Goodbye South East Asia

As you read this we will have just rounded the north eastern tip of Timor Leste Island, and officially left South East Asia.  After 68 days of human powered effort we have rowed Simpson’s Donkey through the Singapore, Indonesia and Timor Leste Island chains and now enter the Timor Sea for a 260nm crossing to the Tiwi Islands.

The last three days since we left Dili have been hot and slow as we battle tidal streams – but never stronger than we can row so we have made decent ground, covering a total distance of around 100nm in 2 ¼ days.  Days are hot with minimal breeze – night times we have the breeze blowing off the land as the earth cools faster than the sea creating this phenomenon.

We have stayed between 2- 6nm off the north coast of Timor all the way up the coastline – which has been interesting to see the coast but also a reminder of how slow we are going so a little depressing sometimes.  We are both eager to get into the Timor Sea and take on this challenge.  It appears we have some wind forecast with a low pressure system passing through.  The currents also are not generally in our favor according to the models so I hope the models are wrong (as they have been before) or the currents are not so strong that we cannot make ground.  We also hope to reach Tiwi Islands and enter Darwin around the 21st of this month as this is a ¾ moon and the tidal cycle is at neaps which creates the smallest currents.  Darwin has a 6m tidal range between high and low tides meaning currents will be massive and timing is everything.

Both of us are eager to get to Darwin now and finish this stage off, we are working very efficiently on the boat in our rowing shifts of hour on/hour off from 0700 – 1900 and then 2 hrs on, 2 hrs off from 1900 – 0700, through the night.  Lets hope we can get through the Timor Sea safely and quickly before a cyclone appears.

Captain Axe

Axe on the oars



Bali to Dili by rowing boat – what actually happened?

I attempt to summarise in words and pictures here ,those precious 15 days spent on board Simpson’s Donkey, as Charlie Smith and I attempted to row the massive 1,250nm (2,300km) journey through the east Indonesian Island chain, past East Timor and across the Timor Sea to Darwin, Australia.

We departed Bali after an enforced 13 day stopover on day 40 of the expedition (Saturday 11 Feb).  Our stop-off was initially meant be a little over one week as we re-stocked food, rested and made our CIQP paperwork (customs, immigration and quarantine processing) to officially exit Indonesia.  However bad weather with strong winds coupled with the local harbor master’s decision to delay the issuance of our port clearance until the weather improved, meant we had a longer break than anticipated.

We were completely ready to go by departure date – I think we were actually over ready with both us getting jittery and finding it hard to relax properly when we knew what was coming up.  The boat had been sitting ready and packed for some days, bobbing away in the strong winds happily tied off to a dodgy mooring bouy some 100m offshore in the small bay of Amed on the North East coast of Bali.  At 0600hrs we walked out of our little backpackers in the dark for the last time, carrying a tiny bag of possessions each, and made our way  down the beach for 1km until we reached Amed Bay.  The morning was calm with no wind, only a handful of other people were up at this hour – walking quietly along the beach and enjoying the special type of peace and calm that only this time of the day brings.  I could not but wonder about our differences in situations.  They would be returning shortly to their relative hotels – for a comfortable breakfast and coffee, whilst we would be swimming to the boat and rowing out into the fearsome Lombok strait, a body of water which has intrigued me (and intimidated me) for years, with its tales of massive current streams that even boats with motors cannot move against and are actually driven backwards.  Also its propensity for terrible sea conditions where the sea floor passes over a ‘sill’, rising  abruptly from over 1000m depth to only 300m, causing standing waves that can over turn small boats like pieces of balsa wood.

It is always the toughest part of adventure for me – sitting in the tent or standing on the shore in the dark in the early hours of the morning, thinking about what I need to do.  This is the time of the day where I have learnt over the years is my weakest mentally – All sorts of demons enter my head.  I have learnt that action is the best way of dispelling the fears.  I had gone over and over the departure routine in my head for the past three days.  Borrow a small skiff off the beach, row out to the boat with mine and Charlie’s bag of personal possessions around my neck, drop off the bag, put on goggles, jump into water and untie blue back-up rope from mooring bouy which we borrowed from fisherman, row back to shore with skiff and return rope, swim back to boat, Charlie to swim to boat and set-up rowing position, ensure cameras are running to record departure, untie final bow line from mooring bouy while Charlie holds position with oars – DEPART!

Things went very smoothly with the departure and we rowed off at a pleasant 1.4 knots at a heading NE of 60 degrees.  The big question of the past few days which had been impossible to get a confirmed answer was – what direction was the current flowing in the strait?  It either flows North or South – nothing in between.  The weather had been so rough that no boats had come in during the last two weeks so our agent had no fresh information, the harbor master was also unsure when I asked him so together with Dave Field we had looked at current models (which some are accurate and some are completely inaccurate and contradictory).  I also observed the speeds of vessels on the web based AIS tracking system (marine traffic) and noted vessels heading north were by and large all travelling 2 – 3 knots faster than vessels heading south.  Which was as much indication that we we were going to get that the current indeed was setting North as we needed. If it was setting south, at speeds of 4 – 5 knots as is common with the straits, then we would have no chance to fight this and would be sucked down and out into the much rougher seas to the south of the Island chain.  We would then have a beast of a time on our hands trying to work against adverse currents for a few hundred miles reach to Kupang in the south west of Timor Island. We really needed that north setting current.

After two hours of rowing, and on Charlie’s 2nd shift he began to notice we were getting a slight push from the currents to the north east.  This gave me confidence and as we progressed further into the strait the current increased.  We encountered a 10 knot northerly wind in the middle of the strait, which was going directly against the current flow, potentially a situation which creates a dangerous sea state known as ‘wind against tide’ or ‘wind against current’.  The sea was confused and angry but fortunately the little Donkey handed this with ease, never once feeling unstable.  I must admit that without even rowing – we were being pushed NE at a rate of just over 4 knots, sometimes even 5! What an incredible force of nature it was and for me a feeling of massive respect and awe at this huge invisible force smashing us along through the water at the pace a human being can run.  The Lombok Strait is also VERY busy with shipping traffic and we kept a keen eye on the AIS tracker with one massive ship coming within 1nm of us at 14 knots as we crossed diagonally across its path, which is as close as I was comfortable with in these conditions.

The Lombok Strait is a major milestone in the expedition.  We crossed the Wallace line – so named after Sir Alfred Wallace – a naturalist who in 1854 traveled to spend 8 years of hardship living, exploring and discovering much of Indonesia and Singapore. One of his most profound discoveries was two separate groups of animals living in the Indies (Indonesia was known as the Indies back then), and there was an invisible line which separated them. On the western side were mammals, apes and monkeys, flying lemurs, tigers, wolves, civets, mongooses and deer. On the east were marsupials, kangaroos, opossums, wombats and duck billed platypuses.  Difference also extended to birds. Wallace noted “The contrast is nowhere so abruptly exhibited as on passing from the island of Bali to that of Lombok,… In Bali we have barbets, fruit thrushers, and wood peckers; on passing over to Lombok these are seen no more, but we have an abundance of cockatoos, honeysuckers, and brush-turkeys, which are equally unknown in Bali and every Island further-west”.  Wallace realized the reason for two such biological diversity was geology. He had inadvertently discovered the meeting place of two continental shelves.  His efforts provided the first clues to the study of plate techtonics in the twentieth century.

