InFocus: St Andrews rower rescued from Atlantic


St Andrews student Tom Sauer was rescued from the Atlantic in January after his boat capsized. Sauer was participating in a rowing race when his boat overturned, leaving him and his fellow rower needing to be rescued by a cruise liner. The Saint’s Dinora Smith asked Sauer to describe the experience.

Photo: Tom Sauer

Dinora Smith: So could you describe the events leading up to your boat capsizing?

Tom Sauer: My friend Tom Fancett and I were competing in the 2011Atlantic Ocean Rowing Race. We were rowing for eight days and everything was going pretty well. It had been storming for about two days, but the waves weren’t breaking, so it wasn’t ideal weather, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Tom and I were alternating eight hour rowing shifts. We went to switch, left the hatch open for a second, and one random, massive wave broke over us and flipped the boat. Normally, it would right itself, but because the hatch was open the cabin had filled with water, so it was flipped over and not turning right side up. Tom and I alternated diving under the boat to free the life raft for maybe an hour. That was probably the worst part, every time Tom dove down waiting for him to resurface. We got the life raft opened, and waited around for twelve hours to get picked up. Then this cruise liner, the Crystal Serenity, comes along and we fired off the flare gun for them to get us.


DS: What was it like being stranded and waiting in the life raft?

TS: While we were waiting to get picked up, I was just hoping that it would only take days, maybe a week to get picked up. We had provisions to last a month and we’d been in training for six months, so we had survival training, provisions, a water purification system, the whole bit. The concern wasn’t about surviving but how long until we were picked up. Basically the whole time in the raft we were just quoting Step Brothers trying to keep each other positive.


DS: Did you feel relieved when you knew you were getting picked up?

TS: Yes and no. The actual rescue was really intimidating. The conditions were too bad for them to deploy their own life boat, so the ship had to come right up next to us. I’ve seen it a hundred times: little boats getting sucked under by the massive engines of these bigger liners. Thankfully we ended up getting onto their ship via a rope ladder just fine.


DS: How did the rest of the journey go?

TS: Out of all the boats in the race, maybe five had to get picked up. Most of those were picked up by industrial freighters headed to God knows where. The first night, I was in a tux. We got picked up at maybe six in the morning, slept for a good few hours, woke up, got sent to the tailors and were given tuxedos because it was formal night on the ship. They also set us up with a bunch of clothes because we’d lost everything. We got dropped off on a Dutch island in the Caribbean, and I’m Dutch, so even though I’d lost my passport, getting papers and flying home was pretty easy.


DS: How does it feel to be back in St Andrews to finish your degree after the year you’ve had? 

TS: Well I’ve been on sabbatical from St Andrews for a year. Before the trip I spent six months as an assistant to a Premier League football coach, after spending six months in training for this ride. I’ve just had an hour lecture today, and it seems more difficult than eight hours straight of rowing. It’s weird, being back after such a long time away, and I’m just in fourth year now whereas my classmates graduated last year. I’m getting back into football, and I like it here so it’s alright.


DS: Do you want to attempt the race again?

TS: I’ve been wanting to get right back out into the water since probably two hours after we were rescued. I’m hoping to do the race again in 2013. We were in second place when the storm hit, so it was frustrating that we had to get picked up because we were doing so well; we’d rowed about 600 miles at that point. The other teams were a good distance behind us. So I’ll definitely try again. I have to wait a while for my Mom to calm down, she’s apprehensive about my going out again. Dad’s behind it though, I’ve been sailing with him since I was a kid, so he gets it and supports me in wanting to go out again.


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