A lesson in suffering – Singapore to Bali by human power

Try and imagine what it is like to row a tiny boat in a huge ocean for two hours in the rain and wind with large waves surrounding you.  After your two hour shift you come into a tiny claustrophobic sleeping cabin which is also wet through.  Your mattress is sodden, the condensation drips off the walls while you try and sleep for 90 minutes in your damp clothes.  The entire cabin shakes, rocks and crashes continuously in the strong winds, so much that you have to sleep spread eagled, face down to avoid being thrown around.  After 90 minutes of restless sleep you wake, eat some cold muesli, have a drink of water, put on your wet weather gear and get back onto deck in the wind and rain to row again.  Repeat this cycle, every two hours, all through the day, all through the night, day after day after day.

So 25 days since departing Singapore’s sunny shores, it was with immense relief that we arrived safely into Bali at 2315hrs late on the evening of the 28 January 2017.  A journey of 1070nm (over 1900km) completely by human power.  Getting to Bali was a tough , tough fight.  This was mainly due to a massively strong north easterly setting current stream which we had to fight for these three days and nights as we crossed from the shallow Java Sea into the much deeper Bali Sea.  This current stream was pushing us north east, in the direction of Sulawesi and we desperately needed to head south towards Bali.  Bali is an extremely important stop over for the success of the expedition for three key reasons.  We had a food re-supply arranged here, we are meeting family here and most importantly it is the place we clear customs and immigration to officially exit Indonesia and head to Darwin, Australia.  Unfortunately there are only a very small number of ports in Indonesia where a small boat like ours can enter and exit for customs and immigration and Bali is the only option on our planned route to Darwin.   The only alternative if we missed Bali would be to head south to Kupang in Timor Island which would see us hitting some seriously adverse ITF (Indonesian through flow) currents pushing us into the Indian Ocean and away from Darwin.  This was an option I was desperate to avoid.

So for the last three days and nights we had a massive struggle to push Simpson’s Donkey south through the current streams.  With the monsoon winds blowing at 20 – 25 knots, it was our first taste of larger sea conditions and it rained almost constantly for three days and nights.  This made life on-board uncomfortable as everything becomes wet – you are wet while rowing and after your shift the cabin is wet, the mattresses are wet.  Our skins crawled with heat rashes and we both developed salt sores over our bodies.  I started to get a fungal infection on my penis.  It was too rough a lot of the time to boil water and heat food.  Life was miserable.  There was not enough sunshine during the day to charge our batteries to make drinking water.  Our food rations had been contaminated by fiberglass and glue fumes from the holds and tasted disgusting.  We were on constant look out for ships. We were tired and our bodies craved rest. We craved sunshine and being clean and dry.

Four times during those last three days we deployed our para anchor.  This is an underwater parachute which acts as a brake so slow us down.  It is on a long 70m rope which we attach to the bow of the boat.  Each time the current and winds became too strong during the night to row against, we would effectively lose control of the boat, it would start spinning 360 degrees and we would be pushed at over 3 knots north east.  By deploying the para anchor our speed would slow to 1 knot, but still in the wrong direction.  Being on para anchor is awfully uncomfortable as the boat rocks and bucks like riding a wild horse.  We have one person on deck on watch while the other tries to rest in the cabin.

Our first para anchor deployment was in the midst of a storm.  It was the first time we had ever deployed the system so took much fumbling in the dark.  I dropped the bow line into the water, Charlie had to go for a swim to retrieve it, not a pleasant experience in the pitch dark in rough sea’s.  Of course we made sure he was well secured to the boat by his harness and safety line.  Being on watch on the deck was an exercise in suffering.  Some of the waves were so large they crashed completely over the entire boat, pouring over the cabin roof with water pouring in through the ventilation hatches.  The back deck would completely flood and you would be effectively floating on the deck instead of sitting on it.  The best place on the back deck was to hide in against the cabin door and hold onto the grab bag.  For two hours we would hug the grab bag, clipped onto the jackstay with our harnesses and safety line for fear of being washed overboard.  Being separated from the boat in these conditions is a death sentence.  Every 15 minutes we pop our heads up to scan for vessels.  In the darkness you cannot see the waves coming – only hear them.  There can only be one more miserable thing to do in these conditions – and that is to take a crap.  Which I needed to do in the early hours of the morning. I cursed and swore at my bowels and their lack of timeliness as I sat on the bucket and held on for dear life.  The problem with being on para anchor is that it soon became apparent it was simply delaying the inevitable.  We were still drifting in the wrong direction, just more slowly.  The only option was to try and row, we had to get back on the oars and fight the current and winds and pray that we could somehow break out of these current streams.  When your options in life become extremely limited – everything becomes very simple, maybe not easy but definitely simple.  We needed to row ourselves out of the shit we had got ourselves into.  “Row you bastards Row” – Colin Quincey’s mantra sang through my mind.  So on we rowed – hour after hour after hour.  It was physically and mentally exhausting trying to row in those conditions.  We had to point the boat at a heading of 230 or 240 degrees, and row as hard we could.  The rudder would be locked off as far as possible to one side to try and hold our heading but this was still not enough to hold the course in the wind, so we would row using one oar only to try and keep the boat strait for hours on end until our right arms were overly strained and painful.  The waves were getting steeper with some of them starting to break at the crests.  One wave hit us broadside and broke at completely the wrong time, I was swept off my rowing seat into the safety lines – the entire deck under 2 feet of water.  Even when pointing the boat  at 240 degrees and rowing as hard as we could – our course over ground was 110 – 120 degrees.  Basically the boat was moving broadside through the water.