For us in our little rowing boat – the difference in species was not clearly evident as we were so far from land, we could barely make the mountainous coast of Lombok. Instead the change became immediately apparent in terms of weather.  Gone were the stormy, rainy and windy weather we passed through in the Java and Bali sea, to be replaced by the smooth, glass like conditions, along with swelteringly hot and still sunny days.  By 0700hrs, the temperature under the shade cloth on Simpson’s donkey was touching 35 degrees, by 1000hrs it would be 37 degrees, and often it would be touching 40 during the hottest part of the day which seemed to be always between 1400 – 1700 hrs each day.

The first two days of rowing was very tough emotionally for me as homesickness weighed over me like a dark cloud.  I missed Stephanie and our twin daughters Kate and Rachel immensely.  I could not stop thinking of them – this in turn made me think of how much longer we had to get to Darwin before I would see them again and it depressed me enormously.  It was not until 3 days after leaving Bali that I managed to start shaking off this feeling and get back into the groove of being at sea.

I had been looking forward to this leg of the journey for the remarkable mountainous coastline that we would be following.  However this was tempered by our requirement to find the ‘conveyor belt’ of easterly setting ocean currents which we wanted to make use of to ride our way east, in order to make it with enough time to cross the Timor sea before our food ran out.  And it turned out that the conveyor belt regularly had us 30nm (50km) or more offshore – so far we could only at times just see the coastlines as a faint outline in the distance and often we could not see land at all.  I was at the time very disappointed with what we were missing out on.  With the dead flat sea, life and the view became somewhat mundane.  I was itching to see volcanoes and ridge lines etching their outlines in the sky 3000m above our heads. Instead there was nothing but dead flat blue horizon all around.

For the first three days, we were blessed with an occasional rain shower at night – which if only a few minutes in duration was refreshing and beautiful.  If we were lucky enough to be the rower on deck at the time, we would take the opportunity to shampoo our hair and wash ourselves in the rain.  Fresh water for washing is a rare commodity onboard- swimming in the sea whilst refreshing at the time often leaves our skins feeling itchy and scratchy as the salt dries.  If the rain lasted longer than a few minutes, then our naked bodies became quickly cold and it was a great motivation to continue rowing as fast as possible until the end of one’s shift.  During one prolonged storm, I was so cold at the end of my shift I retired to the cabin wet through and teeth chattering in the darkness.  I eventually warmed myself up with a meal of Back Country Cuisine’s venison casserole.  Food never tastes as good as when you have worked for it and you are cold and hungry.


Swimming in 1,500m water depth to cool off during the heat of the day – advice from Dave Field – “Don’t drop anything here!”

On days 41 – 43 – we struggled to regularly stay on the conveyor belt of currents, as the natural tendency was to stay south closer to the island chain.  When progress slowed to below 2 knots, we would be forced to point Simpson’s Donkey north east for some hours until we found the current streams again.  However we were making great progress still and constantly kept the boat moving, 24 hours per day, in our well rehearsed shift patterns. We really were a picture of efficiency on the boat by this stage of the expedition.  All of our systems, from rowing in shifts, eating, sleeping, toiletries, communications were fully routine and performed almost without thought.


Clouds line the horizon as another day dawns

On day 44 and 45 – we really found the conveyor belt and made unbelievable mileage. We averaged well over 3 knots for long periods of times and during the evening of day 44/morning of day 45, I made distances of 6.8/7.0 and 8.0 nautical miles during my 3 x 2 hour night shifts.  Charlie on his last shift got caught in a large rain storm which on top of the currents, bought some westerly winds coupled with the fact he was motivated by being very cold made a fantastic run of 9 nautical miles

in his 2-hour shift.  That day we made a total distance of 90nm in a 24 hour period! It was our best efforts to date on the entire expedition.

There were three main islands of the Nusa Tenggara Island chain we were passing along, Lombok, Sumbawa then Flores.  As we neared the end of the last major island, Flores, our daily 0800 hrs satellite phone call with Dave Field revealed some interesting information.  Little did we know but our dream run of the previous 5 days was about to be over.  We had two options in terms of routes to take from the end of Flores Island.  Option one was to take a  route directly east across the north coast of the Alor Island group to Timor Island and drop south into the Timor Sea.  The problem with this route is that it crossed a number of selats or straits and from the research I had done previously and what Dave Field had access to – the currents were generally not in our favor along this route.

Option two was to stick with currents. But from this point the conveyor belt made a turn to the North and headed  45 degrees in a north easterly direction which would effectively take us us on a 150nm detour.  We would need to follow this far enough east to where we hoped we would hit a strong southerly setting current stream which would pull us down into the Timor Sea.  This route although longer, would possibly be faster and bring us into the Timor Sea having burnt less energy than we would have used fighting currents on the shorter routes.  It’s downside was it took us into a very remote area – well away from land and what land we were close to was very sparsely populated.  The second downside was if the southerly currents streams were not there as predicted or even worse going in a different direction (North), we would be in effect “up shit creek without a paddle” – hundreds of miles away from where we wanted to be and forced in the wrong direction.  It was a tough decision to make based on limited information.  Initially we decided to investigate the shorter route staying further south.  However after a night of slower and slower progress and a great deal of thinking about the route options – we made a decision to head north and follow the current streams. My main concern with option one was running ourselves up a dead end street – getting into a position where we could simply not row against the currents and were stuck. The northern route even though longer seemed a safer bet IF the currents acted as predicted.

If you see the SPOT TRACKER Map, you will see exactly when this decision was made – about 35km north of the western tip Pulau Lembata (an island in Alor Island group). Remoteness in a rowing boat is an interesting concept – as we are so prone to currents and winds that if  blowing or flowing the wrong direction, then a distance as short as only 2nm away can be as impossible to reach as getting to moon.  Change this distance to 150 miles of adverse currents and winds and you see the problem magnify. So we need to be extremely careful with our planning in area’s of high current flow that we don’t get ourselves into uncontrollable situations.

Some of you maybe thinking – hold on – people row these boats across the Atlantic Ocean – hundreds and even up to one thousand miles offshore? Why is 150 miles a problem?  I need to remind you that Simpson’s Donkey is an ocean rowing boat – designed specifically for ocean routes. She is not designed to be rowed close to land or especially through island chains with fierce current streams as we are trying to do.  Why? Because she is so large and heavy and too ‘under powered’ to fight these currents. The sailing directions for the eastern Indonesian Island chain we are passing through are liberally noted with the term ‘vessels of low power are to avoid this passage’.  And they are of course referring to vessels with engines.  We are just one (or occasionally two) people trying to move a boat of at least 800kg with our own human power.  Currents are either our worst enemy or our best friend – depending on what direction they flow.  Knowing what direction they flow in this part of the world is very tricky.  The reason for this is that, current streams around islands are affected by many environmental factors, some of them are easy to predict like tide for example. However some of them are impossible to predict in advance like wind speed and minute sea-level changes due to monsoon’s and other weather patterns far away. These conditions all combine to cause often seemingly random current movement in strange directions which is impossible to predict with any accuracy.  Generally the type of decisions we need to be making on this journey are much more complex and important to the success of the expedition than what would be needed to be made on a typical ocean rowing crossing across the mid-Atlantic trade-winds route for example.

