Blog | All at sea
One Scout leader, one adventurer and 3,600 miles of treacherous ocean between them and their destination. What could possibly go wrong?
Only 16 people have braved and completed the perilous 3,600-mile row across the Indian Ocean and only four of those were in pairs. The record time for crossing was 85 days, two hours and five minutes, but in July, adventurer James Ketchell and Scout leader Ashley Wilson set off to break that record and raise money for Scouts.
Both Ashley and James had already accomplished some impressive feats. When serial adventurer James was injured in a serious motorbike accident and told he would have to discontinue his physical lifestyle, it wasn’t good news. Yet rather than admit defeat, he channelled his determination into single-handedly rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, climbing to the summit of Mount Everest and completing an 18,000-mile cycle through 20 countries, unsupported. Ashley’s equally admirable and character-defining feats include beating cancer when he was just 19, as well as battling a series of epileptic seizures that numbered up to 20 per day at their peak.
Ashley’s decision to take on this rowing challenge was inspired by a talk that James had given, where he felt motivated to make some major changes in his life. So, after the talk, they joined forces and the Nothing’s Impossible challenge was born. The challenge they proposed was to row across one of the world’s least rowed oceans, from Geraldton, Western Australia to Port Louis, Mauritius. They had less than 85 days, two hours and five minutes to beat the record.
Everything going to plan
On 18 May the pair set off, spirits high and ready to tackle the ocean. Then, just 24 hours later, the weather took a turn for the worse and, like the waves, suddenly all hope of rowing the ocean came crashing down around them.
Though the weather wasn’t quite perfect for their departure, the forecasted change in wind direction arrived as promised and everything appeared to be going to plan, but as the evening descended conditions on the water started to conspire against them.
‘As things got dark the ocean was a very different place; still stunning, but in a very different way,’ says Ashley. ‘I quickly realised that you need to give it 10 times more respect at night as you can’t see the waves, you have to listen for them and because you can’t see the horizon it was harder to balance.’
At midnight, Ashley and James realised that they had a major problem with their guidance system and had to switch it off. With no hope of fixing it, they decided to head back and use their satellite phone to arrange a tow back to Geraldton. Luckily enough, a local fishing boat nearby agreed to tow them back to port.
The drama didn’t stop there though; on the way back to find the fishing boat the pair got their first taster of just how dangerous the ocean can be: ‘The winds picked up to 35 knots and we had some huge seas. Unfortunately, we had yet more bad luck as the towrope snapped on us. So it was pitch black, 35-knot winds, four to five metre seas and we were looking for a tiny little boat!’
So their first attempt didn’t go to plan, but Ashley was insistent that the excursion had taught them some useful lessons to prepare for their second attempt, including to travel lighter and always remember a crucial lesson at sea:
‘When having a wee at sea, make sure you check which way the wind is blowing first!’
Round two began well. The pair rowed to a ‘brutal’ two hours on, two hours off schedule and began to hit their stride after three days of hard rowing. But rather than easing up, the challenge got harder. They spoke to their weather router who warned them that the weather was going to get particularly bad. With conditions worsening, the wind began blowing the boat in the wrong direction so they decided to use a para anchor, which is an underwater parachute-type mechanism that keeps the boat pointing into the waves and prevents it from drifting too far off course.
The seas got bigger and the winds got stronger; when morning arrived a giant wave hit the side of the boat causing it to completely roll over. When the boat rolled for the second time Ashley’s luck ran out. The vigorous movement resulted in a severe blow to the head and it didn’t take long to recognise that Ashley was suffering from concussion. With Ashley’s head injury, epilepsy and the frightening unpredictability of the weather, they decided to activate their EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon) and request a rescue.
The pair had three hours to wait until an oil tanker was able to pick them up. With the waves threatening to roll the boat once more, Ashley began to wonder if he would ever see his family again: ‘When the oil tanker appeared, we still weren’t safe!’ Ashley exclaims. ‘It was 250 metres long and as tall as a house, and we had to get on board during a storm using a rope ladder. I also had concussion.
A tough decision
Their decision to abort the challenge was a hard but sensible one, as the wild weather lasted for days after the rescue. Despite their determination to complete the challenge, Ashley acknowledges that sometimes you need to accept that not every challenge will be a success. However, an enthusiasm for adventure still radiates from him and he now plans to share his amazing story with schools and youth groups in order to raise awareness about epilepsy.
When asked what advice he would give to others with epilepsy who are hoping to complete a major challenge of their own, he is both passionate and practical: ‘Go for it. But, make sure you’re safe.’
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