To recap – COBI our drone company had been formed and our first experience of ‘UAV work’ came with Team Essence; ‘The SAS Atlantic rowers’.
Team Essence had left Lagos, Portugal to row the Atlantic. (3,807 miles to row, each member rowed for 2 hours on and 2 hours off, sleep?) They were now rowing. I slummed it in a family holiday in Costa Rica, near their end destination Venezuela! I had contact with them and texted inspiring songs to row to. Tim Peake, was also speaking to them from the ISS, with better songs and advice. They rowed.
Once at home, plans were made for the intrepid Colin and me to go to Trinidad, not their final destination but as close as International Law would allow.
We left in late February 2016 with tickets, via Miami, great … two drones, Lipo batteries etc. We had a mission. We got to Miami, slept in some concrete hotel and flew to Trinidad, lipos and Drones ok, but American customs were not fun.
Arrived at night in Trinidad late and got to the Cruise Inn sometime about 2am their time. No room, great, Colin near loosing the plot went and rested by the beautiful pool. I walked out of reception only to see two figures in the road. “Tobi! Is that you”, was a call from the dark figures, “Yes”. I walked towards the figures, these people turned into the warm welcome hugs of Jules and Francesca, the girlfriends of Foxy and Olly Bailey – we were now saved from disorientation and a lack of friends.
Becky, Ross’s girlfriend kindly gave us her room for the night and our reservation was available at the Cruise Inn the next day.
All well. Now enough about us, the Drones were ready and we had arrived in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
Meet the crew. Various family members and girlfriends had made the trip to Trinidad to see the guys home; we even had a lady from NBC over to cover the story.
We were all there for one reason. Team Essence, they were still rowing; now 300 miles off mainland Venezuela. Silver Fox, Jason Fox’s dad was navigator/ co-ordinator and the man that never slept. Even at 5am or anytime, he was glued to the screen. “Where are they now’, I would ask sipping a Pina Colada. “200miles south west of Cape so and so and not making good, bad currents and closing in on the drug running area”. I was beginning to worry. The straights between Trinidad and Venezuela are a drug runners dream and a political nightmare. Team Essence was head on to break records but also rowing into treturous waters, not only from currents but pirates.
Now this was a real consideration. Silver Fox put the assembled friends, family, girlfriends and journalists straight. “Once in the rescue boat, if we get incoming fire, lie down on my command. Chances are they won’t hit you. It is very difficult to hit a moving object on a pitching and rolling boat”. Cold comfort but at least we felt that Silver Fox an ex paratrooper had a handle.
Team Essence now had an ETA of that evening, in daylight! Which for us was brilliant for the Drone work.
The rescue boat was readied. Lots of water, cold beers, snacks and medical supplies. A very large Rastafarian owned the boat which was about 30ft long with two large inboard engines.
We left Port of Spain into heavy Atlantic seas. Heading towards the last reported position of Team Essence.
We had a helicopter gun ship kindly supplied by the Trinidad Government, but flown by an RAF crew. This escort was some comfort. At last we saw the tiny rowing boat that was Team Essence. The girls on the front deck of the rescue boat got very excited, waving; then BANG! One of our engines blew up and started to belch black smoke. The Captain shut it down, but now we were down to one engine and on half speed.
Here began the flight from hell. Once Team Essence had been sighted; Colin shouted to me, “Get the drone ready,” “What in this?” “Why are we here?!” I got the drone ready, in a heavily rolling boat that was now stopped to allow the drone launch. I let go of the drone from the back deck. Immediately it was taken by the wind and within seconds it was lost.
I shouted for all present to scan the skies for the drone. At last, one of our crew sighted the drone. Our Captain turned the boat around and headed towards the dot. It was the drone, fighting its hardest against the strong winds. Colin very skilfully managed to get the drone to within feet of the back of the boat. We had a burly medic on board, (Brother of Matthew Bennet, Team Essence’s Captain.) Who volunteered to hold on to my waist as I lent off the back of the boat, on my knees because of the swell.
Colin brought the drone in, I missed it on the first grab, but managed to get a handle on the landing gear on the second attempt. I fell back, being pulled by the big medic Jamie and landed on my butt between his legs, with a live drone. With propellers still spinning. Colin turned it off! Jamie had been hit by a propeller and it cut his finger to the bone, lucky he was a medic!
Second piece of luck was getting the drone back at all. Lessons learnt fast and lots of them.