• Heather Taylor

Ten days at sea

A critical part of training is experiencing the actual conditions of the ocean row - waves, winds, endless water and isolation. Thankfully, the shape and conditions of the coast of southwest Western Australia allowed me to spend two trips of five days in open ocean conditions with little logistical effort. Trip 1 - unfortunately, quite realistic! Trip 2 - a little better....

Trip 1: 8 - 12 January

I set off from Dunborough on Wednesday afternoon having logged on to sea rescue. Said goodbye to my sister who kindly drove me down and rowed away in paradise-like conditions.

I had already begun to soak my dehydrated food for dinner to minimise cooking time, but at about 6 pm the spewing began and dinner didn't get eaten. Having thought I didn't get seasick, I was proven wrong in the next 48 hours.

I slowly made my way to bed for the first time on the open water, which involved pulling in the rudder, putting out the parachute anchor and changing into drier clothes. While fairly straight forward, it takes a while when you're feel horrible and laying down makes it better. A minute or two is spent contemplating the task of taking off a layer of clothes while lying there, then another minute, and then maybe another one mustering up the "energy" to do the task. I say energy for a lack of a better word as mostly the thought is "do this as quick as possible so you can lay down again" (or else it's over the side of the boat again). This process even occurred for the simple task of turning off the switches that I couldn't reach with my toes. Thus the first night began.

It is surprising loud at night. The strong, yet thin fibre glass walls makes it sound like the water might be inside the boat (do I check the compartment below ?...). The sea anchor does its job holding the narrow stern into the waves, but it also means that the boat is yanked down hard with a large "boom" each time a large wave pass through. Then there are the side waves that are sudden explosions on the cabin wall followed by a massive rock. It was even louder the next night when the forecast was "rough seas".

Thursday began with some mental motivation to get out and row as I was still in view of land. An easterly breeze and icky feeling delayed my start until about 11 am. Admittedly, I was quite content to stay laying in the cabin as seasickness had nicely settled in. I was able to get out an row for half an hour in early afternoon once the winds changed directions. I realised however when I took a break that the boat seemed to be moving about the same amount in the wind whether I was rowing or not (see yellow dots). So I spent most of the day horizontal in the cabin, sending everything I ate and drank overboard. Seasickness tablets if you're wondering are only effective if you can keep them down.

Friday began slowly as well with the easterly winds pushing me out to sea overnight and into the morning. I got out on deck to row mid-afternoon, not at my best. I was able to eat a can of tuna around 3 pm and it seemed to be turning point. I had not kept anything down for the last 48 hours, but it stayed in me! I still felt pretty bad and didn't getting much more in beyond soda crackers. But as you can see on the map I made some progress rowing for a few hours.

That night as the conditions were with me, I decided to not put out the sea anchor as I didn't want to stop the progress. Unfortunately, when I saw the direction change on the GPS at 1 am that night, I thought I wouldn't drift that far....not true :( I chucked the anchor out around 5-6 am when I saw I had gone ~20-25 km west.

While waiting for the east winds to die on the Sat morning, I encountered by first boat which set off the AIS alarm (Automatic Identification System). Like the old school red digital alarm clock, this alarm too makes you leap up in an instant, not because it's crazy loud, but because of what it means - there's a ship out there that's on a collision course with your track.

The display of a little broken ship with an "X" across it is a bit dramatic once you realise it's not actually going to collide with you. But the alarm reactivating each minute or so after you turn it off keeps you alert and staring at the ship through the hatch until it goes by, just in case it changes course.

Being in a human-powered boat, there's not really much of a chance of getting out of the way in high winds as they set the boat's direction. On the second trip a cruise ship set it the alarm off at night while I was in high winds. Knowing there was no point in going out on deck to try rowing, I just watched as it went by and hoped it was altering its course to avoid me. Probably got with in 1-2 km of the ship but not to the point of needing to radio the ship.

After the morning encounter, I got out the oars and put in the first real day of rowing, facing the extra 20 km the winds had to added to the counter. The other exciting first that day was my first proper meal of the trip - packet alfredo! This photo is one of the few that I managed to take on the trip.

