PORT ANGELES –– What kept Port Angeles adventurer Chris Duff alive while he waited 11 hours for rescue in the stormy North Atlantic earlier this month was knowing that a plan was in place.
Before Duff set off in his rowboat, the Northern Reach, to journey from Iceland to Greenland, he sat down with an Icelandic search and rescue team and made sure everyone was prepared for the worst.
“The reason everything went so well was that plan had been drawn up and we agreed upon it and we all acted upon it,” he said Tuesday.
“We stuck very close to that plan and that’s why I’m alive.”
Duff will talk about his experience at the Port Angeles Senior Center, 328 E. Seventh St., at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Duff wants to tell how he survived the storm and to thank the community for supporting him on his adventures throughout the past 20 years.
“I feel there were some very valuable lessons in crisis management that will become evident in the presentation,” he said.
“It’s a tremendous story just in how things turned out.”
Duff was rescued about 100 miles off the Icelandic coast July 2 by an Icelandic search-and-rescue team based in Grindavik, a small town about 30 miles from Reykjavik.
When Duff left Iceland a couple days earlier, the forecast was for a calm sea for at least the next five days.
On the third day of his voyage, unexpected winds developed and continued to grow.
With a satellite phone, Duff called friends who were on the search and rescue team and learned the forecast had changed and he was in for a rough ride.
He had already been blown south and expected the winds to blow him so far south he would miss Greenland all together, so he called for rescue rather than risk the storm getting worse.
If that happened, the chance for rescue would have been slim.
“While in range for the search-and-rescue boat, I opted for that early rescue than risk a far more dangerous scenario,” he said.
“As it turned out, the winds predicted to increase did increase.”
The storm was expected to last 48 hours, but ended up holding for another four to five days.
“With hindsight, the decision to call for rescue early was a good call,” he said.
As he held on for rescue, the seas were somewhere between six and eight feet tall with breaking waves and wind speeds continued to increase.
“The boat was getting battered around severely,” he said. “Seas were breaking over the boat.
“I had been without sleep for about 20 hours when I called and I was slightly seasick.”
When Duff called for the rescue, he was told help should arrive within four hours.
That four hours turned into six hours, which eventually turned in to 11 hours, as the weather worsened.
During those 11 hours, Duff, wearing a dry suit, spent most of his time on his back in the forward cabin of the Northern Reach, attempting to eat and stay awake.
At that point, his job was to stay awake and continue updating the search-and-rescue team with his location. He had set out a sea anchor, but he was still drifting.
“When you’re in a situation like that, you put your hopes on a time frame,” he said.
“When that is continuously pushed further and further out, it’s a mental game of staying focused, readjusting your expectations of maintaining what your job is.”
What motivated him to stay awake was knowing there was a search and rescue team coming closer and that his wife, Lisa Markli, was handling communications in Port Angeles.
To make it easier for the team to find him, Duff put up a kite. It flew about 50 feet in the air.
When the four-man search and rescue team arrived, Duff and the crew worked together calmly to ensure a safe rescue.
“We were all doing the job that was required of us given the conditions,” he said.
“There was no extra drama — the sea was providing all the drama that was needed.”
Once onboard, the goal was to save the Northern Reach. The team managed to tow the boat in the 10-foot seas for about six hours, but eventually lost the boat.
“At the time I was absolutely exhausted, mentally and physically,” he said. “I told them to let her go. I did it with very little emotion.
“Now, when I think about it, it’s more painful than it was then.”
The Northern Reach was a modified 19-foot Wayland Marine Merry Wherry vessel that Duff customized for his long-distance rows in the ocean.
He had first used the boat — chosen for its speed, minimum weight, dryness in rough water and adaptability for modifications — in 2011.
The last part of the boat Duff had left was a single oar.
After the rescue, he presented the oar to the team that rescued him, a symbolic gesture thanking them for their efforts.
“It was a very emotional thing for me to pass on, but at the same time it felt very right,” he said.
“It was the last part of Northern Reach that I could physically touch.”
After his rescue, Duff spent several days with a couple in Grindavik, who gave him everything he needed to recover.
Following the rescue, Duff felt it was his responsibility to pay the costs of the rescue. He had a choice and elected to foot the $16,000 bill himself.
“I have strong feelings about that,” he said. “Everybody needs to take responsibility for their actions.”
While he is now responsible for the bill, Duff is accepting donations at the talk Saturday. In no way are donations mandatory, he said.
This was Duff’s first journey since the summer of 2014 when he successfully rowed 300 miles from Scotland to Greenland, a feat he had attempted twice before without success.
Duff also circumnavigated Great Britain in 1986 and Iceland in 1996, and rounded New Zealand’s South Island in 2000.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5550, or at [email protected]