Yesterday (Saturday 11 November) around 1400hrs I switched off the GPS tracker and stepped ashore at the small port of Ballina in Northern New South Wales. 24 days and 1,100nm after departing Coff’s Harbour.
The last 6nm I was grateful to receive a tow in from the Ballina Marine Rescue team. Ballina port has a bar with breaking surf to negotiate so I would not have liked to have rowed in myself. I would like to extend a massive thank you to the wonderful support of Ballina Marine Rescue, esp to the crew on duty yesterday in the command centre (sorry I do not have their names) and the boat crew whom I name here:
Tony Handcock (skipper)
Brooke Butler (coxswain)
Rodney Guest (crewman)
Bill Ewen (trainee)
Gary Baker (crewman)
These guys are all volunteers and do a wonderful job protecting the people in the water 24 hours per day/7 days a week. I am looking forward to donating to their organisation.
I have been through a lifetime of emotions and experiences in the last 24 days. Without a doubt it was the toughest 24 days of my life. We rowed through shipping lanes and were surrounded by steel giants travelling at 15 knots, making me sick with fear, night after night. We were capsized, smashed by waves, visited by sharks, dolphins and sea birds and pushed around by the invisible but supreme forces of wind and current.
I was pushed and tested to the extreme in mother natures ultimate arena. This is one of the reasons I take on these journeys. My emotions rolled with the swells, often on an hourly basis from the depths of despair to highs of hope. The Tasman showed me she is a merciless bully, she is violent and cruel, unforgiving and waiting to expose any weakness she can find. I have new felt respect for her that can only be earned from direct experience. For the last 8 days my complete focus was on getting back safely to shore, together with the boat. The last three nights I had little sleep. The last evening I did not sleep as we crossed the shipping lanes.
But we made it to shore, yes we are not in New Zealand, but from the jaws of defeat we salvaged some victory. Simpson’s Donkey is bruised and bleeding but still a beautifully seaworthy little craft. We have hope again. The expedition has hope. This final stage is much more than just trying to cross the Tasman. It is the culmination of a dream, of years of effort, commitment and sacrifice. It is the grand finale of 147 days and almost 10,000km of travel completely by human power since departing Singapore on January 3, 2017.
Love Captain Axe
PS: I would like to thank especially over the last 24 days the following people:
Roger ‘Clouds Badham expedition meteorologist. I spoke to Clouds every day, often twice/three times per day as we tried to work our way through a very complex set of wind/current/rowing dynamics. He could let me know down to the hour when I would be smashed by winds from different directions. On the final evening he stayed up all night with me, updating me through the night. He never gave up and without him I would never have made it back to Australia with the boat. He always referred to what was happening in the boat as what ‘we’ were doing. He made me feel he was with me in the boat.
Dave Field – expedition project manager – managing an expedition like this is not easy, especially when its going wrong. I spoke to Dave every day and often vented my frustrations towards him. He coordinated so much in the background, so professionally and gave me the reassurance he was always on watch. I am forever indebted.
Doug Gayford – Doug helped coordinate my return and safe entry to land in Australia. He was preparing to come out in a yacht as far as necessary if the situation required. I was nervous of landing on an unfamiliar coastline as I approached Australia again and he was a massive help working through that as well with ongoing logistics of sorting the storage of Simpson’s Donkey
Coffs Harbour Customs – Thanks to Dean Pascoe and colleague for travelling all the way to Ballina to process me back into Australia. What a gentlemen and an ambassador for his organisation and to the goodness of Australian people.
Stephanie – My wife. Sorry for not being at home during difficult times, thank you again for holding the fort and being there in spirit when I needed it. I will be home soon.
Alistair Harding – Film producer – as all year long, once again Alistair had made the huge last minute effort to get to the landing site, once again I saw his tiny drone in the sky as we approached the safety of land. Alistair, this expedition is your journey as much as it is mine.
