Solo ocean rower Niall Iain Macdonald, 44, has been rescued from his boat, ALBA, today (Friday) after his cabin was swamped and his systems started to fail during heavy seas.
It’s been a terrifying ordeal – but he is “just happy to be alive”.
The Gaelic broadcaster from the Isle of Lewis, who was more than a quarter of the way into his North Atlantic challenge, was battered by severe weather during the night and forced to make a Mayday call before abandoning ship.
He was picked up from his liferaft this morning by a Dutch cargo ship, the DOLFIJNGRACHT. His boat, which has suffered extensive damage, has been abandoned at sea.
As part of Niall Iain’s support team, I learned of the incident when he phoned me from the deck of the DOLFIJNGRACHT this afternoon. He gave further details in an email, where he described the harrowing rescue – and spoke of his relief at still being alive.
The rescue comes just two days after I put out a press update on NY2SY, celebrating the fact that Niall Iain was more than a quarter of the way home, having passed 871 miles and averaging about 40 miles a day.
His main shore support, Leven Brown, had said he was doing “an amazing job” and “making good time”. Leven also spoke of the use of sea anchors during heavy weather – and how they are supposed to stabilise a boat by pointing its nose into the waves.
In his email, Niall Iain describes being hit side on, repeatedly, by waves.
“I had to abandon my boat earlier this morning. I got knocked down again by a wave at around 0400GMT and I really thought she was going over this time. I kept getting hit hard on the beam through the night.
“She came back up but I saw that the wind generator had been badly damaged. I hit my head hard off the control panel too when the wave hit. I felt that I had to go outside and check the extent of the damage in case the hull had been compromised where the base of the wind generator stand meets the top of the hull. I put on my foul weather gear, lifejacket and harness and tried to time the exit from the cabin to avoid any waves.
“On opening the hatch the boat pitched and water started to come over the lip of the hatch into the cabin. It caught me unawares and in that moment I got hit by a wave and the cabin was swamped substantially.
“I got shifted to the back of the cabin and more water came in as I tried to get myself sorted and back to the hatch.
“I continued to take a beating and the water seemed to be everywhere and so I decided to activate the EPIRB. The interior footwell was full of water and there was a couple of inches on the cabin floor where I sleep etc. In that circumstance, and with the damage to the wind generator, I felt that I had to.
“I then inflated the liferaft but kept it tied alongside without going aboard as I felt I would get blown away in the raft whereas the boat still had the sea anchor holding her position – though it didn’t seem to do a very good job of keeping the bow into the waves at all over that whole period of weather.”
He pressed the red emergency button on his VHF and issued a Mayday call. He spoke with the UK Coastguard on the sat phone who advised there were vessels around and they were being directed to his position. An aircraft was also being sent to the scene. After trying to raise anyone on his VHF, Niall Iain then saw the VHF ariel had been snapped.
“I remained with the boat but was knocked down once more. There seemed to be water everywhere in the cabin and some of my systems started to fail.
“I eventually received a call on my handheld VHF from the cargo vessel DOLFIJNGRACHT that they were making their way to my location.
“They arrived at around 0745GMT and stood by until it got a bit lighter. There was still a big sea running and we decided that the best option would be for me to get into the liferaft, detach from ALBA and drift across to DOLFIJNGRACHT.
“It seemed to take forever for us to come closer and I kept losing sight of the boat in the waves and swell. As I approached, I honestly thought that I was going to get crushed under the bow of the boat which was heaving up and down in the swell. I have never been so scared as I was then.
“I managed to keep paddling the liferaft and came as close alongside to their starboard as I could and they threw a line which I got hold of. I grabbed at a rope ladder they deployed and climbed up to the deck. ALBA has been abandoned at sea.
“Her aft cabin is flooded and I’m not sure what damage the front cabin sustained when the wind generator was torn loose. When I first got into the liferaft I forgot to take the EPIRB and went back for it and saw the YB tracker which prompted me to switch the signal to every 24hrs.
“She was still sitting on her sea anchor. I tried closing the cabin hatch door too but it must also have been damaged as it wouldn’t close properly. I got the top latch to engage but not the bottom one. I didn’t feel that I had time to see what was wrong with it.
“As harrowing as the rescue was for me, the captain and crew of the DOLFIJNGRACHT did an amazing job getting me onboard in very difficult conditions (4m waves and 2m swell according to the captain). I am just happy to be alive, I haven’t really thought about anything else.
“The DOLFIJNGRACHT is en route to Canada and I will stay onboard until 19/06 when she reaches Escoumins, Montreal. I’m not sure what happens then, to be honest.”
After speaking to Niall Iain this afternoon, Leven said: “He is ok but shaken up a bit. He is such a good character and I think this has been a bit of a trauma.
“He has done very well in horrible circumstances and he should never lose sight of that – the North Atlantic eats people and boats. He did around 1000 miles just being battered by the weather and still making progress. He can hold his head up high.”
Niall Iain undertook NY2SY to raise awareness of mental health issues and to raise at least £100,000 for Scottish mental health charity SAMH.
Sincere thanks to everyone who supported the challenge, both financially and with messages of support. Although he could not see the messages on social media, I relayed some of them to him by email and it made a big difference to morale. Thank you to everyone who followed NY2SY and cheered him on.
It’s disappointing to see the end of this challenge – but we’re all just hugely relieved that Niall Iain is okay. From the sounds of it, this could have ended very differently and we’ll be very glad to welcome him home!
As Leven said, he can hold his head up high. He did brilliantly. The North Atlantic was just bigger and badder than Niall Iain and ALBA.