Fernie resident Paul Attalla completed an epic 5,500-kilometre solo row across the South Atlantic Ocean Saturday, landing his 24-foot Spirit of Fernie on the shores of Antigua, West Indies, 76 days after leaving San Sebastian in the Canary Islands.
Competing as a first-time entrant in the Atlantic Rowing Race, Attalla finished 15 nautical kilometres behind the only other solo entrant, Peter Collett of Australia, who also won the event in 2005.
The Atlantic Rowing Race was launched in 1997 and is staged every two years from San Sebastian to Antigua. Attalla was the first Canadian participant in the race, which has been described as the world's toughest endurance test.
"There were only two solo entries in this year's race -- myself and Peter Collett -- but the big thing is that I came into Antigua in under 80 days," Attalla said Sunday from Antigua. "My crossing was the third-fastest in the history of the solo race. That's really good for some guy from the Rocky Mountains who had never competed in a race like this before."
The Atlantic Rowing Race is a multi-discipline event, and also includes pairs and fours rowers. Times and placings are measured in the days required to complete the race.
Attalla launched his boat on Dec. 2 on the shores of San Sebastian. He said he was forced to "ride out" one major ocean storm and deal with a leak in his boat during his voyage. He also encountered various forms of sea life.
"The worst part of the race was the day I rowed into a storm," said Attalla. "There were 30- to 35-foot swells all around my boat. That was the day I had to make a conscious decision whether to continue rowing, or just try to survive. One thought was constantly on my mind: I'd rather be a father to two kids than finish the race."
Attalla and his wife Nicole have two daughters -- three-year-old Joy and Amy, who is 1 1/2 years old.
Attalla said his custom-made boat sprang a leak in the hull about two weeks into the race.
"The leak was in a place where you can't easily access it," he said. "After several attempts to plug the hole, the best I could do was make the leak manageable. On the worst day, my boat was half sunk. But I wasn't ready to pack it in at that point. The leak was manageable and I was able to deal with it over the balance of the race.
"But sea water flooded into the boat and spoiled all of my food and water provisions," added Attalla.
There was also a race day that Attalla described as, simply, "a bad day." It was in late December, following Christmas Day and his 37th birthday, which was on Dec. 11.
"I can't say exactly why, but I just felt very sad on that particular day," said Attalla. "Christmas had gone by, my birthday had gone by, and I had spent both days away from my wife and kids. Thinking back now, maybe that was it: I'd always spent Christmas and my birthday with my family."
Attalla said he placed a satellite telephone call to his father, Tsawwassen resident Moe Attalla, on that day.
"I told dad I was having a bad day, and wondered whether I should continue rowing," said Attalla. "He said: 'It's your decision, but you're well into the race. Why stop now?' Looking back, I've come to the conclusion that all I really needed on that day was someone to talk to. I'd been rowing 16 hours a day, with no communication with anyone."
Attalla said the brighter side of his voyage was encountering sea life.
"A sea bird flew over my boat about 200 kilometres into the race, and continued to fly by twice a day for the rest of the race," said Attalla. "I called the bird 'chirp.' It was my constant race companion."
Attalla also encountered dolphins, turtles, sharks and a whale during his journey.
"The dolphins came up to the boat in a playful manner and squirted water on to the deck," he said with a chuckle. "The sharks were more inquisitive than menacing. They just sort of swam by the boat. The whale hid under my boat for several minutes, but didn't cause any damage. I've got tremendous photos of all of them."
Attalla said the best part of his row was in the final days.
"I was as happy as can be after 72 days," he said. "It was my last two weeks of rowing, and I pushed myself harder than ever before. I was focused on winning the race and slept only 12 hours in the last five days."
The downside of Attalla's row is he's $60,000 short of covering the $191,000 cost of participating in the race, which includes transporting his boat to San Sebastian and home from Antigua.
posted Jun 23, 2014 at 3:00 PM
Fernie Search and Rescue were called out last Monday to rescue a competitor in this year's Tour Divide – a mountain bike race from Banff to New Mexico spanning over 2,700 miles.
One of the competitors, a 24-year-old man from Ohio, lost control on a bridge in the Wigwam area near the U.S. border due to faulty bike equipment. He fell of the bridge on his bike, struck his head on a rock, smashing his bike helmet in the process. Two other competitors helped him out of the river and gave him some dry clothing. After being assured by the man that he would use his emergency SPOT device to call for help, the helping competitors continued on, stopping at Roosville to inform border guards of the incident.
RCMP called Fernie Search and Rescue (SAR) after being notified of the alert at the border and began searching for the man. After two hours searching by helicopter, SAR members returned to Fernie to refuel and ask local chiropractor Dr. Paul Attalla to join the search. A former Tour Divide competitor, Attalla was able to more effectively direct the search efforts.
The man was eventually located high on a pass above the U.S. Border, pushing his bike in a severe rainstorm. He had suffered severe head trauma.
"We are very grateful to Paul Attalla who dropped everything at his clinic to come help an injured competitor,” said Simon Piney, field leader for the rescue. “Had we not found this man before nightfall, it may have ended very differently."
The man had been spotted earlier in the search, but failed to signal for assistance despite a low level hover by the helicopter to assess if he was in need of rescuing. After talking to the man, it came out that he had chosen not to use his SPOT locator or signal to the helicopter for fear of the high cost of being rescued. He had hoped to make it to the U.S. border and seek medical assistance there.
"This rescue would probably have taken no more than 20 minutes had the subject not had concerns about paying for his rescue,” commented Scott Robinson, SAR manager. “This reinforces the approach we have in B.C. of not making rescuees pay. It is unfortunate this young man had not taken steps to inform himself about the nature of wilderness rescue in B.C. before embarking on such a hazardous race."
SAR eventually agreed to fly the man close to the U.S. border where he was escorted into the States by the RCMP.
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