Monday, 20 February, 2012
12:30AM – Saturday the 28th Jan. It’s cold and I’m tired and anxious. We are only a few hours away from high tide at Walkerville South, our only chance to launch the boat into the water, and I’m still using power tools in the middle of the night at my house. I’m putting the last finishing touches on the boat. Screwing the last nuts and bolts in, and throwing in the food bags into the spare hatches that are going to last myself and two other crew members 2 weeks at sea, as we attempt to row across Bass Strait and down to Hobart, on my first official sea trial…..
Skipper Margaret Bowling (32), Adventurer Clark Carter (27) and myself were supposed to leave on my sea trials in preparation for my Pacific row on Australia Day, but due to bad weather we had to wait an extra two days. We probably needed it too as there was always something to be done, or something extra that we wanted attached to the boat! After the late morning scramble, at 5:10AM we finally made it to ‘Walkerville South’, about 3 hours out of Melbourne. Once again, everything was rushed. The high tide was receding fast and we had about a 10 minute window to get the boat into the water before we had to wait until the next high tide -12hrs later. Dad reversed the trailer down the concrete boat ramp and hit the sandy beach which was supposed to be still covered in water. “We are going to have to push it through the sand the last few meters!” Someone yelled out. We quickly unhooked it from the car and pushed the 1000kg boat on its trailer through the tough sand and finally into the water. As the swell of the waves kept lifting, so did the boat. It gracefully lifted off of the trailer and was finally where she belonged – in the ocean.
It floats. That’s a really good sign! I quickly hugged my mum and dad goodbye on the beach and swam out to where Clark was holding the boat steady. The 3 of us clambered on board like wet seals and at 5:30AM we had the oars unleased and were rowing into the rising sun.
The next couple of days were something short of amazing. We got into a shift routine straight away which revolved around a 2 hours on, one hour off process, and with one 4 hour break somewhere in the middle of the day. Very demanding, but adrenalin took over as it was so great to finally have the boat on the water after a year of getting it ready. The first time at the oars by myself were probably my favourite. I was rowing down the west coast of Wilson Prom. and out into the start of Bass Strait. The sun was setting and we were blessed with this beautiful pink sunset sparkling down on the calm seas. I had to stop rowing for a couple of minutes and take it all in. Take in everything that this meant. The lead up to this point and why it is that I found myself in a row boat in the middle of an ocean. The people that inspired it all. It was a special moment.
Night time at sea was a very interesting. You couldn’t see too far in front of you and it was hard to tell how big the waves were especially with the moon not being very full. I had to rely on my senses to guide me and very quickly had to learn to ‘feel’ the waves coming. We were lucky. The first night was quite calm and so was the second. The stars were shining so bright yet we were still so close to the coastline and the light pollution of the city. I couldn’t wait to get away from the coast and see the stars in all their glory. On my first night shift with Clark, I realised something strange was happening to my oars. They were glowing green! Every time I pushed them through the water, a trail of glowing green sparkles would flow behind them. It was plankton which are tiny living organisms that drift in the oceans. When they are disturbed, they glow. At a couple of stages during the night we would even have a small wave wash them onto the decking and we would have little green worm like sparkles surrounding us to keep us company.
This was life at sea, and this was for me! It was so beautiful out there, not just during the night but also in the day time as well. We would have dolphins swim up next to the boat and try and impress us with their aerial tricks. The birds would swoop around fishing for their lunch in the swells and we came across these beautiful green-grey rain clouds that spotted themselves along the horizon. We started to get comfortable in our surroundings.
But on Monday afternoon, things started to get wild. The seas and winds were slowly beginning to pick up. Clark was at the oars by himself and Margaret and I were in the cabin. Clark knocked on our door indicating that he needed to talk. We swung the door open and the first words out of his mouth were “I think we may need to put the drogue out. I’m struggling to keep her straight.” The drogue is a piece of equipment that you put out the back out the boat to keep you from being rolled upside down. It keeps you straight with the waves so that they keep rolling underneath the boat from back to front as opposed to hitting us from the side. Basically it was just a big underwater parachute. Clark was right too, because no more than two minutes after he said that, we were smashed by a wave from the side of the boat. I say, we, but really it was Clark who was smashed. Margaret and I were still safe inside the cabin. Clark on the other hand disappeared! The wave completely engulfed him and when he emerged again a couple of seconds later, he was looking like a drowned little puppy trying to hold on. “Ok, time to put out the drogue then?”
