Rowing from Dili to Darwin – running the cyclone gauntlet

On the 10 March 2017, I departed Dili, East Timor in my rowing boat together with my rowing partner Charlie Smith from the UK, destination Darwin, Australia.  This was the final stage in the first leg of my journey to travel from Singapore all the way to New Zealand completely by human power, using my rowing boat Simpson’s Donkey as the mode of transport.  We had no engine or sail on-board and we were not accompanied by support craft.

The expedition named ‘Rowing from Home to Home’, set off from Singapore on the 3 January 2017, and had taken 55 days to reach Dili, arriving on the 26 February 2017.  The last stage of the crossing from Dili to Darwin is described below and written with enough information to hopefully be of assistance to adventurers in the future with their own crossings.

As far as my research, could prove, Darwin to Dili is a regular sailing route – however a human-powered crossing between East Timor and Australia had never been attempted, let alone successfully completed.  I found only one chap who had made the journey in the opposite direction (i.e. from Darwin to Dili) by human power.  This was Jason Lewis, an Englishman who in May 2005, made the journey in 9 days, peddling his custom-made, ocean peddle boat across the Timor Sea. (NB:  using a sail on a kayak is most definitely NOT human power).

The weather in this part of the world is dominated by the monsoon seasons which run with north-westerly winds during the ‘wet’ season from November through to the end of March and South easterly winds during the ‘dry’ season from May through to October every year.  The wet season also corresponds with cyclone season, and is characterised by severe thunderstorms on an almost daily basis and very hot muggy weather.  The wet season is therefore NOT the season of choice for recreational sailing and other water based activities. Local yachties normally have their boats safely tucked away during this period and await the more settled weather of the dry season.

Route map

The red line marks our eventual GPS track from Dili (top left) to Darwin (bottom right).

As can be seen from the map of the crossing above – Jason Lewis in crossing from Darwin to Dili, used the more settled weather patterns in the south-east monsoon to make his crossing during May.  Alas for us needing to travel in the opposite direction, it would be very difficult to row against the prevailing winds therefore we had to make the crossing during the north-west monsoon and hence run the threat of being caught in a cyclone.  To minimise the threat, we left towards the middle of March which is the normally coming to the end of cyclone season but by no means is an assurance (as we were to discover) that we would not be caught by one. In summary, crossing from Darwin to Dili would be a slightly safer and more predictable option to take during the south-east monsoon than coming the opposite direction as we attempted.

Dili was a place of contrast for me.  Magical and beautiful, yet haunting and thought-provoking.  The day before departure we visited the Santa Cruz cemetery in the heart of the city.  This is where the infamous massacre of over 200 innocent civilians by Indonesian troops occurred on November 12, 1991 and was something that shocked and sickened me, filling my heart with pain for people born into this awful situation totally beyond their control. Just how lucky are we to grow up in developed and stable countries? Visit Dili and the Santa Cruz cemetery and it may help to remind you. See the video below for brief 2 minute overview of the Santa Cruz massacre if you would like to learn more.

After an 11 day layover in Dili, we departed on 10 March, 1130hrs (day 67 of the expedition) from Dili harbor, with a small crowd of friendly faces from the local  NZ and UK embassies and Kym Miller and her team.  Kym was our superb host during our stay in Dili and arranged everything for us from CIQP (customs, immigration and quarantine) to accommodation and transport during our stay – she can be contacted through her tourism and adventure company http://www.dtceasttimor.com).

We had slightly fuzzy heads from our farewell party the evening before so were moving slowly under the 40 degree heat and baking sun.  The water in Dili Harbor seems to contain a flesh-eating bug which a number of people had contacted severe infections from.  Small cuts in their skin becoming infected terribly and requiring hospital treatment to cure.  We were hence very nervous of getting into the water as contacting this infection on the boat when we were at sea would be a critical situation.  Charlie had a cut on his foot which we put in a plastic bag for protection.  When it came time to depart, it appeared I would have to dive into the water to untie our bowline from the mooring buoy which I was not particularly thrilled about. After trying to work Simpson’s Donkey into a position from where I could sit in the boat and untie the line, it provedimpossible and I eventually gave up and jumped in the water and tried to complete the task as quickly as possible before getting out and dousing my body in surgical spirits.