As we made the decision to turn north east, we came across an area that was teeming with dolphins.  There must have been one hundred of them swimming and frolicking and pointing their tails directly into the air like underwater ballerinas.  We even changed course to get closer up to them but they always stayed at east 20 – 30nm away from us.  It was amazing to see them like this – jumping and playing.

It was a committing feeling heading further north, however we were rewarded with reasonable progress, it was day 47 and we initially seemed to have made the right call as we happily rowed at a pace of 3 knots. During the early evening, we were rewarded with our closest encounter with land for 7 days as we passed just 2nm off the most amazing tiny volcanic island rising out of the depths of 4000m+ deep ocean to a height of 700m above sea-level.  Pulau Komba is a deserted volcano and it was eerily peaceful and beautiful to glide silently by it under our own human power.  It was also lonely to pass by this deserted spot, with the knowledge that our route was taking us into even more remote territory.


The tiny volcanic Island of Pulau Komba rising 700m out of the ocean floor

Day 48 was another great day of progress with speeds above 2 knots, but day 49 was where everything started to come unstuck.  Around 1800 hrs, we slipped off the conveyor belt and were working hard to make only 1.2 knots of speed.  All night we battled hard and our speed slowed even further to only 1.0 knot.  We are now starting to fight against a current pushing us backwards and it seemed we may have been caught in an eddy.  All through the day, we kept slow but steady progress – sometimes making 1.3 knots, however by 1500hrs the situation had not improved so a quick call to Dave Field who suggested we head a further 10nm North to where the models were showing a stronger easterly setting current stream.  It was not the nicest feeling to be heading even further north at this stage but turn we did and I started to second guess our decision making.  From my memory of the current streams, I knew there should be massive easterly and north easterly setting streams in this area but it seems we had slipped off them?  Maybe we should have stayed another 50nm north and be riding them?  Why were we battling away at 1 knot exhausting ourselves in this heat?  On the other hand I was asking myself – go even further North? Further away from Darwin? Is that a good option? What if the southerly streams are not there in 150nm time? However we put our faith in the current models and after 6 hours of rowing and 10nm, almost like magic, we found the easterly setting stream and increased speed to over 2 knots.  For a few hours, we were almost deliriously happy.

Unfortunately the happiness was short lived as at 0400 hrs on day 51, we hit another eddy.  Our progress slowed to 1 knot again and after battling away slowly until 0700 hrs, we decided to resort to 2-up rowing.  This means we have 90 minute cycles with both of us rowing together for 30 minutes,  then one of us will row for 30 minutes each while the other rests for 30 minutes.  The problem with this is it does not give us enough time to rest and recover properly so generally we would only try to use it for short periods to get through obstacles. Anything more than a few hours of this has detrimental effects in the long run on our physical conditions.

That day we rowed 2-up in 90 minute patterns all day long, for over twelve hours until 2100hrs that evening. We were exhausted by this stage so resorted back to one-up rowing, with Charlie taking the first shift for 90 minutes.  During that entire 90 minutes, he made a total distance of a dismal 400m. I came on and made exactly the same distance of 400m in my 90 minutes.  The wind was directly us against us and blowing up to 11 – 12 knots in a constant stream.  The current seemed to be pushing us north west, and the wind is behind the current.  It was very apparent that with only one person rowing we could not make any progress, so at midnight we once again resorted to two-up rowing, this time we shortened the rest period from 3o minutes to only 15 minutes. So in one hour, we row together for 30 minutes, then rest for 15 minutes and row solo for fifteen minutes each. We continued this exhausting schedule for seven hours until 0700 hrs on day 52 when even rowing 2-up our speed has dropped to less than 0.5 knots and it was proving almost impossible to keep the boat heading in the right direction.  Every time we stop rowing for even a few seconds or get slightly off course, the bow is blown around 180 degrees in the opposite direction and we have to work like crazy with one oar and the rudder hard locked off to even turn the boat around.  It was evident that this is not working – we needed to change the plan.


The heat of the day was pretty awful to suffer through – tough on our minds, our bodies and our skins

Charlie suggested we put out the para-anchor.  Initially I hate the notion of the para-anchor as it seems like our even tiny progress is being stalled and it is an admission of defeat.  But after some discussion, we agreed it was at least worth a try to see what happens.  And interestingly, a very strange thing happens.  Whilst drifting without rowing, we are being blown north west at a speed of close to 2 knots.  As soon as we deployed the parachute anchor on its long 70m rope, it sat maybe 3 – 5m below the water surface and we started to be pulled in a direction of 200 degrees, at 0.5 knot, almost directly south.  So the surface current is acting completely different to the current just a few metres below the surface. A phone call to Dave Field further confused the situation in that all his information told him we should theoretically be in this strong easterly flowing current stream still which I most strongly assured him we are not!

By this stage, it was day 52 and it was the first time we had stopped the boat moving after 12 solid days of 24 hour/day rowing.  At first we had a few hours of rest, and as the heat of the day started to bake us, we waited for the 10 knot south easterly wind to abate.  We both had rashes all over our bodies from the sun, heat and salt  but poor Charlie was really suffering with massive rashes appearing under his arms which were becoming infected.  We called our expedition doctor in New Zealand (my sister Helen) and she advised a course of antibiotics, avoiding the rubbing alcohol he had been applying and some water based creams along with wearing a shirt to stop the skin on skin rubbing.  Within 24 hours, her advice had worked wonders so thanks Dr Helen!

By 1500hrs, the wind had dropped to less than 5 knots which I was very comfortable we should be able to row against this.  So we hauled in the para anchor and I took the first shift rowing.  Unfortunately, it was immediately apparent that the surface current was still being driven mainly by the wind and I struggled to make even 0.5 knot and controlling the boat direction was really difficult.  We experimented with the centre board and resorted after a short time to two-up rowing again which in our tired state was not ideal.  After less than an hour of two-up rowing, we were continually fighting to stay on course and during one quick water break, the bow was quickly blown 180 degrees and we were sent backwards.  As we fought hard to try and turn the boat again, I noticed that as we turned, we actually made over 2 knots in a south westerly direction.  I zoomed out from the chart and saw Dili, the capital of East Timor, some 120nm away in that rough direction. The seed was immediately planted.  Maybe we should turn and head to Dili, rest, regroup and rethink the strategy to make the Timor Sea.  As battling into this current for the 120nm, we needed to reach the southerly current stream was something that was probably not going to work.  We discussed on board and Charlie was in full agreement to the change in plan, so a quick phone call to Dave Field who also agreed with the concept and the decision was final.

Turning the boat south, we immediately started making good time while only needing one person to row.  The only problem now was that whether or not we could actually make it to Dili.  There were two main selats or straits to negotiate and we needed the current to be favorable for these which Dave told us from his models it looked to be.  At this stage, I was getting very wary of the models however.

I had one contact person in Dili – an Australian lady called Kim who runs the Dili Central Backpackers, has lived in Dili for 20 years, is an experienced sailor and basically is the most helpful and loveliest person we could have possibly hoped to have as a local point of contact in Dili.  I called her on the sat phone and she said she would help organise the paperwork for our arrival.

