Enjoy episode 7 of the Rowing from Home to Home video diaries – lovingly and professionally put together by our very own kiwi film producer Alistair Harding. As you can probably tell, Alistair does this for a living and if you are after professional video production, don’t hesitate to contact him!
This episode covers the 1,500km journey from Batam Island in Indonesia through to Pulau Bawean in the middle of the Java Sea.
Episode’s 8 and 9 coming soon will cover the journey from Pulau Bawean through to landing in Darwin in Australia.
On the 10 March 2017, I departed Dili, East Timor in my rowing boat together with my rowing partner Charlie Smith from the UK, destination Darwin, Australia. This was the final stage in the first leg of my journey to travel from Singapore all the way to New Zealand completely by human power, using my rowing boat Simpson’s Donkey as the mode of transport. We had no engine or sail on-board and we were not accompanied by support craft.
The expedition named ‘Rowing from Home to Home’, set off from Singapore on the 3 January 2017, and had taken 55 days to reach Dili, arriving on the 26 February 2017. The last stage of the crossing from Dili to Darwin is described below and written with enough information to hopefully be of assistance to adventurers in the future with their own crossings.
As far as my research, could prove, Darwin to Dili is a regular sailing route – however a human-powered crossing between East Timor and Australia had never been attempted, let alone successfully completed. I found only one chap who had made the journey in the opposite direction (i.e. from Darwin to Dili) by human power. This was Jason Lewis, an Englishman who in May 2005, made the journey in 9 days, peddling his custom-made, ocean peddle boat across the Timor Sea. (NB: using a sail on a kayak is most definitely NOT human power).
The weather in this part of the world is dominated by the monsoon seasons which run with north-westerly winds during the ‘wet’ season from November through to the end of March and South easterly winds during the ‘dry’ season from May through to October every year. The wet season also corresponds with cyclone season, and is characterised by severe thunderstorms on an almost daily basis and very hot muggy weather. The wet season is therefore NOT the season of choice for recreational sailing and other water based activities. Local yachties normally have their boats safely tucked away during this period and await the more settled weather of the dry season.
As can be seen from the map of the crossing above – Jason Lewis in crossing from Darwin to Dili, used the more settled weather patterns in the south-east monsoon to make his crossing during May. Alas for us needing to travel in the opposite direction, it would be very difficult to row against the prevailing winds therefore we had to make the crossing during the north-west monsoon and hence run the threat of being caught in a cyclone. To minimise the threat, we left towards the middle of March which is the normally coming to the end of cyclone season but by no means is an assurance (as we were to discover) that we would not be caught by one. In summary, crossing from Darwin to Dili would be a slightly safer and more predictable option to take during the south-east monsoon than coming the opposite direction as we attempted.
Dili was a place of contrast for me. Magical and beautiful, yet haunting and thought-provoking. The day before departure we visited the Santa Cruz cemetery in the heart of the city. This is where the infamous massacre of over 200 innocent civilians by Indonesian troops occurred on November 12, 1991 and was something that shocked and sickened me, filling my heart with pain for people born into this awful situation totally beyond their control. Just how lucky are we to grow up in developed and stable countries? Visit Dili and the Santa Cruz cemetery and it may help to remind you. See the video below for brief 2 minute overview of the Santa Cruz massacre if you would like to learn more.
After an 11 day layover in Dili, we departed on 10 March, 1130hrs (day 67 of the expedition) from Dili harbor, with a small crowd of friendly faces from the local NZ and UK embassies and Kym Miller and her team. Kym was our superb host during our stay in Dili and arranged everything for us from CIQP (customs, immigration and quarantine) to accommodation and transport during our stay – she can be contacted through her tourism and adventure company http://www.dtceasttimor.com).
We had slightly fuzzy heads from our farewell party the evening before so were moving slowly under the 40 degree heat and baking sun. The water in Dili Harbor seems to contain a flesh-eating bug which a number of people had contacted severe infections from. Small cuts in their skin becoming infected terribly and requiring hospital treatment to cure. We were hence very nervous of getting into the water as contacting this infection on the boat when we were at sea would be a critical situation. Charlie had a cut on his foot which we put in a plastic bag for protection. When it came time to depart, it appeared I would have to dive into the water to untie our bowline from the mooring buoy which I was not particularly thrilled about. After trying to work Simpson’s Donkey into a position from where I could sit in the boat and untie the line, it provedimpossible and I eventually gave up and jumped in the water and tried to complete the task as quickly as possible before getting out and dousing my body in surgical spirits.
We rowed slowly out of the bay at 1.5 knots and looked forward to catching the currents which apparently set north-east along the coastline. The first 100nm of the journey were following the north coast of Timor all the way to Jaco Island located at the very north eastern tip of Timor Island. From here we had scoped the currents in the Timor Sea and from initial planning had decided that a direct route, 260nm across to the Tiwi Islands may NOT be the best choice. Instead we planned to head 100nm further east then drop 220nm directly south to the Tiwi Islands avoiding the strongest current area’s. This added a further 80nm onto the crossing but seemed to be a safer option.
We had a beautiful view of the Cristo Rei as we departed Dili as you can see from the drone photo above. This statue has an interesting history as per this particular view on its origins:
“This 89-foot statue of Cristo Rei was constructed in 1996 as a present from Indonesia to East Timor. Indonesian President Suharto wanted to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Indonesia annexing East Timor by half-apologizing to the East Timorese people for Indonesia’s occupation of the country. To please the Catholic majority, Suharto, a Muslim, built a giant statue of Jesus standing atop a globe, accessible by a 590-step staircase. The statue was built in the Indonesian city of Bandung, where nearly all of the workers carving the face of Jesus into copper were Muslim.
Despite three months of construction and a cost of 5 billion rupiah ($559,000), the Indonesian government failed to appease the majority of East Timorese people. Part of the reasoning for this is that Suharto angled the statue to be facing the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, which caused controversy amongst the recipients of the gift.
