Crossing the Bay of Bengal
During February and March 2023, I embarked on a 23-day expedition to cross the Bay of Bengal, which is known as the world’s largest bay. Stretching around 2200km across and bounded by Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia, our plan was to cross from Phuket, Thailand on the eastern side, to a destination unknown on the western side. Due to the uncertain nature of human powered crossings of great bodies of water, it is impossible to say exactly where one will land. My first choice of destination was India, second choice was Sri Lanka and a possible third choice if we missed these options was the Maldives, however my main interest was landing in India.
This article is an overview of the expedition and serves as a way to share the story with interested people, and serve as a reference for those trying their own human powered crossings of the Bay of Bengal in the future, to learn from and push the wonderful pursuit of human powered adventure further forward. We all stand on the backs of those who have gone before us.
History of human powered crossings of the Bay of Bengal
When I first started planning this expedition in 2018. I found no evidence of anyone crossing the Bay of Bengal by human power. A couple of people had paddled coastal routes but no one had made a non-stop push, directly across the Bay. However mainly due to COVID and issues with the design and build, my plans got delayed with the boat build (long story, partly shared below) and Latvian adventurer Karlis Bardelis made a crossing in January 2022 departing from Langkawi, Malaysia and arriving in Galle, Sri Lanka in a rowing boat.
Overview of project
I am originally from NZ but had been living in Singapore for 25 years before relocating to Thailand with my family in December 2022. Human powered journeys are my life purpose and I am always dreaming up interesting projects which generally take an outrageous amount of effort physically, logistically, financially, emotionally and would not be taken on by well balanced people making rational decisions about how to spend their time and resources.
Having previously rowed an ocean rowing boat around 8,000km, I had a vision in 2019 of building a human powered boat that was pedal powered, smaller, lighter, and faster than an ocean rowing boat, and could carry one person for up to 80 – 90 days at sea. Over the course of three years, working with the renowned naval architect Phil Morison from the UK and boat builders Rannoch Marine (with support from various other contractors including Jon and Hernan) we built the ‘Little Donkey’.
Weighing in at 350kg with all equipment (except food and people), she was really an experimental boat and the design and build turned into an adventure in itself. Designing a rugged, simple, small and fast pedal peddle powered boat was much more challenging than building a rowing boat. The salt water environment destroys almost anything it comes into contact with and especially enjoys eating moving mechanical parts.
Needless to say the team were fantastic and after three years trials and tribulations with COVID thrown in (meaning I could not visit the boat in the UK for almost 2 years), ‘Little Donkey arrived in Phuket, Thailand in January 2023 ready to get wet.
I also had a secondary objective on this expedition, to collect water samples across strategic locations of the Bay of Bengal to contribute to a research project run by Professor Federico Lauro and his team. As we got closer to the departure date, Professor Lauro shared the details of the water sampling with me and it was much more challenging than I imagined. He wanted samples taken both inside the very dense shipping lane crossing the Bay of Bengal as well as outside the shipping lanes. This would mean significant deviation from the fastest straight line distance between Phuket and Sri Lanka, and secondly added significant risk as entering busy shipping lanes in a human powered boat which has very limited manoeuvrability and moves at 2 knots is a hazardous exercise, especially with only one person onboard. For this reason I immediately realised to have any chance of pulling this off I would need a second person to help manage the risk and danger. Hence I called up one of the few people I knew who I thought would be open to the challenge – Australia adventurer Luke Richmond.
When I called Luke he was on his way to go ‘paragliding and purchase a rifle’, however he immediately said yes to the project, cancelled his other plans and was ‘onboard’, before I got to the part of how awful the living conditions were going to be.
So as well as Luke onboard and Federico on land, we had our wives Stephanie and Elise supporting from the land, the kids from UWC school with their wonderful teachers Kru Jeff and Kru Emma following the expedition daily, and Kaushiq my kayaking buddy based in Singapore who was instrumental in the Sri Lankan portion of our journey.
The Bay of Bengal is known as cyclone alley. At various times of the year it’s no place to be in a small boat. There are two main seasons, the north east monsoon and the south west monsoon.
In these seasons the winds blow in opposite directions.
We needed the north east monsoon, when the winds were in our favour and the possibility of cyclones was minimal. January to March are the best times to maximise the North East monsoon on our passage from East to West across the Bay of Bengal.
First we would need to cross around 500km of the Andaman Sea and pass through an island chain before entering the Bay of Bengal proper. The island chain was interesting in itself as it houses the remotest tribe on earth (The North Sentinelese) and many of the islands are sparsely populated and visitors are prohibited from landing. They are mainly under Indian govt control and with the regulations and remoteness, we felt them better to be avoided and thus hoped to give the islands a wide berth.
Phuket trials and preparations
Luke arrived in Phuket two weeks before departure in January 2023. He got straight into preparation, managing all the food, first aid and various other tasks. He stayed with us and was a pleasure to have as he integrated into our family life immediately. One of our goals before departure was to make a sea trial to test all our systems onboard including the boat herself. So we chose to make a circumnavigation of Phuket Island, which is around 130km in total.
The circumnavigation took 36 hours and was of great benefit for three reasons:
/ The heat inside the cabin was a huge issue. We used a 5V USB fan in the cabin to provide some form of airflow when resting between shifts however the power of the fan was still too weak and we realised we needed stronger 12V fans to have any chance of surviving especially through the hottest parts of the day.
/ The gearbox had an issue with a bearing and we gained confidence repairing it on the water.
/ We got a slap in the face as to how tough the living conditions on this tiny boat were going to be, This was to be no ‘picnic’ and much tougher just to live, eat, rest and peddle than the ocean rowing boats we were both used to. Even changing shifts took a coordinated and planned exercise without capsizing the tiny craft.
/ We managed to test out a sunshade arrangement that covered the peddler from the worst of the sun during the day and it worked very nicely.
After 2.5 weeks preparation we were ready as we thought we ever would be to depart.
Day One – departure
We departed on the 9th February, 2023 from a beautiful location in Phuket called the ‘Playyard’ in the north eastern tip of the island. This was a perfect launching point with a sheltered boat ramp and only 5km to open water. We timed our departure for around 1100 hrs when there was enough tide to launch, and the current and wind would push us out to sea.
The grade one children from United World College came down to see us off (my two daughters , Kate and Rachel were also in the class) and it felt great to show the kids through the boat before we departed. Both Rachel and Kate got very upset when it came time to leave. I also found it upsetting and felt guilty seeing how my departure affected them.
We had a perfect 15 knot NE wind blowing us out, which combined with the tidal streams meant we got our fastest speeds of the entire trip, 5 knots for the first 5 km. I took the first peddling shift. We had agreed to peddle in 2 hour shifts, 24 hours per day and never stop the boat moving until we reached Sri Lanka.
We quickly passed under Sarasin bridge (that joins Phuket island to the mainland) and very soon were in open water with Phuket’s coastline disappearing behind us. I made the most of the cellular reception while it lasted making a few final calls. From my diary:
“Nervous about stability of boat at sea and how the gearbox will hold out, but also optimistic. Life now becomes more simple, after a crazy 6 months, moving house and country, merging businesses, planning and preparing for expedition, life becomes simple, its time to adapt to life at sea. Cabin heat is bearable with the new 12V fan.”
Around 2000hrs that evening we lost sight of Phuket.
At 2100 hrs in the darkness on my shift, the propellor got fouled by some rope in the water. Fortunately the boat has a moon pool in the back hatch which allows us to access the propellor from inside the boat, and I could easily cut the rope free from the propellor without having to dive into the water in the darkness.
I normally don’t expect to sleep much on the first new nights at sea but I managed to hit deep sleep on one of my shifts for around 90 minutes. Two ships passed us in the night but both were along way off and easily visible on the AIS. There were also a few fishing buoys to dodge.
The first 24 hours at sea went smoothly as could be expected. However the wind turned to the north in the night which did not aid our progress as we were heading west, and we also hit an unhelpful current which was heading north. Nevertheless, we still made 95km progress in our first 24 hours at sea (our target was 100km/24 hours) so we were happy with progress.
We both had coffee and granola for breakfast. The igniter on the gas cooker failed, so we used a cigarette lighter to ignite it. However this was the last time we used the gas cooker on the entire trip as it was so hot in the cabin that burning the gas cooker only made it hotter and with the boat rocking around so much it was just easier, safer and faster to eat cold rehydrated meals and drink cold coffee.
The afternoon shifts proved to be brutally hot, the small sunshade helped with the heat, but being on the back deck peddling turned out to be cooler than resting in the cabin. My technique while resting was to lie in the foetal position without moving, drenched in sweat for two hours, feeling like I was being baked in an oven till I could escape for my pedalling shift on the back deck again.
Around 2100 hrs we hit a south easterly setting current, which was too strong to fight. We were trying to go west and instead were being pulled south and east. It was a surprise to me so early into the trip having such issues with strong currents. We also started hitting very strange patches of water that I nicknamed ‘current bombs’. We could see them coming in the day time or hear them at night time. At day time they appeared as a line of whitecaps (broken water). The water was very agitated and as we entered these the boat was thrown all over the place, pulled backwards, sideways and in all different directions. There was very little we could do except keep try to peddle through them. We also noticed these patches of agitated water were moving themselves. It normally took around 15 minutes to get through a current bomb, during which time we would go any direction except where we wanted to go. Little did we know at this stage, but the Andaman Sea turned out to be full of them. From my research (post-expedition), I believe these current bombs maybe caused by areas of warmer water upwelling up from the active tectonic region in the west of the Andaman Sea. (Do let me know if you know otherwise). Sometimes we could go through up to 3 current bombs in a 2 hour shift which really killed our progress.
It was a tough night with adverse currents and current bombs pushing us around all over the place. We made only 56km in the last 24 hours, which was better than nothing, but too slow to reach the other side of the Bay of Bengal without running out of food. We needed to be making 70km/day to get the 2100km across the Bay, within the 30 days food we had onboard.
Our knees were now starting to feel a little sore from the peddling. The wind was light – around 5 knots from the North. So peddling was slow and hard and progress was frustrating all day.
It was too hot to talk much during the day. We were both starting to suffer from the heat and we longed for the cool of the evening. Night was my favourite time, the sky was beautiful, very clear with the stars out in force. When not looking at the GPS screen I would tilt my head and look at the stars, often choosing one to aim at to navigate by. Around 2300 I was treated to an amazing gift when I saw a meteorite whizzing through the sky above my head and burning up in a bright flash. It was incredible to see and I felt privileged.
Progress dropped overnight to only 0.5 knots. I could crawl faster than this. By 1100 hrs we were 212km from Phuket and had made 57km in the past 24 hours. We were being hit by waves of ‘current bombs’ all night which had killed our progress.It also made it very hard for the person trying to sleep as the boat rocked all over the place. Our knees were now getting very sore. Every shift at this pace feels like peddling up a steep hill without respite for two hours. Luke had now started on pain killers, and I was thinking about starting them. The first seeds of self doubt start also started to appear on the boat. The beginning was proving much tougher than I anticipated.
From my diary “What a failure this will feel like if this trip does not work out and ends in the first week. Luke suggests calling into an island to rest and reevaluate the project. There is no island close to us though and at this pace we are 7 – 10 days from reaching any island.”
