Paul Munyuki Sports Reporter
WHAT started as an attempt to break the world record, driven by the passion to raise funds for the underprivileged, might have turned out to be a tragic disaster for 21-year-old Zimbabwean rower Michael Johnson.
The rower was washed overboard as he and his crew attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean in record time after a wave swept the Zimbabwean off his seat in the eight-man boat in the early hours of Monday morning.
Johnson was the second youngest crew member and was not the only Zimbabwean on the boat as he was with Murray Faber (20), his former teammate at Peterhouse College.
Both were also part of the three-team member that represented Zimbabwe at the FISA World Junior Championships in Bulgaria in 2012 together with Peter Purcell-Gilpin and by yesterday they had already covered almost 1 000 kilometres.
The most senior members of the crew are British nationals Graham Walters and Roger Davies, who are both 68.
The two Zimbabwean rowers were part of an eight-member crew attempting to set a new world record for the quickest time for rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, having left the Canary Islands at midnight on January 28.
They aimed to beat the 32-day record on the 4 800-kilometre stretch. The crew were reported to have been more than halfway through their challenge, which began in the Canary Islands on January 29 and was supposed to end in Barbados, when things turned nasty on Monday night.
The accident forced United Kingdom and Portuguese coast guards to run a search that they later abandoned. And if the search is to continue, it will no longer be a rescue operation but rather a recovery operation as there are very slim chances of finding him alive.
Organisers of the event Oceanus Rowing broke the sad news on their website.
“It is with a profoundly heavy heart we have to announce one of our Rowboat Toby Wallace rowers is missing at sea.
“In the early hours of Monday February 15th, four of the eight person crew were rowing (at location close to: 18 29’ N 039 06’ W) in moderately heavy seas when a wave swept across part of the rowing deck.
“Michael Johnson (21) from Zimbabwe was swept off his seat and into the sea. The force of the wave caused his safety line — attaching him to the boat — to break.
“The force of the waves and windy conditions at the time caused Mike and the boat to move apart. The crew tried their utmost to stop the Toby Wallace and row back up into the conditions, but this proved impossible.
“They triggered their EPIRB (Emergency Position Information Reporting Beacon) and contacted UK HM Coastguard by Satellite Phone.
“The crew also deployed their life raft as a sea anchor, to slow their progress, in the hope that Michael would drift to their position.
“Working with Portuguese coastguard coordination, UK HM coastguard requested any shipping in the area to aid a search for Michael.
“A cargo ship changed course to the location and two aircraft were deployed to help with the search.
“By the time any search assets arrived in the area, it was daylight (first aircraft reported on location at 12:00 GMT).
“The area was searched throughout day until fading light forced an end to operations with no sign of Michael.
“Last light the remaining seven crew of the Toby Wallace were transferred to the search ship and will be transferred to land when the ship next makes port.
“Both UK and Portuguese Coastguard have declared a termination of search operations but Michael’s family are desperate for the search to continue and appeal to anyone who can help”.
Murray is currently studying aircraft maintenance engineering at the University of South Wales while Johnson had been working on the family farm in Zimbabwe.
Johnson has been rowing since 2007 and competed in various junior world rowing championships.