The ploy had little effect on staving off the East Timorese independence movement, which the people won in 2002. But, like its counterpart in Rio De Janeiro, the Christ statue in Dili still stands.” (source: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/cristo-rei)
The sun baked us mercilessly that first day as if we were sitting in an oven. It was with intense relief when it finally started to fade and we were treated to a spectacular sunset as the temperatures began to drop, the same time as a large pod of dolphins and what looked like small whales jumped and splashed in the water some distance from our tiny boat.
During the heat of the day we row in one hour alternating shifts and at night-time changed to a 2-hourly alternating shift pattern. This in effect meant we kept the boat moving 24 hours per day with one person rowing at all times. We each row 12 hours per day with 12 hours rest. Bearing in mind we had 55 days and nights of rowing to reach Dili, we were a well oiled machine by now and slipped back into the routines of rowing and resting almost immediately.
I suffered through my predictable pattern of homesickness which begins at the start of each leg. Waves of loneliness and depression wash over me as I miss my wife Stephanie and twin daughters Rachel and Stephanie back home. After 2 – 3 days these feelings ganerally begin to fade and even though I still miss them, I can start to enjoy the adventure more. My diary on day 68 reads: “Day heats up as hot as hell, struggle through it, hangover not helping,, depressed at missing girls and just want to get to Darwin now and finish off this leg”.
After the first night we realised we would be subject to tidal influence all the way up the coast. With the tide we would make 2.0 knots quite comfortably for a few hours then when it turned we would slow to 1 knot or less. However it was never strong enough that we could not make forward progress, albeit very slowly. East Timor is a very mountainous country, with the highest point Tatamailau (also known as Mount Ramelau) at 2,963 metres (9,721 ft)ASL. Whilst nice to be close to land with beautiful views, the downside to this was that due to the massive scale of the mountains, it made us realise how pitifully slow our progress was. Sometimes I would be on my third particular shift of the day and feel that the view and the scenery were exactly the same as 6 hours earlier!
During the early hours of the 13 March – day 70 of the expedition, we finally rounded the tip of Jaco Island, 3 days after we departed from Dili. Jaco Island is a tiny uninhabited island on the north-east tip of Timor. Apparently a species of deer called the ‘Javan rusa’ live on Jaco island and can drink salt water due to the lack of fresh water.
The sea was glassy calm and the air hot and sticky with no wind, making it very muggy inside the cabin. I did not manage to sleep well that evening due to the heat, but as we started to move further from the island a welcome NW breeze sprang and our speed increased to 3 knots. 3 knots in an ocean rowing boat feels like you are about to take off. My spirits on the entire journey were very much related to the speed we were travelling at. All my calculations leading up to the expedition for planning purposes were based on maintaining 2 knots for as close as possible to 24 hours per day. If we dropped below 2 knots my spirits would drop, if we dropped below 1 knot I became gloomy and if we were being forced backwards I was positively angry! This is also related to how difficult it is to row the boat. With tail winds and currents, the boat glides through the water with little effort, rowing becomes a breeze. With 15 knots or more of tailwind, the sea state begins to build and you get following sea’s and can even begin to surf the boat which is tremendous fun. However at less than 1 knot and into headwinds, just keeping the boat heading in the correct direction is hard and frustrating work. It feels like you are rowing in wet concrete and it really takes the fun out of the situation.
At 0800 hrs every morning I called our project manager Dave Field in New Zealand to get an update on the weather using our Satellite phone from Network Innovations. Day 70’s call revealed that some strong westerly winds were forecast for a few days time that would effectively push us some distance to the east. As I explained above, the initial plan was to head further east initially before dropping directly south to the Tiwi Islands. But upon hearing this forecast and discussion with Dave, we decided to change the plan. Instead we would now head directly south- east from the tip of Timor towards the Tiwi Islands, and in a few days time use the effect of the strong westerly winds to push us the further distance east to avoid the strongest currents in the Timor Sea.
14 March – Day 71. Today we started to get some squalls passing through. The rain was a welcome relief from the brutal heat and rowing naked the cooling water felt like heaven on my skin which was being plagued by heat rash. A head wind developed from the SE, so in general our progress was very slow, hovering between the 0.5 – 1 knot mark. We usually had the GPS running continuously for the rower to see his speed and heading. However at these speeds this is a constant reminder of just how slow our progress really was. It was depressing me and I was determined to take control of my mental state and get myself into a positive spirit. I knew this was within my control but sometimes it is easier said than done. I eventually found a solution, I turned off the GPS! I immediately started to enjoy life much more. By steering off the compass and turning the GPS on only every few hours to check heading and speed I started to look around and enjoy the surroundings much more. I thought positive thoughts. I became much more involved in the moment itself. I reminded myself how lucky I was to be here and that I can only control those things within my control – the wind, weather and currents are beyond that. What happens with them will happen. It was a pivotal moment in the crossing for me.
Due to the headwinds, we had to point the boat at a bearing of 200 degrees to make progress over ground at 150 degrees. In effect the boat was moving sideways through the water. At the end of day 71, we made only 5nm in 8 hours of continual rowing. I wrote in my diary “5nm in 8 hours rowing! Thank god for my new mindset!”. Normally this would have depressed me but now I really did not care. We would make up the time later when the conditions turned.
Our position was 185nm from the Tiwi Islands and around 60nm from East Timor. Because East Timor is so high with her mountainous interior, we could still make her out and it was depressing to have rowed three days away from land and still be able to see it. I was now concerned if we could actually make it to Darwin before getting caught in a cyclone. The winds at this time of year should be predominantly from the west or north-west which would have made our crossing more straight forward. So to have them coming from the south-west or south-east was not what we had hoped or planned and was slowing us down to a point where we were moving too slowly for our safety. We had plenty of food and water on the boat, the main issue I was concerned with was the threat of a cyclone. I started to work through scenario’s for abandoning ship and catching a ride on a passing merchant vessel if we got a warning of a cyclone imminent.