To the people who sent positive messages – thank you. They helped enormously with my moral
AIS gone down right when I needed it to cross shipping lane. No sleep then this eve, on watch all night.Tomorrow hope to be very close to land for tow in.
Currently 48nm to shore. 90nm to Coffs Harbour & searching for South current. Crew happy, rowing since 0600, tea N hash brown for bfast. looking forward to a beer.
Operation SAVE THE DONKEY ongoing. Now 90nm from shore. Strong currents & shipping lanes coming. Can we make it? I don’t know. Next 48hrs critical. Tired. RYBR
For those of you who missed it yesterday- here’s Axe’s interview with Radiosport’s D’Arcy Waldergrave from out in the Tasman about what it’s like out there and why he’s decided to turn back to Australia.
At last underway. Dolphins and a bird on deck saw me off this morning at 0600hrs. Making 3kn w/tailwind and favorable current towards Aus. Rowed 7hrs, 2 to go.
For the very latest on Axe and where he’s at (and for those of you missing his mellifluous tones) he did an interview via satellite phone this morning with D’Arcy Waldergrave of www.radiosport.co.nz in New Zealand and it will be broadcast this evening after 6pm NZ time – if you’re tuning in from overseas, go to http://www.radiosport.co.nz/on-demand/listen-from-overseas/ and you should be able to figure out how to listen in – otherwise, we’ll try and get a link to post here afterwards as well. D’Arcy has been a great supporter of the expedition, bringing the story to his audience, and we thank him over and over until it gets embarrassing as he’s been on board ever since the very beginning of the expedition way back in January!
Coffee, a pack of gingernuts and ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ ticked of today. Crew in good spirits however murmurs of uprising if SE winds do not appear 2moro.
Rough night,lightning,strong winds,airborne inside cabin! Little sleep. Another day on p.anchor 2day. Tomorrow hope to start moving west.
Good progress yesterday. Wind changed and dropped the p.anchor at midnight. 30 knots northerly coming tonight – will be p.anchor through to Tuesday lunchtime.
Over the past few days a few things have happened to Axe which he was posting directly about on Facebook but those posts were not going onto the blog- so to get us back up to speed- here’s those posts Axe’s blog readers have been missing out on with some big news at the end…
Thursday, 2 November 2017
Wind and seas calming down.Cabin bound still. 2moro hope to be on deck. First job swim to bow to repair para anchor,sort the boat then row you bastard row!
Friday, 3 November, 2017
Early morn swim 2 fix p.anchor.3h work to clean and fix mess after storm.1st shark sighting 1130hrs.Big fin 50m off.Rowed 3hrs,desperate for favorable current
Saturday, 4 November, 2017
DONKEY FOR SALE: one owner,very stubborn and likes to go around in large circles against owners wishes.Self collection from somewhere in the Tasman Sea.
Sunday, 5 November, 2017
When the mountain doesn’t want u there,return to basecamp.Heading back to shore to try and save boat and myself for another attempt w more fav conditions.
…….. More to come
Day 14 – being smashed by 35-40knots of weather. Capsized at 2130hrs last night. Para anchor broken, main sat comms unit out, it’s not nice here at present. Axe
Much of the time, the most communication we need is a cellphone and an email address… but out of sight from land, I need a little bit more to keep in touch with the world. So from the extremes like when I’m stuck in a storm and need emergency help to the times when I simply need someone to talk me through figuring out when the winds are going to start to blow in my direction, I’ve got a range of communication devices to talk to everyone from rescue services to people like expedition project Manager Dave Field and expedition weather guru Roger ‘Clouds’ Badham. And of course those communication options includes a satellite phone for the most important calls of all- to check in with Stephanie and the girls as well! Check out this video we made while I was still in Coff’s Harbour for a tour of the Communications systems on board- Communications aboard the Donkey!