For 24 hours, we rowed the 50nm down to the Island of Pulau Weta then followed its west coast around to the small island of Pulau Kisar where we anchored outside a tiny fishing village for around 10 hours during the daylight hours.  The small bay was full of coral and fish and we rested and tried not to bake to death under the intense sun, while spending some time snorkelling in the water.  The reason we stopped here was that we wanted to time our entry into Dili harbour so that we could arrive in the daylight as we were not familiar with the entrance and turning up night time without the ability to see where we were going would be dangerous.  Around 1700hrs, we hauled up the anchor just as the local fisherman came out to fish for the evening – we beckoned them over and I had a good chat in Bahasa with them and gave them a poster each and one of our freeze dried meals to try.


Friendly fisherman with a Rowing from Home to Home poster each and Back Country cuisine meal you can see in the foreground on their boat.

That night we made great progress- first being pushed south through the small Selat into the much larger Selat Weta.  Here we made a direct line for Dili Harbour, the last 10nm our progress slowed as current worked against us – but we rowed 2-up, all the way into Dili Harbour arriving around 1200 hrs on day 55 – 15 days after we departed Bali. We had travelled 815nm (1,500km) in 15 days, completely by human power, with a pretty awesome average of 100km/day.  I was very proud of what Charlie and I had achieved with the support of our team, Dave Field, Alistair Harding, Monique, Stephanie and Colin Quincey who sent some very encouraging words of support and also I enjoyed a great chat with on the sat phone on day 53.

True to her word, Kim had arranged our paperwork in advance for our arrival in Dili, she sorted moorings for the boat, accommodation, a welcome party of the NZ embassy staff, food, beer, you name it! What a great lady.  It was beautiful to step onto land again – even if I forgot my shoes and my feet almost burnt off on the boiling hot pavement.

Dili seems like an absolute oasis to me – I love the laid back, non touristy and down to earth atmosphere.  I love the environment and the surrounding hills and mountains.  I love the feel of the place and every person we met had a special and interesting story. I fell in love with the place almost immediately.  On our second nights stay, we were invited to the house of the ex-president of East Timor – Jose Ramos Horta.  He is also the former prime minister and a co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, and a survivor of an assassination attempt which saw three bullets enter his body.  What an honor to spend some time with him, and such a down to earth and relaxed man to speak to.  He was interested in our expedition, shared some jokes with us and in return I shared one of my jokes with him which will now go down in history as my most famous joke.


Enjoying some time with Jose Ramos Horta

Did we make the correct decision to divert to Dili? If we had continued to fight that current for another one mile even – would it have turned to the east? Or would we have worn ourselves into exhaustion as it would have stayed opposing us for the next 100 miles? No one will ever know.  The fact of the matter is we made a decision and it worked out to get to Dili – the expedition lives to fight another day.  One interesting thing that has occurred since we made landfall is the development of a tropical cyclone in the Timor Sea which will cross the exact path at about the exact time we would have been there IF we had kept going and managed to break through the currents.

For now – we are enjoying some rest and relaxation – Charlie is spending time with his family and I have returned to Singapore for 7 days to collect a new supply of freeze dried food.  Our food rations on the boat – even though we did a great deal of testing before we left, have not worked out perfectly.  We find the freeze dried food has rapidly become the staple. We cannot eat much of the other dried food as much of it had become contaminated by fumes from the holds to the point it had to be thrown away. So to this end, we consumed much more freeze dried back country food packs than I had budgeted for and hence I needed a resupply of another 60 ration packs to ensure we have enough to make it to Darwin.  I also am taking the opportunity to get some modifications to certain fittings on the boat made up whilst here and am doing some intensive research into the strategy to get across the Timor Sea safely and quickly.  The Timor Sea seems to be strongly affected by tides and it definitely needed more thought than I had initially given it.  Dave Field has been a superstar as usual with information and advice.

We hope to aim to depart Dili next Friday 10th March.  Time is of the essence as I would prefer to be finished this crossing before the end of March. As can be seen from the average wind vectors for the month of March and April here – April the winds have generally turned in the opposite direction to where we want to travel.  We also need to try and avoid a nasty cyclone – which is not something we want to be caught up in. Having said that – this year seems a very weird year in terms of wind, so honestly – who the hell knows what the hell is happening? The weather and currents have certainly confused the jolly roger out of myself and Dave Field over the past few weeks!



So a very big thanks to all those who have sent positive messages of support and followed our progress.  I am now very much looking forward to getting back into the boat and taking on the final and maybe the toughest push of the expedition to date.


Captain Axe






















So today we can confirm something those of you who have been following the GPS tracker might have already suspected. That Axe and Charlie have erred on the side of caution and decided to pull into Dili, the capital city of East Timor, before attacking the Timor Sea and the final crossing to Darwin. The decision was not taken lightly, but in the conditions that the guys were rowing, it was the only sensible one open to them. Both Axe and Charlie are exhausted, and in no condition to take on the open sea crossing to Darwin which is perhaps the most dangerous part of the expedition so far.

The decision to pull into Dili was made after long discussions between Axe and Dave Field the Expedition Project Manager. Afterwards, Colin Quincey, the first person to ever row the Tasman Sea, and perhaps the closest person to the expedition who understands best what is going on aboard Simpson’s Donkey, was kind enough to get on a satellite phone call with the guys to talk the mental side of things through as well:

“Looks a bit frustrating out there and exhaustion’s not a good place to be, so excellent decision to take a break,” Colin wrote to the guys before they got on their satellite phone call. “When you’re knackered you tend to worry about lots of stuff you don’t need to. Focus on what you can control and dump the angry/it’s not fair stuff… Hang in there… patience as ever… you’re going to get there. It just might be a different route and take a little longer.”

So the next 24 hours is all about getting Axe, Charlie and Simpson’s Donkey safely into Dili. Dave Field has laid out a plan for the approach and the guys have had a rest. Now, as this is posted, they are into the last 15 hour stretch of this leg which began at Amed Beach in Bali and has taken them into such remote areas that the only human contact they’ve had is Dave’s daily calls.

Once there, the guys will rest up for a few days before deciding how to tackle the leg to Darwin. And in the meantime, they have already received some amazingly kind offers of local hospitality that we’ll update you all on when we get there!

Anyway – keep the messages of support coming! The guys have had such little contact with the outside world for the past couple of weeks that their mental state will get a huge boost when they arrive in Dili to see your messages – What’s more, we sent the messages from yesterday on to the boat so your words really are helping power the guys through this extremely tough time and reminding them to stay clear headed and make the right decisions to get there safely!

And lastly – expected arrival at Dili is sometime Sunday afternoon… stay tuned for more…


Approaching Dili


Ok people, it’s time again for some messages of support for Axe and Charlie. As they approach the Timor Sea, the elements have turned against them… Read below for details… Every message counts- let’s be the wind that pushes them home!