That night – things improved and the wind swung to the NW. We made 2 knots of speed until 0300 hrs on 15 March, Day 72, when a massive rain storm passed through from the south for 2 hours. Charlie did battle on the deck but could not force the boat forward through the storm. When rain squalls pass over, they normally last for short periods of around 5 minutes to maximum one hour. They will often bring stronger gusts of very localised wind which can swirl around and push you all over the place. It is generally not worth putting the para anchor out for these short periods, as it would take more effort and time to deploy and retrieve than the storm would last for. During my subsequent shift as the squall passed, I managed to row at 0.4 knots in the darkness for one hour until the wind turned to the W, and wS happy to see the speed increase to 1.8 knots. By 0700 hrs on Day 72 the wind had swung to the NW at 16 knots and we were now flying along at 2.8 knots.
The first 60nm of the crossing of the Timor Sea saw us passing over water depths 1000m and deeper. However once we were one-third of the way across we reached a massive shoal, where the sea floor rises to 100m or less in a giant plateau for the rest of the way to Australia. It is this shallow area where we feared the currents would start to run most swift, and from our information they would be subject to tidal influences, maybe even changing direction on a 6 hourly basis.
Around 1200 hrs on day 72 we received a welcome surprise when a large aircraft flew over us at just 200 feet. It swooped around and made another low pass and we could make out the insignia of the Australian Border Force on its side. It was our first concrete sign we were approaching Australia after 72 days of effort and it was terrifically exciting. I wrote in my diary: “weather gray and overcast, feel quite tired, 3 days @ 2 knots to Cape Fourcroy!”
Day 73 – 16 March. Overnight it rained hard and I sat rowing in my Musto storm jacket as the wind rose to 16-17 knots from the W. By now I was getting very good at estimating wind speed and could generally pick it within a couple of knots when I double checked with our wind speed indicator. The night was overcast which meant no moon light. It was completely black on the deck with only the faint glow of the compass light to catch my eye. When it is this dark this you cannot see the waves coming. We had to steer at 180 degrees to make a course over ground of 140 degrees. This meant the wind was coming directly on our beam (side) which makes life very uncomfortable on the boat as it rocks violently from side to side as the waves pass through at the same direction as the wind. We had prepared the deck for possible capsize and discussed capsize drills earlier in the evening. Because of the strength of the wind, we had to use the centre board, which is a ‘fin’ we can insert and remove below the bow section of the boat. When inserted, the centre board allows us to hold course much easier in cross winds. However it also slows down our progress significantly as it adds more drag. After a few slow hours with the centre board deployed, I noticed the wind swing to the NW in the early hours of the morning. So I removed it and our speed immediately shot up from 0.4 to 2.0 knots.
During the 0800hrs call with Dave Field he gave us some depressing news. The wind was forecast to turn to the SW, then S then SE over the next few days, which would mean direct headwinds for us to try and row into. The only positive was that the wind strength was meant to drop to 5 knots or less. For the rest of that day we managed to hold 2 knots of speed all the way through to 1400hrs. It was a nice enough day to have the sunshade out and we managed to dry some of our gear on deck. That evening the wind started to swing back to the W, and Charlie has trouble making forward progress during his first 2 hour evening shift. When I came on deck to row from 1900 – 2100 hrs, I tried for 20 minutes and the wind and current were making it impossible to even keep the boat heading in the right direction. I looked at the water depth and noticed it was 76m of water. Could we combine our 70m para anchor line to our 30m anchor line and drop our 8kg anchor here? ‘It may work’ I thought, but the biggest danger is getting the anchor snagged and not being able to retrieve it up again. We decided on trying the parachute anchor first so dropped this into the water on its 70m line and waited for it to unfurl. After a few minutes it became tight, however quickly became apparent that on para anchor we were being pulled directly north at 1.5 knots. This was not at all desirable to be losing ground at this pace so we retrieved the para anchor and re-rigged the ropes to make a 100m anchor line and with a wish and a prayer dropped our anchor over the side. When it hit the bottom there felt like a very small amount of rope left however after letting it all out, we noticed our progress halt. The anchor seemed to be working! It was holding us at least. Alas being on anchor in windy conditions is not a pleasant experience for rest. We both lay in the cabin as the boat rocked and bucked from side to side and tried to snatch some sleep. I ended up wedging myself as tight as I could against the wall of the boat to stop my body and head slamming against it every few seconds.
Day 74 – 17 March. We rested on para anchor until 1100 hrs, waiting for the winds to drop. By this time they had dropped to < 5 knots, so together we strained and hauled and only just managed to pull up the anchor. It is very hard work pulling it in on its 100m of thick line.
I rowed the first one hour and made a measly 400m, it appeared we were fighting current here as the wind was too light to be affecting our progress this much. The Australian Border Force plane passed over us again and this time we managed to contact them on the radio. Charlie had a brief discussion with them and they read us some regulations about what we can and cannot do as we enter Australian waters. By this stage we had started two daily phone calls with Dave Field in NZ to get updates on weather. At 1500hrs I called him and he gave us some very welcome news that after the southerly winds have passed through it looks like 3 – 5 days of NW and N winds! This looked to be our window to make it all the way into Darwin! I was so happy on deck I shouted and whooped and screamed like crazy.
We started to make some better progress that afternoon and were back to my happy pace of 2 knots. At 1845hrs our position was 100nm from the mouth of the Apsley Channel. This is the channel which separates the two Tiwi islands,Bathurst Island and Melville Island. It is over 40nm long, and in places is only a few hundred metres wide. It is lined with sandy beaches, mangroves with plenty of mosquitos, lots of saltwater crocodiles and has very strong tidal streams which reverse every 6 or so hours. It is definitely a place I wanted to row through, and I had it in my mind for three years that this is how I would like to enter the Beagle Gulf for the final run into Darwin. We had another choice that was possibly faster however but also subject to strong tidal streams which would be harder to counter as we would be in deeper water. This was passing around Cape Fourcroy on the western tip of the Tiwi Islands (Bathurst Island). This was a less exciting option for me and I much preferred the Apsley Strait.
