Peter Bray in the Drink:
A play-by-play account of the plucky kayaker’s 30-hour attempt to keep his leaking boat afloat
By David Friedland
At about 8 PM on June 17th, Peter Bray set out in his custom-built kayak from Pier 13 in St. John, Newfoundland to make the first unsupported paddle through the North Atlantic. In an email to me that afternoon, Peter commented on the bad luck of beginning his three-month expedition from such an ominously numbered pier, but the initial leg of the journey
went well, until Peter awoke from his first night’s sleep to discover that his boat was taking in water. He spent the next 30 hours trying to stay afloat until the Coast Guard finally rescued him.
Q: So, starting at the beginning… How did it feel to finally push away from land?
A: You know, it’s been three years coming together. Man, the boat felt great. Apparently, people were amazed at how fast the boat looked, how it sliced through the water—real stable. I had a bit of an escort party for the first while—my manager, Jim Rowlinson, was on the back of a skiff filming me. But then they turned back, and it was just
me. It felt real good.
Q: How long was it before you were out of sight of land?
A: It took quite a while. First the lights were bright behind me. I could make out individual beams. They eventually blended into an even glow, and I could just take in the curve of the shore. It wasn’t until well into the morning—maybe three or four— before the lights disappeared.
Q: Were you happy to finally be alone? Were you scared about what you had actually just begun?
A: This was what I had waited for—waited an awful long time for. My head was into it, and after a few hours, I got into a nice routine. When you’re paddling as long as I planned to, you don’t race it. You get a comfortable stroke and just roll with it.
Q: So how long did you paddle before turning in for the night—or day?
A: I guess about 12 hours—’til about 7 am.
Q: And did you sleep?
A: Oh yeah—it was time to crash out. I tethered my paddle to boat and got into cabin. I noticed a little bit of water on the floor at that point, but I just mopped it up.
Q: Did that water worry you?
A: Not at that point. I thought it might have been a small leak—nothing serious. I watched it for a little, but nothing more appeared. I’m in the middle of an ocean, things are expected to get a little wet.
Q: So you went to sleep?
A: Right. Nothing more appeared, so I stripped down to just my Keeva shirt, got into my sleeping bag, and had quite a nice sleep. There was a slight roll of the boat that put me right out.
Q: And when you woke up?
A: Well, I awoke to rain and remember thinking, ironically, that I was glad to be in here where it was dry. But then, I noticed the water was back in the cabin. I’m thinking, where the hell’s all this water coming from.
Q: Did you have a theory?
A: I had 40 gallons of drinking water in tanks. I figured that maybe they were leaking, but I couldn’t see a leak. I tasted the water to see if it was fresh, but it was salty. So I knew it couldn’t be the tank, and I knew it wasn’t coming from the door. I checked all around and saw that it was coming from the pump valve. I sat there and watched, and
there it was coming in from the hose.
Q: Can you explain what this valve is supposed to do?
A: It’s basically a pump meant to take in air and pump out water. The valves can open or close so that I can pump out the cockpit from the cabin. I can also isolate each compartment individually and pump them out.
Q: So, at this point, you’re sitting and watching the water come in. You know where it’s coming from, if not how to fix it, are you panicking?
A: No. As I said, I’m in the sea. I’m expecting water. I’m also on an expedition. Things go wrong. I wasn’t worried. I was actually on the phone with my manager, Jim, trying to get a password for our computer, and all I said was that there was a bit of water in the cabin, and that I could sort it out.
Q: When do things start to look ugly?
A: When I’m pumping out the cabin and the boat started to lift up and tilt to the right. In all our trials, I had never felt the boat tilt like that.
Q: What did you think then?
A: I’m wondering why the damn boat might be doing that. I ran through everything in my head. But I couldn’t figure it out. I knew that the boat was stable. I knew everything was packed right. Something wasn’t right, though. I’ve got a glass port in the door that I can unscrew and feel around in the cockpit. When I reached my hand out, the cockpit was
filled with water.
Q: It wasn’t normal to have water in the cockpit?
A: Well, some water. But it’s also normal for me to be able to pump that water out from inside the cabin. That’s the drill. But the valve seemed to be malfunctioning in the cockpit. The valve between the cabin and cockpit was open enough to let some water leak into the cabin. But the valve from the cockpit to the sea was taking water in instead of
letting it out.
Q: So, Peter, now comes the time when things go from bad to worse. Can you walk me through the next several hours?
A: Yeah. So there’s water building up in the cockpit, and I can’t clear it out. The boat can’t tilt more than 45 degrees. It’s not going to flip—because of the air in the lower compartment. But if the water built up enough, I’d be trapped in my cabin.
Q: At this point, have you given up pumping?
A: No. I pumped hard for thirty-forty minutes—making no headway. Water was coming in as fast as I was getting it out—maybe faster. I knew I couldn’t win this fight the way it was working.
Q: What were your choices?
A: I had another pump in the cockpit. Basically, I could sit there and twiddle my thumbs or try and go out to the cockpit, close the door behind me, and pump from there.
Q: And what time was it? Still raining?
A: It stopped raining. I’d guess it was about 2:30. I’d been up for maybe an hour at this point.