We rowed slowly out of the bay at 1.5 knots and looked forward to catching the currents which apparently set north-east along the coastline.  The first 100nm of the journey were following the north coast of Timor all the way to Jaco Island located at the very north eastern tip of Timor Island. From here we had scoped the currents in the Timor Sea and from initial planning had decided that a direct route, 260nm across to the Tiwi Islands may NOT be the best choice.  Instead we planned to head 100nm further east then drop 220nm directly south to the Tiwi Islands avoiding the strongest current area’s. This added a further 80nm onto the crossing but seemed to be a safer option.

Departing Dili

Cristo Rei statue in Dili Harbour – photo: Alistair Harding

We had a beautiful view of the Cristo Rei as we departed Dili as you can see from the drone photo above. This statue has an interesting history as per this particular view on its origins:

“This 89-foot statue of Cristo Rei was constructed in 1996 as a present from Indonesia to East Timor. Indonesian President Suharto wanted to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Indonesia annexing East Timor by half-apologizing to the East Timorese people for Indonesia’s occupation of the country. To please the Catholic majority, Suharto, a Muslim, built a giant statue of Jesus standing atop a globe, accessible by a 590-step staircase. The statue was built in the Indonesian city of Bandung, where nearly all of the workers carving the face of Jesus into copper were Muslim.

Despite three months of construction and a cost of 5 billion rupiah ($559,000), the Indonesian government failed to appease the majority of East Timorese people. Part of the reasoning for this is that Suharto angled the statue to be facing the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, which caused controversy amongst the recipients of the gift.

The ploy had little effect on staving off the East Timorese independence movement, which the people won in 2002. But, like its counterpart in Rio De Janeiro, the Christ statue in Dili still stands.” (source: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/cristo-rei)

The sun baked us mercilessly that first day as if we were sitting in an oven.  It was with intense relief when it finally started to fade and we were treated to a spectacular sunset as the temperatures began to drop, the same time as a large pod of dolphins and what looked like small whales jumped and splashed in the water some distance from our tiny boat.

During the heat of the day we row in one hour alternating shifts and at night-time changed to a 2-hourly alternating shift pattern.  This in effect meant we kept the boat moving 24 hours per day with one person rowing at all times.  We each row 12 hours per day with 12 hours rest. Bearing in mind we had 55 days and nights of rowing to reach Dili, we were a well oiled machine by now and slipped back into the routines of rowing and resting almost immediately.

I suffered through my predictable pattern of homesickness which begins at the start of each leg.  Waves of loneliness and depression wash over me as I miss my wife Stephanie and twin daughters Rachel and Stephanie back home.  After 2 – 3 days these feelings ganerally begin to fade and even though I still miss them, I can start to enjoy the adventure more.  My diary on day 68 reads: “Day heats up as hot as hell,  struggle through it, hangover not helping,, depressed at missing girls and just want to get to Darwin now and finish off this leg”.

After the first night we realised we would be subject to tidal influence all the way up the coast. With the tide we would make 2.0 knots quite comfortably for a few hours then when it turned we would slow to 1 knot or less.  However it was never strong enough that we could not make forward progress, albeit very slowly.  East Timor is a very mountainous country, with the highest point Tatamailau (also known as Mount Ramelau) at 2,963 metres (9,721 ft)ASL.  Whilst nice to be close to land with beautiful views, the downside to this was that due to the massive scale of the mountains, it made us realise how pitifully slow our progress was.  Sometimes I would be on my third particular shift of the day and feel that the view and the scenery were exactly the same as 6 hours earlier!

During the early hours of the 13 March – day 70 of the expedition, we finally rounded the tip of Jaco Island, 3 days after we departed from Dili.  Jaco Island is a tiny uninhabited island on the north-east tip of Timor. Apparently a species of deer called the ‘Javan rusa’ live on Jaco island and can drink salt water due to the lack of fresh water.

