Ten years have passed since Andrew Halcrow was plucked from his trusted home-made vessel, Elsi Arrub, after suffering serious health problems during his first round the world attempt. Ryan Taylor hears some of the intrepid sailor’s reflections a decade on.
That Andrew Halcrow should have suffered a burst appendix was bad enough. That it should have happened almost half way through his bid to sail single-handedly round the globe, 350 miles from land, roughly 12,000 miles from home, must rank as an extra dose of bad fortune.
Andrew was aboard his yacht, the 32 foot Elsi Arrub, sailing in seemingly empty waters when he was taken ill in December 2006.
Initially dismissing his growing discomfort as “bits of stomach bother”, Andrew, of Hamnavoe in Burra – the isle which, read backwards, gave its name to his trusted vessel – was soon thinking of little else. He describes passing out while talking on the phone to his partner, now wife, Alyson. He had anticipated a wait of at least 48 hours before help came. Fortunately, it came rather sooner than that, in the form of the Japanese bulk carrier, Elegant Star, which had sailed all the way from Canada with a load of iron-ore.
The plan was for the ship to ferry Andrew to its destination at Australia’s south east coast – but following through with that plan, which would have taken a week, would, says Andrew, have proved fatal.
Without a life-saving operation in hospital on 22nd December 2006, it was unlikely that Andrew Halcrow would have survived another 24 hours.
“They operated on me, and they found it [my appendix] had been burst for about two days. The inside of my stomach had got peritonitis. A bit of my upper bowel had actually gone gangrenous. Another 24 hours it would have come past the point of being able to repair.”
Before then, Andrew had been feeling random bouts of pain over a six week period. But it was initially the goose barnacles clinging persistently to Elsi’s underside which caused him most concern.
When things started getting “quite bad”, he phoned Alyson and sought medical advice. After speaking to Dr Gerald Freshwater, he learned the “worst case scenario” was a burst appendix.
Which was exactly what he had.
“I mind my stomach being as hard as this table,” he raps his knuckles on the desk where we are seated in The Shetland Times offices.
“It was just really rock hard. When I breathed my stomach didn’t move at all. I was really short on breath. I couldn’t get a proper breath.”
He describes his symptoms getting steadily worse on 20th December.
“I went out on the deck. With the boat rolling I had to hold on to something. That extra strain sent an extra spasm of pain.
“It just got worse and worse and I thought there was something seriously wrong then. I phoned Alyson and told her to phone Shetland Coastguard. Because I kent they would phone Falmouth, and they would phone Australia. And that’s just what happened.
“It was about 350 miles off the Australian coast. It was too far for a helicopter. Luckily enough there was a merchant ship in my area. After I made the call I lay back and I thought, the quickest way something is going to get to me is probably 48 hours.
“It was only four hours later I heard the VHF calling out my name, calling out the Elsi Arrub, and it was a rescue plane. They could tell me there was a merchant ship about eight hours from my position. And this ship would be with me in the early hours of the morning.”
The Shetland Times of 10 years ago describes Andrew climbing the rope ladder to get onboard the Elegant Star, grabbing as far up the ladder as he could while Elsi was rising on a wave.
The ship’s Indian master and Filipino crew took advice and helped Andrew, but it soon became clear he needed urgent medical attention. He was airlifted by helicopter and taken to hospital for a life-saving operation – too ill to worry about one crucial, and somewhat sad, development in the whole story, namely that the tow on Elsi had broken, and the yacht Andrew had built himself during the 1980s was adrift in the South Indian Ocean, with all his possessions onboard.
“By the time I’d had my operation they reckoned it had been burst for about two days.
“I was in intensive care for a couple of days and then in hospital for another week I think. But it was probably about another year before I was fully recovered.”
Andrew says he was “really devastated” that the trip had come to an end.
But as he made a steady recovery, plans emerged to try to find Elsi.
A small plane was chartered to try and track her down. Australian coastguard officers had drawn up a plot of where Elsi might have ended up. Andrew says he was confident Elsi could survive the conditions, but finding her was an altogether more difficult challenge.
“We’d got Australian coastguard to draw up a plot as to where Elsi might be.
“Taking all the vagaries of currents, winds and potential drifts into account, after I think about five days, the search area was about 2,700 square miles, which is a huge area to try and cover.”
Needles and haystacks may, indeed, have come to mind.
It was not until the end of January, having arrived back home, that Andrew got the call to say Elsi had, amazingly, been found.