Q: So you decided to go out and brave it? I guess you’d have to.
A: Yeah. And the best thing about it is, I’m still just in my shirt—nothing underneath.
Q: Did you think you might not be able to get back in to the cabin?
A: No. It hadn’t dawned on me. I figured I’d get the pump going, and that it would be OK. I figured the outside valve had gone, but I still thought I’d get the water out if I could get to the cockpit.
Q: Then you opened the door, and a bunch of water flooded in?
A: Yep. The whole cabin flooded. I opened up the spray deck, grabbed the pump, and I started pumping. I’m out there pumping my heart out and making zero headway. I’m thinking, “look at me. I’m in the middle of the damn ocean in a flooded boat. I’m in this shirt and nothing else, pumping freezing cold water. What the hell am I doing?”
Q: And how long do you pump this time?
A: Maybe 20 minutes. Nothing was happening. And the boat kept rocking side to side. I got knocked out of the boat a few times.
Q: Were you wearing a life jacket?
A: Just that shirt. But I’m still attached to the boat, so it was o.k.
Q: Any trouble getting back aboard?
A: No. I’m good at it. But then I’d get thrown out over the other side, and I’m thinking, “well this is a fun game.” At this stage, I was probably in the water more than I was pumping.
Q: Are you exhausted?
A: No—it’s amazing your resilience.
Q: Did you radio for help?
A: Not yet. I still thought I might be able to fix it. I got into my life raft—pulled the cord to inflate it, got in, and tied off to the boat. I opened up the boat’s parachute anchor, and started picking up my VHF radio and GPS— all in aqua bags. But I kept getting pushed up onto kayak. So I’d let out more and more rope, but I kept getting
pushed back harder and harder. And after about the fifth time getting washed up, my life raft ripped.
Q: Was your life raft worthless at that point?
A: Nothing is worthless out there. You just have to work harder. It was kind of like sitting in an inner tube—there was as much water inside as outside. I cut myself free from the kayak. But you have to stay with your boat—or as near as possible. And I stayed in my ripped life raft the whole time.
Q: And then you called for help?
A: Yeah. I sent out “Maydays” by VHF. You say Mayday a bunch of times and hope someone answers you.
Q: Did they?
A: No. VHF works by line of sight. Being a kayaker, I’m kind of low in the water. I was still pumping too. My raft had a hole in it and was filling with water. I was sinking.
Q: And still no life jacket?
A: Just the shirt I’m wrapped up in.
Q: How cold was the water?
A: Probably three or four degrees Celsius. And then that pump broke. I had to pump with one hand while holding my other hand beneath the base of it to keep it off the wet floor of the raft.
Q: When did someone hear your Mayday?
A: Nearly 30 hours later.
Q: My god. You were pumping the whole time?
A: Yeah. You ought to see my hands. They look amazing—all cut and grooved.
Q: So what happened in that 30 hours before you were rescued? You’re in near-freezing water struggling to stay alive. You must have been convinced you were done.
A: Well, with all respect, I’d rather not talk about it. It’s a survival story that I need to think about more, maybe try and publish. I’m not sure. Regardless of what I do with it, I’m not ready to talk about it.
Q: Understood. Can you tell me how it felt when you were rescued, though?
A: Well, I was a bit hypothermic. Actually, there was a blonde medic on board who was treating me. I guess they have some new ways of dealing with hypothermia. I had all the mates in stitches, because I told her that in my days you treated it by getting into a sleeping bag together. I guess I was glad to have been rescued. My head wasn’t too clear at
Q: So what now? How do you bounce back from this and look at it productively?
A: You know, this was only positive from the start. Even on my rescue boat, I was thinking about next year, when I plan to do it again and succeed. I called my manager from the boat and asked him if he was still in for helping next year. He said that he’s in until we finish this.
Q: I’m impressed with your optimism.
A: Well, it was a strange thing that went wrong. We got the boat back—it never sank. That design was sound. I was fit. I’m still stupid and crazy as ever. If it were the boat or me, I wouldn’t do this again. But it was a bloody valve. Some second rate comedian called my boat a coffin. That’s absurd. The boat is the best.
Q: Do you think you could have planned better for this, or is it just that you can’t possibly anticipate every tiny function in advance?
A: I think that it would have been hard to be more prepared—strange as that sounds, considering. We checked everything. That valve never acted up. Other things did, and we fixed them. Our trials gave me all the confidence in the world. We had radios and safety equipment that most yachts don’t have, and I knew how to operate it all. We were let down
by a little piece of kit. That damn valve was the first thing to go when we got to sea. She gave up the ghost.
Q: Will it be hard to fund next year’s expedition? Do you think the public has written you off?
A: Actually the press has been superb—really encouraging—except for one nitwit comedian who writes for a second-rate paper. Three companies have already asked to sponsor us for next year. But we certainly are looking for new financial backers, because we need to do all the fundraising again now.
Peter is now heading back to Cornwall, England to recover and begin planning for next year. If you wish to find out more or offer Peter financial or moral support, please log on to the North Atlantic Kayak Challenge’s Website: http://www.outdoorchallenge.co.uk/NAKC2000/