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Big Decisions on the Southern Tasman – No Place For Ego

Great white sharks, capsize, breaking waves, gale force winds, a few big ships, gut feelings, night’s so black it feels your eyes are closed, beautiful whales, pods of dolphins, mental battles, big decisions and a lifetime of experiences packed into eight days and nights.  That’s a brief snapshot of my third attempt to row the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand and finish off the Rowing from Home to Home expedition.

What had I learnt from the second attempt? Whilst Simpson’s Donkey is a beautiful little boat she is not ideally suited to the gale force winds and breaking sea’s of the southern ocean. Although very fast in following seas and high winds, if you don’t have her tightly reined she can roll. In order to manage this risk for round 3, I decided to bring another rowing partner with me. This decision was made at short notice and fortunately Luke Richmond, an Australian adventurer who had previously rowed the Atlantic in a four-person team and whom I have known for some years was ready and able to join. With two people onboard, I figured we could always have someone on deck/on watch and managing the donkey – keeping her lined up with the waves.

Under the cover of a beautiful twilight, Luke and I rowed out of Twofold Bay in the small town of Eden in the south of Australia on Saturday 10 November at 1940 hrs.  The weather patterns over the previous few weeks had shown high pressure systems tracking over the Bass Strait then onwards to central New Zealand.  We planned to drop south to between latitude 40 – 41 degrees then catch the underside of these high pressure systems which have the most westerly component of winds (High pressure systems are great anti-clockwise circulating masses of air – so you need to be in the correct position relative to the centre of the system to get the winds you desire).

By day three we were settling into the permanent state of semi-exhaustion of 2 hour on/ 2 hour off shift patterns and were making good progress south.  Luke has been visited by a great white shark during one of his shifts which in his words “messed up my rowing technique for a few minutes!”. Whales, dolphins and sea birds were also in abundance.

We were approximately in the centre of Bass Strait when the winds started to really pick up above 30 knots on the morning of day 3.  This was also the time Luke shared with me an honest reflection of his feelings. He had a seemingly unshakable premonition that this expedition was not going to end well and possibly could be his last.  He couldn’t explain why he felt like this and had never had these feelings before.  For a guy who base jumps, has rowed across the Atlantic, wandered across the Mongolian desert and been a professional soldier they were not to be taken lightly.  After all, gut feelings and instinct are a very important part of decision-making.  They are effectively pattern recognition, and the more experienced you are, the more reliable your gut feelings will be as your brain matches your situation to the most similar experiences from the past it can find.

We discussed Luke’s feelings and what could be possibly contributing to them. I thought it may have something to do with adjusting to the conditions which were very different to what he had been accustomed to on the Atlantic.  Luke shared that the Tasman conditions already on day three, were much worse than what he had experienced on the entire 50+ day Atlantic crossing.  We agreed to continue with the expedition, but take things hour by hour, day by day.

During the afternoon of day 3 – the winds were really howling, and the sea had started to build into the dangerous state where waves were breaking “like a pack of wild dogs” as Luke described it. We were surfing along at a great clip, averaging between 3 – 4 knots.  During my two-hour shift in the early afternoon we got caught by a wave that formed right over us.  It steepened so quickly, into a vertical wall of water, that literally exploded right over the boat.  I sat on the back deck, entirely submerged in an angry bubbling churning mess as the boat literally took off as if rockets had been ignited under her stern. The GPS died at 15 knots, the screen literally going dead – unable to cope with the massive increase in speed and energy. The power of the sea was incredible and the wave felt like it broke twice with a second surge smashing us onwards a few seconds after the main one broke.  If I had not had the Donkey lined up perfectly she could have been rolled over and over, multiple times – a sobering proposition for someone sitting on the back deck.

After this incident I immediately threw a 20m rope off the stern with 5 large knots tied in it. This acted as a drogue (brake) and slowed the boat down. It worked well and would pull the boat off the back of the waves, instead of allowing it to surf along in front of them. I felt much more in control to the point towards the end of my shift I felt the sea calming somewhat and decided to pull the rope back in.