When the winds picked up too high, we stowed the oars and surfed the boar at 4 – 5 knots using the foot steering.

There were two times during the last week  I was sure the expedition was over.  It seemed impossible to break out of the current streams, and every mile further we were pushed east was making it tougher and tougher to move south to Bali.  I thought of all the work that had gone into the expedition, and how it would feel to fail so early on.  How many people had helped and supported to get us to this point.  How would it feel returning to Singapore after only one month of a year long expedition? I thought of the glee on the faces of the naysayers who had rubbished the idea and made bets how long it would be before we needed rescuing.  And then I realized – hold on mate, you can’t just push the magic button and return to safety here.  Whatever happens,  right now, you are in the shit, and you need to get out of this situation yourself and make landfall somewhere, anywhere.  I wanted to cry – I actually deliberated it, but realized it was waste of energy and emotion that I did not have.  We simply needed to row, whatever option we had, if we missed Bali or made Bali, of the expedition was over or not, we still  needed to row.

Making pitifully slow speeds of 0.5 knot, we eventually had our lucky break.  As the water became deeper – dropping from 70m depth from the Java Sea down to over 1000m in the Bali sea, the current started to ease. It dropped its vicelike grip on our tiny boat and allowed us to start heading at 170 degrees – almost due south. And our speed started to improve – until we felt we were flying at almost 2 knots.  I felt a tiny glimmer of hope.

Around 20nm from Bali we started to see her massive skyline appearing though the clouds.  Bali is such a beautiful island –  I will never forget how beautiful she looked from the sea.  I am immensely grateful that I have had this opportunity to see her like this, under my own steam, after so much effort and risk, could land ever look more beautiful?  Her ridge lines appeared through the mist like a scene from Jurassic park and they beckoned to me.  The huge volcano Gunung Agung, appearing at 3031m elevation on our left.  And as we got closer we started to make out individual tree’s and buildings.


Mt Agung – the highest mountain on Bali at 3031m is a beautiful volcano and this is the view that greeted us as we rowed into Bali.  Photo credit: Alistair Harding

I call it a miracle we reached Bali.  Sometimes in life we need a little luck, we need miracles.  This miracle came with a massive amount of effort and by putting our balls well and truly on the line, but I still consider it a miracle and whoever out there was watching over us and gave us the strength to break through those currents, I thank you very much.


Transferring gear by human power from Simpson’s Donkey at anchor in Amed Bay, Bali, Photo credit: Alistair Harding

I would like to personally thank Dave Field our project manager for his support through this journey to date, I speak to him sometimes 3 times per day on the satellite phone, the worse the conditions the more I talk to him,  speaking to him makes me feel safe when I am scared and tired.  The most wonderful news we received as we arrived into Bali was that Dave and his wife Davinia have just had a beautiful baby daughter.  Also our  film producer Alistair Harding, who has become much more than a film producer.  In Pulau Bangka, Pulau Bawean and Bali here, he arrives early, scouts out safe landing spots, arranges formalities and makes friends with the local people to welcome us in and get us safely into unfamiliar harbors, which is a massively stressful experience in a rowing boat with no engines.  In Bali he came out late at night on a small fishing boat to guide us into harbor and a safe mooring buoy.  We would never have been able to get in here without his support. Also to Charlie my team mate on this first section from Singapore to Darwin – a more solid and honest friend to share this experience with – I could not have wished for – thank you for being such a brave and committed team mate.

As we approached beautiful Bali’s shores in the darkness, and we finally knew we were going to be safe and make landfall, I turned to Charlie and said – “no one but you and I will understand completely how hard this has been, except the next guys who try it,  but whatever happens – we will always be the first.”

Thank you for the lovely messages of support we have been receiving – one my main goals from the early days of this expedition was to share the experience in a positive way with as many people as possible.  To inspire and send positive vibes about the way we can live our lives.  It’s great to see so many people following and enjoying the progress but also I hope you can take away things yourself from what we are doing and apply them to your own situation in positive ways.

So that’s me signing out – tremendously excited to see my wife Stephanie and daughters Kate and Rachel arriving tomorrow for 6 glorious days of R & R here in beautiful Bali.

Yours in Human powered adventure,

Captain Grant ‘Axe’ Rawlinson


Posted on January 30, 2017, in Rowing Home. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. You should try commuting from Lowestoft to Great Yarmouth in freezing fog….


  2. Huge congrats……..for us in our desks we can never know what it was like……but Axe does a brilliant job helping us! On on……..


  3. This journey, and being able to follow you is just amazing. Your expressive writing gives the tiniest glimpse of what you’re experiencing, and of the limitless possibilities that are there for us all. Enjoy beautiful Bali, family, and rest. Who needs reality TV with you guys around? Just loving it.


  4. Marilyn Lois Rawlinson

    You guys are truly amazing. We look forward to each and every one of your posts. Enjoy your deserved rest and family time


  5. Congrats on making it to Bali. Glad it’s you and not me out there in that little boat. Enjoy resting and being dry, as well as the time with your family.


  6. Douglas Earl Lindsay

    So pleased to read you have arrived at Bali safely enjoy family and rest.You are amazing keep safe and look forward to future posts


  7. Really enjoying following your journey! Thanks.


  8. Bjarne Uhde Nielsen/ BJ

    Truly inspiring reading. Axe and Charlie, keep fighting and keep writing. All the very best of ongoing good luck. Cheers BJ


  9. Well done Pak Grant! and fellow shipmate Charlie – yours are truly an inspiration to us all; hope you get a good rest and some time with your girls. Our prayers are with you all the way!


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