“It’s too hot and we are too tired to write much I’m afraid. We are suffering brutal endless day after day of sun and heat onboard, its 35 degrees by 0800 hrs in the shade and we have to try and row through this all day until reprieve at 1730 hrs. Our earlier excellent progress is now stalled and we have hit adverse winds and currents. The monsoon winds from the west we so desperately need are not here – instead the wind is blowing from the south east and we are now stuck on para anchor without the ability to move forward. For the first time in 12 days and nights we have stopped rowing and having an enforced rest. It looks very tough from this point to make it to Darwin due to currents. We are not sure if it will even be possible and our spirits are not high at this time. It does not help that the current information for this remote region is so inaccurate for our planning. We hope to make progress again when the winds either stop or turn to the west. We have food for another 15 days maximum onboard. Our skins are taking a hammering, with lots of rashes and sores in our armpits and groins. Yesterday we rowed in 2-up shifts for 24 hours to try to make progress until at 0600 this morning even with 2 of us rowing we were going backwards, we had 2 hours sleep each in the last 24 hours. We are hot and exhausted and currently wondering if this wlll ever end. The area we are in is very remote – no people, we cannot see land except or a tiny volcanic outcrop, and we really feel alone here. We can only pray conditions change and allow us to continue and at least get entry to the Timor Sea.“

Photo taken with NIKON Keymission 360 degree camera


You may have wondered whether the guys had decided to head to Papua New Guinea rather than Darwin, or quite where they are going? To be honest Grant and Charlie are probably thinking the exact same right now! For the last few hours they have had the para anchor out and were trying to get some much needed rest..

About 5 days ago we looked at the currents and winds and decided that the more direct way to the south of Pulau Wetar set us up for a nightmare in the Timor Sea. It would have contained strong unfavourable currents and left the guys tired before the big challenge that is the Timor Sea. So instead, after much deliberation we decided to send them north east over the top of Pulau Wetar with the aim of entering the Timor Sea further east and with more favourable currents. The convey belt the guys had been riding was setting that way and whilst it was longer it would be quicker and less taxing on the bodies.

And it kind of worked….on the 21 Feb they encountered a current setting them to the west which we determined was an eddy and a move just 10nm north put them into a good east setting current again. Going this way was always going to provide a brief period of unfavourable currents, and Grant and Charlie decided to row two-up for a period to push through it and reach the favourable south-east setting current. All was going relatively well until last night when the wind increased from the south-east and the current appeared to also be setting to the north west. After a few hours of utter persistence to get through the guys rang to say they were exhausted and needed a rest so had deployed the para anchor to limit the drift to the north-west. After taking stock of the situation for a few moments they realised they were now being set to the south-west……and it became apparent that the main issue they were facing was the south-east wind at 10knots.

This image is just a snap shot of the data I look at trying to find a way through for the DONKEY – which way would you go?. Nothing on the forecasts and models shows me what the guys are experiencing. At times like this I worry that I have sent them the wrong way and set them up for failure….but at the end of the day mother nature will do what she will do. And I must say, the Predict Wind software we have been using has been exceptionally accurate to date and is an invaluable tool in this expedition.

So the plan now – rest, recover and drift on the para anchor. As both Grant and I said, it could be worse, at least you are drifting in kind of the right direction! The winds will hopefully ease soon and the currents and tide fluctuations will hopefully provide some relief. This has been an unexpected test for the guys and whilst they are in ok spirits, they have been pretty low trying to get through this period.

Keep an eye on the tracker and send them some strong thoughts.

Tidemap ocean and tidal stream data. The pin is the DONKEY now, Darwin is to the bottom right. And remember, the arrows change every hour…



Ahoy from Simpsons donkey! We are just five days into the second segment of the journey having crossed the Lombok strait and jumped straight back into boat life. Being back onboard and underway again is a liberating feeling, as the longer we felt on land the further we seemed away from our objective as we waited for the precious weather window to cover the Lombok strait.

Much like our entry into Bali, the crossing of the Lombok strait- and indeed the Flores sea we are currently crossing- is a reminder that the elements rule here. The favorable currents we have been experiencing have meant we have clocked a significant amount of mileage in just 5 days, and at times cruising as up to 5 knot-which in ocean rowing terms is like a rocket!

It’s funny how quickly you learn to adapt to the environment you are in, leaving behind the comforts of land and back to a simple life. We have both adjusted well back into life onboard the donkey, from the cabin being 35 degrees during the day, to falling back into the simple routine of row, eat, sleep and of course- looking after your crewmate.

Grant and I are both putting in the hours and working hard, and very much looking forward to seeing our loved ones soon. Still all smiles amongst the crew and spirits are high, here is to more glorious miles and more adventure to come as we approach the Timor sea!

1st mate Charlie Smith

Day 43 – In search of the conveyor belt east

Hello all from Simpson’s Donkey.

The past three days have been interesting, our departure from Bali on day 40 saw us immediately enter the Lombok Strait.  A massive 20nm stretch of fierce water that did not disappoint!  Once in the middle of the Strait a massive North Easterly setting current stream fought against a 10knot northerly wind and it was a messy angry confused sea state.  Without even rowing we were pushed for a number of hours north east in exactly the direction we needed to go at 4 – 5 knots.  I have never seen currents so strong and prolonged, what a dangerous piece of water if you get it wrong.  Fortunately we got it exactly right,  since then we have been riding the conveyor belt of a 1 – 1.5 knot easterly setting current.  70% of the last three days we have been on this, and only skipped off a couple of times.  We can row comfortably at speeds of 2.2 – 2.5 knots so are making good time.  My estimates for planning on this leg from Bali to Pulau Weta are 50nm days – this means speeds of no less than just over 2 knots need to be sustained for 24 hours, day after day, we have managed this for the first three days so happy so far.

It is very hot and still during  the day – the NW monsoon has stopped blowing – we hope it will start up again today which will help our speed more.  One disappointment is that we have had to come so far from shore (30nm or more) to find the currents that so far we cannot get a good look at this stunning island chain.  Its 35 degrees under the shade today rowing.  Charlie is rowing well and adjusting back to life onboard.  Dave Field is an excellent support helping us stay on the conveyor belt of currents. I had the blues for the first two days as I missed my girls enormously – now I have settled back into boat life and use their thoughts as massive motivation to reach Darwin.  Tomorrow we reach the end of Sumbawa Island and will cross Selat Sape which houses Komodo Island – we will be 20 – 30nm north though so probably wont even see it, bye from a very peaceful but hot Simpson’s Donkey!

Captain Axe and Charlie


Swimming in 1,500m water depth to cool off during the heat of the day – advice from Dave Field – “Don’t drop anything here!”


SIMPSONS DONKEY HQ update from Dave Field:

You may be wondering if the guys made it across the shipping lanes, came unstuck or became a submarine and popped up on the tracker at a later time?
Rest assured all is well on the Donkey, it is just a technical fault on the SPOT Tracker service that is providing intermittent updates. Grant and Charlie have traveled 63nm since departing Bali and are approximately 25nm north of Lombok. They are both extremely glad that they waited for the weather as the Lombok Strait lived up to everything they had anticipated. With light winds and the oars inboard at one stage the current alone was pushing them along at 5-knots, luckily to the north-east! It would have been very unpleasant just 24-hours earlier with 25-knots of wind opposing the current in the Strait. There was a lot of shipping traffic requiring a constant lookout, with one large container vessel getting within 1nm of them so the daylight crossing after a good rest period was essential. After a north-easterly heading since departure the currents are now beginning to set them to the east, so they will turn that way and make some further progress towards Darwin. They are both feeling well and settling into the routine once again. Hopefully the tracking service will be restored soon so we can all keep updated on their progress.

New departure set!

