Rowing the worlds second busiest port – lessons from the first training expedition
Ocean Rowing boats are designed to cross oceans. Massive expanses of endless blue water. Day after day, week after week, month after month without seeing land. Thousands of metres of water below your keel. If you are lucky, you may on the odd occasion see a vessel, but far away in the distance. Your food, your water, your toilet, your communications, everything you need to survive for months at a time, is carried on board. This adds up in weight and at 500 – 700kg your boat feels heavy, very heavy. The oars feel like you are dipping them in concrete every time you take a stroke. An average speed for a single person rowing is 1.5 – 2 knots – the pace of a slow walk. You cannot maneuver a boat this size quickly and are very much at the mercy of currents and winds which bully and push you in directions of their choice.
Attempting to row an ocean rowing boat in the worlds second busiest port (Singapore), through these crowded waterways, strong tidal streams, the ever-present risk of reefs, islands and other navigational hazards and the endless human imposed obstacles of red tape and regulations is by no means a straightforward exercise. After months of planning and preparation, obtaining necessary paperwork, licenses, registrations and permissions, Charlie Smith and myself set-out at 1AM last Thursday evening from Raffles Marina in a terribly excited and somewhat nervous state to attempt to row around 2/3 of the Island of Singapore. 32 hours, 58nm (107km), 180 minutes of sleep, 5 stoppages and interrogations by the Singapore Police and Coastguard, two very sore backs and backsides later, we rowed the final few strokes into the Sembawang SAF Yacht Club, having successfully undertaken our first non-stop training expedition.
The journey started well, and based on our study of the tidal streams around Singapore, we rode the currents for the first 8 hours. Rowing through the darkness with our navigation lights on and our AIS transponder electronically beaming our position to nearby vessels, we soon rounded the south-western tip of Singapore, averaging speeds of 3.5 knots. We rowed one person at a time, on 90-minute, alternating shifts. Rowing at night is beautiful in the tropics, the temperature drops off and the lights of the huge ships made us feel as if we were moving through a magical floating city.
After 8.5 hours rowing, around 9:30AM we were at the St Johns Island, just off Sentosa Island, having completed 25nm through the busiest section of waterways Singapore has to offer. The constant stream of vessel traffic approaching and crossing from all directions meant we needed both hands on deck, one person rowing and the other steering and on lookout duty. The downside of this was that we could not rest or sleep on our off-shifts.
After crossing the Tanjong Pagar fairway (container terminal shipping lane), the sun came out to bake and torment us. The current also turned against us and our speed slowed to a pitiful 1 knot or less as we clawed our way along the east cost of Singapore for the next 6 hours, averaging speeds between 1 – 2 knots. At the eastern tip of Singapore we stopped for a short break to eat our freeze-dried food, take a quick swim to cool off after 16 hours on the go, and scrape the barnacles off the bottom of the boat. As darkness fell we made our way around the eastern tip of Singapore Island – and the Changi Naval Base. This Naval base is a heavily restricted and guarded zone so we made sure to stay outside of this area. However we still aroused suspicions and were stopped again (this for the third time) by the Singapore police who forced us to row for one hour, in a southerly direction, against the wind while they checked our paperwork. A frustrating exercise especially for Charlie who was on the oars, in the dark and the choppy sea conditions. After realising our paperwork was complete, the Police became much friendlier, gave us the all clear and even the offer of assistance if we needed it.
Charlie then took a much deserved rest and it was my turn in the engine room to make the final one mile to round the eastern tip of Singapore. Against the current, with a strong cross wind and with choppy seas making it impossible to get a clean stroke, I clawed our way around at a pathetic 0.8 knots, blinking as the Navy Base shone their powerful search lights in my face every few minutes.
For the next 11 hours we slowly worked our way up the east coast of Singapore, in calmer and much less busy water. We crossed to Pulau Ubin, an Island off the north coast of Singapore and it was serene and peaceful as we rowed just metres away from the dense mangroves in the dead of the night. By this stage our backsides and our lower backs were very uncomfortable. But the main issue was our lack of sleep over the last 24 hours. This coupled with the huge amount of exertion and need to be constantly vigilant meant we were both very tired and it was a slow journey until we finally pulled into Sembawang SAFYC at 8:35AM Saturday morning. Tired yes, but also jubilant to have pulled off our first training expedition in challenging circumstances.
So what did we achieve?
Albert Einstein said “The only source of knowledge is experience”. We learnt more from this 32 hour row, than we could learn in one year of reading books or articles on the subject. The top 10 learning experiences we will take away and work on for the next expedition are:
- Bums get sore when you sit on them for long periods – we need softer seat options. I wore cycling shorts which I found to be very uncomfortable, cramping my style somewhat and eventually I took John Thomas, Barry and William out of the cycling shorts and allowed them to hang free which was much more pleasant.
- Lower backs get very sore from rowing long periods – we need to work on good technique engaging our lower abs when we row to lessen the pressure on our lower backs, and also look into using lower back braces to help support our backs.
- Hands can get very sore as well from gripping the oar handles. We are fortunate to have fantastic soft Oarsome Oar Grips – these meant we did not get one blister, but we do need to fix them correctly to the handles as they kept rotating.
- Food is a major moral boost and very important to keep us going. Our first attempt at food needs revision. The dehydrated meals were nice, the two-minutes noodles we cooked were excellent, but the many bags of nuts were not good, we had too many nuts! We need more variety of snacks.
- Sleep – to be able to continue rowing in shifts for long periods it is crucial to be able to rest. We badly needed to sleep, but due to the busy nature of the waterways it was difficult to have this luxury. It is also very hot in the cabin to sleep during the day so we need to make an area on deck which one person can lie and sleep more comfortably.
- Boat maintenance – we need to have a roster and a system for maintaining the boat. ‘Look after the boat and the boat will look after you’. After we came off our shifts, between eating and drinking, keeping lookout, navigating, entering waypoints into the GPS – our time to maintain the boat was very limited and hence we did not really do it.
- Body maintenance – similar to looking after the boat, looking after our bodies is critical. We need to develop solid routines when we come off shift, to clean ourselves, change clothes, eat, drink and rest correctly.
- Ships Log – we were so busy with everything else we ignored the log, we need to start diligently filling out the log every few hours, with the most important details such as battery power, vessel position and speed, current weather conditions.
- The little things – there were many small details which need improving and tweaking, things you never think about until you get yourself into the situation – clothes pegs to dry your shirt without it blowing away, spare lighters, where to store the toilet paper, configuring the GPS units so they both display with the same settings etc etc etc.
- Team dynamics – the only way to test how you will get along with your partner in extreme situations is to put yourself into these challenging situations and see how you both react. As Charlie and myself are a new combination, I was very interested to see how our dynamic would work. It turned out to be a very positive experience which I will share more on in future posts.
We are now gearing up for our next training expedition which will be an attempt to row the entire way around Singapore. We will put the changes into place which we have learnt and identified above, and slowly but surely we will become a smoother and more well oiled machine!
Simpson’s Donkey… out…