All day our progress slowed, until mid-afternoon when not peddling we were being blown back to shore at 1.5 knots, the opposite to where we wanted to be going! On my 1700hrs shift I begin to experiment with pointing the boat in different directions. I turned south and to my surprise found we could make progress at 1.8 knots on a bearing of 180 – 220 degrees heading. Even though this was not the direction we wanted to be going, it was at least better than going backwards. And maybe if we dropped further south we could find better current to head west again? Immediately the mood on the boat picked up, we had gone from losing hope to having hope again – all from a simple change in heading. The last 24 hours had also made me aware of the necessity to keep ourselves positive and focussed and not let the seeds of self doubt manifest.
I ate a horrible, cold dehydrated meal for dinner. It was practically inedible it tasted so bad.
Unfortunately our choice of dehydrated meals was not good at all (this was due to my propensity to ‘try new things’). That night on my 2100 – 2300 hrs shift my legs felt too weak and sore to peddle. In a huff, I gave up and decided to have a rest for two hours instead of peddling.
However the only place to rest on the back deck is the peddling seat, which is not very comfortable and impossible to sleep. So after 3 minutes of sitting `resting`, I realised there would be no way to sleep so I may as well suck it up and keep peddling. I continued peddling and realised that as sore as my legs felt, if I started the shift slowly, they soon warmed up and the pain and tiredness would disappear. This technique helped me immensely many times over the rest of the trip. I found that even when in pain, getting started was the hardest part.
During the early morning hours on Luke’s shift he managed to break free from the counter currents and found a SW current again. We were back on track, travelling at 2.5 knots in the direction we wanted to go. It was a wonderful feeling while it lasted, which was unfortunately only until day broke.
As the sun rose on day 5 we were 250km from Phuket and hade only another 50km in the last 24 hours. But our progress slowed again. We wanted to be doing 100km per day not 50km.
The tough peddling was taking its toll and my knees were now very sore and and my leg muscles painful to even lie on. The continuous two hour shifts, poor sleep, bad food and the hot cabin was hard work. We were also having issues with the satellite phone not working reliably.
I finally managed to make a call to Stephanie, Rachel and Kate during the day. The girls both asked when I would be finished and coming back home. I wanted to tell them not for a very very long time at this slow pace, but held my tongue.
At 1000hrs we stopped for 30 minutes to replace one of the bearings in the gearbox.
At lunchtime Luke turned on the water maker and we made 20 litres of water in about one hour.
Being so close to the equator, the good thing was we had lots of sun which kept our batteries charged through the solar panels. This battery power is critical to make our water every day and run our navigation electronics. We each drink 10l every 24 hours. So between the two of us we needed 20 litres of drinking water every 24 hours. The afternoon again felt brutally hot but we started making good progress south west at 2.5 knots for a few hours until 1600hrs the favourable currents ran out and we again hit counter currents.
There was little wind so I made a drone flight at 1830hrs. Launching a drone at sea is easy, retrieving it from a tiny moving boat is not. When you fly the drone back to yourself the automatic sensors in the drone think its going to crash and it try’s to fly away from you. We managed to collect some nice footage though and I even caught the drone just before the battery ran out and the blades cut my fingers off. I felt more exhausted from the stress of the drone flight then I did from a two hour peddling shift.
Around 2100hrs that evening I hit a huge current bomb in the dark. This one took me over 30 minutes of being thrown around in the dark to finally get through and I lost so much distance in that time that I eventually made just a paltry few hundred metres of progress in the entire 2 hour shift. I ate mashed potato for dinner that evening with some very spicy chicken curry which did not sit well and I vomited it up during my shift.
My legs were now aching so much I couldn’t sleep so I began taking painkillers.
We had made better progress overnight, 90km in the last 24 hours and were now 385km from Phuket. We had also managed to find a nice westerly setting current and made 2 knots progress all day. The wind was light and at 1800hrs we were only 150km from the Nicobar islands.
These islands were the gateway into the Bay Of Bengal. We needed to be careful of navigating around them as they are remote, controlled by India, and prohibited from visiting. They also had unfriendly shorelines to small boats and we wanted to stay away from them.
During the day we were visited by three Indonesian fishing boats. Each boat was made of similar wooden construction and had around 10 – 15 men onboard. They all came close for a look and asked us the same question – do we have alcohol and cigarettes? We informed them politely that we don’t. They were curious yet harmless and left us alone.
By now I was starting to get concerned about the Nicobar Islands. Federico was sending us snippets of current data and I was struggling to understand the situation as it came through in 160 character text messages on our Garmin Inreach Satellite messaging system. Luke’s wife Elise also was sending us current data using different current models, so between the two sets of short messages, we tried to build a mental image of what the current was doing. We wanted to pass south of the Nicobar Islands to enter the Bay of Bengal but it seemed as we got closer to them there was some form of eddy system which may or may not try and push us north.
The gearbox was also starting to make lots of noises and we knew we would need to replace more bearings soon. This was also the first point of the trip I began to wonder if we bought enough spare parts. From my diary “Will the gearbox hold out? Will our knees hold out? Sri Lanka or India seem a long way away”.
It was a cloudy night so I could not see the stars or use them to navigate by. I was now feeling so tired during my night shifts it was a huge battle to stay awake and I started having my first hallucinations. Luke sounded drunk when I woke him up for his shift change in the night. He would slur his words and was wobbly and uncoordinated as we changed shifts. Even though the suffering we were getting on well, laughing and having hilarious, deeply sarcastic conversations about how much `fun` we were having on thus luxury cruise. As we became more tired we didn’t talk that much. It would be terribly difficult doing this with someone whose personalities didn’t match.
Luke woke me at 0600 to tell me there was a problem with the gearbox and another bearing needed replacing. We replaced it in 30 minutes and were getting more confident in our ability to service it at sea. However the more worrying issue was that we only had a few bearings left.
We had made 90km progress in the last 24 hours which was great. But it looked like we would hit our first ‘interesting’ weather later that evening, with wind speeds around 50km/hr and sea state rising to 2.0m over night. This was not perfect timing as we were approaching the Nicobar Islands and the wind would be trying to blow us directly onto the island. During the afternoon we started preparing the boat for heavier weather.
We also changed our communications protocol with Fedrico. Up until now we had daily checkins by satellite SMS with Federico at 7AM and 7PM for safety purposes. If we missed three checkins in a row, the protocol was that Federico would call emergency services. We now informed Federico that if we missed 2 consecutive checkins, then he should alert emergency services. We didn’t want to be bobbing around in the water for 36 hours before the alarm was raised! We readied our PFD’s (life jackets) and ensured we were both clipped in too safely lines when on the back deck and we both carried a PLB (personal locator beacon) on our PFD’s at all time.
By 1800hrs the wind picked up just as it went dark. The sea seemed to go crazy. It was intimidating heading into the first night of rough water in our completely untested vessel. We were now about 80km from Nicobar island and the current seemed to be pushing us directly towards it, even though we were trying to work our way south of it and into safety of the Bay of Bengal beyond. In the darkness we had no idea when or where the waves were coming from so on the back deck peddling started to feel intimidating.
I messaged Fede at the 7pm evening schedule and he told me we needed to make a decision now. Either we continue to try and head south of Nicobar island, or we turn and head north of Nicobar island. If we left it to late to make the decision, we could get blown onto the island itself by the strong currents and winds tomorrow. Being blown onto Nicobar island was expedition ending with even more dire consequences to our personal safety. It was not a nice thought.
In the darkness, in the strong wind with the boat being blown all over the place we did our best to have a quick discussion about what to do. Going south was the fastest option by far, it and would put us in a great position to make the water sampling as it kept us closer to the shipping lanes. However it had risk as if we couldn’t get south we could get blown onto the island.
Turning now to head north was a large detour of at least over 100km, of which we would then need to add another 150km south to get back to the shipping lanes for the sampling. It also had the risk of being blown onto the island the next day by the strong north easterly winds and swell. The risks involved with both options were almost equally unattractive, but we had to make a decision. We both agreed that south was the fastest route to safety, so we committed to it.
So began a night of brutality. On the back deck we were thrown around by the rough water as we struggled to point the boat south west. We peddled our gut’s out to try and clear the southern point of the island. My knees were in agony and Luke hurt his shoulder from hanging on to the side of the boat in the rough conditions as he was trying to peddle. Just after midnight we agreed to drop from 2 hour shifts to just 90 minute shifts. Two hours was proving too tiring to keep up the level of effort we were putting in to try and get south. During our 90 minute breaks it was impossible to sleep inside the cabin, the boat was being thrown around and it was like lying in a washing machine. By now we were both exhausted and running on adrenalin. But as hard as we peddled trying to make ground south west, we were still being pushed north west into the island. I started to feel dread building in my body. Being in a tiny boat, in rough weather, in the middle of the night, being pushed into an unfriendly shore with even stronger wind and swell forecast for the next day is not a comfortable position to be in.
Day 8 – 9
Luke woke me half way through his early morning shift in the darkness to tell me he just could make any progress south and it had become clear we were not going to be able to make it around the bottom of the island.
As the sun started to come up on the morning of day nine, we deployed the small parachute anchor. This does not stop the boat drifting, but holds the bow into the wind and waves and makes it safer to ride out rougher weather. We then both attempted to get into the tiny cabin to rest for an hour and think and discuss what to do. However this idea quickly becomes laughable due to the lack of space inside the cabin. Luke lasted one minute squeezed inside the cabin with his knees around his ears before getting back out on deck. There just was no space for two people.
After only 20 minutes of sitting on para anchor, we had to make another decision. What were we going to do? Continue our fight to try and get south of the Island? And run the risk of hitting the island? Or head the much longer route north where the current was pushing us? But also run the risk of being blown onto the island that day if the wind proved to strong to fight?
We both agreed there was not much point sitting drifting closer to the island on para anchor. We couldn’t even both rest properly. So we might as well fight no matter how exhausted we felt.
So Luke pointed the nose north and started peddling. Even through the wind and swells were coming in from our starboard side and trying to blow us towards the island, we found we could still make reasonable progress in a north-west-north direction. This was not ideal as it would still push into shore at the northern end of the island but at least was allowing us to head north and really we had no other options. To get to safe water we actually needed to get around two islands, Great Nicobar and Little Nicobar. It was at least 70km to get safely around the north side of the islands that would allow our escape to the west.
All morning we worked in two hour shifts in very bumpy conditions. We were heading north at right angles to the incoming seas and swells which were around 2m. This was a great test of the stability and seaworthiness of the Little Donkey as we continually rode over swells and breaking waves which slammed into the side of the boat. Not once did she ever feel like capsizing. I felt proud of her.
However well Little Donkey was doing, the two human beings were not. I was now gravely concerned about being blown into the island in rough weather. I hadn’t eaten any proper food for over 12 hours, had any proper sleep for days and was flogging myself physically and felt nauseous due to fatigue. After forcing myself to eat some food I felt a little better. Luke was also struggling and at midday he told me he was done. He was finished and has to get off the boat as he just could not continue. The culmination of day after day, night after night of not being able to sleep, the intense heat, the claustrophobia of the tiny cabin and the intensity of the physical effort had driven him to his limits. We have a good chat about his situation and I felt for his pain and his distress. He was a fantastic team mate, we shared many of the same values, I loved his sense of humour and he had an unbelievable work ethic. He was also not one to throw the towel in easily.
The problem was, even though he wanted to, there was no easy way to get off the boat. We were in quite a pickle. We discussed three possible options:
- We try and make it into Great Nicobar island itself, a potentially life threatening scenario in these conditions and if we did make it – what next? It’s such a remote island.
- We continue for the next 24 hours to try and work our way around the island get ourselves out of this difficult situation and then we find the nearest merchant vessel for Luke to hitch a ride to the next port on.
- We continue and if he can manage to get some rest, maybe re-evaluate the decision the next day with a clearer mind when he is not so exhausted.