Well we are still here in Bali – sitting on a very windy Amed beach on the north-east tip of Bali. To cut a long story short – we need a port clearance from the local harbor master to leave Bali, and he is concerned about the weather and strong winds which are forecast at 30 knots currently in the Lombok Strait and further out to sea.  We visited the harbor master yesterday and had some long discussions in Bahasa Indonesian about the seaworthiness of Simpson’s Donkey and our intended route to Australia. The harbor authorities thought we were heading directly to Australia over the Indian Ocean – and the sea state is very rough there currently with 7m waves.  So I explained the route we are taking to Darwin, staying North and utulising the natural shelter of the Indonesian island chain.  We eventually reached a compromise between their date of choice for us to depart (13th Feb) to the 10th Feb which is this Saturday. Overall I am very happy with the way the authorities here conducted themselves with regard to our situation – they are being responsible and have our best interests at heart. So to the harbor master and his team from Padang Bai port here in Bali – thank you and keep up the  good work!  We also are indebted to the support of our local agent here, Asia Pacific Super Yachts, who have supported our expedition tirelessly and processed all immigration, quarantine and customs paperwork on our behalf, received food shipments and been invaluable local support from Bali.  Thanks guys!

I am nervous about the Lombok Strait crossing as it is a huge strait with massive currents and lots of vessel traffic being an ‘archipalegic sea lane’.  It is so hard to get any reliable info on what the current is doing now as its so rough hardly anyone is out there.  The worst case scenario is being swept south down the strait and into the much rougher water south of the Indonesia Islands.  We will be trying our best to stay North and hope to head for a way point 10nm north of the north coast of Lombok.  Times like this require critical thinking and logical decision making.  It’s easy to become impatient and begin to bias decision making with emotions rather than logic.

So for now we are repacking the boat – loading more food and stores for the 30 day push to Darwin, eating like horses and having long sleeps at night.  I am in bed by 8pm and sleeping through till 6am. We are also doing more route planning, committing the island chain and route to memory and generally trying to be as ready as possible for our departure first thing Saturday morning – hopefully around 0800 hours.

This next leg of the journey will be a fascinating geographical journey which I have been looking forward to ever since I dreamt up this expedition.  We will immediately cross the ‘Wallace Line’ when we depart Bali.  The Wallace Line is an ecological transition zone between Asia and Australia.  East of this line the ecosystem becomes immediately more Australian whilst west of this island it is Asian. We will be starting to leave the tropical rain forest trees like teak and ebony and entering more drier type climates with gum trees.  Man eating tigers of Asia will start to be replaced with kangaroos! This change remarkably relates to fish, plants and animal species. If this type of thing cranks your handle I well recommend googling it more and learning about this fascinating natural phenomena – and of course Sir Alfred Wallace himself – the man who ‘discovered’ this line and who was a close friend of Sir Charles Darwin.

Another fascinating fact about the east Indonesian islands is the human history, which for a large part revolved very colorfully and savagely around the spice trade. Believe it or not but in the 1500’s and onward, nutmeg, mace and pepper were only found on one or two islands in the remote eastern Indonesian archipalego. Now these spices were literally (pound for pound) worth more than gold in Europe in those times.  There were many battles for control of these tiny islands, mainly between the English, Dutch and the Portuguese. In those days just sailing from Europe to Indonesia was a death defying challenge, in which many boats were either completely lost at sea or lost over half their crew to sickness. Once in Indonesia they were in a turf war for control of the islands which saw humanity committing nothing short of heinous and barbaric acts on one another.  Eventually there was a land swap deal negotiated and ‘New Amsterdam’ – in control of the Dutch at the time was passed into English control and renamed ‘New York’.  In return the English passed the control of the spice islands (at that time very valuable) to the Dutch.  Unfortunately for the Dutch – the spices were later replanted on other islands elsewhere in the world and the prices started to drop considerably. Now if this history is of interest to you – do read the most excellent book “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg” which is a fascinating recount of these turbulent times.

That’s all from rainy Bali. Be sure to follow the SPOT tracker page on Saturday morning 0800 onwards!

Lots of love from Captain Axe!

Its time to go!

After 6 days R & R here in Bali, 1st mate Charlie Smith and myself are starting to get ready to depart on our FINAL leg of stage one.  The time here in Bali has been surprising to say the least. The weather has been atrocious.  Stormy, angry weather, massive rain storms flooding the island and knocking out the electricity.  I made one visit to the beach with Stephanie and the girls, and the waves were ugly, the winds were screaming and the rain coming in horizontally – what sort of mad prickle head would want to go out in that I thought to myself.

We plan to depart Amed Beach on the 7th February, 2017 bound for Darwin.  We will be attempting to make this massive 1250nm journey in one continuous hit. To put this distance into perspective, it is just over 800nm from the top of the North Island to the bottom of Stewart Island in New Zealand.  In fact, 1250nm is longer than the Tasman Sea crossing from Coffs Harbour to New Plymouth (which straight line distance is just under 1200nm). So it’s a massive distance to cover for us in one hit, but I have three years of research into the currents and wind patterns that tell me we should be getting a good shunt along at least the first leg from Bali to just north of Timor Island.

From north of Timor Island, we will then attempt to drop south and enter the Timor Sea and cross to Darwin. This leg is known as cyclone alley, as this is exactly the time of the year cyclones regularly cruise along here wreaking havoc.  We have our weathermen and a local contact and a very experienced sailor based in Darwin working with expedition project manager Dave Field to keep a close eye on the cyclone situation and give us the thumbs up or down whether to attempt the crossing or wait, the decision will be made on the water once we get close.

One of largest concerns now on the boat is that the rain and cloud cover are seriously affecting our boats ability to make enough solar energy to charge our batteries to make drinking water and run the electronics.  We have manual hand operated options onb oard, we have back-ups for everything we can think of, but it is far from ideal to revert to using these.  I pray for some fine, bright, sunny days to allow us to recharge our batteries and also allow ourselves and the boat to dry out.

We also have the Lombok Strait to cross as soon as we depart Bali – a massive highway for vessels around the world, from super tankers, bulk carriers to nuclear submarines. The currents here are reported to be around 5 – 8 knots currently so getting them right is critical to our safe passage.

No one has ever made a human powered crossing in a row boat from Bali to Darwin (or anywhere in Australia), and even given the research I have done it is also a massive step into the unknown.  The local people and fisherman have asked us all the way down on our journey what we do “kalau laut ombak tinggi?”(If the waves are high).  “Kamu dakut?” (Are you scared). They certainly have respect for the sea in which they live and work and it is hard to try and explain them to that our little boat is actually an incredibly sea worthy craft, and how much preparation and hard work we have done to get here.  I feel much safer in Simpson’s Donkey in rough seas than I would in a lot of the motor boats I see around these parts.

Whatever happens over the next one month, we appreciate your positive thoughts being sent our way and remember whatever struggles you are having in your own lives, even if you wake up at 3AM in the morning thinking about them, remember we will always be up with you, rowing and rowing, straining on the oars and fighting to make out way to Darwin and safety.

Signing out from Bali

Capt Grant ‘Axe’ Rawlinson


Sitting on the back deck of Simpson’s Donkey during an electrical storm as we neared Pulau Bangka Island, I had lost control of the boat as the wind went crazy, the rain was intense and it was pitch black until these massive bolts of lightening exploded around the boat, lighting up the complete surroundings – I felt very uncomfortable and kept thinking of Kate and Rachel my twin daughters and what would happen if we got hit.





