Tunbridge Wells friends rescued and forced to abandon Atlantic row

    Two courageous friends are on board an oil tanker heading for Brazil after being forced to abandon their attempt to row across the Atlantic for charity.

    Chris Williams and Max Thorpe, who have been friends since they were ten years old, had to be rescued in dramatic fashion after their boat capsized and caught fire while being battered by 20ft waves.

    Their parents endured a harrowing night of uncertainty 48 hours before Christmas Day as they waited to hear if their sons had reached safety.

    The Team Tenzing pair had been at sea for eight days when disaster struck their ambitious plan to row 3,000 miles across the ocean on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

    The 25 year olds are both former pupils of Judd in Tonbridge. Chris is the captain of Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club’s 1st XI, where Max, who also attended Sevenoaks School, used to play.

    As featured in the Times’ sports pages last week, they are trying to raise money for Cardiac Risk in the Young [CRY] after a university friend of Chris’s died of an undetected heart condition.

    They had covered more than 700 miles of the course between La Gomera in the Canary Islands and Antigua when the catastrophe occurred. 

    Chris’s father, Mark, said: “Everything was going so well, and they were making good ground and were loving the challenge. They had found the routine and all was going to plan.

    “They had overcome the normal hurdles that face the rowers in the first week, including severe seasickness, huge waves and swells and the massive change to sleep patterns.” 

    Suddenly, just before 3pm on Friday December 22, a storm hit the crew, the waves began to climb to six metres in height and the wind changed.

    They were hit by a ‘rogue’ wave and the seven-metre long craft capsized. But this is a fate that many of the competitors suffer and it forms part of their training.  

    The pair, who trained at Bewl, were thrown into the sea, but since they were always clipped on using four-point harnesses they were able to clamber back on board.

    However, then they noticed smoke coming from the small cabin space where they sleep and keep the satellite phone and auto-pilot. 

    They opened up the cabin and found it was on fire. They managed to put the blaze out with their fire extinguisher, but discovered that they had lost all power. This was provided through the solar units to fuel the battery pack which made the water purifier and auto-pilot function. 

    The damage meant that they were no longer able to continue because competitors are not allowed to benefit from outside assistance – they must be self-sufficient.

    So they admitted defeat and called the headquarters of race organisers Atlantic Campaigns, following the procedure they are taught. 

    Once Chris and Max put out an emergency call, events moved rapidly. Chris’s father, Mark, who is Chairman of Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club and lives with his family in the town, takes up the story. 

    “A rescue operation was put in place. This is when I got a call from Atlantic Campaigns HQ at 5.30pm to advise what had happened. 

    “This was all a massive shock for the boys and also ourselves, and at that point all we wanted to do was make sure that in such perilous conditions they would be safe and a rescue was possible. 

    “A Mayday call is put out to all vessels in the ocean, and Atlantic Campaigns await a response as to who could get there quickest and carry out a rescue. 

    “The indication was that this would be about eight hours later, but we were awaiting firm details. 

    “We were informed we would be called as soon as they had more news – most likely the following morning.” 

    So Chris and Max were left hanging on to their boat in the darkness as they were battered by the storm. Eventually they managed to clear the cabin and took refuge inside the cramped space. 

    Two rescue yachts follow the 28 participating craft, but they were 200 miles behind Team Tenzing looking for a boat that had capsized but not righted itself. 

    Mark said: “We were told the nearest tanker, cruise ship or yacht would answer and attend to the rescue as there was no way the rescue yachts would get there in time.

    “At about 3am on Saturday morning, we had a call from Chris to say they were safe and on a tanker carrying crude oil heading for Brazil. 

    “The rescue was harrowing and desperate, but at that point we had very little detail and the main thing was they were safe.”

    But the drama was far from over. 

    “As one can imagine, in ferocious conditions and at night, with a huge oil tanker’s side to climb up on a rope, this was going to be on the face of it impossible.” 

    The massive tanker came as close as it could to the rowers’ tiny craft, but there was still a large gap to be bridged between the two. 

    They had to jump to catch the rope, which proved extremely difficult in the heaving darkness, but they eventually managed to clamber up to safety.

    They were only wearing shorts, but did succeed in getting hold of the emergency grab-bag which contained their passports.

    Mark said: “They were in shock, and will be so for some time, but their safety was paramount, and we were just relieved after hearing some of the detail that they are alive.

    “They are clearly totally gutted that their row came to an end in such difficult circumstances. It was completely out of their control.”

    The oil tanker crew were said to have been very friendly, and the pair were able to call home from the ship captain’s phone and send short email messages.  

    Chris and Max are due to dock at a port near Rio on Friday [January 5], and then fly back to Britain to be reunited with their families.