The discussion lead to no conclusion. We swapped shifts and I tried to get some rest in the stinking hot cabin while Luke peddled his two hour shift. He obviously had a lot to think about and shared with me at the end of his shift that he was ‘back on deck’ and ready to continue. I was very relieved to hear this and extremely proud of him for making this decision. It was entirely his to make and I would never have tried to force him to stay on. He had worked so hard and endured so much distress and discomfort to reach this point, but to still make the decision to continue was a testament to his character.
This problem solved we still had another major issue. Even though we peddled nonstop all day to try and get north of the islands, no matter how hard we peddled, I could tell from extending our track line that we were being pushed into the top of Great Nicobar island. It looked like our only hope would be to try and make it into a small channel, which separates Great Nicobar from Little Nicobar Island. We definitely didn’t want to be heading into this small channel, simple calculations told us we would be there around sunset and therefore would be pushed into this in pitch dark.
I was starting to feel the desperation of our situation. We could not stop peddling the boat as if we did we would be blown into shore. If we did keep peddling as hard as we could we maybe could hopefully reach the northern tip of Great Nicobar but then would be sucked into the channel between the islands with only a basic navigational chart, and have to navigate through the channel at night. If anything went wrong there was nobody to help (that we knew of).
Around mid afternoon when we were 20km offshore, we started to see Great Nicobar’s shape appear on the horizon. Covered in green vegetation she looked like something from Jurassic park.
And true to our calculations, just as darkness hit we reached the northern tip of the island, just managing to clear it by a margin less than 1km. As we entered the channel between the two islands the light disappeared entirely. There was no moon and with an overcast night it was pitch dark. I could hear waves on the shoreline and set a course on the GPS chart plotter down the centre of the channel. I was putting all my faith in the GPS and our basic navigation charts.
I also decided to try and give Luke more rest and pull a double shift. This had the effect of making me hallucinate like crazy as I peddled slowly down the channel in the darkness. I saw trees coming towards us, objects whizzing past the side of as if we were driving down the road at 100km/hr. I was so exhausted and have never experienced my mind playing so many tricks on me. Fortunately the current was with us and we made good time through the night, about 2.5knots speed through the channel. As the first rays of light started to appear in the morning it looked like we were heading for freedom.. But as we approached the western end of the channel and we ran into a wall of counter currents. We were now just 1km off the southern coast of Little Nicobar and were approaching a beautiful looking (but dangerous) surf beach with big breaking waves. I peddled as hard as I could trying to exit the channel until progress slowed to the point we could not fight it anymore and were being blown back up the channel we just came through.
Initially I thought the tide had turned and messaged Federico to see if he could share any info.
He replied that maybe it had but it was also possible this was not a tidal current but a more permanent eddy system at the western mouth of the channel. As Luke and I sat exhausted, wondering what to do, by the grace of the almighty sea gods, the boat drifted slowly towards the centre of the channel and after 20 minutes of drifting the current subsided slightly. Luke jumped back on the pedals and we found we could start making progress again out of the channel albeit very slowly. Finally we were free of the Islands. I was completely shattered from the experience. It had been a very tough 8 days. And as a way of celebration the gearbox seized entirely.
This repair took more time to fix. Maybe because we were more tired but there was also one bearing in particular that was harder to change. After 2 hours we had it working again but were now critically low on spare parts, with only 4 bearings and one sprag clutch left as replacements.
I set off peddling and in my tired state was struggling to stay focussed. I knew I needed rest and but something felt wrong with the gearbox. It felt like we were peddling through mud.
Peddling was so tough, my knees were in agony and I started upping my ibuprofen intake between shifts. During the night Luke had some massive hallucinations, chatting away to imaginary friends on deck. Our progress was painfully slow at 1.5 knots and the peddling continued to feel like we were in mud. We checked and rechecked the gearbox but nothing appeared wrong. We started to learn from experience that it was certain sea currents which made the peddling feel much harder.
Around this time I entered a state of exhausted depression. The first 600km felt so brutal it had almost killed us. We had used almost all our spare parts. We were exhausted. It was hell living on this tiny boat. How on earth could we make it another 1600km to reach even Sri Lanka let alone India?
At 3am in the morning as we changed shift, we both discussed and decided we could not keep going like this. We needed to take a break for both of us to recover. We agreed that once we reached better conditions with more favourable currents we would take that break. We never did end up taking any break, but psychologically it made us feel a little better just thinking about it.
We peddled slowly all morning until we finally hit a westerly setting current and our speed picked up to 2 knots. At 3PM the sprag clutch gave out with a loud bang. We replaced it with our very last spare. Now we were really in the shit. We were now 800km down, and had 1400km to go with no more spare sprag clutches. You didn’t need to be a brilliant mathematician to understand that the chances of us making much further without another breakdown were very slim.
Immediately we slipped into problem solving mode. Luke made a genius move by tightening up the scupper valves (basically small flaps which allow water drain in and out of the cockpit floor area). By doing this it meant very little water came into the floor of the boat and helped keep the gearbox much dryer from the effects of seawater.
We also coated the last sprag clutch with a thick layer of marine grease. And used liberal amounts of WD-40 on each of the bearings (even though they were meant to be non-lubricating). But even with these measures we were sure we would need more spares. How on earth could we get more spare parts our here? We started messaging our contacts back on land to try and find spare bearings and clutches and secondly find a friendly yacht which may be crossing from Phuket to Sri Lanka who could potentially rendezvous with us and pass us the parts.
A rain storm hit us mid afternoon and we took the opportunity to have a salt water bucket shower each on the back deck. We used one litre of fresh water each to rinse off. It felt amazing to be clean again. That afternoon we hit a wall of counter currents, which we battled all night at a painfully slow progress of 1 knot.
After a painfully slow night we made our lowest progress to date. Only 50km in the last 24 hours. Fortunately later in the morning we finally hit some nice currents again and our speed rose to 2.5 knots and we could head due west. The temperature picked up during the afternoon until it felt unbearably hot onboard. We both now had developed quite severe heat rash over our buttocks and back. This was painful and raw to touch and looked disgusting. Like pizza skin.
We were now 1200km to the closest point of land in Sri Lanka and I calculated if we could make 80km/day then we could get there in 14 or so days. But it seemed like an impossible task with so few spare parts and how tired we felt.
From my diary: “The struggle is now mental. If I was in prison I would be locked in for years, this is only 14 days, two weeks, how can I change my mindset and start to enjoy the challenge’.
That night was beautiful and clear with stars everywhere. I even saw tiny lights of airplanes flying high in the sky. I couldn’t help but wonder about the comfort of the people sitting in their pressurised shells as compared to the brutality of what we were enduring. Then again, this was our choice!
We made 95km progress through the night, It felt good to be making solid progress again.
We stopped at 0900hrs to service the gearbox with more grease and WD-40. We now treated it like the precious resource it was.
We were continually on the satellite messenger with contacts back onshore to source spare parts and find a delivery boat. Stephanie was telling me it was difficult to find these parts in Phuket, she could order the bearings online but not the sprag clutch.
One thing that had become obvious, was that making it to the closest point of land safely was now the primary and most essential goal of the expedition. The water sampling would require us to detour at least 150 – 200km south, adding more time and distance as we zig zagged through the shipping lanes. And even if we wanted to, and had enough spare parts, our manoeuvrability was so limited in this boat we couldn’t get down there if we wanted. We were at the mercy of the currents and to a lesser extent the winds. I informed Federico on the 7PM schedule of this and asked if we could change plan to take water samples along our route. He replied that at least this would prove the concept of sampling from such a small boat, but would not be a useful dataset for his study.
We made great progress of 109km in the last 24 hours.
It was a lovely clear night but a north west swell rocked the boat so much we didn’t sleep well.
We had more messages from land that it was still proving difficult to find spare parts and that no yacht can be found from Phuket to bring them out. But there maybe was a possibility of a vessel from Sri Lanka. Luke and I continually talked through all options we could think of. After a lot of discussion we both felt the best we can do is to nurse the gearbox along, keep it dry as possible, well lubricated, try not to put too much strain through it, but continue to peddle slowly onwards. If it failed again we could try rowing using the emergency oars (even though they were meant for a few hundred metres rowing not hundreds of km).
The wind was around 15 knots during the night from the north east which rocked the boat around and made sleep difficult. Luke had more interesting hallucinations. We both found it impossible to eat our main dehydrated rations, they just tasted revolting. So instead our daily calorie intake was made up of granola for breakfast, mashed potato with some precooked meat options for dinner and the rest of the calories from spoonfuls of peanut butter, some cold coffee, isotonic drinks and a few bars and sweets. This was not enough for Luke and he lost weight fast, it seemed ok for me and I didn’t feel hungry but I was still losing weight.
We made another 104km in the last 24 hours so were happy with progress.
At 0900hrs we stopped and replaced two more bearings in the gearbox. Now we had only two bearings left and no sprag clutches. I tried calling the UWC school grade one class in a pre-arranged sat phone call for a chat that morning. But the sat phone would not work. We felt it was something to do with India jamming the signals as they do not allow satellite phones. I resorted to an SMS conversation with them answering their questions with 160 character messages.
By 1400hrs we were 840km from the closest point of Sri Lanka. The afternoon again was brutally hot and I longed for the cool of the evening. When evening arrived the heat evaporated but so did my energy. I felt so tired physically and wondered how on earth I was going to get through the night of peddling. Interestingly the pain in both of our knees had now gone. Our knees seemed to have got used to the stress. The conditions were favourable all night. It rained very hard on Luke’s early morning shift.
The rain flattened the sea out and our speed picked up to 3 knots. When we changed shifts the rain stopped for my two hour peddling session. But as soon as Luke was back on deck a massive thunder storm passed overhead, complete with lightning which he did not enjoy. After his two hour shift was over the storm disappeared and I was back on deck in peace and quiet. It seemed he attracted thunder and lightning! During the night one of the pedals came loose and we needed the toolkit to tighten it. We had a spare set of pedals but found they didn’t fit the pedal cranks we were using, so we now didn’t have any spare pedals as well.
The night was overcast but uneventful. We made the best progress of the entire trip – 119km in the last 24 hours. We received current data from Fede and Elise and tried to make sense of it.
Fede suggested to drop south by 50km where there was stronger westerly setting current. Elise suggested to hold our latitude and push west as when we get closer to Sri Lanka there are strong south westerly currents. She did her best to describe a picture of the current situation in short 160 character text messages. From my memory of the currents I knew there was strong south westerly setting currents closer to Sri Lanka too, which may push us past Sri Lanka if we got too far south so we decided to hold our latitude and keep moving west. As we continued peddling it felt as if the gearbox could fail at any minute. The uncertainty of our future was huge. We were now 590km from the closest point in Sri Lanka.
It was another uneventful night with a few rain showers. We peddled slowly but steadily all through the day. Around 1830 hrs the peddle had another issue. As we didn’t have any spare pedals we changed to our last pedal crank and fortunately that solved the problem. We knew it was not a matter of ‘if’ the gearbox would fail again, it was a matter of when. The uncertainty was hard to deal with.
Luke got visited by dolphins on his evening shift. I used the GoPro and tried to film them underwater. It was was a tough night with 15 knot wind which made the boat bump around and sleep difficult. My quads now were becoming very sore. This was a problem when resting as I liked to sleep on my stomach to minimise being thrown around inside the cabin, but my quads were too sore to lie on. We were both getting weaker each day and by now our skins were covered in heat rash.