Despite being adrift, she was spotted by helicopter and towed into Albany, Western Australia, with very little damage.
The yacht was then taken by truck to Fremantle, from where the Maersk Damascus took her to Singapore. She was then transferred to another container ship, Maersk Kowloon, and brought to Felixstowe. Later she ended up in Grangemouth, and was transported by low loader to Aberdeen.
Streamline helped her make the last leg of her journey back to the isles, and Andrew and Elsi Arrub were, at last, reunited.
So, it wasn’t long before talk began to emerge about a possible second attempt.
“When we got Elsi back, I fixed her up, and then we didn’t really do that much sailing. She went down and lay in the East Voe marina. Like any steel boat if you don’t look after her properly then rust gets in. She started rusting.”
Andrew could see the vessel needed major attention, and gave her a significant overhaul.
“When she was fixed up and looking good she was, as I described her at the time, all dressed up and nowhere to go.
“I had worked on her and painted her up. I thought, she’s really in far better shape than she’s ever been for doing this thing again.
“I never mentioned anything to Alyson, because it is a major on-tak to do. Then we were having our tea one night, and Alyson brought it up and said, ‘Elsi is looking pretty good, ever think about doing this again?’
“I didn’t just say yes immediately. It’s a lot of planning. It costs a lot of money as well and it takes up a lot of time that you are away from your family.”
But that germ of a thought persisted, and in November 2013 Andrew was off – once again aboard Elsi Arrub.
However, it all ended when Elsi’s mast broke in harsh sea conditions and gale force winds roughly four months later, forcing the devastated sailor to bring an end to his global expedition once more. This time, the journey ended around 100 miles west of Cape Horn. After sending a mayday, Andrew was picked up by helicopter and taken to Punta Arenas in southern Chile.
The emergency did, however, herald a reunion with one man who played a pivotal role in the rediscovery of Elsi after the 2006 incident. American sailor James Burwick had been sailing his yacht near Australia in 2007 when he encountered problems with his mast. Although he was still able to sail, the Australian coastguard sent a plane to check on him – and discovered Elsi adrift during its flight. Seven years later, the same Mr Burwick encountered problems reasonably close to where Andrew’s mast had broke, and the two met up after reaching dry land.
Efforts were swiftly made to try to find Elsi once more. But no sighting of her has been reported since, and Andrew has given up hope of ever seeing her again.
“We were that near to the land, she would probably have drifted ashore in about two days. The coast she would have driven on to, it was a bit like the back of Eshaness in a way. There are no safe harbours, no places to go, no resources, and practically no folk there.
“Although she was a tough peerie boat, against that kind of conditions she wouldn’t have been that long in breaking up.”
However, the experience was one that Andrew loved.
“It’s not for everybody. It’s something I had been wanting to do since late teens or 20s. I was never really thinking I would actually do it.”
Having built Elsi over a two year period from 1985, Andrew always had a round the world trip in mind. But he says his lack of experience in those days would have made such an undertaking, at that point, a “disaster”.
He gained experience by venturing on a five-year circumnavigation of the world with his brother Terry, and has also served as a skipper onboard the sail training vessel Swan. So, while Elsi is gone, the question may well be asked, might a third attempt be made at venturing round the globe onboard another vessel?
Andrew certainly doesn’t think so.
“Part of the reason for going a second time was because I had so much confidence in Elsi. She wasn’t a big boat, and she wouldn’t have been everybody’s first choice of boat. She was really over-weight and under-canvassed. She’s no a fast boat, she’s no really a luxurious boat compared to a lot of the modern boats, but she’s a very safe peerie boat. Many a time in bad weather, I was really blyde that she was what she was.
“The idea of taking any other boat, I’m not sure about that at all.”
Does Andrew miss Elsi Arrub? “Absolutely. I think about her – I wouldn’t say every day, but certainly on a lot of days. We were together for about 27 years. It is really like missing a member of your family.”
Absolutely. I think about her – I wouldn’t say every day, but certainly on a lot of days. We were together about 27 years. It is really like missing a member of your family. – ANDREW HALCROW
Indeed, Elsi Arrub has played such a significant part in Andrew and Alyson’s lives that Andrew has even penned a book on his fondly remembered yacht. Into the Southern Ocean was released late last year, and described Andrew’s upbringing in Burra where boats were ever-present, and highlights his sailing adventures.
His respect for coastguard officials is also part of what spurred him to take a job with the Maritime Coastguard Agency, where he now works – helping Andrew give back to the service which has done so much to help him.