That evening our luck turned again as the wind turned to the south and rose to 16 knots. All day since raising the anchor we had made only 12nm. The wind started pushing us directly north at a speed of 2 knots. In 67m of water we once again tossed our trusty anchor over, and once again it held. We both rested in cabin until 0200hrs when the electronic radar reflector started going crazy. This is a safety device which has an audible alarm which alerts us when a ship is close and is receiving a radar signal. I scanned the horizon for thirty minutes in the dark as the alarm continued to ping. Checking the AIS on the chart plotter I could not see any vessels so eventually turned off the alarm and went back to sleep. Something was out there but the only thing I could think is that it must have been over the horizon.
Day 75 – 18 March. I actually managed to have a very nice sleep overnight. Leaving Charlie asleep in the cabin, I come onto deck at 0600hrs and made porridge and tea for breakfast. It was a beautiful morning on deck, so peaceful and as I sit there quietly eating my porridge I am in love with mother nature and wish this would never end. Conditions have settled enough for us to depart, so again with maximum effort and grunting we just manage to raise the anchor and set off again. I took the first shift and made 1 knot at a 120 degree heading which is the best I can hold as the counter current is trying to push us north. However as the day wore on we managed to pick up pace and by the afternoon are at over 2 knots as the tide turns and the currents flow in our favor. That evening I ate a delicious freeze dried meal of Moroccan Lamb with couscous in the dead of the night as a few stars peeked out from behind the clouds. It was magical on deck and with a slight tailwind of 5 knots from the north we made excellent progress.
Day 75 – 19 March. On my last 2 hour night shift from 0500 – 0700 I made 5.7nm of distance! This is a fantastic speed for a rowing boat and was further than we made in an entire days rowing a few days back. We were now only 36nm from Cape Fourcroy and almost the same distance to the mouth of the Apsley Channel. We still had not made a decision as to what route we will take – the Cape or Apsley Channel? The decision was soon taken out of our hands by the wind. Being predominantly from the N we had been pushed further S than E, and now would need to travel directly east to make it to the mouth of Apsley Channel. This would be very difficult with the Northerly winds so the choice was simple, Cape Fourcroy it was to be.
Day 76 – 20 March. We made good progress overnight and by 0945hrs were only 19nm from the Tiwi Islands. We expected to see them by now, and regularly scanned the horizon but there was nothing to see but endless flat sea. I started to plan the crossing of the Beagle Gulf, between the Tiwi Islands and Darwin. Here the tidal streams are very fierce due to the large tidal range Darwin experiences. Fortunately for us our arrival coincided with a 3/4 moon which is neap tides when the tidal range is only around 2.5m, instead of the typical 4-8m tidal range at spring tides (full and new moons). The good thing about the Beagle Gulf is the water depth is shallow enough for us to drop anchor (50m or less) all the way across. As the tidal streams appeared to be too strong to row against the anchor was to be our safety net to allow us to get into Darwin.
At 1530hrs when we were only 12nm off Bathurst Island we finally caught our first glimpse of Australian soil. The Tiwi’s really are very low-lying and it was only by standing on deck that we could make out their profile in the distance. What a magical site it was to see them and to confirm that our minds were not playing tricks on us and they did really exist!
As the sun set and the evening progressed we made it to within 1nm off the east coast of Bathurst Island and were struggling to round Cape Fourcroy. Our progress became slower and slower until at 2200 hrs we were being pushed backwards at 1 knot, even while trying to row forwards at hard as we could. The water depth was showing 46m on the echo sounder so was definitely within our capabilities to drop the anchor. However I was weighing up the opportunity cost of dropping the anchor and running the risk of losing it if we could not retrieve it, or continuing to row for a few more hours even if we went backwards and lost some miles, until the tide turned and we could make progress again. What eventually sealed the decision was the wind which was blowing at over 10 knots from the west, forcing us towards the crocodile infested shoreline of Bathurst Island in the darkness. Getting beached on this shoreline at night was a proposition I was definitely most highly motivated to avoid. By now deploying the anchor was a familiar routine and very soon we had dropped it and were bobbing around in the pitch darkness, only 1nm off the coast of Cape Fourcroy.
We both lay in the cabin but I did not sleep and instead lay resting with one eye on the chart plotter and my ears listening to the strength of the wind. At 1230hrs I noticed that instead of the bow pointing to the south, we seemed to have swung to the north. Whilst at anchor our bow points towards the direction the current is coming from. So this meant that the current should now be pushing us south. We set about trying to haul in the anchor line however using all of our brute force we could not budge it even one little bit. I set-up a simple 3:1 pulley system (similar to crevasse rescue techniques) and even using this mechanical advantage the anchor would not move. After 45 minutes and pulling, heaving and straining we realised we would not be able to get the anchor up. Now there was only one option, to cut the line with a knife. This was a committing act, as without the anchor we would be much more vulnerable as we crossed the Beagle Gulf in the strong tides. The question was simple – do we cut it now, or wait until morning? It seemed like delaying the inevitable to wait for the morning, so out came the knife and with a few short strokes, I kissed goodbye to hundreds of dollars of beautiful octoplat deployment line, and anchor and chain.
With relief, we found the current was doing what we predicted and we immediately started making excellent speed south. Very soon were at the south-eastern tip of Cape Fourcroy. We had been using Navionics electronic background charts all the way from Singapore which proved most excellent for navigation. But here we found their coverage area stopped just a few miles off the coast of the Tiwi Islands, and I needed a second set to cover the Darwin approach – which were inconveniently back home in my storage area in Singapore. As any good mariner should have, we carried paper charts, and I sat in the cabin in the early hours of the morning, with sweat dripping off my nose, scaling coordinates off the paper chart to try to avoid a dangerous shallow area known as the Afghan shoals as we rounded Cape Fourcroy. With a current pushing us from behind at 2.5 knots, in a couple of hours and around 5nm, we were soon past these. As the sun came out it was a beautiful feeling to key in the final waypoint of the entire journey to Darwin – Cullen Bay Marina, directly across the Beagle Gulf and distance of 50.4nm.