To give you an indication as to how powerful these waves were getting, the first drogue we put out snapped off its line in about 3 minutes of being deployed. Lucky we had two! We put the second one out, tied everything on the decking down like our oars, and had to take shelter inside the cabin. This was the first time all three of us had been inside the cabin together and as you can imagine, after 4 days of being at sea rowing a boat together, it was rather wet and smelly. It was so hard to find a comfortable position to sleep in as well. There was always something digging into my back somewhere or my leg would cramp and I would have to try and roll myself into another position. Our heads were all at the cabin door with our legs down the back of the boat. Looking up at the ceiling, Clark was on the left, I was on the right and Margaret was wedged in between us. During the night the seas started to get bigger and bigger. You could actually feel and hear the rush of the waves through the thin walls of the boat. There’s absolutely no way I felt comfortable going outside onto the decking even with a safety line on. However, sometimes nature calls……
To give you a bit of a back story, Margaret and Clark have been on many expeditions in the past with other people, and during that time they had to join the very prestigious group called ‘the pooing in front of other people group’. I was yet to join. I had a bit of a phobia of having to do my business whilst someone was rowing a foot away from the bucket I was using as a toilet. So on the night of day 3, rolling around in high seas, it probably wasn’t the best time for me to enter the group that I feared. Initiation by fire? Margaret suggested that instead of holding it, I just brave the decking and just go outside. Every excuse used was, “this will be good training for you.” So I worked up the nerve to step outside into the night. It was absolutely CRAZY! The winds were so strong that they stung my skin and because the moon seemed to be a bit brighter on this night, all you could see were these HUGE rolling swells. The boat was riding them so well that I couldn’t help but be a little impressed. Each time the boat got to the top of a wave, the yellow moon which was quite high in the sky would be very visible, and then a second later it would disappear as we flew down the side of another giant wave. There was no way I was going to be able to physically sit down and go to the toilet in this, but without getting too graphic, I still managed to….. do a tinkle under the twinkling stars. That makes it sound quite easy. But I can assure you, when you have 60 knot howling winds and waves that are trying to knock you off your balance, things can get messy. Word of advice, if you ever find yourself in this position, just make sure you know which way the wind is blowing!
I turned back around to the safety of the cabin and had to stop and take it all in. I grabbed a safety bar to stable myself and watched in awe for a couple more minutes. The winds were spraying me with icy cold water as the boat rolled like a rollercoaster in the seas. At this stage, the entire decking was glowing green from the plankton being washed onto it with each huge wave. The sight of these huge seas at night was very impressive and I started to feel very small in comparison to them and I knew then that they were letting me know who was boss. Back into the safety of the smelly cramped cabin.
We rode out these seas for the entire night with not much rest between us. But during the early hours of the morning, the howling winds felt like they had calmed down and from what I could tell, the waves didn’t seem as large. With this secure feeling, I finally managed to close my eyes and almost fall asleep. Almost.
BOOM! It felt like a semi trailer had just hit us in the side of the boat! The impact was so loud and hard that it woke me up out of my daze – fast! Our whole world turned upside down – literally. We rolled down the side of the 9 metre wave, equipment and profanities flying around the cabin with us as the boat rolled over. When everything seemed to be facing the right way up again, I looked at Margaret in shock – “You’re boat rolls Ben!” Margaret smiled. I looked over at Clark who had every piece of equipment that was in the cabin covering him from head to toe. He started passing my belonging back to me and that’s when I realised I was looking down towards him, like he was at the bottom of a hill, and I was struggling to keep my position on my side of the cabin. “The boat is listing!” I yelled. “Quick, start re-distributing the weight back over to my side!”
We started grabbing our heavy dry bags and pulling them back over to my side of the boat as it continued to get knocked around by large banging waves. That’s when I realised something was wrong. I lifted a bag up with my left arm and it completely gave way with a pain shooting from my elbow in both directions to my hand and up to my shoulder. I grabbed another bag and the same thing happened. “Umm, I may or may not have just broken my arm guys.”
I knew then and there in that dark cramped cabin at 5 o’clock in the morning, whether my arm was broken or not, that that was probably going to be the end of my rowing for this trip. Little did I know 15hrs from then, I would be riding in a police boat back to Victoria’s mainland to a troop of waiting media.
It’s funny how quickly everything had changed. One of the first things we did after treating my injury was phone AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Association). We had been in contact with them before we left letting them know of our plans to row to Hobart and the direction that we were taking. This phone call was just to let them know that our plans had now changed and that we were now rowing to either Deal Island or to Flinders Island to drop me off. Clark and Margaret were planning on continuing the trip. We got a phone call a couple hours later notifying us that the Victorian Water Police were called and they were on route to pick us up even though we hadn’t asked to be rescued. I then made a decision that we should finish the row together, and that when the water police came to pick me up, that Margaret and Clark should come back with me and we would get the completely undamaged boat towed back with us.
The notorious and treacherous Bass Strait had beaten us, well, it had beaten my arm. Having said that, it gave me such a reassurance to know that even though my boat was in 9 metre swells (waves the size of a two storey building), 60knot winds and had taken a massive beating including a capsize, it came out completely undamaged. It did what it was designed to do which is withstand every condition up to and including a hurricane. In my opinion, even though we didn’t make it to Hobart, the sea trials were a success. They tested my skills and the boats endurance to their limits and from that, I have learnt some very valuable lessons which I will take with me into the Pacific.
The big question is now what do I do about my arm, and what fate will that bring to my Pacific row? At this stage, it is uncertain whether or not I’ll be able to have my arm ready to be able to leave in April this year and worst case scenario means that I’ll have to wait until the next weather window, a year later. But for those people who know me, when I have a setback in life, that doesn’t mean that I will just roll over and give up. It just makes me push even harder to overcome the situation and get back on track. Plus, I have a huge inspiration to keep me motivated to see this journey through to the end. When I was out on my sea trials and I was feeling exhausted from rowing non-stop, all I had to do was grab this tiny watch-compass that I had with me at all times. It was given to me by a CF family from Perth. On the back of it, it has engraved the names of a little boy with cystic fibrosis and his younger sister who always helps him prepare his meds. Those two names represent 3000 other names in Australia. And looking at that is all I need to keep me going. To never give up, and to put the question on the lips of every other Australian “what is cystic fibrosis?” Which in a bittersweet sort of way from these sea trials, we manage to do.