Grant wished me to pass on that he may be a little busy for the next 48-hours and may not have time to tap out a few words on the laptop for a blog update. I said that we would probably all understand….
For the next 48-hours a low pressure system will pass over Grant with winds expected to be in excess of 35-knots/65km/hr (top image). The good news is that on the back end of it he should catch a ride on some favourable westerly winds. There is also the East Australian Current to negotiate (bottom image) and make sure he is on the right side of things. A couple of things to juggle.
But, as Colin Quincey passed on, “the boat is built for this test so should ride it out OK, as is the driver!”. Come on Grant!!
I am currently 140nm off the coast of Australia and 1012nm from New Plymouth, New Zealand. Latitude wise, I am in line with Dargaville in New Zealand. I have travelled around 370nm since departing Coff’s Harbour 10 days ago.
I have been on para anchor for over 60 hours now. Yesterday (day nine) was not a nice day. The wind had been over 20 knots all night on the evening of day 8, from the south east, and this had caused the sea state to become agitated and wild. The wind stayed above 20 knots almost all of day 9 so the sea’s continued to grow during the day. I was luckily locked into a favorable current stream with the para anchor and was being dragged in a very rough and bumpy fashion in a south easterly direction. However due to the currents, the para anchor was not able to hold me directly into the wind and I was taking the sea’s beam on (from the side), which is the worst scenario and the most dangerous for a boat as it is the easiest way to capsize. As the sea’s picked up during the morning, I braced myself in the cabin, feet against the opposite wall and waited. The waiting is the hardest part. Inside the cabin I can’t see what is coming. I hear the sound of a breaking wave approaching and brace myself, sometimes it passes under us with only a gentle bump. But every so often we get smashed. BOOM. The entire boat shudders like she’s been punched in the guts, we start to roll, my head hits the cabin wall, I am dazed and start to walk my feet up the opposite wall as the boat rolls past 90 degrees. This is it, our first capsize… But then slowly the Donkey shakes herself off and returns back upright. I rub my head, a bit of blood but mainly a bruise. I peer out at the back deck, it’s a mess, the plastic bucket housing the retrieval lines has been smashed into a number of pieces. The life raft has broken free from her tether, the carbon fibre flagstaff has been snapped off like a match stick. But most worrying is the ¾ inch stainless steel antenna mount at the stern has been bent back by the force of the wave and the sat comms antenna is now leaning back at an unusual angle. If one wave can do that to ¾ inch stainless steel, what would it do to me? I hurriedly put on my harness and clamber but naked onto the back deck. Keeping one eye on the waves as they roll threateningly towards me, I work as quickly as I can on the wet, wildly rolling deck, cutting down the flag, re-stowing and tidying equipment before the next wave hits. Then it’s back into the cabin, feet against the wall, waiting, listening, worrying…
Today (Day 10) I have a brief respite from the strength of the winds, I tried to row this morning but have an 8 knot headwind making rowing very difficult to even keep the boat aligned in the correct direction. So I am back on para anchor, advancing at 1.8 knots with the assistance of the current, hoping for a wind change after lunch to allow me some time on the oars. After being in the cabin for so long I feel weak and lethargic. The sea is wearing me down. I have new respect for it after the last 60 hours. I have even stronger winds forecast in the next few days and not many of them are favorable. The battle continues.
PS: Thank you for your comments, Monique copies and pastes them into an email and sends them to me. Out here it is easy to feel completely alone at times, so reading them gives me an amazing moral boost.
The last three days have seen good progress as I managed to break free from the eddy I was stuck in off Seal Rocks, with the assistance of some Northerly breeze which started at 0100hrs on the morning of day 6. It was another night in the shipping lanes with vessels around me all night long. I was on the oars at 0630 and rowed for 8.5 hours that day, making around 2 knots/hour. During the morning an enormous fish swam past, it was almost as long as the boat and looked like a marlin, It was going so fast it made me feel as if I was standing still. I could just make out the site of land in the morning but lost it by lunchtime and don’t expect to see it again until NZ. I also had my last limited cellphone coverage drop out during the day and one of the final messages was from Dave Field telling me there were 5 large vessels coming straight towards me. By 1700 hrs I was thrilled to notice an increase in speed as we found the EAC again. That night we had a tailwind from the north and with the EAC made excellent progress but it was bumpy as hell and I could not sleep.