It was now day 77 (20 March) and crossing the Beagle Gulf became an exercise in working with and against the tide. My heat rash which had plagued me off and on since leaving Singapore was starting to flare up again by now, and felt like my skin was crawling, especially on my torso area. The skin under my arms where constant rubbing was occurring due to the rowing motion was becoming broken and painful, so I changed from my favored naked rowing style to wearing a long-sleeved rowing shirt to try to alleviate the rubbing. I knew that I only needed to make it another 24 hours or so before I would be back on land with the comforts of fresh water showers and air conditioning. This would stop the heat rash and other skin issues within a few days.
Around 1130hrs the tide turned directly against us and I battle to make 400m in my one hour shift. Dave Field had passed the tidal information to us by sat phone so this was one of the first part’s of the entire 2360nm journey that we had a reasonable idea of what the currents would be doing and at what time (except for day one and two of the expedition in Singapore where I had a very good handle on currents and tides). Hence we knew we just had to hold on until 1440hrs when the tide would turn and we could start to make progress again – until then it was rowing on the spot! Like hamsters on a wheel we continued to row, making pitiful progress but at least not losing ground. And as the afternoon wore on the tide did turn and we picked up speed again.
The evening of day 77 was our last night on the water. For Charlie especially it was poignant time. On one hand he wanted to reach Darwin, and on the other hand he knew it was the end of the expedition for him. His mood became quite and reflective.
Charlie and I had shared a good working partnership on the boat during the expedition. It was his first major expedition, and he had done well, whilst learning an enormous amount about the realities of big trips. Being confined to a tiny space with one other person, with no more than 3m of space at maximum to separate you from each other for so many days on end, can be very difficult to cope with. We had a couple of flare-ups during the trip, but always managed to move on quickly from these. This I believe is one of the keys to working successfully in small teams. It is the people who hold grudges for long periods, even days on end that would make life very difficult on these type of high pressure environments. The ability to have a disagreement, get over it and have a laugh afterwards is very important to being able to work with others.
That evening we rowed slowly past a massive oil rig, which was lit up like a massive Christmas tree, right in the heart of the Beagle Gulf, some 40nm offshore. We passed with 0.5nm of this massive and most impressive feat of human engineering and tried to raise them on channel 16 on the VHF to say hello, alas to no avail.
That evening around 2100hrs we heard a crackling over the VHF – “Simpson’s Donkey, Simpson’s Donkey this is Nautilus – do you copy? Over”. It was local Darwin sailor John Punch, who had come out 30nm offshore in his beautiful catamaran, together with Chris his friend and our expedition film producer Alistair. We were forbidden to make physical contact until we had passed through customs and immigration, but to hear a friendly voice and see the boat a few hundred metres away, allowed me finally to believe that we were close enough now we would make Darwin safely. Nautilus stayed out all night, and eventually caught up with us again in the early hours of the morning as day light broke to film us on the final approach to Cullen Bay Marina.
We made excellent progress all through that final night at sea, never dropping below 1.5 knots and generally averaging over 2 knots of speed. As the daylight broke we were treated to a magnificent sunrise over Darwin city and seeing her so close gave us all the motivation two human beings would ever need to get the job done! We set-up the second rowing seat and very soon both of us were rowing in unison. With a tailwind and current we were making some of the fastest speeds of the entire journey and averaged over 4 knots as we passed Charles point, now with just 5nm to go to reach the entrance to Cullen Bay. We had one sand bar to negotiate off Charles point, thankfully John Punch pointed this out to us and guided us around the worst of it. however the water depth dropped to 2.6m below the boat for a brief stage and I had my heart in my mouth as we went over this. The sea state became very choppy and rough but at 4 knots we were soon clear with the final run in to Cullen Bay left before us.
There was one last hurdle to negotiate as we made the final approach to Cullen Bay – we were going too fast and could not stop! The entrance to the marina involved negotiating a tight left-handed turn into a narrow channel between two large rock walls. In a motorboat with engines with reverse thrust this would be rather straight forward, however in an ocean rowing boat being pushed at over 4 knots by strong winds, with no ability to stop, reverse or even control direction by more than 30 degrees, it was a nightmare. As we got closer, visions of being smashed into the rock walls ran through my head and the fact that Simpson’s Donkey has no insurance and cost me $150,000 to purchase, started to make my blood pressure rise. Fortunately we managed to rig up a makeshift anchor and under (by now in our eyes our local hero!) John Punch’s excellent advice dropped the anchor just 100m off the entrance to the marina and came to an abrupt stop. So close – yet still so far to our goal.
After an hour of bobbing around in the intense sunshine, the wind dropped and John came out again in his small dinghy to guide us into the marina, which to my immense relief we managed safely. We were greeted by a modest crowd of onlookers of whom we generally had no idea whom they were, some reporters and TV camera’s and of course customs and quarantine staff. As we pulled in beside the dock, I touched the jetty and solid ground for the first time since leaving East Timor and gave it a pat and a kiss. We had finally made it. My dream, my vision. So much effort, so much risk, so much uncertainty… We had run the cyclone gauntlet and won. In 78 days we had rowed this amazing little boat over 2,360nm all the way from Singapore to Australia – becoming the first people to ever complete this journey by human power. Stage one was complete.
Side note: I would like to personally thank those people who made stage one of the Rowing from Home to Home expedition a success.
Charlie Smith my rowing partner who now leaves the expedition. Spirits are high my friend – may you achieve your own ambitions and dreams in the years ahead.
Dave Field – our project manager, if it was not for you we would still be bobbing around trying to make our way into Pulau Bangka.
Alistair Harding – our film producer who does so much more than produce amazing films. Thank you.
Monique Dickerson – our PR manager for making the regular updates and posts on our behalf.
To my wife Stephanie and family back home in NZ – thank you for supporting this crazy hair brained idea.
To all our sponsors and supporters, people who left messages of support – I am so glad this excited so many people, and so many of you are coming along on the journey. Please keep following and share the journey with your friends. The world needs adventurers, who take on challenge and risk and push our boundaries in sustainable and responsible ways. The next two stages are yet to happen and will only get more exciting.
