We all like to tell tales of adventure and daring and more often than not, we tell the ones that finish with success, especially if they include a few ups and downs along they way. That emotional rollercoaster ride, after all, is what makes a good story. However, if a journey goes to plan and nothing bad happens, it's easy to underestimate the dangers you were lucky enough to avoid. This is why I think that failed expeditions are just as important, if not more so, than the successful ones. Providing of course, that we learn from our mistakes and try not to make the same mistake twice. Here's a story of one of my failed adventures, and the valuable lesson I took from it.
It all started when my mate Ben approached me a few years ago for advice. He was preparing to row across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Sydney. He'd just managed to buy a boat and wanted to do a training (shakedown) trip.
I suggested Bass Strait since it's close, and short enough to only take a week or two. But, also because it's a pretty wild stretch of water separating the Australian mainland from Tasmania.
Adventurers tend to know each other and when our friend Margaret Bowling caught wind of the trip she was keen to join as well. Margaret has rowed across the Atlantic twice so we didn't hesitate in getting her on board. From there the three of us planned out a last minute trip. We spent a week down at Ben's house, working 20 hour days to get his boat up to scratch—putting in oars, painting, buying supplies and pretty much everything one needs to do before rowing across a large body of water.
The boat is only 7 meters long. The front third and back third are covered cabins. The forward cabin houses our gear and supplies and the larger aft cabin is for us. Larger is a bit misleading though. It's fine for one person, two people becomes a squeeze, but with three people you
almost have to be spooning.
The middle of the boat is open for rowing. The idea is to always have one person rowing. Don't let the boat stop, always keep chugging along. At night two people sleep, one person rows and you rotate in shifts.
The conditions were beautiful to start. We left at 4:00am and rowed into the sunrise from a remote boat ramp in Wilsons Promontory National Park. The water was perfectly flat and next to no wind. We got straight into our routine: eat, sleep, row, repeat, and we were making quite good headway. But, just two days into the expedition we ran into some interesting weather.
We knew there was bad weather coming, but the boats were designed to handle much worse. The boats themselves can tumble around, they can hit waves, capsize and flip back up again. The dangerous thing is if they hit land. Basically, if you hit something that's not water, that's bad. We thought if we rowed for a few days before the weather was meant to turn, we'd be far enough from the nearest bit of land and would be fine. What we didn't anticipate was how big the storm was.
Bass Strait is a quite a shallow stretch of water and the waves that are going through there are coming straight off the Southern Ocean which is between 4-6km deep. So, you've got these big rolling swells undulating through the Southern Ocean and then they suddenly hit Bass Strait—it's like hitting a sand bank at the beach. The waves get really big and steep, but they also break — and that's why it's such a dangerous stretch of water.
In the middle of the night, with winds gusting to 50 knots and waves cresting at 30-40ft, we all decided to put out the sea anchor, tie up the oars and lock ourselves in the cabin.
We were all tumbling around inside together. This was not unexpected and we were prepared for such things. We surrounded ourselves with padded bags and things.
Throughout the night, we'd all be shuffled to the left of the boat then shuffled to the right, then up to the roof of the boat and then back down to the floor. It's pretty violent actually, when you get hit by enormous waves like that.
Then with a load crack, a wave crashed into the side of the boat, capsizing it in a second, sending the three of us onto the roof. The boat righted itself almost instantly and we set about assessing the situation. Everybody was mostly unharmed, except Ben who broke his elbow in the capsize.
Needless to say it was a sleepless night. There's actually a lot of rocks around that stretch of water which is what we were most worried about. There's not much you can do. Just hope.
After the storm cleared it was sunny again with beautiful calm weather. The waves were still big, but they were just rolling through. We gave Ben some pain killers and wrapped him up best we could.
We still had some oars that didn't break and Margaret and I continued rowing whilst Ben recovered in the cabin. After speaking with the AMSA doctors we decided to row towards the nearest island where we could land and Ben could get medical attention. But, Victoria Police said they were already on their way and offered to come and pick us up. Eight hours later, we were aboard 'Fearless' with the row boat in tow.
In the context of rowing across the Pacific Ocean we thought we'd smash this little trip together and it'll be great. Sure, we did everything by the book. We had all the right gear, expertise, team, safety systems and alerted the right people what we were doing. But the mistake I made, which I will not do again, is to have a rigid time schedule. We'd booked return flights and took only the bare minimum time off work. This put us in the position of having a set departure date, and if we delayed more than a day, the trip was off. This meant we were under a fair amount of pressure to leave on time. The result was that we took risks and overlooked concerns we might have otherwise avoided. When rolling around in a tiny little row boat with mountainous waves sending the boat flying a few hundred meters at a time, with rocks sticking out of the water around us, we pretty much had to cross our fingers and hope for the best. When stuck in this situation, having to delay the trip for another time seems like a smart choice.