Day 7 – I hit the oars at 0615 and was in a position just below Sydney in latitude and 60nm offshore. I rowed 9 ¾ hours, averaging 3- 4 knots until I was knackered, the sun disappeared and the wind changed against me. All day I was bothered by flies. What they were doing 60nm offshore I can only put down to the fact I was starting to stink. I dropped the para anchor in the darkness and made dinner in the cabin at 2000 hrs. The wind was forecast for 15-20 knots overnight from the south, the opposite of what I need, but fortunately the para anchor in the strong current dominated the wind and we still made 2 knots progress south all night. During the night only one vessel passed me around 5nm away.
Now on day 8 I was pretty chuffed to pass within 1.5nm of the waypoint I had been aiming for since Coff’s. To have travelled 280nm in these winds and currents in a rowing boat, solo and come within 1.5nm of the target is pretty good going. It is critical I position myself correctly in the EAC to combat the adverse winds and get slung out into the Tasman at the right spot during the next 72 hours. If I get it wrong I will be caught in a whirlpool and possibly be sent back towards Coff’s Harbour with no way to get off. I am currently around 75nm south of Sydney and 65nm off the coast on sea anchor. The wind is from the South still and forecast to rise to 25 knots SE overnight. Once again this is the wrong direction and I am praying the strength of the EAC will override this, so I do not lose ground and may even continue to advance albeit slowly. It will be a rough night. This morning when I awoke the retrieval line for the sea anchor had been tangled in the rudder so I took my first swim, not before a very good look for sea monsters. It was cold but refreshing. I have done some laundry today and cleaned the boat as I cannot row due to the wind.
So the game of strategy continues. Together with the wonderful guidance from meteorologist Roger Badham whom I speak with twice per day, we are advancing as fast as possible when I can row, desperately hunting for favorable currents, dropping the sea anchor and waiting out patiently the adverse winds till they turn and I can make progress again. I really have no idea if I will make it to NZ, this is a massive adventure with no guarantee of success, but I will and am giving it 100% of my effort. The picture shows one of my friends, a cargo vessel disappearing into the dusk a few evenings ago.
After 36 hours on para anchor on the morning of day 4, I peered carefully from the cabin door at 0500 hrs to see a wild sea beginning to calm. Even though the wind was still southerly I decided to try rowing and hauled in the para anchor. From 0530 – 0700 I made just under a mile in a SW direction, working like hell to try and keep the boat lined up. I also noted that when I stopped rowing she wanted to drift NE at 1.5 knots. That’s strange, what happened to this massive EAC – East Australian current) which is meant to give me a free ride south? I called Clouds (weather man) at 0800 and his conclusion is that I had slipped off it – maybe into a hole where it split?
I kept rowing and noticed the best direction I could make was 1 knot WNW. This would take me closer to coastline and the shipping lanes, but hopefully back into stronger southerly current. I was currently in 4000m water depth but the edge of continental shelf at 200m depth is meant to have strong EAC currents. This point was 14nm away to my west.
I rowed for 9 hours that day until darkness, in search of the EAC. I made it back onto the shelf with blistered hands and a sore back at 1900hrs, but there was no current pushing me south, Instead I was being pushed now north west.