To all those people who did not believe in this journey – who tried to steal the idea but failed, who took bets when we would need rescuing – thank you also! Your attitude did nothing but give me more strength and determination to get the job done.
Captain Grant ‘Axe’ Rawlinson
Axe here and I am so happy to say that finally our beautiful little donkey is safe and sound in Cullen Bay Marina. I will write more detail later about the last few days of the expedition however after finally arriving at the entrance to Cullen Bay Marina there were 24 hours of ‘issues’ to sort out with customs/immigration and quarantine. To cut a long story short – the boat was inspected by customs divers and a suspicious shell fish was found on the hull which meant we could not enter the marina last night and I spent one more night on the boat. Today we got the clearance to enter and at 1130hrs we finally moored Simpson’s Donkey securely to her berth. What a magical feeling to finally see this amazing little craft which has carried us so far, finally safe and secure at her mooring. I am also very much looking forward to having a nice rest in a proper bed this evening.
A massive thanks to our local Darwin hero Mr John Punch who guided us in from 30nm out in his yacht, seen here in this picture with us. And of course our trusty film producer Alistair Harding for superb efforts ensuring our arrival was captured.
It is with a mixture of fondness and sadness that I announce Charlie Smith my trusty rowing partner and friend will now leave the expedition. It was always the plan that Charlie would only join for the first phase from Singapore to Darwin, and he will shortly return to Singapore and back to work. His spirit of hard work, positive energy and determination will live on and I will miss him dearly. Go well my friend. With out you I could never have done this and together we made a great team.
And so Simpson’s Donkey has made it all the way to Darwin, Australia! Even as the weather gods attempted to keep them away for a few minutes longer by sending in some strong winds to keep Axe and Charlie anchored a few hundred meters offshore, in the end they were never going to be denied and they docked just a few minutes ago!
Both are well, coherent, understandably tired, and now a little hot as they sit in the dock answering questions from Australian Customs!!
Thank you everyone for your messages of support- you’ll be hearing from Axe and Charlie very soon once the port and immigration clearances are completed! Go the Donkey!!
New ETA- 11.30am-12pm at Cullen Bay Marina ferry wharf, Darwin, Australia
Ladies and gentlemen!!! Simpson’s Donkey is within sight of Darwin, Australia!!! After leaving Singapore on January 3 and making its way through Indonesia and East Timor, and in the process becoming the first rowing boat to make its way across the Java, Bali, Flores and Timor Seas, Grant Rawlinson and Charlie Smith are about to set foot on a whole new continent and here’s the first photo to prove it!!! #GOTHEDONKEY
SPIRITS ARE HIGH!!!
Before we launch into sharing Captain ‘Axe’ Rawlinson and 1st Mate Charlie Smith’s update for Day 76, we would like to share with you all that their arrival to Darwin is very close!! As we share this latest blog it looks like the guys will arrive at Cullen Bay Marina tomorrow (Tuesday 21st March) at 9am – 10am local time! Of course you all know that this timing might change so we will do our best to update you with any changes as they occur, but keep your eye on the tracking map for the most up to date progress and if you’re in Darwin tomorrow, come on down and join us in welcoming Simpson’s Donkey to shore.
Now for what you have all been waiting for……..
Hello from the cabin of Simpson’s Donkey on day 76. What an interesting last two days we have had. We were so excited to catch our first glimpse of Australian soil as we approached Bathurst Island yesterday that it was very disappointing we could not see it at all until we were very close. Bathurst Island is so flat that we had to get within 12nm away before we could make it out. At 1630 hrs yesterday afternoon, I turned my head from the rowing position to scan the horizon as I had been doing regularly all day, and I had to rub my eyes. I thought I saw a smidge of something. I jumped up and there before me was the coastline of Bathurst Island, I whooped and shrieked and Charlie came out of the cabin to do a small jig on the back deck. What an amazing site and something we will both never forget.
Alas the night did not go so well after that. The decision to pass through the Apsley Strait or go around Cape Fourcroy was basically made for us by the Northerly wind which did not allow us to make enough easting to reach the Apsley Strait. So instead, Cape Fourcroy it was to be. We were making great time and were only 2nm from the southern tip of Fourcroy last evening when the tide turned and we started being blasted north at over 1 knot even while trying to row south. We were also subject to a 10 knot westerly wind which was threatening to blow us onto the shore of Bathurst Island – we were only just over 1nm offshore at this stage. So out with the anchor again and in 46m of water we dropped it over the side. It immediately held (to our relief), and we lay and rested with one eye on the wind gauge and one on the GPS chartplotter to observe our direction of drift. At 0100hrs we noticed the current seemed to be trying to push us south again so we set about trying to retrieve the anchor. With both us hauling we could not even budge it one little bit. After many attempts at this, we set up a 3:1 ratio pulley system (to those mountaineers out there – similar to a ‘Z’ pulley system for crevasse rescue). We tried a further 30 minutes but still could not get it to budge. So with reluctant acceptance, just before 0200hrs we cut the anchor line and said goodbye to our trusty anchor. This was a committing thing to do because the anchor was a major part of our strategy and safety plan to make it into Darwin against some very strong tides which are too strong to row.
We then however proceeded to make very good time around Cape Fourcroy, before turning east for 7 miles, hugging the coastline to avoid the potentially dangerous ‘Afghan shoals’ just 3nm off the south coast of Bathurst Island. Once past these it was a special moment to plug in the final waypoint of so many for this journey, Cullen Bay Marina in Darwin – our final destination, a distance of 50.4nm away. We set a direct line for this, crossing the Beagle Gulf. We are now around 36nm from Darwin and nearing the middle of the Beagle Gulf. The tidal currents here are fierce and they run with us for 6 hours and then set directly against us for 6 hours. So that means for the past 6 hours we have almost rowed on the spot, making a measly 2nm as we wait for the tide to turn in our favor. Our trusty anchor we lost – here we so desperately need, and as we get closer to Cullen Bay Marina the stronger these currents will get. We must find a solution for holding our position.