We greased and serviced the gearbox again in the morning. Maybe there was a chance we could make it? The wind held at 15 knots from the North – North East which made the sea bumpy. But at least the wind was helping to keep the temperature cooler during the day on the main deck. I exchanged messages all day with Stephanie about spare parts. She had managed to find some bearings and one sprag clutch. She has also made contact with an agent in Sri Lanka who told her he can arrange a vessel from Sri Lanka to come out 400km offshore. There was a high cost involved but at least this was an option.
We kept on peddling in our shifts. It felt like this journey may never end. Problem after problem. Luke told me this would be the last human powered crossing of an ocean he would ever make. I had to admit – this trip has definitely been brutal. It felt much tougher than the trips in the ocean rowing boat. We were trying to head west but the current seemed to be pushing us south west. We pointed the boat on a heading of 320 degrees all night to make a course over ground of 260 degrees.
I really struggled to stay awake during my night shifts. I kept going to sleep, whereupon my head would fall back and hit a sharp screw on the back of the canopy and wake me up instantly.
We made 94km in the last 24 hours and were now 450km from closest point of Sri Lanka, and 650km from the port of Galle – the destination we were hoping to arrive into.
Unfortunately we now seemed to be in a south westerly current which if it continued would push us past Sri Lanka. The wind was not helping either, it was predominantly from the N, and pushed us further south than we wanted to be. Elise sent us some positive information that the current will turn and head more westerly in about 150km time which was great news.
At 1030hrs a fishing boat visited us. It was the first boat we have seen in 12 days or so. They were long line fishing and were from Sri Lanka. This was our first real sign we were getting close to Sri Lanka. They asked us for alcohol and cigarettes, which of course we had none to give.
We had another bumpy night with beam on seas and 15 knots of wind, but still made good progress.
We made 114km progress in the last 24 hours. I could not believe the gearbox was still holding out. Around 0800 we took a water sample – just to prove it was possible on this boat! I also did another drone flight – however after launch the memory card had an issue so I could not record anything. I managed to retrieve the drone but annoyingly with no footage and found the issue was the memory card had a tiny piece of plastic stuck to it.
Around 0930hrs there was a BANG. It finally happened. The gearbox blew up again. We knew immediately what the problem was – the sprag clutch. With no more spare parts we fitted back one of the broken sprag clutches. We had no idea if the broken one would work well enough to peddle. Off we peddled, very slowly and it seemed to hold. But we knew we needed to be very gentle.
During my afternoon shift we broke the oars out to try rowing. I had rowed the boat using the emergency oars on a flat river and it was clumsy but possible. However on the ocean, bumping around with waves and swell it proved hopeless. It confirmed to us that rowing was not going to be the option to get us to Sri Lanka. It was peddle power or nothing.
My mind raced all day for possible solutions. I started getting angry and firing off SMS messages. How could it be so hard to find spare parts and get them to us? Although the land team were doing an amazing job I was venting my frustrations.
The night shift was very bumpy. On the back deck peddling we were thrown around all over the place. This put a lot of strain on the peddling seat. Luke informed me as we changed shift in the dark that it had broken. One of the front seat leg attachments had snapped where the seat attached to the deck. This was a critical part and we had no way to repair it. I used some rope to tie it in place during my shift and although the seat kept sliding around it worked well enough to peddle. As long as the other front seat leg attachment did not break it would it be manageable.
The night was wild with thunder and lightning. After my shift I slipped into exhausted sleep for 90 minutes before waking again to hear from Luke the news the other seat attachment had now snapped. Now the seat was loose sliding around the deck. In the rain and the darkness I played around with ropes and bungee cords trying to tie the seat in place. Nothing worked well and peddling now became a nightmare.
After a hugely frustrating night we got the news the next morning that the land team has found more spare bearings and clutches in India and even had someone available to fly them that day to Sri Lanka then bring them out to us on a boat. Luke and debated onboard what to do.
It would be a huge expense and effort to get spare parts to us. By 1700hrs we were only 200km from the closest point of land in Sri Lanka. And even if the boat brought the spare parts, they could not bring anything to fix the seat as it needed specialist work. In fact the peddling seat had now become our biggest issue. It continually slid around the back deck as we tried and peddle which drove me crazy on my shifts. As night fall approached I was at my wits ends. Each shift was now torture. Trying to hold the chair in place with one hand, steer with other hand as we slid around the deck and keep peddling at the same time.
During the late afternoon inside the cabin on my rest shift, I knew I could not continue trying to peddle like this and had to find a solution.
I lay awake for the entire 120 minutes thinking until I came up with a plan. Using bungee cords I rigged up some attachments to the floor of the boat. I had no idea if it would work but it was the best idea I could think of. After a few minutes of rigging, I gently settled into the chair and started peddling. To my astonishment and immense relief it seemed to hold. Finally I could peddle again properly without the chair moving around. It was a pain in the ass to move the seat position as every-time we changed shifts we need to remove the all cords and reset them as Luke needed a different seat position to me. But at least it held the seat in place.
At 1900 hrs I received a message from an agent in Sri Lanka on the sat phone.
Stephanie had told me one particular agent was being very aggressive and pushy. Trying to force her and pressurise her into making decisions to send a boat out with spare parts. The agent sent me an ultimatum. Make a decision within one hour on three options:
1. Have a boat sent out with spare parts (very expensive).
2. Enter the closest land point in Sri Lanka (very expensive)
3. Enter the closest port in Sri Lanka called Hambantota (very expensive).
The costs for this agents involvement seemed outrageously high of any option!
He seemed to think he was sitting on a potential gold mine and could pressure us when we were in a difficult situation. We ignored his messages and Stephanie found another agent who provided wonderful service for only 15% of the cost this character was quoting.
We made 110km progress overnight, mainly due to the seat functioning better.
Our target destination had now shifted to the closest port called Hambantota.Hambantota is on the south coat of Sri Lanka and is a commercial port. It looked to be the closest safe place we could land. By 1300hrs it was only 180km to Hambantota. Stephanie, Kate and Rachel and Luke’s wife Elise were all flying to Sri Lanka to meet us. We were getting excited now at the thought of reaching Sri Lanka. Finally it did seem possible we may actually make it. There was still a cloud of uncertainty whether the seat and gearbox would hold out.
But another issue started to become more apparent. I was starting to get concerned about the currents. As we get closer to Sri Lanka there were very strong south westerly currents which we needed to fight to get into shore. The weather forecast showed strongish winds 15 – 17 knots from the NE for the next few days which was also not ideal as they would be trying to push us away from shore.
During the night I developed a lot of pain in my left leg. It was muscular pain and ran down the back of my leg. The problem with the broken seat had meant I was not peddling in the ideal position and had over extended my leg causing this issue. It got so bad I could not peddle even one rotation without a lot of pain. I tried peddling with one leg which did not work well at all.
I told Luke as we changed shifts about my problem. He suggested using his stretching ball and rolling out my glutes in the cabin. When I came back for my next shift the pain had improved slightly but after 5 minutes peddling it came back so strongly I simply could not peddle.
In desperation I stood up and tried different stretches in the very limited space on the back deck.
Finally by chance, I found stretching with a straight back leg seemed to help. It hurt like hell but did release the tension and if I stood up and stretched every 30 minutes even for 60 – 120 seconds, I could keep peddling with manageable pain.
We had eaten 3/4 of our food so the boat felt lighter and more unstable. But we were used to its motion and had confidence in her stability. By 0900 we were only 120km from the closest point of Sri Lanka. We were now seeing a number of fishing boats during the day and night (which al asked us the same questions – alcohol and cigarettes?), and also the more intimidating larger 200m long commercial vessels as well. The land crew had been doing a fantastic job sourcing parts and coordinating with various agencies in Sri Lanka. Thanks to Stephanie, Elise, Kaushiq and many more people, they had arranged with the coastguard to bring spare parts to a point 20km offshore where a lighthouse was stationed close to some reefs. When I looked at the chart I was not confident of getting close to this lighthouse due to the navigation hazards of the reefs but at least it was an option.
We kept getting closer to Sri Lanka though and our speed was good but the wind blew consistently from the north at 15+ knots and was not helping our direction us as we tried to peddle in a westerly direction to reach the coast. The other problem was the strong south westerly setting current, which combined with the wind meant we were being shunted much more south than we wanted.
We continued our progress throughout the day and into the evening. We normally peddled with our nav lights off during the night, but due to the presence of ships and fishing boats we left the nav lights on. This attracted dolphins which I assume were feeding on the fish which were attracted to the lights. We could hear the dolphins breathing as they swum around us through the night. For me it felt nice to have their presence, even though I could not see them in the dark.
As the sun rose we found ourselves only 40km off the coast of Sri Lanka, and 110km from the port of Hambantota. For the first time in the entire trip it looked like there was a real possibility we were going to make it in.
Stephanie, Elise and the girls had now reached Galle and were heading to Hambantota to meet us. They mentioned the situation has changed with respect to the coastguard, and instead the Navy would bring us the spare parts that evening. They had also managed to find an agent who could secure our arrival into Hambantota port which was great news.
Around midday I started to pick up Sri Lankan mobile networks on my phone. We had now reached a point where we were only 22km off the coast of of Sri Lanka. On a clear day we should have been able to see land, but it was too cloudy and hazy. We could only see about 5km (as judged by the ships passing us). Our pace was great, between 2 – 2.5 knots, but the problem was the direction we heading. As the afternoon wore on we peddled harder and harder but could not get any closer than 22km to the coast. We were now being swept parallel to the coast by the south westerly current, also not helped by the 15 – 17 knot northerly winds. We peddled as hard as we dared, (taking the broken sprag clutch into consideration) and even though we were pointing the boat directly towards the coast we were being blown sideways through the water.
As the afternoon wore on, our situation became clearly obvious. We were not going to get any closer than 20km to Sri Lanka. After travelling over 2150km in 23 days, this looked to be the closest we would get to the coastline by human power. In fact if we continued like this overnight, tomorrow morning we would be blown south and further away from Sri Lanka, into the Indian Ocean. With the next possible stop Maldives – around 900km away. We had a conference on deck and I laid out the facts to Luke. Even though the naval vessel was coming out later that evening to bring spare bearings, did we want to try and continue for another ten days to the Maldives with a broken seat and 7 days worth of food? The wisest decision we could see was to request a tow in to shore.
Around 6PM that evening, just before dark, we received a call on channel 16 on the VHF from the Sri Lankan Naval vessel. We relayed our coordinates and 10 minutes later they were close to our position. We released a flare and they found us without issue. We humbly requested from them that instead of a parts drop off that they tow us into the safety of Hambantota port which they kindly agreed. We had prepared the boat for towing, so with the wind picking up and the sea state getting rougher, in the darkness we soon had the boat tied on and we transferred to the larger naval vessel and the tow to shore commenced.
The crew were fantastic, friendly, helpful, feeding us hot cups of tea and steaming chicken curry with rice, my first introduction to Sri Lankan food and albeit delicious, was extremely spicy. I felt highly embarrassed as we sat inside their boat in our filthy state, smelling terrible and horrible rash ridden skin. Around midnight we were safely alongside the wharf in Hambantota port, and after 23 days and nights at sea in what was the most brutal living conditions I have endured on any expedition, the Bay of Bengal expedition was over.
Technically to claim a crossing of the Bay of Bengal I believe it should be from the mainland of the east coast (Thailand or Malaysia) to the mainland of the west coast (somewhere in India).
I had tried applying for visa’s and permissions to enter India with no success (the bureaucracy of landing in India in a small boat is very challenging). Then when the issues with the equipment onboard become an issue we settled on Sri Lanka as the final destination. Therefore I do not consider our journey a successful crossing of the entirety of the Bay of Bengal.