The sea was glassy calm and the air hot and sticky with no wind, making it very muggy inside the cabin.  I did not manage to sleep well that evening due to the heat, but as we started to move further from the island a welcome NW breeze sprang and our speed increased to 3 knots.  3 knots in an ocean rowing boat feels like you are about to take off.  My spirits on the entire journey were very much related to the speed we were travelling at.  All my calculations leading up to the expedition for planning purposes were based on maintaining 2 knots for as close as possible to 24 hours per day.  If we dropped below 2 knots my spirits would drop, if we dropped below 1 knot I became gloomy and if we were being forced backwards I was positively angry! This is also related to how difficult it is to row the boat.  With tail winds and currents, the boat glides through the water with little effort, rowing becomes a breeze.  With 15 knots or more of tailwind, the sea state begins to build and you get following sea’s and can even begin to surf the boat which is tremendous fun.  However at less than 1 knot and into headwinds, just keeping the boat heading in the correct direction is hard and frustrating work.  It feels like you are rowing in wet concrete and it really takes the fun out of the situation.

At 0800 hrs every morning I called our project manager Dave Field in New Zealand to get an update on the weather using our Satellite phone from Network Innovations. Day 70’s call revealed that some strong westerly winds were forecast for a few days time that would effectively push us some distance to the east.  As I explained above, the initial plan was to head further east initially before dropping directly south to the Tiwi Islands.  But upon hearing this forecast and discussion with Dave, we decided to change the plan. Instead we would now head directly south- east from the tip of Timor towards the Tiwi Islands, and in a few days time use the effect of the strong westerly winds to push us the further distance east to avoid the strongest currents in the Timor Sea.

14 March – Day 71.  Today we started to get some squalls passing through.  The rain was a welcome relief from the brutal heat and rowing naked the cooling water felt like heaven on my skin which was being plagued by heat rash.  A head wind developed from the SE, so in general our progress was very slow, hovering between the 0.5 – 1 knot mark.  We usually had the GPS running continuously for the rower to see his speed and heading. However at these speeds this is a constant reminder of just how slow our progress really was. It was depressing me and I was determined to take control of my mental state and get myself into a positive spirit.  I knew this was within my control but sometimes it is easier said than done.  I eventually found a solution, I turned off the GPS!  I immediately started to enjoy life much more.  By steering off the compass and turning the GPS on only every few hours to check heading and speed I started to look around and enjoy the surroundings much more.  I thought positive thoughts.  I became much more involved in the moment itself.  I reminded myself how lucky I was to be here and that I can only control those things within my control – the wind, weather and currents are beyond that.  What happens with them will happen.  It was a pivotal moment in the crossing for me.

Due to the headwinds, we had to point the boat at a bearing of 200 degrees to make progress over ground at 150 degrees.  In effect the boat was moving sideways through the water.  At the end of day 71, we made only 5nm in 8 hours of continual rowing.  I wrote in my diary “5nm in 8 hours rowing! Thank god for my new mindset!”.  Normally this would have depressed me but now I really did not care.  We would make up the time later when the conditions turned.

Our position was 185nm from the Tiwi Islands and around 60nm from East Timor. Because East Timor is so high with her mountainous interior, we could still make her out and it was depressing to have rowed three days away from land and still be able to see it. I was now concerned if we could actually make it to Darwin before getting caught in a cyclone.  The winds at this time of year should be predominantly from the west or north-west which would have made our crossing more straight forward.  So to have them coming from the south-west or south-east was not what we had hoped or planned and was slowing us down to a point where we were moving too slowly for our safety. We had plenty of food and water on the boat, the main issue I was concerned with was the threat of a cyclone.  I started to work through scenario’s for abandoning ship and catching a ride on a passing merchant vessel if we got a warning of a cyclone imminent.

