US Coastguard saves Lewis rower’s transatlantic bid

Niall Iain Macdonald and the crew of the US Coast Guard cutter, Diligence, with the repaired rudder Atlantic Rowers 6

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The US Coastguard turned into the cavalry last week when it came to the rescue of Stornoway’s transatlantic rower Niall Iain Macdonald.

A broken rudder aboard his boat Alba last Monday night had threatened to torpedo Niall Iain’s NY2SY Solo North Atlantic Row for good.

Gaelic broadcaster Niall Iain left Norfolk VA on May 23 to row solo across the North Atlantic to his home on Lewis – a distance of 3,400 miles.

He is aiming to raise awareness of mental health issues and at least £100,000 for Scottish mental health charity SAMH.

But Alba sustained the damage in heavy weather, leading the Lewis adventurer to believe it was all over.

Unable to repair it himself, Niall Iain briefly considered continuing his row with only oars for steerage but after discussion with his shore-based support Leven Brown – and with more than 3,000 miles still to go – decided against it for safety reasons and called for help.

The US Coastguard came to his aid last Wednesday and amazingly were able to repair the rudder – a development Leven likened to ‘winning the lottery’ for Niall Iain.

Niall Iain said he had gone ‘from the lowest low to the highest high’ and in a blog posted late last Thursday he revealed what had happened.

He said: ‘I was hit by some really nasty weather on Monday night. Winds of 25-30 knots had been forecast but these felt much stronger. I was sitting on my sea-anchor and throughout the night I could hear the sound of my rudder being pounded by the waves.

‘The conditions were too dangerous for me to even open my aft hatch to see what was going on, in case the cabin was swamped, so I resigned myself to the fact I would have to wait until morning until I knew if any damage had been done. It was a long night.

‘First light on Tuesday confirmed my worst fears – one of the holding pins on my rudder had been bent. I’m still trying to figure out how it happened, a one in a million chance it seems, and it happened to me.

‘I tried to straighten it out by countering the bend using the bracket as a lever but the pin sheared off. I didn’t have the tools needed to carry out a proper repair and my attempts at jury-rigging something failed miserably.

‘The damage to the rudder was so serious I really thought NY2SY was over.’

After discussing possibilities with Leven, Niall Iain decided to contact UK Coastguards who in turn contacted their US counterparts in Boston.

His position, more than 800kms east of Norfolk VA made a rescue challenging.

It also brought back bad memories of having to abandon his first NY2SY attempt in 2014, just nine days in, after suffering an injury.

This time, though, luck was on his side. When the cutter arrived, a crew came to him on a RIB to assess his situation.

Niall Iain continued: ‘They seemed to think they could repair the rudder, so I was taken across to the USCG cutter ‘Diligence’ and they began to work on my rudder.

‘Meanwhile, I was greeted by Chief Mess Officer Pedersen, Executive Officer Chapman, Commander Sommella and several crew. I was given a hamburger and some fries to eat and they kept me updated about the repairs.

‘After four hours, they had the rudder ready and we went back across to Alba to get it fitted. It needed some adjustments but I now have a working rudder that will allow me to continue my row, just when I thought it was all over.

‘The crew of the USCG cutter Diligence were kind to me and all I was ever asked was “what do you need?” and “How can we help?”.

‘I am truly indebted to them all for what they did and thank you doesn’t seem enough. They basically saved NY2SY.’

The US Coastguard, who took photographs of their encounter with Niall Iain and his boat, spoke of their satisfaction at helping the intrepid islander.

Lieutenant Commander Brian Chapman, executive officer, said: ‘The Coastguard Cutter Diligence had the distinct pleasure of visiting with Niall MacDonald today.

‘He came by and visited with us shortly while the engineers helped with the rudder. The Diligence crew truly enjoyed learning about Mr MacDonald and his journey. He was most inspiring.

‘We are rooting for Niall. His courage and tenacity embody the best in what we strive to be.’

Leven said it was not practical to carry a spare rudder and said the US Coastguard had ‘done a magnificent job’ in repairing it.

‘It’s not too dissimilar to winning the lottery. The US Coastguard did a great job getting to him.’