Brian Chapman, Executive Officer, said: “The Coast Guard Cutter DILIGENCE had the distinct pleasure of visiting with Niall MacDonald today. The Row Boat ALBA’s rudder was giving Mr MacDonald some trouble, so we dropped in to assist.

“He came by and visited with us shortly while the engineers helped with the rudder. The DILIGENCE crew truly enjoyed learning about Mr. MacDonald and his journey. He was most inspiring.

“Mr MacDonald and the ALBA are back underway, next stop Scotland. We are rooting for Niall here too. His courage and tenacity embody the best in what we strive to be.”

Gaelic broadcaster Niall Iain left Norfolk, VA on May 23, in a bid to row solo across the North Atlantic to his home in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis – a distance of 3,400 miles.

He is aiming to raise awareness of mental health issues and at least £100,000 for Scottish mental health charity SAMH. Donations can be made via Niall Iain’s JustGiving page at

Read all about Niall Iain’s challenge and his reasons for doing it here.

His shore support and weather router, Leven Brown, has been closely involved at all stages and spoke of Niall Iain’s predicament this week.

Leven, who was part of Mark Beaumont’s support team for his Around Britain cycle challenge, is a hugely-respected ocean rower in his own right – and knows only too well what Niall Iain has been going through and how catastrophic a broken rudder can be. 

“It’s one of those things,” said Leven. “A tiny R pin, a thing that holds the rudder in place, snaps in the middle of the night and the next thing you know the rudder is flapping around…

“I’ve been in exactly the same predicament before. I know exactly what it feels like and it’s horrible. But he lives to fight another day, which is phenomenal.”

Leven said that broken transom-hung rudders, such as this one, were “not uncommon” and tended to be “one of the weak links” on rowing boats because they were “very exposed”.

Leven said problems with rudder steerage were the “second most common cause of expedition failure” – after boats capsizing due to hatches being left open – so Niall Iain was “by no means alone”.

He added: “Nine times out of 10 the loss of the rudder will be the end of the challenge.

“It’s a big deal losing your rudder and not least because he’s so early in the expedition.”

In bad weather, Leven said that being without a rudder would “make you more likely to capsize and capsizes have led to fatalities before – that’s a high-risk situation”.

Leven said it was not practical to carry a spare rudder and said the US Coast Guard had “done a magnificent job” in managing to repair it.

“I think it’s not too dissimilar to winning the lottery! The US Coast Guard did a great job in getting to him and getting to the boat undamaged”. He said a rescue situation could be “the most dangerous thing you do at sea” because of the vast size difference between a tiny rowing boat and a ship. 

He likened it to “bashing alongside a steel cliff face” and said “you can end up watching your boat getting disintegrated beneath your feet”.

Niall Iain and Leven in New York in summer 2017

In general, Leven said Niall Iain was “doing really well” and stressed what a big challenge it is to row the North Atlantic, compared to the mid Atlantic with the trade winds behind you. He likened it to the difference between a black run and a yellow run in skiing.

“Sometimes things beyond your control happen on these expeditions and it can be in the lap of the gods. But so far, this has been an overall net positive compared to where it could have been.”

The repair has restored 95 per cent of the rudder capacity.

Now, said Leven, “he needs to shake his head, dust himself down, put it behind him and just focus on one stroke at a time. Never look too far ahead, never look too far behind, just stay in the moment and keep on paddling.

“He’s doing really well. This is the North Atlantic. I shouldn’t think this will be the first thing or the last thing that breaks. Let’s just hope that it’s a VHF antenna or a wheel on his seat next time. Not a rudder!”

Follow Niall Iain’s progress by checking the tracker on his website – His blog posts are found at and he also posts to social media, although he cannot see comments. He is on Facebook at and on Twitter as @NY2SYsolo.


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