That night I deployed the para anchor and watched our position get pulled closer into the shipping lanes and the coastline. I was exhausted but could not sleep as I kept watch on the vessel traffic passing close by. At 0330hrs I was less than 2nm from the busy shipping lanes and was seriously concerned. The wind and current combined to push me further into danger and were too strong to row against. In a twist of fate in the space of five minutes the wind swung to the north west – I shot onto deck in the darkness and pulled in the para anchor to see if I could make progress back out to sea and safety. Sure enough the little donkey turned and ran with the wind and over the next three hours we moved back out the exact way I had rowed so hard the day before to get into. When daylight broke this morning I was at least feeling safer from the shipping traffic but frustrated I am stuck in an invisible current system with adverse winds holding me and now pushing me back to the position I was in on day two.
Today is bad wind all day and then tomorrow it will improve with a swing to the north for 48 hours. So I am trying to get some rest today in anticipation for a big push to break through this spot and make it to just below Sydney where I can hopefully turn east and head home.
I am focussing hard on making the best decisions I can hour by hour, day after day. Being alone out here is a massive test of my character and ability and I pray I will have the strength and fortune to break trough this difficult patch in the next three days. The stress of being close to the shipping channels and the shore in a highly unmaneurable craft all alone is considerable.
Hello from the Tasman Sea!
What a ride it has been, mainly rough and windy so far. I departed Coff’s at 0700 on day one with a stiff Northerly breeze and it took all my concentration to get safely out of the marina, then a hard left hand turn with the next challenge to get out the harbor entrance between two rock breakwaters. With a 2m swell pumping in through the breakwater walls it was an exciting row out, and I worked hard for one hour to make my way far enough out to clear a small island just south of the entrance. I then waved goodbye to the boat with Alistair and Rob Hamill who had come out to film, and turned the Donkey south. The northerly breeze helped push us along nicely and the plan was to find the EAC (East Australian current) which is a strong south setting current. As the day wore on the wind picked up from the north and after lunch was 20 knots. This combined with the current saw us pumping along at 3 knots. All up I rowed for 5 hours through the day before it got too windy. I knew that on Friday night a strong southerly stormy front with lots of rain was coming so had planned to pull into a protected bay called Trial bay 35nm south from Coff’s BUT we moved so fast that 8pm that evening I was pushed past Trial Bay and started looking for options further down the coast. I was only 4nm offshore passing Trial Bay and was nervous being this close to shore as darkness hit in the strong winds.
That night was a bumpy and wild ride. I caught a few 50 minute blocks of sleep but kept a close eye on our position, proximity to shore and vessel traffic. The wind turned to NW in the night – and increased to 25 knots so we were really flying along without even rowing. With the change in wind we started moving away from shore, and before I knew it at 0300hrs day two were 20nm offshore. I carefully climbed onto the back deck in the darkness and wind and re-trimmed the rudder to try and run due south as didn’t want to be too far offshore to stay in the current streams.
On Day 2 – the wind started to drop through to lunchtime. The sea flattened out and I rowed for 5 hours until my back was sore. The boat feels heavy and I will take a few days to get into the swing of rowing for long periods. In the afternoon the wind swung lightly to the South and it started to rain. I was too far offshore now to find a safe bay to hide from the storm so no choice but to weather it at sea. I rowed until 1500hrs then started to prepare the boat for the southerly front coming at 1700. I made water for 24 hours, prepared food in the cabin, ate a last hot meal and lashed everything down on deck securely before deploying the para anchor. It was bumpy night with wind hitting 30 knots and a large amount of rain. I slept in a few 30 min blocks and kept a close eye on the shipping traffic. At 0300 I noticed on the AIS a huge 220m long vessel 12nm heading strait for me. 8nm away I managed to raise them on the radio and they had me on their AIS and gave me a 2nm clearance. It scared me and I could not sleep for the remainder of the night. The biggest threat over this next few days is shipping traffic and I will be much happier once I am out of this shipping channel.
Emotionally I have been in a roller coaster. From excitement at leaving to dread and apprehension at what waits before me. A few tears have been shed, and I have not yet experienced the glory of being out here so eagerly waiting for that to come!
Love Captain Axe.