21-year-old rower Mike Johnson lost his life when he went overboard from the Toby Wallace. A report by the MAIB has found safety standards and crew preparation were insufficient to deal with the risks faced

1 February 2017

A report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) into the fatal man overboard from the ocean rowing boat, Toby Wallace, has found the crew’s preparation and training were “insufficient”.

Mike Johnson, 21, was thrown overboard during rough seas at night on 14 February 2016.

His safety leash around his ankle snapped, separating him from the boat. He was not wearing a lifejacket or a personal locator beacon.

Efforts by the crew to reach him failed.

Despite a search by the cargo ship, Sea Pearl and French and Portuguese fixed wing aircraft, Johnson, who had been involved in rowing since 2007, was never found.

The rest of the crew abandoned the Toby Wallace and were taken to Brazil by the Sea Pearl.

Toby Wallace crew prepare to abandon the boat

Crew of the Toby Wallace prepare to board the Sea Pearl. Credit: MAIB

The eight-man rowing team had set off from Puerto de Morgan in Gran Canaria on 30 January 2016 and were headed for Barbados in an attempt to set a record transatlantic crossing.

The MAIB’s investigation has found they crew, many of whom paid for a place on board, were not sufficiently prepared to deal with a 31-day ocean passage and the recovery of a person overboard at night and in rough seas.

Only the boat’s skipper and first mate were experienced ocean rowers. Sea survival training was not required for the crew.

The crew had also only rowed together a “short time” before leaving Gran Canaria.

The Toby Wallace was operated by Oceanus Rowing Ltd.

The incident was the second occasion in two days in which rowers in an ocean rowing boat operated by Oceanus Rowing Ltd had been rescued in the North Atlantic by a passing
merchant vessel.

Earlier on 14 February 2016, the four crew of the ocean rowing boat, Fire Ant, were rescued by the Liberia registered bulk carrier Rio Grita after the boat was damaged in rough seas.

The MAIB report highlighted that commercially operated ocean rowing boats are not regulated and no minimum safety standards have been set.

It found that Toby Wallace’s gunnels were only 300mm above the deck and provided “virtually no protection to the crew from the risk of falling overboard”.

The boat’s design also increased the difficulty of recovering a man overboard, as the boat couldn’t be turned into strong wind.

The ankle leashes used by the crew were not manufactured or tested to meet any national or international safety standards, and were therefore “not sufficiently reliable for use as safety equipment”.

None of the crew wore lifejackets, although they were carried on board and there was only one personal locator beacon.

“The risk of a person falling overboard from Toby Wallace had not been properly assessed. Consequently, appropriate mitigation measures had not been put in place,” said the report.

The MAIB also highlighted that the Toby Wallace was operating as a commercial vessel but was not certified to do so.

Recommendations have been made to British Rowing , the governing body for ocean rowing in England, and to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to improve the governance of UK registered ocean rowing boats and ensure minimum safety standards on board those that are commercially operated.

British Rowing is also being recommended to liaise with stakeholders to develop a code of practice for ocean rowing, including boat design, construction and stability, minimum training and equipment requirements and onboard procedures and shore and sea-based support.

The MAIB has also made a recommendation to Oceanus Rowing Ltd to improve the safety of its boats on ocean crossings in the future, including reviewing its risk assessments and ensuring the crew are properly trained and have the appropriate equipment.

Since 1990, there have been 204 unsuccessful attempts to row across an ocean that necessitated crew rescue.

Records indicated that up to 1999, five fatalities had occurred during ocean rowing crossing attempts. There has been one fatality between 1999 and 2015.


19 February 2016

The search for a man lost at sea when a crew of eight rowers were thrown overboard from their vessel has been stopped.

Mike Johnson, 21, was part of a team raising money for charity on a transatlantic rowing trip when the wave sent him overboard, breaking his safety leash and separating him from the boat.

The team had set off from Puerto de Morgan in Gran Canaria on 30 January and were headed for Barbados in an attempt to set a record transatlantic crossing when the wave struck.

A news posting on the Oceanus Rowing group website — an organisation dedicated to assisting those who want to undertake a transatlantic rowing trip — said:

“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 15th February 4 of the 8 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 wind 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 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.”

The Portuguese coastguard and the UK coastguard reportedly collaborated in a search for the missing rower, calling in the assistance of a nearby cargo ship and deploying two aircraft to the area. The search continued until fading light forced an end to operations. The rowing team were transferred to the cargo ship just before dark and will be transferred to land at the ship’s next port of call.

None of the seven rowing crew onboard the ship reported any injuries in the incident. One of the crew members posted to his Just Giving fundraising website: “Although the 7 crew are physically ok their hearts and thoughts are with Mike and his family at this very traumatic time.”

Related links: 

UK rowing team rescued after boat capsizes

‘Accidental drowning’ ruled in death of rowing coach