That night – things improved and the wind swung to the NW.  We made 2 knots of speed until 0300 hrs on 15 March, Day 72, when a massive rain storm passed through from the south for 2 hours.  Charlie did battle on the deck but could not force the boat forward through the storm.  When rain squalls pass over, they normally last for short periods of around 5 minutes to maximum one hour.  They will often bring stronger gusts of very localised wind which can swirl around and push you all over the place.  It is generally not worth putting the para anchor out for these short periods, as it would take more effort and time to deploy and retrieve than the storm would last for.  During my subsequent shift as the squall passed, I managed to row at 0.4 knots in the darkness for one hour until the wind turned to the W, and wS happy to see the speed increase to 1.8 knots.  By 0700 hrs on Day 72 the wind had swung to the NW at 16 knots and we were now flying along at 2.8 knots.

The first 60nm of the crossing of the Timor Sea saw us passing over water depths 1000m and deeper.  However once we were  one-third of the way across we reached a massive shoal, where the sea floor rises to 100m or less in a giant plateau for the rest of the way to Australia.  It is this shallow area where we feared the currents would start to run most swift, and from our information they would be subject to tidal influences, maybe even changing direction on a 6 hourly basis.

Around 1200 hrs on day 72 we received a welcome surprise when a large aircraft flew over us at just 200 feet.  It swooped around and made another low pass and we could make out the insignia of the Australian Border Force on its side.  It was our first concrete sign we were approaching Australia after 72 days of effort and it was terrifically exciting. I wrote in my diary:  “weather gray and overcast, feel quite tired, 3 days @ 2 knots to Cape Fourcroy!”

Australian Border Control airplane flyby

The Australian Border Force passes over at 200 feet (60m).

Day 73 – 16 March.  Overnight it rained hard and I sat rowing in my Musto storm jacket as the wind rose to 16-17 knots from the W.  By now I was getting very good at estimating wind speed and could generally pick it within a couple of knots when I double checked with our wind speed indicator.  The night was overcast which meant no moon light.  It was completely black on the deck with only the faint glow of the compass light to catch my eye. When it is this dark this you cannot see the waves coming.  We had to steer at 180 degrees to make a course over ground of 140 degrees. This meant the wind was coming directly on our beam (side) which makes life very uncomfortable on the boat as it rocks violently from side to side as the waves pass through at the same direction as the wind.  We had prepared the deck for possible capsize and discussed capsize drills earlier in the evening. Because of the strength of the wind, we had to use the centre board, which is a ‘fin’ we can insert and remove below the bow section of the boat.  When inserted, the centre board allows us to hold course much easier in  cross winds.  However it also slows down our progress significantly as it adds more drag.  After a few slow hours with the centre board deployed,  I noticed the wind swing to the NW in the early hours of the morning.  So I removed it and our speed immediately shot up from 0.4 to 2.0 knots.

During the 0800hrs call with Dave Field he gave us some depressing news.  The wind was forecast to turn to the SW, then S then SE over the next few days, which would mean direct headwinds for us to try and row into.  The only positive was that the wind strength was meant to drop to 5 knots or less.  For the rest of that day we managed to hold 2 knots of speed all the way through to 1400hrs.  It was a nice enough day to have the sunshade out and we managed to dry some of our gear on deck.  That evening the wind started to swing back to the W, and Charlie has trouble making forward progress during his first 2 hour evening shift.  When I came on deck to row from 1900 – 2100 hrs, I tried for 20 minutes and the wind and current were making it impossible to even keep the boat heading in the right direction.    I looked at the water depth and noticed it was 76m of water.  Could we combine our 70m para anchor line to our 30m anchor line and drop our 8kg anchor here? ‘It may work’ I thought, but the biggest danger is getting the anchor snagged and not being able to retrieve it up again.  We decided on trying the parachute anchor first so dropped this into the water on its 70m line and waited for it to unfurl.  After a few minutes it became tight, however quickly became apparent that on para anchor we were being pulled directly north at 1.5 knots.  This was not at all desirable to be losing ground at this pace so we retrieved the para anchor and re-rigged the ropes to make a 100m anchor line and with a wish and a prayer dropped our anchor over the side.  When it hit the bottom there felt like a very small amount of rope left however after letting it all out, we noticed our progress halt.  The anchor seemed to be working! It was holding us at least. Alas being on anchor in windy conditions is not a pleasant experience for rest.  We both lay in the cabin as the boat rocked and bucked from side to side and tried to snatch some sleep.  I ended up wedging myself as tight as I could against  the wall of the boat to stop my body and head slamming against it every few seconds.