I do however consider it a successful adventure. For me my ideal adventure has these key ingredients:
/ No guarantee of success
/ Must have real risk
/ Uses as little support as practically possible
/ Pushes me far outside my comfort zone
/ It is unique, innovative or creative
I also have three golden rules to abide by on expeditions:
/ Don’t die
/ Don’t get divorced
/ Don’t go broke.
The trip ticked all these boxes for me. So overall it was very fulfilling. Due to COVID I had not managed an expedition for over 3 years. My soul begins to wither when I cannot go on expeditions. I do not care so much about the goal as I care about the process, the process of ideating, planning, preparing and executing. The process is what gets me out of bed and makes me excited about the future.
Although I have undertaken much longer human powered expeditions, this trip felt exceptionally brutal due to the cramped living conditions in the boat, mechanical issues, strong currents, coupled with the heat and exhaustion. We could not rest and recover well enough between shifts which meant we became weaker and weaker day by day. Luke was just the best teammate I could have ever hoped for. During the entire trip we never had one argument. I was incredibly grateful that he chose to suffer with me through this journey even when it almost broke him.
It was fantastic to have the students from UWC involved in the trip and see how much interest it generated and how their teachers leveraged the expedition for weeks even after the trip ended, teaching kids about geography, nature and science in such interesting ways.
A fitting end may have been to peddle into Galle Harbour under our own steam with a full set of scientific water samples. But life is not perfect and I feel grateful and privileged to have taken on this challenge and come out the other side having felt I lived more in those 23 days at sea than I did for one year being locked in the ‘safety’ of home during covid. I hope someone in the future will make the complete crossing of the Bay of Bengal, all the way to India by human power and our experience may be useful to them.
On a final note, I would like to say a huge thank you to all those who supported and helped us. There are too many to thank individually here, but you are wonderful people and forever in our appreciation.
Webinar: Decision-Making Through Extreme Uncertainty
Hello fellow explorers!
Whether you like it or not- that feeling most of you will have now is EXACTLY the same feeling as I have on an adventure=.
- Will I make it through this?
- If I do how long will it take?
- Where will I end up the other side?
Today at 4PM (Singapore time) – I am hosting a free to attend webinar together with English ex-professional rugby player Tom Williams on Decision-Making under extreme uncertainty.
You can attend from anywhere in the world, remotely via your computer. You just need to register at this link and then follow the instructions: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/5015856208208/WN_nNx3CCBvRX6UY_RSOEtFug
If you are not familiar with Tom Williams – attached is a 3 minute video which shows the decisions he has been forced to make in his career.
Farewell Simpson’s Donkey – hello Henderson’s Donkey
On a cold, windy and wet day yesterday, together with my good mate Chris, I was deeply privileged to visit and pay my respects at the grave of ‘John Simpson Kirkpatrick’ on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey.
As many of you will know, my rowing boat ‘Simpson’s Donkey’ was named after Kirkpatrick. I drew inspiration between my humble little rowing boat even though she moved so slowly, was our lifeline to safety for over 100 days and nights at sea in the last two years. Just like Simpson and his humble little donkey were lifelines for the injured soldiers they together saved in Gallipoli. In the photograph above, the flag I am holding is my boats flag from Simpson’s Donkey which we carried at sea.
‘Simpson’s Donkey’ is now up for sale and is waiting in London for her next owner while last week we started work on building my brand new boat ‘Henderson’s Donkey’. ‘Henderson’s Donkey’ is based off a bespoke design I have been working for six months together with naval architect Phil Morison from the UK. She is designed specifically for rough and adverse weather routes, she is completely human powered and can carry me at sea for up to 80 days. She is named after ‘Richard Alexander Henderson’, who like Simpson was a medic in the Gallipoli campaign but Henderson was from New Zealand. (Simpson was English and fought with the Australian medical corps). Henderson survived the Gallipoli campaign but is much less well-known than Simpson.
I leave you with the words of The Turkish commander of the Gallipoli campaign ‘Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’. He is held in enormously high regard in Turkey and his dignity and grace shine through in this beautiful message to the Allied soldiers who invaded his homeland during the Gallipoli campaign:
“Those heroes that shed their blood
And lost their lives
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country
Therefore Rest In Peace
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side
Here in this country of ours
You, the mothers….
Who sent your sons from far away countries
Wipe away your tears;
Your sons are now lying in our bosom,
And having lost their lives on this land
Have become our sons as well
– Ataturk 1934
Lest we forget,
Crossing Singapore by Human Power
It’s been awhile since I posted, but just to let you know the activity has not died down. I am like a duck in a pond, where above the surface I seem placid and calm but underneath the water my legs are moving like crazy!
I am in the process of designing and ready to start building a brand-new, completely unique, human-powered boat. But more on that later.
August was National Day here in Singapore and as a family we have been planning for sometime our first multi-day, human-powered expedition. And where better to attempt it than the second highest densely populated country on earth – Singapore!
You can see from the video, even with so many people jammed into a small country like this – the thought and planning that has gone into this country still allows people like us to make wonderful human-powered journeys through the multitude of beautiful parks and cityscapes, using footpaths and park connector networks. Of the entire 88km journey, only 2km was actually on the road!
SIMPSON’S DONKEY is for SALE!
SIMPSON’s DONKEY is a carbon Rannoch R20 built in 2016.
She is configured as a Solo or Pairs boat
She is currently based in the south of Australia and would be ideal for a Solo or Pair considering an Indian Ocean crossing as she is already in Australia (she is now being moved to UK as of June 2019).
She was the first boat to ever row from Singapore to Darwin, Australia in 2017
She is fitted out as an expedition boat with the following set-up:
SIMRAD electronics package including:
– SIMRAD RS35 Marine VHF
– 2 x SIMRAD GO7 Chart Plotters (one mounted on deck for rower and one mounted in cabin)
– RC42N Electronic Compass
– SIMRAD TP22 Autopilot
– SIMRAD NAIS-400 Class B-AIS with GPS Antenna
– SIMRAD WR10 wireless autopilot controller
– DT800 – depth transducer
– Schenker watermaker
– Electric Radar Reflector
– Wind speed and direction sensor
She comes with a road worthy 6m boat trailer!
She has 200W of solar panel charging capability
Batteries: Currently she has 2 x 120A marine AGM deep cycle batteries
LOOSE ITEMS (can be discussed if included or not in the sale)
– 2 x sets of Croker Oars
– Spare parts for rowing oarlocks
– Spare parts for Schenker water maker (pump, relay switch and pressure switch)
– 5 kg Anchor with numerous anchor lines of different lengths
– 2 x 10l high quality drinking water drums
– 2 x fire extinguishers
– 1 x fire blanket
– Strengthened the bow mounting U-bolt from 8mm to 10mm (7 tonne breaking strain) (for the para-anchor)
– Sunshades for very hot conditions (she was rowed over the equator on a very hot, often windless route through Indonesia)
– Sleeping platform on back deck for second rower (when too hot to sleep in cabin during day)
– Depth sounder (for rowing close to shore/shallow area’s)
– Stronger stainless steel tiller arm to replace carbon fibre tiller arm
– Additional strap down installed to stow life raft more securely
– Portable side mount for very small outboard motor (great for safety when conducting training rows or rowing in heavy regulated area’s e.g Singapore waters where rowing boats are illegal)
To discuss more please contact me at email@example.com
Big Decisions on the Southern Tasman – No Place For Ego
Great white sharks, capsize, breaking waves, gale force winds, a few big ships, gut feelings, night’s so black it feels your eyes are closed, beautiful whales, pods of dolphins, mental battles, big decisions and a lifetime of experiences packed into eight days and nights. That’s a brief snapshot of my third attempt to row the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand and finish off the Rowing from Home to Home expedition.
What had I learnt from the second attempt? Whilst Simpson’s Donkey is a beautiful little boat she is not ideally suited to the gale force winds and breaking sea’s of the southern ocean. Although very fast in following seas and high winds, if you don’t have her tightly reined she can roll. In order to manage this risk for round 3, I decided to bring another rowing partner with me. This decision was made at short notice and fortunately Luke Richmond, an Australian adventurer who had previously rowed the Atlantic in a four-person team and whom I have known for some years was ready and able to join. With two people onboard, I figured we could always have someone on deck/on watch and managing the donkey – keeping her lined up with the waves.
Under the cover of a beautiful twilight, Luke and I rowed out of Twofold Bay in the small town of Eden in the south of Australia on Saturday 10 November at 1940 hrs. The weather patterns over the previous few weeks had shown high pressure systems tracking over the Bass Strait then onwards to central New Zealand. We planned to drop south to between latitude 40 – 41 degrees then catch the underside of these high pressure systems which have the most westerly component of winds (High pressure systems are great anti-clockwise circulating masses of air – so you need to be in the correct position relative to the centre of the system to get the winds you desire).
By day three we were settling into the permanent state of semi-exhaustion of 2 hour on/ 2 hour off shift patterns and were making good progress south. Luke has been visited by a great white shark during one of his shifts which in his words “messed up my rowing technique for a few minutes!”. Whales, dolphins and sea birds were also in abundance.
We were approximately in the centre of Bass Strait when the winds started to really pick up above 30 knots on the morning of day 3. This was also the time Luke shared with me an honest reflection of his feelings. He had a seemingly unshakable premonition that this expedition was not going to end well and possibly could be his last. He couldn’t explain why he felt like this and had never had these feelings before. For a guy who base jumps, has rowed across the Atlantic, wandered across the Mongolian desert and been a professional soldier they were not to be taken lightly. After all, gut feelings and instinct are a very important part of decision-making. They are effectively pattern recognition, and the more experienced you are, the more reliable your gut feelings will be as your brain matches your situation to the most similar experiences from the past it can find.
We discussed Luke’s feelings and what could be possibly contributing to them. I thought it may have something to do with adjusting to the conditions which were very different to what he had been accustomed to on the Atlantic. Luke shared that the Tasman conditions already on day three, were much worse than what he had experienced on the entire 50+ day Atlantic crossing. We agreed to continue with the expedition, but take things hour by hour, day by day.
During the afternoon of day 3 – the winds were really howling, and the sea had started to build into the dangerous state where waves were breaking “like a pack of wild dogs” as Luke described it. We were surfing along at a great clip, averaging between 3 – 4 knots. During my two-hour shift in the early afternoon we got caught by a wave that formed right over us. It steepened so quickly, into a vertical wall of water, that literally exploded right over the boat. I sat on the back deck, entirely submerged in an angry bubbling churning mess as the boat literally took off as if rockets had been ignited under her stern. The GPS died at 15 knots, the screen literally going dead – unable to cope with the massive increase in speed and energy. The power of the sea was incredible and the wave felt like it broke twice with a second surge smashing us onwards a few seconds after the main one broke. If I had not had the Donkey lined up perfectly she could have been rolled over and over, multiple times – a sobering proposition for someone sitting on the back deck.
After this incident I immediately threw a 20m rope off the stern with 5 large knots tied in it. This acted as a drogue (brake) and slowed the boat down. It worked well and would pull the boat off the back of the waves, instead of allowing it to surf along in front of them. I felt much more in control to the point towards the end of my shift I felt the sea calming somewhat and decided to pull the rope back in.
After changing shift with Luke, I was dozing in the cabin, when I heard a roar of water and at the same time I was thrown upside down on the roof of the cabin as the boat rolled over. This was by now my fifth time capsizing in three attempts to cross the Tasman and is becoming a familiar experience.
