Crossing of Tasman sea, Nov 2011 – Jan 2012 (part 1)

Four men (James Blake, Andrew McCowan, Nigel Cherrie and yours truly) have completed an unassisted crossing of the Tasman sea in a row boat from Sydney to New Zealand (landing in the Bay of Islands). This was only the second unassisted row across the Tasman sea, the first one being a solo row by Collin Quincey in 1977, and a third unassisted crossing, as the Tasman sea was also paddled across in a kayak by two Australians in 2009. There were also 3 assisted rows across the Tasman, two by single rowers, and one by a 4-person team. Ours was an interesting expedition, so I think that as a former VOCer I should write a bit about it here.

The trip was long in the books (the idea came about around 2006, and I joined the team in 2008). We had a hard time fundraising but eventually got the money around Christmas 2010, and decided to row within a year. The best weather window for crossing from Australia to NZ is either in May or in September/October, according to the advice of our meteorologist. This is because prevailing winds change direction in the latitude of our interest. Normally they blow W to E during said windows. We ended up being delayed, and had to wait for a suitable weather window in Sydney for nearly 3 weeks (the start is the only time when you can actually chose the weather). The weather matters for rowing just as it does for kayaking: it’s hard to row into strong wind and heavy seas.

We started on November 27, 2011, and blasted out of the very large Sydney harbour in less than 3 hours. We were full of energy and optimism, and had excellent boat speed of around 3 knots (1kt=1.852km/h). It was one of the best feelings of the past few years for all of us. There is some video James made from the first day: We were all a bit nervous, filled with expectations of what the coming month will bring. Or 3 weeks, if you were optimistic. Ha!!!!

The boat is a 10.5m long 2m wide row boat with 2 cabins (one on each end) and 3 rowing positions. Loaded with approximately 350kg of food, it weighed around 1.4 tons. Add to that some 50kg of water we typically carried for a period of 1-2 days, and nearly 400kg of people, the overall weight of the contraption being dragged through water was nearly 2 tons. That is a lot. If you have rowed crew before, then you may know that mens’ heavyweight eight full of (eight) 200lb men and a 110lb coxwain weighs about 870kg (including the boat). So two of the rowers of our boat “Moana” (Maori for a large body of water) were dragging about two and a half time the weight of a heavyweight mens eight. That’s just to explain why we were rowing it at a walking speed, on a good day. Over time the weight decreased as people shrunk, food was processed, and gear got destroyed or abandoned. But that decrease in weight was at most less than 500kg.

The idea of rowing across a sea or an ocean is not new. But it is distinctly less popular than climbing mountains. In fact, the number of ocean rowers (both successful and those who did not finish) is only about one fifth of the number of people who successfully climbed Mt Everest. I think the reason is essentially that rowing across an ocean is a very boring thing to do, and takes a lot more time than climbing Mt Everest. Of course Mt Everest is not exactly a great point of reference.