Day 74 – 17 March.  We rested on para anchor until 1100 hrs, waiting for the winds to drop. By this time they had dropped to < 5 knots, so together we strained and hauled and only just managed to pull up the anchor.  It is very hard work pulling it in on its 100m of thick line.

Hauling in anchor

Fighting hard to get the anchor in.. This would have been bordering on impossible for one person to try to retrieve.

I rowed the first one hour and made a measly 400m, it appeared we were fighting current here as the wind was too light to be affecting our progress this much.  The Australian Border Force plane passed over us again and this time we managed to contact them on the radio. Charlie had a brief discussion with them and they read us some regulations about what we can and cannot do as we enter Australian waters.  By this stage we had started two daily phone calls with Dave Field in NZ to get updates on weather.  At 1500hrs I called him and he gave us some very welcome news that after the southerly winds have passed through it looks like 3 – 5 days of NW and N winds! This looked to be our window to make it all the way into Darwin! I was so happy on deck I shouted and whooped and screamed like crazy.

We started to make some better progress that afternoon and were back to my happy pace of 2 knots.  At 1845hrs our position was 100nm from the mouth of the Apsley Channel. This is the channel which separates the two Tiwi islands,Bathurst Island and Melville Island. It is over 40nm long, and in places is only a few hundred metres wide.  It is lined with sandy beaches, mangroves with plenty of mosquitos, lots of saltwater crocodiles and has very strong tidal streams which reverse every 6 or so hours.  It is definitely a place I wanted to row through, and I had it in my mind for three years that this is how I would like to enter the Beagle Gulf for the final run into Darwin.  We had another choice that was possibly faster however but also subject to strong tidal streams which would be harder to counter as we would be in deeper water.  This was passing around Cape Fourcroy on the western tip of the Tiwi Islands (Bathurst Island).  This was a less exciting option for me and I much preferred the Apsley Strait.

That evening our luck turned again as the wind turned to the south and rose to 16 knots. All day since raising the anchor we had made only 12nm.  The wind started pushing us directly north at a speed of 2 knots.  In 67m of water we once again tossed our trusty anchor over, and once again it held.  We both rested in cabin until 0200hrs when the electronic radar reflector started going crazy.  This is a safety device which has an audible alarm which alerts us when a ship is close and is receiving a radar signal.  I scanned the horizon for thirty minutes in the dark as the alarm continued to ping.  Checking the AIS on the chart plotter I could not see any vessels so eventually turned off the alarm and went back to sleep. Something was out there but the only thing I could think is that it must have been over the horizon.

Day 75 – 18 March.  I actually managed to have a very nice sleep overnight.  Leaving Charlie asleep in the cabin, I come onto deck at 0600hrs and made porridge and tea for breakfast.  It was a beautiful morning on deck, so peaceful and as I sit there quietly eating my porridge I am in love with mother nature and wish this would never end.  Conditions have settled enough for us to depart, so again with maximum effort and grunting we just manage to raise the anchor and set off again.  I took the first shift and made 1 knot at a 120 degree heading which is the best I can hold as the counter current is trying to push us north.  However as the day wore on we managed to pick up pace and by the afternoon are at over 2 knots as the tide turns and the currents flow in our favor.   That evening I ate a delicious freeze dried meal of Moroccan Lamb with couscous in the dead of the night as a few stars peeked out from behind the clouds.  It was magical on deck and with a slight tailwind of 5 knots from the north we made excellent progress.