Looking out through the back hatch – my view-point was now underwater as we are upside down. My first thought was for poor Luke who had been on the deck. Where was he? I couldn’t see him initially. I heard water entering the cabin and frantically searched for its origin – one of the handles on the main hatch was slightly ajar – I quickly closed that off and the water stopped. Peering out the back hatch again I finally saw Luke’s legs under the water, he was swimming, I noticed his safety line was still tethered to the boat and this line was now stopping us from self-righting. He then did the only thing he could do in the circumstances – reach up and unclip the line from the boat to allow us to flip-up again. As he released his safety line it was critical he maintained contact with the boat, and no large waves did not wash him away. He swam around the stern out of my sight. I felt a brief wave of panic he may have let go of the boat. What I couldn’t see was him grabbing the rudder and helping to pull the boat back over so we popped up on the surface again. I jumped out onto the deck and we soon had Luke back in the boat. With watchful eyes on rogue breaking waves we quickly had the mess in the front cabin sorted, the para-anchor deployed and the boat back under control. Luke changed into dry clothes in the warmth of the cabin and it was time to take stock.
Back in the cabin Luke described the events leading to the capsize. The wave had steepened on him and broke very quickly as it had for me on the previous shift. And it had picked the stern of the boat to a point he thought we were going to pitch pole (end over end). Only at the last-minute did she roll over on her side instead. If we had pitch-poled, then the whole boat would have come down on him. As it was he was initially trapped with his feet in the rowing shoes underneath the boat before he could free himself. His life vest had worked as designed and auto-inflated however this was more of a hindrance than a help in the circumstances.
Whilst the Donkey is designed to handle rolling over and self-righting which she has proven she can a number of times, it’s one thing taking a capsize while safely ensconced in the cabin, but it escalates the risk factor tremendously having someone on deck while rolling in heavy sea’s and even worse is pitch poling. And this clearly was not going to be an isolated incident. The conditions on day three were not yet as bad as I had experienced on my previous attempts and we would be highly prone to rolling/pitch polling as the conditions worsened during the next few weeks of the crossing. Ultimately the risk of a rower being hurt during a capsize while on the back deck or being separated from the vessel was now higher than I was prepared to take. It was a joint decision as we turned the boat and started heading the 130 nm (around 200km) back to the mainland.
Of course with the winds and currents in this part of the world and their highly variable nature – it was no forgone conclusion that we would indeed be able to get back to shore under our own steam. Some people place their trust in god – we placed ours in ‘Clouds’ a.k.a Roger Badham the expedition meteorologist. Through a series of 160 character text messages through the sat comm system – he first assured us he was confident he could get us into shore somewhere, then during the next five days and nights following his information and instructions, combined with rowing our guts out and some strategic use of the para anchor – we made it back into mainland Australia – rowing right up to the jetty in Mallacoota – a small Bay frequently is known for its wild breaking surf landing. But this day it was calm as a millpond.
Luke’s parents were waiting with a boat trailer – and we soon had the Donkey out of the water, dried and tidied and ready for storage. Over the course of the next ten days – the trend of high pressure systems flowing through Bass Strait changed and a nasty low pressure cell developed with gale force winds and big angry sea’s, which would have made life very miserable had we been out on the water. The weather in this part of the world is proving very hard to predict and as for getting across the ditch – it’s back to the drawing board. Any idea’s are very welcome. One way or the other we need to finish the job off.
But first let’s enjoy Christmas and some R&R with the family.
Thanks for following folks.
Love Captain Axe
Enjoy the cartoon courtesy of Sarah Steenland!
The Donkey has returned to Australia safely!
And… it’s official… Axe, Luke and Simpson’s Donkey are safely back on land at the holiday town of Mallacoota, a little south of Eden where their journey began.
Met by Luke’s parents with a boat trailer, all has ended well with some awesome seamanship to get Simpson’s Donkey back safely without having to trouble any emergency services.
While it’s not the landfall in Mew Zealand that they’d hoped for, nevertheless, a small battle was won in that the guys were able to make it back without help.
“It was a massive effort to reach Mallacoota this morning,” says Axe. “We had to fight currents all night and had to row two-up for the last six hours to make it into the boat ramp under our own steam.
“We’re both a little bit tired, but happy to be back!”
More to come from Axe once he’s regained his land-legs!
Update 9pm, Saturday 17 November 2018
9pm update – land has been sighted! Just 18 nautical miles to go – close enough to send a photo via phone – and spirits are high aboard Simpson’s Donkey!
“You can see land over Luke’s shoulder- I just wish it was NZ,” says Axe.
Update – 5pm Saturday 17 November 2018
Firstly the status – Axe, Luke and Simpson’s Donkey are all safe and making great progress back towards the Australian mainland.
You can see their exact location on the GPS tracker at https://axeoneverest.maprogress.com/rowingfromhometohome
Last night, as you’ll see from the tracker, the course detoured south just a little bit while the guys waited out some adverse winds on parachute anchor. But this morning at about 2am the winds changed again and Axe and Luke were able to start making a northerly course again.
So far today it’s all gone well and currently they’re making a course for the beachside holiday town of Mallacoota where Axe has already been in touch with the locals by satellite phone to organise a trailer for their arrival at the boat ramp.
So all going well, Axe says that they’ll make it to Mallacoota sometime around dawn tomorrow morning – Sunday 18 November.
Keep in mind though that while it’s all looking good at the moment, as Axe has said throughout this expedition, bringing Simpson’s Donkey into land is always a tricky and potentially dangerous operation, so the guys won’t be relaxing until their toes are in the sand at Mallacoota and Simpson’s Donkey is on the trailer.
As always – keep the messages of support coming!
They’re almost home – com’on the Donkey!
Latest from Simpson’s Donkey 6pm NZT Friday 16 November 2018
So the latest from on board Simpson’s Donkey as of this morning, is that all is going well in Mission: Get home safe.
“Conditions last night were ideal for rowing,” says Axe. “We rowed 2-hour shifts all night and have been doing 1-hour shifts so far today.
“Today the wind is swinging to the North-East which will slow our progress a little but our meteorologist Roger ‘Clouds’ Badham is doing an amazing job. We’re very lucky to have him guiding us with such accurate and vital weather information. He’s been feeding us information twice daily, and without his support and expertise we would not be able to make it back.
“In other news, we saw our first ship for a few days today – it was about 5 nautical miles away.”
In the longer term, the winds are expected to be more favourable tomorrow, so fingers crossed the guys can make some good progress back to safety.
Will keep updating – check out the tracker for their exact current location at https://axeoneverest.maprogress.com/rowingfromhometohome
Oh, and lastly – keep the messages of support coming! We’re relaying them on to the guys and they appreciate the support immensely! They’re really keeping the guys on the job–
Current location as this update is posted:
Current wind the guys are experiencing:
Wind the guys can expect Saturday:
Update from Simpson’s Donkey-
Sad news today from the Tasman Sea where Axe and Luke have been battling the elements since Saturday night when they left Eden, New South Wales to attempt their crossing to New Zealand…
Speaking via Satellite phone this morning, Axe said that after a rather brutal capsize on Tuesday, both he and Luke have decided that it is not safe to continue and they’ve made the decision to turn Simpson’s Donkey around and head back to Australia.
The capsize, according to Axe, came via a rather large wave which threatened to pitch-pole the boat. Pitch-poling is a worst case scenario when the boat is tipped end-over-end rather than a normal, vanilla-flavoured capsize which tips the boat over sideways.
The event underlined just how fickle luck is on the Tasman… and how much of that luck is needed to cross it.
“Luckily the boat tipped sideways at the last possible moment,” said Axe. “Because Luke was on deck at the time and it would have been very dangerous if we’d pitch-poled with him outside on deck.”
While the capsize is not unexpected – Axe is now a veteran of numerous capsizes after two previous attempts at crossing the Tasman in Simpson’s Donkey – Axe did say that he’d hoped that by having two people aboard, that they could avoid capsizes.
This, he said, was because with two people on board, they’d be able to have someone on deck 24 hours a day steering the boat with the swell to avoid tipping over.
However this doesn’t seem to have worked and it’s become apparent that while Simpson’s Donkey is a fantastic craft in the more predictable Atlantic Ocean, it struggles in the swirling, temperamental and unpredictable Tasman.
And so with still so far to go and without the confidence that both Axe and Luke will be safe, the decision has been made to turn back before something much worse happens.
“We’re a bit shaken, but it could have been much worse and we both feel that to continue would be possibly pushing the limits of acceptable risk in this boat and in these seas.”
Axe also mentioned that Luke, who has previously crossed the Atlantic in a similar rowing boat, has commented that the Tasman Sea is a much wilder and dangerous beast than what he had experienced on the Atlantic.
So now you will notice by looking at the GPS tracker that Axe and Luke have turned the boat around and are currently working overtime to get the boat into position for a predicted change of winds that will push them back towards the Australian mainland.
And over the next few days the guys are going to row as hard as they can to make it back to safety without having to abandon the boat out there.
Despite the bad news, “spirits are high on board,” Axe says. “So please let everyone know we’re fine and not injured in any way – this decision has been made simply for safety reasons.”
“It is a very wild place we’re in at the moment and I feel very privileged to be able to see it and experience it. Last night we were rowing all night without any moon and it was pitch-black with clouds and rain and strong winds tossing us about everywhere.”
“It was an extremely eery feeling – It feels like we’re at the end of the earth and any wrong move can have serious consequences, so we’re doing all we can to stay safe and get back home in one piece.”
Messages of support have a great effect in situations like these, so if you’ve got some positive words to say, please do leave them below and we’ll pass them on.
Stay tuned for more updates.
And in the meantime – check out the guys’ progress on the GPS tracker here – https://axeoneverest.maprogress.com/rowingfromhometohome
Round 3 – Only Donkey’s Don’t Change Their Minds
The stage is set for the round 3 battle with the Tasman Sea to begin.
Within the next few days I will depart Australia once again in my third attempt to finish off the Rowing from Home to Home expedition, a journey from Singapore to New Zealand completely by human power. I have currently travelled for 164 days covering 11,700km since leaving Singapore on the 3rd January 2017.
I have made 2 solo attempts to finish the expedition with the final stage of crossing the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand. The first a 24 day 2,200km effort last year which ended when I was washed back into the coast of Australia further away from New Zealand than where I departed! The second attempt was in August and October this year which I aborted on day four due to some critical equipment breaking onboard and I was subsequently picked up by helicopter.
I have made a number of changes to the plan for round 3. Strengthening the boat in key areas, changing the para anchor set-up, waiting for slightly warmer temperatures and also bringing a second ‘engine’ in the form of Luke Richmond onboard as a team mate. I have known Luke for sometime, and with his previous adventure track record and experience level, the fact that like me he is a ‘back country boy’, and coupled with his ability to join at very short notice, I am very privileged to have him onboard – let’s see if he feels the same way at the end of the journey! You can read more about Luke here.
I thought long and hard about this decision, and even though I very much still want to make the crossing solo, I believe having a second rower in my boat will increase the probability of success by around 20%. And at this stage of the expedition, with the bigger goal in sight of completing the first human-powered journey from Singapore to New Zealand, and a team who have been extremely supportive and patient to date, I want to give everyone the best chance of finishing the expedition on the third attempt. And as a good friend told me recently – “Only donkey’s don’t change their minds”.
Currently we are focussing on preparations, planning and risk protocols. Our departure will be very shortly, it will be as low-key as possible, and we will start updating more once out on the water.
If you are interested to follow the progress – then updates will be posted through this website, in the form of written blogs and voice posts from the Satellite phone. The blogs will also be shared on the expedition facebook page here. You can also see our position in real-time, updated on a 10 minute basis from the MAP link above.