The plan was to row 24/7 in pairs, swapping every 1.5 hours (at the start, at least until we wave removed one of the seats from the boat in a storm – it was tied to deck – we did row 3-up, which was faster but more tiring. Andrew talks about it here a bit: . But the standard routine was 1.5h on, 1.5h off. Some people do it every 2 hours, but we thought 1.5h suited us better. This gives you in principle 12 hours of rest and possibly sleep. There are things that have to be done during the rest though: preparing food (for hot food involves boiling water and waiting for the freeze-dried stuff to do its magic), eating (something you really have to force yourself to do when exhausted), running the watermaker (an electric desalination machine), cleaning various pieces of equipment, going to the toilet (A bucket, actually very comfortable as the air was fresh – depending on the wind – and lots of changing views. Don’t forget to put water on the bottom or you’ll be scrubbing it.). Those activities take maybe 2 hours/day. During the day, it was usually not possible to sleep in the first half of the trip because of the high temperatures in the vicinity of Australia (it cooled significantly past the half-way point). So one could only sleep at night or possibly late evening or especially early morning. But it wasn’t uncommon to sleep 3 hours. This is because after finishing the  shift, one slumbers into cabin, forces himself to eat some food, drink water, check GPS for progress. Then it’s time to take off your undies (most of us either rowed bottom-less or in merino undies, while sitting on a sheep-skin cutout placed on top of a inflatable seat pad used in wheelchairs – all this to avoid pretty major bum issues – with mixed success. Dryness is key. I changed my undies about once 7-10 days, until rowing mostly bottom less in the last week. With good hygene I could have rowed the whole lot in a single piece of undies, as the Norwegians did while trying to reach the poles back when.). At this point you have taken 15 minutes away from your 90 minute break. Falling asleep is a tricky business, because you end up being most awake at the end of the row shift (by which time you have finally woken up), so telling your mind to shut down and sleep ASAP is an acquired skill. The guys who are starting their shift are trying to wake up, talking with each other, and making it harder to fall asleep. Let’s say you can fall asleep in 15 minutes leaving you with 60 minutes until your shift starts. Ten minutes before your next shift starts you hear a warning call “10 minutes”. If you don’t respond, you’ll hear a louder “9 minutes” shortly after, and the volume will keep on rising until you do, too. So this scenario gives you 50 minutes of sleep per 3 hours of night time. There are basically 4 night shifts, giving you 3 hours and 20 minutes of sleep. I tended to be a better sleeper but Andrew was a terrible one, and days went by when he slept less than 3 hours for nearly a week. But the sleeping was the least of our worries.

There is a respite from sleep deprivation on an ocean row. It’s called a storm, or generally bad weather. In a bad weather, you either cannot row, or you can row in dodgy conditions in following seas. There is some footage here from around day 6: You can’t row into a strong headwind (we found that around 15kt is the maximum wind speed directly against us at which we basically were making negligible progress, maybe 0.5kt). At that point you typically say “to hell with it”, because you’re spending all the energy to pretty much stand still (in headwind, rowing is very heavy, and feels like a mixture of a deadlift and a power clean). So when not making much progress, you put out a sea anchor, which is a parachute going into water on a 100m rope (so that it is about 2-3 wave lenghts away from the boat). Once in place, sea anchor will essentially keep your position fixed relative to the sea, and you will tend to drift with any current there is (and a little bit with the wind, also). In the cabins, there was less personal space than in a coffin, with the other guy being constantly in full side body contact with you, while the wall was hugging you on the other side. That’s when you sleep and rest. You can’t lie on your stomach for long, so it’s 80% on the back and 20% on the side (the problem with the side being the constant smashing side-to-side that prevents you to sleep for long in that position). You don’t get a lot of sleep time because in a storm you get thrown around a lot by waves. Waves and swells grew to gigantic proportions at times, at least viewed from a person who’s mostly been on land (me). I am pretty sure the biggest swells in a large storm we experienced were approaching 8m, which would be a size of a 2 story building (as in G, 1, 2). These massive waves were not crashers, mostly swells. But there were plenty of crashers, too. When a 3m wave on top of a swell crashes on top of the boat, the noise and movement were scary for me in the bow cabin. Without the foam-mattrace type coating on the inside of the cabins, we could have ended up with a few broken bones, or at least really nasty bruises in the bow cabin (bow cabin was where the sea anchor attachment points were, so it was facing the waves and wind and got smashed around more).

The other problem with the Tasman, which is why it is so notorious with sailors (the first problem being notoriously bad weather) are the rouge waves that travel in unexpected directions. These are quite common, especially when there are older systems hanging around the Southern Ocean from where these waves travel long distances at high speeds. They can also come from the north when systems exist not too far north of the Tasman. The trick with these waves is that they arrive with substantial force from the side, usually (because on sea anchor the bow is into the wind and prevailing waves), which typically causes a good smack-around in the cabin and can tear things off the deck, depending on the force. The biggest seas we had was a gale, Beauford scale 8, with a brief period of strong gale (force 9, with gusts around 50kt. A hurricane winds are anything over 64kt). We did not film then, but a search on youtube gives this as an example: It was scary, but after the first time I realized I won’t die, and learned how to just ignore the storm and try to sleep.

