Rower in terrifying shark ordeal
Jan 29 2006 Nathan Bevan, Wales on Sunday
"LIKE something out of Jaws" - Welsh ocean rower Andrew Barnett describes the terrifying moment when, hungry and exhausted, he became the target of a frenzied shark attack in the middle of the Atlantic.
Tossed about on the rough sea like "clothes in a washing machine", the 46-year-old Monmouth adventurer hid helplessly in the cramped cabin of his tiny two-man boat as the 12ft predator repeatedly rammed it in a bid to sink him and his crewmate.
"We'd watched it circle us for a long time," said the seasoned rower, whose boat MayaBrit was approaching the final stretch of the Woodvale Challenge - a gruelling 2,950-mile, non-stop trans-Atlantic race.
"Then suddenly it came swimming right at us at a rate of knots, repeatedly hammering itself into us and all we could do was just pray the hull would hold," added Andrew, who, along with Guatemalan oarsman Juan Carlos Sagastume, had already braved torrential tropical storms, food poisoning, sleep deprivation and broken ribs on their epic voyage.
Each time the shark battered their fragile 22ft vessel, it brought a huge, ominous-sounding crack and, with huge swells lashing the sides, the final finishing line 300 miles away in Antigua seemed to grow ever more distant.
"We were terrified, particularly as five other boats in the challenge have capsized or sunk in the last two weeks," said the medical rep and dad-of-two via satellite phone.
"My biggest fear was that the shark would come over the side and capsize us.
"If we'd have gone in to the water there's no way we have stood a chance with that thing."
All he could think about was how he simply had to make it home to his family, wife Ruth and children James and Emily
"It kept hammering away for what seemed like ages, I've never been so scared," said Andrew, who managed to muster the steely resolve that had previously seen him win endurance treks across the frozen wastes of the Canadian Yukon and Alaska, known as the coldest races on Earth.
"The shark gave up before we did," he said, "but I won't pretend we weren't mighty relieved when it finally swam away."
For the hardy, former race leaders it was just another in a line up set-backs that have dogged their journey since they set off from La Gomera in the Canaries at the end of November, a start date which had been itself delayed by the onslaught of freak winds.
But as Andrew explained, the worst weather they saw made for a hellish festive period when they were blown 25 miles off course by raging tropical storm Zeta and had to batten down the hatches of their claustrophobic three-foot-high sleeping quarters for some respite from the towering waves.
"It was anything but festive to be honest, you can get so tired from bracing yourself against the waves for hour after hour, day after day," he said, adding that Juan was thrown across the boat by one such huge wave, breaking a rib.
"Still, we managed to drink some rum and ate a spot of cake on Christmas Day, even though it felt like we didn't have much to celebrate about."
Thankfully. though, there have been moments of calm.
"It hasn't all been bad - a whale as big as our boat swam up really close to us, we could almost reach out and touch it," said the former Monmouth Rowing Club captain.
"It swam right underneath us, blew water at us and did rolls for us, we weren't worried that it might topple the boat, it just seemed to want to come and say hello.
"Another time we saw a lightning storm light up the pitch black sky and create a luminous night-time rainbow on the horizon," he added.
"With the thunder booming all around it was really dramatic."
Finishing behind winners Olympic rower James Cracknell and TV presenter Ben Fogle, the duo hope to make it to the West Indies mid-week.
"We're holding up, but we're as skinny as rakes, shattered and desperate to finish now," he said.
"Because the swells on the ocean are so bad it's difficult to row, not to mention just impossible to relax or get any proper sleep.
"You roll all over the place and end up tensing your muscles all the time.
"I'm fed up with being bashed around and the food poisoning we got last week from a fish we'd caught didn't help much either," he laughed.
"It'll be fantastic to get a decent night's sleep in a bed and have some proper food and a nice cold beer."
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