We are both a little tired now and having mixed emotions about potentially ending the journey sometime tomorrow. On one hand we want to arrive safely and step onto shore, on the other hand it is a special time for both of us out here on this boat, finishing a once-in-a-lifetime journey. At the same time we are constantly reminding ourselves not to be complacent, we are in a dangerous part of the world for a tiny underpowered boat, not only currents but today we had another reminder when a shark swam up to investigate the oars as Charlie was rowing.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those people who are part of this journey with us and have helped and supported us to be here. This is not a story of two people in a boat – it’s a team effort and special thanks must go again to Dave Field – tirelessly, calmly and so professionally providing such important information to us twice per day, a better project manager we could not have wished for. John Punch for being our man on the ground here and hopefully we will see him at sea somewhere later this evening in his yacht – we are forbidden to make physical contact until we clear customs and immigration but at least he will be keeping an eye on us as we negotiate these last 36 miles of strong tides. To Alistair our film producer who once again has made the long journey down to our landing point as he has done all previous landings – we can’t wait to see you buddy. Monique Dickerson who receives these blog updates and posts them on our behalf, and to all our sponsors who have contributed so much. And finally to our families and loved ones back home for continued support and love. For me especially, Stephanie my wife, I always remind myself that no matter how knackered and crap I feel out here at times, it is not as hard being at home running a house, working fulltime and acting effectively as a single mother with two (lovely but energetic) little twin girls. I don’t think I can ever repay your faith and support in me.
We hope you have enjoyed following our journey. We also hope that at least a few of you may be inspired to take on larger and greater challenges in your own lives. Challenges with real risk, with no guarantees of success, and that will push you far from your comfort zone. Because as I have found once again with this expedition – adventure is super food for the human soul and that area outside your comfort zone is where the magic starts to happen.
Much love and respect, Captain ‘Axe’ Rawlinson and 1st Mate Charlie Smith.
Hello from the cabin of Simpson’s Donkey on day 74. We are currently 74nm from Cape Fourcry on the Tiwi Islands. We had another tough evening last night. After hauling in the anchor yesterday morning we stole 12nm of distance with some favorably light winds until around 1900hrs, when the wind turned to the south and rose to 16 knots. I rowed as hard as I could and we were still heading north east at a 30 degree heading at 2.2 knots when in fact we needed to be heading south east. So after 30 minutes of waiting to see if the wind would pass through, we threw out the anchor in 67m of water depth. Just as the previous night, the anchor immediately bit and held which was a relief. We rested overnight and managed to sleep much better than the previous evening, probably due to being so tired. On anchor we are concerned about being hit by a ship so we had the navigation (anchoring) light on and also our electronic radar reflector, which also emits an audible beep if it picks up a radar signal. At 0200 hrs this morning it started beeping like crazy, but there was no vessels to be seen on the horizon or on the AIS chart plotter, I stayed up for 45 minutes on the lookout, before finally turning off the alarm and going back to sleep. There was something out there for sure but maybe it was over the horizon.
Every time we drop the anchor we run the risk of losing it, getting it snagged and having to cut the line. Hauling the anchor in is very hard work even for both of us working together. For one person I am not sure if we could even do it. But we managed to get it up and were off again in light winds at 0700hrs this morning. We have slowly picked up progress during the day and are now flying along at 2.5 knots with the most magical forecast of winds from the northwest of 15 – 20 knots expected for this evening . They are meant too last for the next four days! This is our weather window to get all the way into Darwin. 20 knots of wind will be quite windy and we expect some rough sea conditions, but as long as it is behind us it should push us along nicely. We have not made a final decision about the route into Darwin, either through the Apsley Strait or around Cape Fourcry, let us wait and see where we end up as we get closer to the Tiwi Islands tomorrow. I am not yet thinking of reaching Darwin, the distance may seem short if you look at the chart and how far we have come, but it is a tough fight to get there still with crazily strong tidal currents and we cannot get complacent. It was only a matter of time the longer that we were out here, that a cyclone would spring up. Dave Field has just passed us the news there is a cyclone warning out now. Our safety now is in speed to get to the Tiwi Islands and onto Darwin before anything nasty turns up.
I have been allowing myself time to reflect on the journey thus far and how far we have come. From those early days when we departed from Raffles Marina on the 3 January, crossing the crazily busy Singapore Straits, rowing through storms in the Bali Sea, suffering the blistering heat of the Flores Sea, fighting to get into Dili and now this amazing journey of stealing miles between deep water anchorages across the Timor Sea. I have to almost pinch myself to think how we have been able to come, in such a relatively short time, completely by our own human power. I leave you with these words from Captain James Cook:
“Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.”
Captain James Cook
DAY 73 – UPDATE FROM AXE ABOARD SIMPSON’S DONKEY – An emotional roller coaster
Hello from the cabin of Simpson’s Donkey on the evening of day 73. As I write this, I can hear the rhythmic sound of Charlie on the oars as he pounds out his last one hour shift of the day before we move into the two hour night shifts.
I hear water sloshing around the hull as we move at 2.2 knots and rain falls gently on the cabin roof. I am warm and dry and feel almost insanely comfortable inside the cabin, but in 50 minutes time I will be out in the rain for my first two hour shift of the night.
The past three days have been an emotional roller coaster for us as the wind and currents continue to tease and haunt us on an hourly basis. Day 72’s morning call with Dave Field at 0800hrs almost bought me to tears as he said we had three days of southerly winds at 10 knots and more to look forward to which in effect would send us backwards most probably. Fortunately we made good time during the day yesterday as the winds stuck to the North West until early evening time when they swung around. By 2100hrs, we were fighting a 14 knot south westerly and could not control the heading of the boat, the best bearing we could hold was 75 degree which was taking us away from the Tiwi Islands. So we deployed the para-anchor which immediately picked up the currents which were north setting and started dragging us directly north at 1.5 knots. Again not good at all, so we pulled that in. The area we were in was only 70m deep so we took a punt and joined the 30m anchor line to the 70m para anchor line and dropped our 8kg anchor over the side.