Day 75 – 19 March.  On my last 2 hour night shift from 0500 – 0700 I made 5.7nm of distance! This is a fantastic speed for a rowing boat and was further than we made in an entire days rowing a few days back.  We were now only 36nm from Cape Fourcroy and almost the same distance to the mouth of the Apsley Channel.  We still had not made a decision as to what route we will take – the Cape or Apsley Channel?  The decision was soon taken out of our hands by the wind.  Being predominantly from the N we had been pushed further S than E, and now would need to travel directly east to make it to the mouth of Apsley Channel.  This would be very difficult with the Northerly winds so the choice was simple, Cape Fourcroy it was to be.

Day 76 – 20 March.  We made good progress overnight and by 0945hrs were only 19nm from the Tiwi Islands.  We expected to see them by now, and regularly scanned the horizon but there was nothing to see but endless flat sea.  I started to plan the crossing of the Beagle Gulf, between the Tiwi Islands and Darwin.  Here the tidal streams are very fierce due to the large tidal range Darwin experiences.  Fortunately for us our arrival coincided with a 3/4 moon which is neap tides when the tidal range is only around 2.5m, instead of the typical 4-8m tidal range at spring tides (full and new moons). The good thing about the Beagle Gulf is the water depth is shallow enough for us to drop anchor (50m or less) all the way across.  As the tidal streams appeared to be too strong to row against the anchor was to be our safety net to allow us to get into Darwin.

At 1530hrs when we were only 12nm off Bathurst Island we finally caught our first glimpse of Australian soil.  The Tiwi’s really are very low-lying and it was only by standing on deck that we could make out their profile in the distance.  What a magical site it was to see them and to confirm that our minds were not playing tricks on us and they did really exist!

1st site of Tiwi Islands

1st site of the very low-lying Tiwi Islands – we had to get within 12nm of them to see them.

As the sun set and the evening progressed we made it to within 1nm off the east coast of Bathurst Island and were struggling to round Cape Fourcroy.  Our progress became slower and slower until at 2200 hrs we were being pushed backwards at 1 knot, even while trying to row forwards at hard as we could.  The water depth was showing 46m on the echo sounder so was definitely within our capabilities to drop the anchor.  However I was weighing up the opportunity cost of dropping the anchor and running the risk of losing it if we could not retrieve it, or continuing to row for a few more hours even if we went backwards and lost some miles, until the tide turned and we could make progress again. What eventually sealed the decision was the wind which was blowing at over 10 knots from the west, forcing us towards the crocodile infested shoreline of Bathurst Island in the darkness.  Getting beached on this shoreline at night was a proposition I was definitely most highly motivated to avoid.  By now deploying the anchor was a familiar routine and very soon we had dropped it and were bobbing around in the pitch darkness, only 1nm off the coast of Cape Fourcroy.

We both lay in the cabin but I did not sleep and instead lay resting with one eye on the chart plotter and my ears listening to the strength of the wind.  At 1230hrs I noticed that instead of the bow pointing to the south, we seemed to have swung to the north.  Whilst at anchor our bow points towards the direction the current is coming from. So this meant that the current should now be pushing us south.  We set about trying to haul in the anchor line however using all of our brute force we could not budge it even one little bit.   I set-up a simple 3:1 pulley system (similar to crevasse rescue techniques) and even using this mechanical advantage the anchor would not move.  After 45 minutes and pulling, heaving and straining we realised we would not be able to get the anchor up.  Now there was only one option, to cut the line with a knife.  This was a committing act, as without the anchor we would be much more vulnerable as we crossed the Beagle Gulf in the strong tides.  The question was simple – do we cut it now, or wait until morning?  It seemed like delaying the inevitable to wait for the morning, so out came the knife and with a few short strokes, I kissed goodbye to hundreds of dollars of beautiful octoplat deployment line, and anchor and chain.