In the meantime – please enjoy the artistic talent of Sarah Steenland who captured the second attempt’s failure and the plan for round 3 in such a beautiful, clever and humorous way!
Over and out,
I lost the battle but not the war
On the 30th August, 2018, I set-off from the port of Eden in South-East Australia, in a solo attempt to row across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand and finish the Rowing from Home to Home expedition. Rowing from Home to Home is a journey I am attempting to make from Singapore to New Zealand completely by human power.
This was my second attempt at finishing the expedition, after a 24-day effort in October and November 2017 saw me turn back whilst 400km off the coast of mainland Australia due to adverse winds. Not once during those frustrating 24 days did I have favourable wind conditions to move me towards New Zealand and the success of any ocean rowing endeavour is at the mercy of the wind. During that 24 day period I had rowed a total distance of 1,100nm (over 2,000km) which is equivalent to the total length of a Tasman crossing but I had made a very large circuit which ended back in Australia in the small fishing port of Ballina – further away from New Zealand than where I had started from (Coffs Harbour).
I then decided to re-strategise my departure point, route and timing of departure for a second attempt. I cycled for 13 days from Ballina, 1,300km down the east coast of Australia, through Sydney and over the iconic harbour bridge, all the way to the town of Eden in the south of Australia. Eden is a small fishing port located close to the border between Victoria and New South Wales.
Why head south?
The reason for moving south was to get closer to the 40 degree latitude line or the roaring forties. There are basically two choices when rowing across the Tasman from Australia to New Zealand. The mid-Tasman route or the Southern Tasman route.
There is considerable difference between the two routes. The mid-Tasman route departs from somewhere between Sydney and Coff’s Harbour, whilst the southern Tasman route is much lower, and departs from Tasmania or Eden. The water and air temperature is much colder on the southern route (water is around 12 – 13 degrees down south as opposed to 21 degrees higher up), the likelihood of gales is much higher and the sea-state is rougher. But, the wind has more of a westerly component in the south and it is a slightly shorter crossing to New Zealand. The weather systems down south come through much faster than they do in the mid-Tasman so even the gales generally don’t last more than 24 hours. Currents tends to be more of an issue on the mid-Tasman route, with more eddies to negotiate than further south. I planned to take advantage of the westerly winds in the southern Tasman route for my second attempt. Currently no one has successfully crossed the southern Tasman route all the way from Australia to New Zealand.
I did not want the added pressure of media covering my departure with reporters hounding me for departure dates and times on a daily basis so I deliberately kept my details low-key and did not post updates on my website about my intentions.
The local wharf in Eden had kindly allowed me to tie up for free however their rules required me to sleep on the boat. After eleven days and nights bumping away tied alongside (the jetty is not sheltered from southerly winds which often blow through), I set off on the 30 August, 2018. Strong westerly winds were forecast on the evening of day two which I intended to make full use of to help move me towards New Zealand.
Day one started well, I rowed for nine hours straight to get away from land on a beautiful day with a light northerly breeze. I was accompanied by pods of dolphins and two large whales. By darkness that evening I was 20nm from Eden and 7nm offshore, having made use of a southerly setting current to move generally south-east. I knew I would be passing through the busy shipping lanes later that evening which are 10nm – 20nm offshore. This was a night with no sleep, and saw me on the radio, communicating with vessels throughout the night to ensure we kept safe passing distances. My experience in the first attempt in the shipping lanes for 6 days and nights was very useful. The wind was starting to increase now and with occasional rain and poor visibility, the SIMRAD AIS (Automatic Identification System) and VHF radio worked beautifully and was critical to our safety through the night. Five massive vessels at over 200m in length and travelling at 15 knots passed within 1nm of Simpson’s Donkey with the closest steel giant only 800m off our stern. The crew of these vessels without exception, proved professional, vigilant and the cooperation was straight forward as we chatted over the radio to ensure everyone was safely passing.
By the morning of day two we were out of the shipping lanes and still moving south-east at around two knots. The wind picked up all day as we bumped along, and I was aiming to get to 38 degrees south before turning east to New Zealand. Gale force winds were forecast to hit around 9PM that evening. I was both excited and apprehensive about the wind. Excited that it would be the first time in 26 days rowing on the Tasman that I finally had some decent wind blowing me towards New Zealand (‘free miles’ in ocean rowing terms), and apprehensive at how best to set the boat up to maximise and safely handle these conditions while still making miles. Even though the wind was going to be strong I was determined to utilise it to make as much ground as possible.
I readied the boat in the twilight. and secured and strapped the deck down. At 9PM in the darkness, I engaged the small SIMRAD electric autopilot, set it on a heading due east and climbed into my sleeping bag in the cabin. As the wind picked up into the late evening and early hours of the morning, things worked to plan. We were being pushed along towards New Zealand with the autopilot keeping the boat straight and on a constant easterly heading.
The sea-state grew during the night as the wind increased, and as it did the waves started to become more confused in their directions, with some starting to break. I was now close to the region just to the east of Bass Strait, a notoriously ‘bumpy’ part of the world. We were making great progress towards New Zealand, however at 4AM we were flipped over (rolled or capsized) by a breaking wave that came in from our port quarter. Now Simpson’s Donkey is designed to roll over and automatically self-right and indeed she functioned as designed, rolling back over in a few seconds and shaking the water off. I was thrown about in the cabin and enough water got in through the partially open air vent to wet my sleeping bag. I began adjusting the course on the autopilot to try to find the best heading to keep us from rolling again yet still make miles to New Zealand. However 1.5 hours later we got caught by another wave and were flipped again. We again rolled back up quickly, but I decided it was time to make come changes.
Crawling out onto the back deck in the dim light of the early morning, I began to manually steer. This is where I sit on the deck with the steering lines in my hand facing the stern of the boat and the oncoming waves. This worked well, and I was able to quickly kick the heading of the boat around to ensure we were always lined up with the breaking waves. We were hitting 15 knots of speed as we surfed the breaking waves and it really was tremendously exhilarating and a lot of fun. Unfortunately the power of the waves hitting the back deck snapped in half two of my spare carbon fibre oars, which gives an indication of the force of the water.
However sitting in the back deck was cold. Even though I was in my goretex drysuit with thermal sharkskin under-layers, without the effect of rowing to warm my body and with the water up to my chest at times when then the waves broke over the boat I was soon getting uncomfortably cold and knew this was not a long-term option. So I deployed my drogue (very small parachute, only 1 – 2 feet in diameter) off the stern to slow us down and stabilise the boat somewhat. All morning the sea state picked up and the sea really was very messy and we eventually rolled a third time. This time the boat took a little longer to self-right, around a minute or two before we slowly came back over. I believe the righting was affected by the drogue attached to the stern and/or due to the fact there was a little more water in the cabin that had snuck in through the vents. It was definitely a most interesting experience to be inside the cabin with the boat upside down, standing on the roof and looking out the back hatch when we were completely underwater – in effect the view out a submarine port hole. After some rocking back and forth while inside the cabin, combined with some favorable wave action she came back up again, the boat no worse for wear, but the rower now ready for a change of underpants!
I finally decided I had been stubborn enough and it was time to sacrifice progress for stability and deployed the parachute anchor. The parachute anchor is a large 9-foot diameter underwater parachute which I deploy off a long line attached to a U-bolt mounted on the bow. The parachute holds the bow of the boat into the direction of the wind, which generally (although not always, especially on this route) is the direction from which the waves are coming from, and in effect allows us to ride out rough weather in the safest way possible.
After a few hours bouncing away on para-anchor, with no more rolls and the situation under control, it was just a matter of waiting out the storm till the next morning before getting under way again. Unfortunately, in the early hours of the afternoon I heard a noise and felt the motion of the boat change. I knew instantly we were not on para anchor anymore. Clambering onto the back deck my suspicions were confirmed as I saw the para anchor was now held to the boat only by the small retrieval line (it should have been anchored to a solid U-bolt on the bow by the main deployment line). At this stage I was not sure why it was no longer attached to the bow however further investigation would require taking a swim and in these conditions that was out of the question (5m breaking waves from different directions and 35+knots of wind). So I pulled in a enough of the para anchor line to deploy it from the stern. This is not an ideal method to deploy the para anchor from on this boat, but it got us through the following night.
An 18 dollar bolt
By the morning of day four, the wind was back down to a manageable 20 – 25 knots, the sea had calmed down slightly and life was looking rosier. However upon pulling in the para anchor, I found fastened to the end of the rope the U-bolt that was meant to be solidly screwed into the bow.
This was a very bad situation, the U-bolt is the single point on the bow where I secure the parachute anchor. It is a critical piece of equipment and is made from stainless steel with a 4000kg breaking strain. It had snapped completely off. There is no back-up bolt. At that very moment, life completely changed.
Decision to abort
As I stood on the back deck and thought about the situation, it took me less than five minutes to come to the conclusion that I would not be continuing the row to New Zealand without a reliable way to para anchor. My options to para anchor now were reduced to rigging some form of bridal off some cleats on the side of the boat, or to deploy it from the stern. Neither of these options were safe long-term solutions (I had already ripped one of the side cleats completely out on the first attempt with the para anchor). Having just spent sometime underwater in an upside down boat, I also was concerned how it would affect the critical self righting of the boat if we flipped with the bridle system in place. On this particular route, not having a reliable way to para anchor so early on in the trip had now propelled me to a level of risk which I was not willing to accept.
After discussions with project manager Dave Field, the call was made to abort the attempt and the decision now was whether I could make it back to Australia in time before the next gale hit under my own power. ‘Clouds’ – the expedition meteorologist predicted I would get close and that we had three days of good weather coming up, before the next northerly system would hit. But I would not get all the way in before needing to weather another potential northerly gale. With a well-functioning parachute anchor this would not be an issue, but without it, I was not prepared to accept this level of risk either.
So the decision was made to use the three-day fair weather window to arrange a controlled and safe pick-up by a passing ship. After some phone calls with the Australian Maritime Search and Rescue who coordinate these pick-ups, they confirmed a vessel would be passing by within 12 hours. As I was in no immediate danger this was good news for me, however when the Search and Rescue machine kicks into action it is truly impressive and has a mind of its own. They asked me to standby for an hour whilst they made a plan before informing me they had made the decision to send a rescue helicopter instead of waiting for the vessel, which would arrive in around 2.5 hours time. With the excellent communications systems we had onboard (multiple tracking systems, sat phones, VHF radio and multiple epirb and plb beacons), the process went very smoothly and after lunch on day four I was picked up by a very competent and professional helicopter crew and flown back to the mainland. As we flew off, I said goodbye to the little Donkey, a boat I had now travelled and lived in for over 6,500km in the last two years.
The end of the expedition
Within 5 hours of landing in Australia I was on the plane back to Singapore. My worldly possessions were my passport and credit card and some borrowed clothes the helicopter crew had kindly loaned me (plus a very wet drysuit). I could not sleep on the overnight flight back to Singapore. By this stage I had hardly slept for four nights and days but my mind raced as I went through the events that had unfolded the last four days, over and over again. What could I have done differently? Had I made the right decisions along the way? What did the future entail now? I did not at this stage know the answer to any of these.
What I did know was that the expedition was now dead. I had lost my beloved donkey. There was no way I had the resources or the energy to get another boat and attempt this again. I had no insurance for the boat as I could find no one too insure her. Seven years of my life and so much effort and support from others had been invested in this project. Everything was a blur by the time I landed in Singapore in the early hours of the morning. Stephanie picked me up from the airport and I gabbled a stream of random, depressed and tired thoughts as we drove home. Once home, I quietly snuck into my daughter’s room and lay down on the mattress beside them. Rachel felt my presence and rolled over in the darkness, reaching her little hand out until it touched my hairy face. Feeling the whiskers it took her a few seconds to process who it was. “Dada!” she cried out in the darkness. Finally I could sleep.