After the storm – Charlie’s version of events..

Today we hear from Charlie Smith on his version of the recent events – enjoy his descriptive writing!


“When you are going through hell, keep going!”

That quote from Churchill rings in my ears in the dead of night.

Everything is dark in the early hours of day 25 and we are stuck on para anchor as another storm looms over us, threatening to send us further North East and away from safe harbor. We are hundreds of miles from shore, and the only sign of life is the faint lights of passing cargo ships, with the constant danger that we may just be in their path.

That’s why I’m on deck, to keep watch every 15 minutes for two hours while Grant tries to grab as much rest in the cabin sodden with salt water. The humidity drains you of the little energy you have left. Sleep is broken and frightful, as the hull amplifies the events unfolding outside and the boat jolts and whips on the anchorage lines holding us fast to the winds howling over us.
We are just over 800 nautical miles into the adventure of a lifetime, having rowed from Singapore on January 3rd and have departed from Palau Bawean in the middle of the Java Sea days before with favorable winds and little current speak of. But today that has all changed as we rounded Madura to begin our entry into the Bali Sea, and we were confronted by the enormity of the task as the weather began to grow menacing and beyond anything we had
encountered before.

There is nothing more humbling then experiencing elements in all of their might the full force of nature that doesn’t care of us at all in our tiny boat. I sit curled up, cold and wet, trying not to think when the next wave is going to crash over the boat in the dead of night, and all you can hear is the sound of the thunderous skies and the stormy black seas all around us. Every once in a while, one of these monstrous waves crests and crashes over the boat, everything-including me- is tied down to the deck as the water tries to rip what it can from us. It’s in those dark times you feel stripped of your ego, all the while the demons inside your head continue to chatter and question your choices that brought you here.
There is no escape from it, there is no ‘pause’ button. If you stop rowing nothing changes, and the weather at times seems never forgiving. Unlike other endurance events the challenge is to keep pushing on knowing rest is right there, where you can just stop and there is no consequence-out here the challenge is to keep going without knowing when that rest will come and the consequences are very real.

As every minute of the shift ticks by slowly, you realize that you are losing yet more ground and the chance of reaching Bali is slowly slipping away. We make the call. It’s time to pull up the para anchor, and a slight pause in the wind direction we decide it’s better to fight standing on our feet than to lie down on our backs. We begin taking 90 minute shifts and working on one goal- to keep the boat moving-however slowly-towards Bali and safe harbor. Rowing at many times with just one arm, feeling the strain throughout our bodies.

That was just one day, one of the darkest so far in the trip. Each day has brought a new dawn and a new set of challenges, we soon learnt that nothing is constant. The weather, temperatures above 40 degrees and the water so flat it was as if we were staring at a plain of glass, to nights so bright with lightening it was as if we were within a cathedral of light. We have experienced nature at her most beautiful, and felt her force in an environment we can never tame.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve had time to reflect on the events that unfolded aboard Simpson’s Donkey, and it’s only now that I’ve begun to realize the magnitude of what we have done so far. This experience in a way has only just begun, but the memories of leaving Singapore seem so distant now given all that has come to pass. This has truly been a life changing experience with so many things to test our fortitude and to stop and realize we are truly on something amazing.

Beautiful sunsets, pods of dolphins, even savoring the small items on luxury onboard like a can of coke and a bar of chocolate- you begin to realize that all of trials and suffering is worth it. You get to see yourself in your raw state, and feel immersed in this world which feels liberating from the daily hustle and bustle of ‘normal’ life.

Being able to share this adventure is a gift. When all is said and done Grant will be the only person who will truly understand what it was like out there, a bond being forged by our shared experience and test of will. I couldn’t have asked for a better rowing partner, both working towards a clear goal and supporting each other through the bad times and share the good times.

It’s easy in these environments to become insular but Grants determination is infectious, we watch each other’s backs and look after each other. “Have you drunk enough water?”, “have you eaten?” even asking the simple question of “how are you feeling?”- begin able to open up and talk makes life onboard that bit more bearable.

We have many more trials ahead, and with the rest we have had I can’t deny I’m looking forward to cutting my teeth further. With what we have overcome so far and with the team we have, I truly feel we can keep going, come whatever may.

Able bodied seaman and first mate – Charlie Smith.rough-seas

A lesson in suffering – Singapore to Bali by human power

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Yours in Human powered adventure,

Captain Grant ‘Axe’ Rawlinson




So a lot has gone on since yesterday’s update… first of all, after a brutal, brutal slog, the guys have made it now to within 20 kilometres of the coast of Bali and can now see the mountains of the island looming ahead of them!! And what’s more, their perseverance is now being rewarded with some calmer seas and weaker winds which have now turned to push them down the coast towards their landfall at Amed Beach! And furthermore, the currents along the coast where Amed Beach is have now turned to be in their favour which will be a welcome relief as they arrive!

So now the thoughts are turning to a safe arrival at Bali. Amed Beach is a small bay with a few different obstacles the guys will need to beat to get in safely. First of all, the approach along the coast is spotted with reefs which cause the beaches to be lined with surf. So they’ll have to keep wide of the coast before turning sharply into the bay while avoiding the rocks at the southern end of the beach…. and remember, Simpson’s Donkey is an ocean rowing boat not designed to come into shore, so this is by far the trickiest landfall they’ve encountered so far. So for safety’s sake, we’re now organising a boat to come out to meet them and guide them in when they arrive either late tonight or early tomorrow morning.

So as we wait, it’s time to celebrate a couple of fantastic things that have also happened in the past 24 hours… Firstly, late last night Simpson’s Donkey passed the 1000-nautical mile mark!!! That’s over 1800km since they left Singapore on January 3!!!! Amazing stuff and something to celebrate when they arrive at Bali tomorrow!

And secondly, Expedition Project Manager Dave Field and his wife in Waipu, New Zealand have overnight welcomed a new baby girl into their family!! Awesome stuff Dave!

So fantastic news all around today but keep those messages of support coming in – the support was overwhelming yesterday and it was a great boost to the guys as they battled the toughest conditions they’ve faced so far on this epic undertaking!

For Simpson’s Donkey’s current position, see



Back in 1977 when Colin Quincy became the first man to row across the Tasman Sea, he scrawled across his boat a scribbled note to himself where he could see it as he rowed through his toughest times… It read: “Row You Bastard, Row!” and it was that same message that he sent to Axe and Charlie late last year when we went to meet him. Now is the time that brings those words to mind for Axe and Charlie…

The word is the guys are safe but doing it very tough right now. Gone are the high speeds they were loving as they exited the Java Sea … and as they entered the Bali Sea last night they got hit smack in the mouth with some of the hardest conditions they’ve experienced so far on the journey… The winds shifted and together with the currents Simpson’s Donkey was swept north away from Bali (see the map pictured), making Axe even consider trying for Lombok instead of Bali. But that’s not possible because they need to get to Bali to complete the immigration clearances for leaving Indonesia, so now they’ve since corrected their course by aiming SImpson’s Donkey in a more southerly direction, aiming 230-degrees and rowing with one oar against the wind to achieve an actual course of 160-degrees!