With relief, we found the current was doing what we predicted and we immediately started making excellent speed south.  Very soon were at the south-eastern tip of Cape Fourcroy. We had been using Navionics electronic background charts all the way from Singapore which proved most excellent for navigation.  But here we found their coverage area stopped just a few miles off the coast of the Tiwi Islands, and I needed a second set to cover the Darwin approach – which were inconveniently back home in my storage area in Singapore.  As any good mariner should have, we carried paper charts, and I sat in the cabin in the early hours of the morning, with sweat dripping off my nose, scaling coordinates off the paper chart to try to avoid a dangerous shallow area known as the Afghan shoals as we rounded Cape Fourcroy. With a current pushing us from behind at 2.5 knots, in a couple of hours and around 5nm,  we were soon past these.  As the sun came out it was a beautiful feeling to key in the final waypoint of the entire journey to Darwin – Cullen Bay Marina, directly across the Beagle Gulf and distance of 50.4nm.

It was now day 77 (20 March) and crossing the Beagle Gulf became an exercise in working with and against the tide.  My heat rash which had plagued me off and on since leaving Singapore was starting to flare up again by now, and felt like my skin was crawling, especially on my torso area.  The skin under my arms where constant rubbing was occurring due to the rowing motion was becoming broken and painful, so I changed from my favored naked rowing style to wearing a long-sleeved rowing shirt to try to alleviate the rubbing.  I knew that I only needed to make it another 24 hours or so before I would be back on land with the comforts of fresh water showers and air conditioning.  This would stop the heat rash and other skin issues within a few days.

Around 1130hrs the tide turned directly against us and I battle to make 400m in my one hour shift.  Dave Field had passed the tidal information to us by sat phone so this was one of the first part’s of the entire 2360nm journey that we had a reasonable idea of what the currents would be doing and at what time (except for day one and two of the expedition in Singapore where I had a very good handle on currents and tides).  Hence we knew we just had to hold on until 1440hrs when the tide would turn and we could start to make progress again – until then it was rowing on the spot! Like hamsters on a wheel we continued to row, making pitiful progress but at least not losing ground. And as the afternoon wore on the tide did turn and we picked up speed again.

The evening of day 77 was our last night on the water.  For Charlie especially it was poignant time.  On one hand he wanted to reach Darwin, and on the other hand he knew it was the end of the expedition for him.  His mood became quite and reflective.

Charlie and I had shared a good working partnership on the boat during the expedition.  It was his first major expedition, and he had done well, whilst learning an enormous amount about the realities of big trips.  Being confined to a tiny space with one other person, with no more than 3m of space at maximum to separate you from each other for so many days on end, can be very difficult to cope with.  We had a couple of flare-ups during the trip, but always managed to move on quickly from these.  This I believe is one of the keys to working successfully in small teams.  It is the people who hold grudges for long periods, even days on end that would make life very difficult on these type of high pressure environments.  The ability to have a disagreement, get over it and have a laugh afterwards is very important to being able to work with others.

That evening we rowed slowly past a massive oil rig, which was lit up like a massive Christmas tree, right in the heart of the Beagle Gulf, some 40nm offshore.  We passed with 0.5nm of this massive and most impressive feat of human engineering and tried to raise them on channel 16 on the VHF to say hello, alas to no avail.

That evening around 2100hrs we heard a crackling over the VHF – “Simpson’s Donkey, Simpson’s Donkey this is Nautilus – do you copy? Over”.  It was local Darwin sailor John Punch, who had come out 30nm offshore in his beautiful catamaran, together with Chris his friend and our expedition film producer Alistair.  We were forbidden to make physical contact until we had passed through customs and immigration, but to hear a friendly voice and see the boat a few hundred metres away, allowed me finally to believe that we were close enough now we would make Darwin safely.  Nautilus stayed out all night, and eventually caught up with us again in the early hours of the morning as day light broke to film us on the final approach to Cullen Bay Marina.

