Sunday, July 1, 1979

I WEPT, I PRAYED, THEN THE SEA GAVE ME TWO MIRACLES


From Fred WEHNER
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Sunday Express out of London, England, July 1 1979

MOUNTAINOUS seas, playful whales and cruel storms had battered the tiny rowing boat for weeks. Now lone sailor Kenneth Kerr faced cliffs of water 40 feet high, crashing down on him.
It seemed certain death. Ken, 27, from Port Seton, near Edinburgh, was floundering in the boiling sea, clinging for all his worth to rope that had miraculously splashed into the water next to him
On the other end was the l3ft boat with which he had tried to row the Atlantic.
“I was shouting out prayers, but they were lost in the roar of the waves,”
he said. “I knew this was the end.”
The 2.100-mile voyage was a disaster from the beginning. By the time he was rescued 700 miles from the Canadian coast, Kenneth had been plagued with bad luck. “I got no breaks at all,” he said
Until the end, when all my miracles came at once.”
A giant wave had finally capsized the boat—the Bass Conqueror—after 58 days at sea.
“The swell was still 4Oft and I could have coped with that, but not when a vicious wind sliced the tops off the waves and sent them crashing in on top of me,” said Ken.
“It happened quickly. My world exploded. I was in the water and my boat was keel-up next to me.
It must have been a reflex action as I capsized— I grabbed out for anything, and came up with a rope in my hand.

Freezing
My hands were so cold I couldn’t hold it. The water was freezing. So I struggled for three hours the rope tied around my arms.
It was all there between me and certain death.
“After what seemed years of torture, I got the boat the right way up. When death is just around the corner you get superman strength, the will to live is greater than any force.
“But no sooner had I righted the boat, when another rush of water tipped it back over.”
That would have broken lesser men. But Kenneth, a former petty officer on the British nuclear submarine H.M.S. Conqueror, who left the Navy in November to prepare for his Atlantic crossing, was made of sterner stuff. “I cried,” he said. “I was on the verge of despair. After all that time fighting with every ounce, to see the boat tip over again, after a few seconds . . . it was heartbreaking.”
Then came the first miracle. “I was about to go under. I was completely frozen through and my strength had ebbed to almost nothing. I said one last prayer,” he said
“Then suddenly there was a lull in the winds. The seas were calmer. I couldn’t understand it. I tried once more to get the boat upright.”
“And it worked. Then I found some of my provisions floating nearby.
By rights these should have been swept away. Instead some had been trapped under the upturned boat.
There was my life raft and the emergency transmitter I had bought in Halifax for 100GBP just before the setting out on May 1.”
But the ordeal was not over. The gale force winds sprang up again and Kenneth said: “I didn’t have any strength left at all. The boat was filling up with water and I had to let it go: I last saw it disappear under a huge wave.”
By this time he had inflated the four-foot diameter life raft, which resembles a kiddy’s seaside plaything. Of the provisions, all he had saved was the little transmitter and “a couple of other items.”

Fumbled
But there was no food, and no water. “I could see myself dying of thirst on the high seas,” he said.
“I was just exhausted, but managed to switch on the transmitter as soon as I had clambered on the raft.”
“My hands were so cold that I fumbled with it and nearly lost it again. But that little box saved my life.”
Ken’s distress signal — a bleep carrying for a range of 200 miles—was picked up by aircraft over-flying the area.
One of them was a British Airways Concorde en route to New York.
The message was relayed to Canadian coastguards, who dispatched spotter planes and alerted nearby shipping.
An Argus aircraft passed on Kenneth’s position to the West German container ship Stuttgart Express, which detoured 45 miles to pick him up.
Captain Wolf-Dieter Krabbe said: “When we reached the spot we saw Kenneth on a raft, obviously alive.”

“I was amazed, he was in astoundingly good condition considering he had been waterlogged for two days. He is a very brave man.”

Yesterday the 32,000-ton German ship docked at Halifax with Kenneth still in the hospital bay, but vastly improved.

“I couldn’t walk when they picked me up,” he said. “They had to carry me aboard. But now my legs are improving. That was the trouble all along, and perhaps why I didn’t make so much progress.”

Surfaced
“The boat I used was a flat-bottomed Orkney spinner. But when I was rowing there was nothing beneath my feet but the Atlantic.
It was icy - there were icebergs - and it seemed to be the time of year for whales to emerge.
You could hear them all the time. On one occasion two whales were very curious about me. I got my camera out and wished they would come a bit closer for a picture. But they came far too close - to about 20 feet.
They plunged underneath the craft and surfaced again and swam around me. They nearly killed me.”
Nine days before he was picked up, Kenneth encountered the worst storms in his life. At that time he was radio-ing back to his sponsors in Britain - the Tennant Caledonian Brewery - to give his position and condition, as all the time he was being pounded by walls of water 40-45ft high.

“For hours I just clung on to the raft which I’d inflated after I’d found it among the provisions. Then came the container ship.”
Captain Krabbe said he was steered in to Kerr’s position by smoke flares dropped by the aircraft.
Yesterday Ken was checked over by doctors in the Victoria Infirmary, Halifax. He was allowed to go after treatment and is flying back to London today.
As he was helped off the Stuttgart Express, Ken made a gesture of thanks to captain Krabbe. He presented him the tiny orange “Locat” transmitter that saved his life.

Same again
Kenneth spent about 3.000GBP of his own money on the venture. And he did it “because everyone has something in life he desperately wants to do. I had to try to make history.”
Not many, he said, get to realize that dream, even if it ends in failure.
As he disembarked from the rescue ship, bearded Kenneth vowed:
“ I’ll try again. And apart from insulating the keel of the boat I’ll do everything next time exactly the same way, because it worked so well.”
Kenneth set out from St.John’s, Newfoundland, on May 1 in a bid to create a world record by rowing across the Atlantic in the smallest craft ever used in such a venture.
A spokesman for Tennant Caledonian Breweries said: “ Kenneth is a real hero and we are immensely proud of him. A lively reception is awaiting him on his return home”

Copyright © 1979 Fred Wehner is a journalist formerly with the Daily Mail in London, who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Georgia.