So as you can imagine, rowing under such conditions is extremely tough-going for the guys, as they make only about 1-2 knots in some very rough beam seas – that’s when the waves are coming at them from the sides, making it extremely hard to (a) keep on track and (b) row! Added to that, the currents are getting stronger the closer they get to Bali. Before they left Bawean, Axe talked about this happening, that with the Bali Sea, they’d hit the Indonesian through-flow current (ITF) for the first time and was preparing for all eventualities. The biggest problem with this is that the current moving through the Lombok Strait at the moment (which they are approaching) is moving at 8 knots which is a speed of about 4 metres a second… far to strong for Axe and Charlie to row against…

So now the challenge is to get across the Bali Sea and get closer to the coast so they are as far away from the centre of the Lombok Strait current where it’s strongest… but not too close… because the winds are currently coming in off the water very strongly and will threaten to blow the guys ashore which is obviously an expedition-threatening possibility.

So with all that said… Keep sending your words of encouragement – we’re passing them on to the guys daily and they really help – and right now is when they need them the most!

Row you Bastards, Row!

Keep up to date with where the guys are:-

Map Progress




So after having a good time of it speeding across the remainder of the Java Sea at high speed for the past couple of days, last night a dose of reality hit the guys in the form of some rough weather and uncooperative winds. It got a bit stormy with winds rising to about 25knots and swinging around to the South-west making things very uncomfortable, forcing Axe and Charlie to drop the sea anchor for the first time in the expedition (think of a parachute in the water which holds the boat from being swept away). And for a little while, even with the anchor down, it was even threatening to sweep the Donkey north and away from Bali altogether. But with the morning has come some calmer weather and a more favourable North-East wind which has got them back on course and is pushing them along at about 3.5 knots which is fantastic progress after the frights of last night!

So now the challenge is to enter the Bali Sea which should happen today sometime. Once there, the challenges are going to double. Firstly because we’re still not entirely sure what the currents will be doing there, and secondly, as you can see by the map showing their planned course into Bali, they’re going to have to turn in a more southerly direction on their last 70 nautical mile approach to their landfall at Amed, Bali. And as you can see by those little black lines pointing north east (the direction from where the wind is coming from), the winds are going to be coming in from the sides and pushing them away from Bali for the last 36 hours of this leg. If last night was rough, it’s just a taste of what’s to come… Stay tuned and check out the guys progress at !! Go the Donkey!

Planned course to Bali

Simpson’s Donkey Update


We have gone banana’s! We are currently 70nm away from being the first people to ever row across the Java Sea! It’s been a grey, overcast and wet last 24 hours but we don’t care as the wind has been right up our tail pipe with speeds not dropping below 2 knots for the entire period. We can right now just make the outline of Madura Island – some 20+nm to the south of us. Fingers crossed the wind stays blowing from the North West and the currents are kind as we cross from the Java Sea into the Bali Sea tomorrow afternoon. The Java Sea is very shallow and depths seem to average around 70m, however tomorrow when we cross into the Bali Sea we will truly feel some deep water when the bottom drops away to over 1000m water depth. Last night we were surrounded by over 38 fishing boats and I felt a little sorry for the fish – one of them even jumped out of the water and into the cabin to wake Charlie up with a fright! The area we are in now is much quieter for vessel traffic.

Captain Axe and able bodied seaman Charlie.



So as we left Bawean yesterday morning in the rain after a short 3-day break on the island, there was a certain edge to the mood aboard Simpson’s donkey… Because even if this 3rd leg from Bawean to Bali is the shortest by a long way… And even if we are full of confidence after proving our mental strength by crossing the Java Sea… Getting to Bali from here is the first time we’re going to encounter the massive Indonesian Through Flow Currents that have the potential to stop this exhibition in its tracks…. And if that isn’t enough, the winds are still blowing across us instead of behind us like they’re supposed to be at this time of year… So yes- it’s our shortest leg. But no- it’s certainly not going to be the easiest… Stay tuned and we’ll do our best to keep you up to date with the progress- in the meantime, check out our position at



Crossing the Java Sea was the most difficult challenge we’ve faced to date, and to arrive at an island which is not much more than a dot in the middle of it is an achievement we are very proud of, so we have a lot to be thankful for! Especially since this island, Pulau Bawean is one of those untouched gems that everyone should visit.

From the beautiful blue sea surrounding it to the deep green jungles and bright green rice fields that fill it, this place is something to behold. But most of all, in our three days resting here before the next leg of the Rowing from Home to Home expedition, the thing which had struck us most is the beautiful, friendly locals who have made us feel so welcome and have opened their arms to us.

Everywhere we have gone while we are here people have stopped to smile and wave and say hello or ask for a selfie. So it has been a very gratifying experience. One of the great things about this expedition is that it is taking us to places far off the usual tourist trail where most people never visit- and we are truly enriched for the experience. So if you’re looking for somewhere different to visit in Indonesia, we truly want to say- check out Bawean!! Like us, we promise, you won’t regret it!

What’s more, if you do decide to come here, give our friendly guide a call- his name is ARI WIBOWO (pictured in the blue shirt!) and he has been an absolute star for us helping us get around, showing us the sights and making sure we are as well fed as the locals! (His number is 081230857152 and you won’t regret either visiting Bawean or getting in touch with him to help you do it!). To get here, take a flight to Surabaya, then catch a taxi to Gresik where you can catch a ferry every second day to Bawean with the Bahari Express Ferry (every other day they come back from the island).

Anyway- that’s the end of the plug for Bawean (our way of saying thank you to our amazing hosts!) – now it’s time to get back aboard Simpson’s Donkey and tackle the approach to Bali… Stay tuned because this ain’t gonna be as simple as it looks!


Simpson’s Donkey has made it safely to Pulau Bawean!

805 nautical miles from Singapore; Axe and Charlie have made it safely to the little island in the middle of the  Java Sea and once again had a very special welcome from the locals! The guys are in great spirits and still in one piece!

Pulau Bawean is an island dominated by an extinct volcano, Gunung Tinggi, with its centre rising 655m above sea level, this sleeping giant has provided a spectacular scenery and has been a very welcome change from endless miles of ocean!

Once the guys have had a well deserved rest and a decent sleep, before boarding Simpson’s Donkey and make an attempt to get to Bali – a challenge in itself with the monsoon currents and definitely not a forgone conclusion that they can make it.

Stay tuned for more updates but in the meantime check out some snaps from their arrival to Pulau Bawean!


Hi Folks,

Have a read of the latest update from Simpson’s Donkey on another milestone reached!!

“Yesterday at 1700hrs we reached the exact halfway point in our crossing of the Java Sea – 200nm (370km)from Bangka Island with 200nm to go to reach Pulau Bawean Island.

It took us 4 days of 24 hours continuous rowing to get here – we stopped rowing for 2 hours, cleaned the boat, went for a swim and cleaned ourselves, and then we sat together on the back deck and shared a can of beer and a dram of whiskey. We felt very civilized for two hours before jumping back on the oars at 1900hrs and rowing through the night.

We are currently around 165nm from Pulau Bawean – about 3 more days of rowing. We are both tired, Charlie reports that his body is starting to creak and the exhaustion sweeps over me in waves every hour or so. During the day it is 41 degrees under the shade. Night rowing is cooler but a massive mental battle to get through the solo 2 hour shifts. We are looking forward to making sea anchorage at Bawean and catching up on much needed sleep.

Capt. Axe and First Mate Charlie”.


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