We made excellent progress all through that final night at sea, never dropping below 1.5 knots and generally averaging over 2 knots of speed.   As the daylight broke we were treated to a magnificent sunrise over Darwin city and seeing her so close gave us all the motivation two human beings would ever need to get the job done!  We set-up the second rowing seat and very soon both of us were rowing in unison.  With a tailwind and current we were making some of the fastest speeds of the entire journey and averaged over 4 knots as we passed Charles point, now with just 5nm to go to reach the entrance to Cullen Bay.  We had one sand bar to negotiate off Charles point, thankfully John Punch pointed this out to us and guided us around the worst of it. however the water depth dropped to 2.6m below the boat for a brief stage and I had my heart in my mouth as we went over this.  The sea state became very choppy and rough but at 4 knots we were soon clear with the final run in to Cullen Bay left before us.

Rowing two-up to reach Darwin

Sunrise over Darwin city and our first site of the end goal as we row two-up for the last few miles.

There was one last hurdle to negotiate as we made the final approach to Cullen Bay – we were going too fast and could not stop!  The entrance to the marina involved negotiating a tight left-handed turn into a narrow channel between two large rock walls.  In a motorboat with engines with reverse thrust this would be rather straight forward, however in an ocean rowing boat being pushed at over 4 knots by strong winds, with no ability to stop, reverse or even control direction by more than 30 degrees, it was a nightmare. As we got closer, visions of being smashed into the rock walls ran through my head and the fact that Simpson’s Donkey has no insurance and cost me $150,000 to purchase, started to make my blood pressure rise.  Fortunately we managed to rig up a makeshift anchor and under (by now in our eyes our local hero!) John Punch’s excellent advice dropped the anchor just 100m off the entrance to the marina and came to an abrupt stop.  So close – yet still so far to our goal.

After an hour of bobbing around in the intense sunshine, the wind dropped and John came out again in his small dinghy to guide us into the marina, which to my immense relief we managed safely.  We were greeted by a modest crowd of onlookers of whom we generally had no idea whom they were, some reporters and TV camera’s and of course customs and quarantine staff.  As we pulled in beside the dock, I touched the jetty and solid ground for the first time since leaving East Timor and gave it a pat and a kiss.  We had finally made it.  My dream, my vision.  So much effort, so much risk, so much uncertainty…  We had run the cyclone gauntlet and won.  In 78 days we had rowed this amazing little boat over 2,360nm all the way from Singapore to Australia – becoming the first people to ever complete this journey by human power.  Stage one was complete.

Side note: I would like to personally thank those people who made stage one of the Rowing from Home to Home expedition a success.

Charlie Smith my rowing partner who now leaves the expedition.  Spirits are high my friend – may you achieve your own ambitions and dreams in the years ahead.

Dave Field – our project manager, if it was not for you we would still be bobbing around trying to make our way into Pulau Bangka.

Alistair Harding – our film producer who does so much more than produce amazing films. Thank you.

Monique Dickerson – our PR manager for making the regular updates and posts on our behalf.

To my wife Stephanie and family back home in NZ – thank you for supporting this crazy hair brained idea.

To all our sponsors and supporters, people who left messages of support – I am so glad this excited so many people, and so many of you are coming along on the journey.  Please keep following and share the journey with your friends. The world needs adventurers, who take on challenge and risk and push our boundaries in sustainable and responsible ways.   The next two stages are yet to happen and will only get more exciting.

To all those people who did not believe in this journey – who tried to steal the idea but failed, who took bets when we would need rescuing – thank you also! Your attitude did nothing but give me more strength and determination to get the job done.

Captain Grant ‘Axe’ Rawlinson

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Posted on March 31, 2017, in Rowing Home. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. A fascinating read Grant ! The makings of a great book 👍

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  2. Congratulations, mate. Really proud of you!

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  3. Incredible feat – well done to you both. I’ve enjoyed reading your updates throughout. Good luck for the next leg Axe. Jonesy.

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  4. Axe – what a great write up of the final stages of the trip. Charlie sounds like a fabulous partner. Looking forward to following the next installment. See you soon xxx

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  5. Fantastic read, congratulations Axe. And good job selecting a fit young bloke to do the brunt of the rowing for you on this leg…

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