On and off, we spent about 25 days getting tossed around in the Tasman sea. That was what we did not expect at all. We had in part an unlucky draw with the weather (when the meteorologist, nickname “Clouds”, a respected scientist at one Aussie university, started talking about one of us being born under an unlucky star, I got really worried), and part a late start. The worst of these was a period of around 14 days when we were unexpectedly (with a 2-day warning) approached by strong E winds (pushing us back to Aussie) and a strong S current pushing us North. At this point, we were too far north already, and there was a cyclone (the Pacific brother of the Atlantic hurricane) developing N of our location in the tropics that Clouds warned will be coming towards NZ (yet another uncommon development this year). His brief satellite text message (which we always tended to analyse for hours on end) said “must row south”. We tried to oblige but for 4 days we were moving 3nm (1 nautical mile = 1.852km) S during the day of rowing in heavy E seas while drifting back 5nm N overnight on sea anchor (the waves from side were too big to row safely during the night). After this episode, Clouds told us that the cyclone was downgraded to a tropical storm but was still heading our way. On December 24, 2011, after inching our way down S and being spat back up back N, we got the news that the weather was not looking good for the upcoming 2 weeks, and that as far as the weather models went, at least the next 9 days will not be rowable. It would not be until the noon of January 3, 2012 that the wind and waves allowed us to row, still in 10-15kt E winds.

This was not what we expected. The only other 4-person boat, with 2 women, with no rowers on board, crossed the Tasman in 2009 in 31 days, of which they spent 10 on sea anchor. So when leaving Sydney we were confident about going fast, after all we were all rowers, some of whom won NZ rowing championship titles. And here we were, 35 days since start, and still nearly 800km away from the nearest land. The evening of December 24 was mentally very hard, particularly because we were going really fast between December 13-16, making about 120km/day, and I remember vividly how we were planning to reach NZ before Christmas. The forecasts were fairly supportive at that point also. A lot can change in a few days – especially  the forecasts in a middle of a Tasman! Anyway, we were really sad for an hour, and talked about it incessantly (for the next two weeks), but decided to do something crazy instead and make a video that we sent via a satellite link to folks in NZ. It ended up being on the national evening news that day, which sane soul watches on Christmas eve, but apparently lifted the spirits of the TV technicians who had to work over Christmas. Here is the video:

I was wondering if I may have attracted this bad weather with my foolish proclamations in the days preceding this “stall”. I have had a problem with my foot, which got infected and looked ugly for about a week, until the last type of antibiotics we had on board finally worked. At that time the foot was the size of a tennis ball, and I had to inject the antibiotics once a day into my upper thigh. 3.75 of the 4cm needle had to go into the muscle prior to injecting about 40ml of liquid into it. This was a challenge because we were in the storm most of that week. I was the designated medic on the team but wasn’t sure I was up for injecting myself. I tried and it was not too bad. I was happy because I knew when to let go of the syringe when waves hit. I remember thinking how funny the syringe with the needle in my leg looked, swinging around a bit in waves. It was also not easy to stay relaxed as required (try injecting a contracted muscle) when using every other muscle to brace yourself steady in a cabin that is tossed around in waves.  But it was easier than having any other guy do it because they would invariably end up poking around inside my leg with the needle when the next wave hit. I embraced the challenge and by the end of the 5 days I both dreaded and looked forward to it, because I always felt good after it was over. By that time the foot was clearly healing, I was happy as Larry and loudly proclaiming that I can take any bad weather there is (I think I was talking specifically about one or two weeks). And it came! And I did take it, with a lot of negative thoughts.

I will continue this report later on. It’s way too long already. But to cut to the chase, we landed on the 51st day, January 16 2012.

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2 Responses to Crossing of Tasman sea, Nov 2011 – Jan 2012 (part 1)

  1. Skyler Des Roches says:

    Pure badassery. This is pretty much the coolest thing I’ve ever read on the VOC website (which is quite full of cool things). Congratulations for succeeding (surviving)! I hope you’re not struggling too much to walk in a straight line and communicate with, um, normal people.

    Keep it coming!

  2. Ryan Davis says:

    One word…. EPIC!

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