After changing shift with Luke, I was dozing in the cabin, when I heard a roar of water and at the same time I was thrown upside down on the roof of the cabin as the boat rolled over. This was by now my fifth time capsizing in three attempts to cross the Tasman and is becoming a familiar experience.

Looking out through the back hatch – my view-point was now underwater as we are upside down.  My first thought was for poor Luke who had been on the deck.  Where was he?  I couldn’t see him initially.  I heard water entering the cabin and frantically searched for its origin – one of the handles on the main hatch was slightly ajar – I quickly closed that off and the water stopped. Peering out the back hatch again I finally saw Luke’s legs under the water, he was swimming, I noticed his safety line was still tethered to the boat and this line was now stopping us from self-righting. He then did the only thing he could do in the circumstances – reach up and unclip the line from the boat to allow us to flip-up again. As he released his safety line it was critical he maintained contact with the boat, and no large waves did not wash him away.  He swam around the stern out of my sight.  I felt a brief wave of panic he may have let go of the boat.  What I couldn’t see was him grabbing the rudder and helping to pull the boat back over so we popped up on the surface again. I jumped out onto the deck and we soon had Luke back in the boat.  With watchful eyes on rogue breaking waves we quickly had the mess in the front cabin sorted, the para-anchor deployed and the boat back under control.  Luke changed into dry clothes in the warmth of the cabin and it was time to take stock.

Back in the cabin Luke described the events leading to the capsize. The wave had steepened on him and broke very quickly as it had for me on the previous shift. And it had picked the stern of the boat to a point he thought we were going to pitch pole (end over end). Only at the last-minute did she roll over on her side instead. If we had pitch-poled, then the whole boat would have come down on him.  As it was he was initially trapped with his feet in the rowing shoes underneath the boat before he could free himself. His life vest had worked as designed and auto-inflated however this was more of a hindrance than a help in the circumstances.

Whilst the Donkey is designed to handle rolling over and self-righting which she has proven she can a number of times, it’s one thing taking a capsize while safely ensconced in the cabin, but it escalates the risk factor tremendously having someone on deck while rolling in heavy sea’s and even worse is pitch poling.   And this clearly was not going to be an isolated incident. The conditions on day three were not yet as bad as I had experienced on my previous attempts and we would be highly prone to rolling/pitch polling as the conditions worsened during the next few weeks of the crossing. Ultimately the risk of a rower being hurt during a capsize while on the back deck or being separated from the vessel was now higher than I was prepared to take.  It was a joint decision as we turned the boat and started heading the 130 nm (around 200km) back to the mainland.

Of course with the winds and currents in this part of the world and their highly variable nature – it was no forgone conclusion that we would indeed be able to get back to shore under our own steam. Some people place their trust in god – we placed ours in ‘Clouds’ a.k.a Roger Badham the expedition meteorologist. Through a series of 160 character text messages through the sat comm system – he first assured us he was confident he could get us into shore somewhere, then during the next five days and nights following his information and instructions, combined with rowing our guts out and some strategic use of the para anchor – we made it back into mainland Australia – rowing right up to the jetty in Mallacoota – a small Bay frequently is known for its wild breaking surf landing. But this day it was calm as a millpond.

Luke’s parents were waiting with a boat trailer – and we soon had the Donkey out of the water, dried and tidied and ready for storage.  Over the course of the next ten days – the trend of high pressure systems flowing through Bass Strait changed and a nasty low pressure cell developed with gale force winds and big angry sea’s, which would have made life very miserable had we been out on the water.  The weather in this part of the world is proving very hard to predict and as for getting across the ditch – it’s back to the drawing board. Any idea’s are very welcome.  One way or the other we need to finish the job off.

But first let’s enjoy Christmas and some R&R with the family.

Thanks for following folks.

Love Captain Axe

Enjoy the cartoon courtesy of Sarah Steenland!


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