Normally you need at least 3 times the anchor line of the water depth you are in to hold your boat, in our case we only had 100m, when in fact we should have had 70m x 3 = 210m. Maybe because Simpsons Donkey is so light or maybe because of luck the anchor set and held and we stopped moving! Well stopped moving is not completely true as she then started bucking around like a wild horse for the rest of the night.
We stayed on anchor until 1100 hrs this morning and tried to rest and sleep. To get an idea of what is like to sleep in this little boat on anchor in strong winds in the middle of the ocean, please lie on your side on your bed, then get a good friend to hold your shoulders in both hands and shake you vigourously on a 1 second interval for hours on end. You get the picture! Needless to say we did not sleep that well!
However at 1100 hrs the wind had died to less than 5 knots, still coming from the south but we heaved and groaned and managed to retrieve the anchor without using the SARD (stuck anchor retrieval device also known as a knife). I made only 400m in that first hour of rowing as we fought headwinds and current, and nothing makes me more depressed than spending a lot of energy to make bugger all progress. However over the course of the afternoon we have sped up and are now happily moving at 2.2 knots.
Even better news is that the evening call to Dave Field revealed strong northerlies coming our way on Sunday – we just have one more day tomorrow (Saturday) to battle out some crap from the south then we will be flying to the Tiwi Islands and onto Darwin.
We are now only 77nm from the mouth to the Tiwi Islands channel called Apsley Strait, also known as Bathurst Channel which we hope to pass through to line us up for good run for the last 40nm into Darwin. I am super excited to have the opportunity to navigate this channel – it is full of mangroves, sand bars, sandy beaches and of course salt water crocodiles which will be no threat to us in our boat as we pass through the centre of the channel.
I am a little nervous of coming into Darwin with her strong tidal currents and another unknown harbor so relying very much on Dave Field for advice coupled with our local man on the ground John Punch who is an experienced sailor and helping us enormously.
Today we got flown over again by the plane from the Australian border control and managed to make radio contact, they were friendly and told us a few rules and restrictions and we hope to see them again tomorrow if they pass by for another flyby. That’s all from Simpson’s Donkey – good night!
Day 71 update from the Timor Sea
We are sending this from the Timor sea, position 100nm south east of Timor Leste and around 150nm off Cape Fourcry on the Tiwi Islands. Conditions have been variable during the last three days of the crossing with head winds from the South West slowing our progress to a crawl on days 69 and 70. Day 70 we made only 5nm in 8 solid hours of rowing during the day time. Fortunately last night the winds turned to the North West and we picked up speed making 23nm over night. Apart from a rain storm in the early hours of the morning which had a massive down pour and some strong southerlies for 1.5 hours, the north westerlies have stuck with us and we still made great time today at 1330 hrs (Singapore time), with speeds hovering around 2.5 knots. The wind is blowing in around 16 knots currently so the sea state is lumpy and interesting. Now at 1730hrs we are fighting beam on wind from the west and slowed to 1.2 knots. This morning we got our first feel of Australia when the Australian coast guard flew over us in a large plane making two very low passes, it is nice to know we are on their radar.
Last night a bird landed on the bow solar panels and sat there and went to sleep for over 5 hours which was very cool. It is a mental battle at the moment as the end is so close we can almost feel it but we are so at the mercy of the winds here. If they turn to south east as they were yesterday it will kill our progress again. The wind forecasts do not seem to be very accurate for this area so we just have to keep battling along and take it hour by hour. We have crossed the very deep area of the Timor Sea at over 1000m water depth and are now in less than 100m water depth approaching some shoals which are even shallower, down to 20m or less. It will be interesting to see what the currents are doing around these shallower areas. We are hoping to at least make it to the Tiwi Islands within the next 3 – 4 days where we will feel much safer than being out here in the open sea during cyclone season. It is not a nice feeling as we were yesterday to be plugging away at 0.4 knots for hour after hour in this area. Speed is equal to safety to try and get across before something nasty blows in. Apart from that – we have plenty of food on the boat, lots of water and battery power, are both feeling as fit as can be expected, rowing in shift patterns and continually keeping the boat moving. We have not stopped the boats progress since we departed Dili which is great, let’s hope the winds will not cause us to do that. Hopefully the next blog update will be with the Tiwi Islands in sight. Cheers for now,
SNAP COMPETITION TIME! – WHEN WILL SIMPSON’S DONKEY HIT DARWIN?!
So the latest is this… Overnight the guys crossed the 2000 nautical miles mark (that’s 3861 kilomtres) and are currently in the thick of the Timor Sea approaching the Troubadour Shoals which are a bit of a landmark in this part of the world.
Before they began, this crossing of the Timor Sea was pin-pointed as one of the most dangerous and unpredicatable parts of the journey, so in hindsight, the stop in Dili was a great decision. Because it has not only given Axe and Charlie a chance to re-charge, but also it gave them the opportunity to grab hold of a great weather window and give Cyclone Blanche a miss (which toar through this area just a few days before Simpson’s Donkey left Dili).
And so now, while the guys have been battling headwinds, enjoying tailwinds, and encountering thunderstorms in the last 24 hours, the thought is in everyone’s minds that it could have been so much worse! As it stands, they’re doing an average of a little over 2 knots and have about 230 nautical miles to go to Darwin… which is all very exciting, because now, that dream which began on January 3 of making it to Darwin is becoming more of a reality every day!
So now it’s SNAP COMP TIME – with 230 natuical miles to go…
WHAT DAY AND TIME DO YOU THINK THEY’RE GOING TO HIT THE BRIGHT LIGHTS OF DARWIN?
In this format pelase… DD/MM/YYYY – 00:00 (DARWIN TIME)
For clues, see above and to help your guessing… see the GPS map at https://axeoneverest.maprogress.com/rowingfromhometohome
Closest answer will get the chance to brag about it for the rest of the journey and possibly get a huge monetary prize or a beer* (*whichever Axe can afford when he arrives in Darwin!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
UPDATE FROM EXPEDITION HQ:
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…
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!
UPDATE FROM AXE ON SIMPSON’S DONKEY:
“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.“
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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