The Donkey comes home
When I woke up later that afternoon with my thoughts clearer, I immediately began checking the position of Simpson’s Donkey. I had left the AIS running, so could track her exact location. Over the course of the next three days, with coordination and the expertise of weather guru Roger ‘Clouds’ Badham’s predictions of wind and current together with the Eden Marine Police, we saw she would be around 50 – 60km off the coast and there was small window of opportunity to tow her into shore before the strong winds hit. I have much gratitude for the people involved from the Australian Maritime Search and Rescue, to the helicopter crew – Pilot Bryce England, Air Crewman Darren Magor, Dr Gerrard Marmor and paramedic and swimmer Justin Hockley, absolute legends, your professionalism, empathy and support for what I am trying to do is hugely appreciated. Also the marine police in Eden and the Eden Marine rescue who all played their roles in coordinating my pick-up and the subsequent tow-in of Simpson’s Donkey. You are a credit to your service and what an asset to the Australian people and visitors to your shores.
The people of Eden whom I have dealt have also been wonderfully supportive and I cannot thank them enough for their generosity of spirit. Eden is a fishing port with a long and proud seafaring history. It has been touching to see how people whose lives are formed and shaped around the sea, support fellow seafarers in their times of need. I will indeed pay their support forward.
(A special thank you to Robyn Malcolm, David Richardson and the Lucas family who could rescue a downed airliner in 4000m of water if they put their collective skills and minds to it.)
I have two options open to me. I could give up, put it into the ‘too hard bin’, move on with life and wake up every day for the rest of my life with regret. Or I can use what I have learnt and the experience gained to make another attempt. No one has successfully crossed this route – there is no manual to follow. At the end of the day I prepare the best I can and then there is nothing left but to get out there and have a crack.
We are all only as strong as our weakest links. In this case an $18 bolt was the weak link in the chain. The same bolt which has been used and never yet failed on 60 other vessels which have successfully rowed across crossed the Pacific, the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans. But the Southern Tasman route does not seem to care about other oceans – she makes her own rules. Any weakness she pounces upon, rips wide open and lays bare.
Simpson’s Donkey is being modified and strengthened in key areas and being prepared for another attempt at the Tasman in the not too distant future. I have never once lost the belief that I can cross the Tasman solo, safely and in record time. I also never chose this journey because I thought it would be easy, rather the opposite. To find such a challenge to finish off such an expedition somehow seems very fitting. It is a privilege to find something that tests me, pushes me to my limits and motivates me at the same time. I am very aware of the risks and the limits of how much I am prepared to accept. I will continue to make decisions which reflect this and as with the previous two attempts I would rather pull out before the situations get critical and live to fight another day.
I have also learnt through this last attempt that I missed the blogging, writing and sharing of the journey a great deal. Writing this post has been a useful and cathartic process in helping me arrange my thoughts. I will resume my blogging and sharing the journey for attempt # 3 over the next few months.
Bye for now and thanks for reading.
Windy.com – how to follow the conditions during my next Tasman attempt
For those who are interested to follow my next Tasman crossing, then a website which will be very useful for you is WINDY.COM.
This website shows all sorts of parameters associated with the weather and the ocean.
For an ocean rower the most important things that I look at daily are:
Wind – this has the greatest effect on an ocean rowing boat. If the wind is with you, you make great progress. If it is blowing against you at speeds of anymore than around 10 knots you start getting pushed around, even backwards.
Currents – these are also very important, its hard to row a boat solo, and consistently make ground against a current of more than around 1 knot. If a current is with you and the wind is against you, depending on the shape of your rowing boat the wind will generally override the current. BUT if you use your para anchor wisely you can still make progress into strong winds by using that current to pull the para anchor along.
The secondary things which I look at are:
- Rain (Clouds/Thunder storms etc)
- Ocean temperature
- Air temperature
WINDY.COM has all these parameters for you to choose from to display and more.
Just click on the website and take a look for yourself. It is also a forecasting tool, so down the bottom of the screen click the slider arrow and you can not only see the current situation but what will happen up to one week in advance. So when I am out in the Tasman, and you are looking at the GPS tracker and wondering why I am going in a particular direction, or backwards, or very fast towards New Zealand take a look at WINDY.COM as it will tell you more to the story!
Expedition tee-shirts to fight ocean plastic for sale
For the final stage of the Tasman crossing I have teamed up with the talented French Stallion Mr Ludovic Tendron to support an issue affecting every human being. The tragedy of single use disposable plastic poisoning our oceans.
Ludovic has designed this very cool expedition tee-shirt which carries a strong message on the front:
“In 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish”
And a call to action on the back: ‘DO YOUR PART’.
You can order two versions (round neck or v-neck), in white or gray color online and it will be delivered to your doorstep. All proceeds from the sale of the teeshirt go to supporting the fight against ocean plastic. If you want to help share the message that we all need to drastically cut down on single use plastic, recycle more and protect our beautiful oceans then you can order through here:
To order the v-neck – click here:
To order the round-neck – click here:
Strategic decisions & cycling Australia’s East Coast
I recently spent two weeks continuing the Rowing from Home to Home journey. I cycled 1,300km down the east coast of Australia to a new launching spot where I will make a second attempt to finish the expedition by rowing solo across the Tasman Sea later this year. All things must come to an end and I am determined in one way or another to finish the expedition in the next few months. I am keeping my exact plans as low key as possible due to factors which one day may be explained in the expedition book. Many strategic decisions are being made for the better good of the expedition.
The cycle ride in Australia was some of the most enjoyable and beautiful riding I have done, anywhere in the world. Attached is some photo’s taken by expedition film producer Alistair Harding.
The journey continues…
I will very shortly be continuing the ‘Rowing from Home’ to Home journey.
Back on my bicycle I will head south from the town of Ballina where I landed in the boat last year, in search of a new launching spot. I can’t wait to be out and about again, and its a great opportunity to trial an idea I had whilst plodding across the Australian outback into headwinds day after day after day. With plenty of time to think, I wondered just how light I could go with my cycle touring set-up.
So I have swapped back to my road bike, done away with the heavy pannier bags, and below is a photo of my new ultralight set-up. I can camp using this set-up and am carrying the following:
- Bivvy Bag
- Sleeping Bag
- Inflatable air mattress
- One pair of shorts and one tee-shirt
- Wet weather shell jacket/pants
- Thermal pants and top
- Polar fleece jacket
- One set of cycling clothes and cycling shoes
- One pair of jandals
- Iphone and charger
- Bicycle spares/front and rear lights
- Toothbrush & toothpaste
- Credit card and passport
As you see I carry no cooking gear and will just eat cold and dry food in between towns. The east coast of Australia is heavily populated and very different to the outback of Australia.
Next post from the road!
Book Review – One Life One Chance
I have very little time to read currently in between setting up my new business, being a dad to two very cheeky little 2.5 year old girls and training and preparing for the next round of my expedition.
However one book I thoroughly enjoyed and specifically made time for was ‘One Life One Chance’ by Australian adventurer Luke Richmond.
I enjoyed it so much in fact it deserved a review here! I met Luke a few years back through a mutual friend in Phuket where he was based as a crossfit trainer. Whilst I don’t know him well, after reading his book I learnt our lives seemed to have been almost mysteriously intertwined having visited/lived/climbed and partaken many of the same activities and places.
His story is told with humility and is beautifully edited to make it easy to read. It had me enthralled from the start, so much so that I read it in three sittings (actually while I was lying in bed after I put the girls to sleep). He grew up in humble beginnings in the outback of Australia. This area is so remote there are no schools so he was educated through listening to a teacher conduct classes through a radio system. He spent time at cattle stations in the heartland of Australia (like Avon Downs) that I rode my bicycle past last year.
After leaving school he joined the army and I loved the journey he takes the reader through with the incredible insights into just how gruelling the military training is. He also spent time serving in East Timor where I spent time after calling into in our rowing boat. After leaving the army his life took a turn for the worse when he moved to London and got tied up in a lifestyle which lead him into an addiction to drugs. Having made the move to London myself I could also relate to this part of the story except the drugs scene! He managed to prise himself away and move to Thailand where he immersed himself in physical training and Muay Thai fighting. And the photo’s of his transformation in the book show a ripped hulk of a man, honed to physical perfection. This is where he got his life back on track and started into the world of adventure.
The remainder of the book covers his attempts to climb the world’s seven summits (highest mountain on each if the seven continents), his world record row across the Atlantic Ocean and his move into the extreme world of base jumping (jumping off a cliff or solid object like a bridge/building or antenna with a parachute). Base jumping is a pursuit that I do not share his passion for, but I particularly enjoyed learning about this journey and the motivations and mindsets it takes to be a participant in this activity which has such a fine line between life and death.
If there was anything in his story I would have liked to hear more of, it would be about the interactions within his teams, both the good and the bad. I know from personal experience, that mountaineering and ocean rowing expeditions are high stress environments where there are always conflicts and disagreements and it can be interesting to see how different teams handle these dynamics.
To order your own copy go direct to: https://www.olocadventures.com/product-page/luke-richmond-one-life-one-chance
See you in Hong Kong!
As I prepare for round two of the Tasman Sea crossing I am spending my time revamping my complete speaking business. I am very excited to release this to you all within the next two weeks. January has been a wonderful month for speaking with five events and a brand new series of keynotes and new material which I am loving presenting!
Next week I will be speaking in Hong Kong for the team from Lightfoot Travel, this is open to all! You just need to register as per the instructions on the flyer attached. If you are in Hong Kong I would love to see you there!
One of the most important techniques I use after a ‘failure’ is to sit down and write down what I would do differently.
It’s important to do this as timely as possible while its still fresh in my mind. I find the process both cathartic, insightful and most importantly a great tool for DECISION MAKING. And the biggest decision is: ‘Do I want to try again?’.
I went through this process after an unsuccessful attempt on Mt Everest in 2011, it helped me work through from a confused state of mind to a firm conclusion that I was going back and I knew exactly in what style and what I needed to change to be successful.
I am now working through the process together with the Rowing from Home to Home team. I am neither depressed, dis-heartened, disillusioned or scared off after the last 24 day attempt. Overall it was an incredible experience challenging myself in an environment and a style that I love. I lived more in 24 days that I have from 20 years working in the corporate world.
Simpson’s Donkey is now being repaired in Brisbane. A massive thank you to TOLL Logistics for getting her there, to David Donahue from IXSURVEY for storing her, to my new mates in Ballina, especially the legend Steve Posselt who wandered by the boat one day as I was working and invited me as complete stranger to stay with him. Talk about kindred spirits. (Check out what he gets up to here.)
Attached is a sequence of photographs taken from the most interesting day – day 13, when things started to become interesting. I rose at 0530hrs and decided to retrieve the sea anchor and attempt to row. The sea state was confused after 20 – 25 knots of northerly winds building up for over 48 hours. Shortly after this photo I had to swim to the bow to re-fix a new para anchor line. Later that evening the wind changed to the south and rose to over 40 knots and the sea became very rough as the wind was now directly against the waves. This is when we eventually capsized. The boat and myself were still well within our safe operating parameters and designed to weather worse conditions however I believe the photo gives those at home a clearer idea at least of what a ‘normal day’ on the Tasman can feel like!