I will admit that up until the Saturday I was nearing the point of questioning my life choices. Not a lot of rowing was happening and the viability of the trip was questionable as seasickness had done some serious damage. I was pretty dehydrated and it was far from fun. Had I not been blown out to sea, I may have gotten back to land in fours day thinking, "..maybe not..". But having an actual meal followed by an evening of rowing with the wind behind me was a good tonic.

The Sunday continued the mission of getting east towards land. Thankfully I was able to hold ground over night and started making my way around 10:30 am. I pretty much just kept on rowing all day with short snack breaks - crackers and cans of tuna - as I still wasn't super into any of the food I brought - all very dry.

I could see the number of kilometers I still had to cover before getting into Fremantle and the afternoon was moving on. I was supposed to work the next day, so I called a friend as he'd previously offered to be on stand-by for tow if I ever needed one. He was unavailable but arranged for someone else to come. Unfortunately by the time they found me darkness had set in, and the swell had picked up a lot over the afternoon - about 5 m peak to trough. The waves were doing the sucking-water-up motion at the base and then the wall of water would move towards me. The boat just went over the waves so it was more the nerves that got slightly rattled. It's quite comforting to know the boat has survived a hurricane already and handled these waves well.

By the time the boat arrived it was pretty rough and get the tow line done took a while. It was about 30-40 minutes later that I heard a call over the radio saying "Wave Dancer, this is 'tow boat'. What is your position?". Huh? Aren't you towing me? How don't you know?? A few hours later after being found again, the tow line (better) secured and a slow ride in, we pulled into Fremantle Sailing Club at 3 am. My sister Steph who had patiently waited for 4 hours in the dark parking lot drove me home to bed.

Trip 2: 9 - 13 February

The second trip had the goal of simply being better than the previous one. Eat more and stay hydrated. I had lost two kilos the first trip. I also wanted to test out a few things I didn't do last time, like showering.

After taking Steph for her first ocean row, I headed off around 10 am on the Sunday morning. The seasickness hit bang on 6 hours in. It's a different kind of vomiting if you've never experienced proper seasickness, much stronger and happens even if there's nothing in your stomach. So I tried to keep food and water of any kind in so it didn't hurt as bad. I still feel the first night was still better than the first trip, perhaps because I knew what to expect. The cruise ship visit was a little close buy our paths didn't cross in the end.

As luck would have it, this trip was also marked by a patch of strong easterly winds again. So the Monday morning was spent in the cabin waiting out the wind while being seasick. The easterly winds seemed to take ages to die out and turn in the right direction that it didn't really seem worth it rowing in my seasick state. I just patiently watched the eventual sea breeze come in and move the little boat shape in the right direction on the GPS

screen, and finally chuck out the sea anchor when the winds shifted again.

While I had worked out a better system of deploying the sea anchor this trip - no tangles - but I wasn't quite sure it opened properly that night because it was a bit too easy to pull it in the next morning and I had gone quite a ways out overnight. Thankfully I woke up feeling normal as my body had adjusted. I had also done better at eating and drinking. I brought along ginger beer this time around, so I was able to get some liquid calories absorbed before it departed my system the way it entered.

Being so far west at this point and every morning lost to the wind, I decided my best option was to head for land as soon as I could. I got the oars out and made the slow progress eastward 30 nm to Mandurah. I had a proper lunch and dinner as it was easy to cook on the relatively flat water. I rowed well into the evening to make the most of the neutral conditions (no real seabreeze) as I knew the dreaded easterly winds would push me back out again. I got to 16 nm to waypoint and then had a quick bucket shower while three ships glided passed me several kilometers in the distance (cruise ship again).

As you can see from the map, the wind did a wonderful job of pushing me backwards about 8 km (4 nm) overnight. The first of many loops I'll encounter I'm sure. My goal was to make land (20nm) by that night. The weather pattern shifted so I was aided by a strong seabreeze (18-20 knots) and subsequent swell.

As it started to get dark, I saw lightening the distance to the south. I made a quick call to my sailing guru to see if I was ok to be out on deck. A tall sailing mast is much worse, but carbon fibre oars could pose a problem if it did get close, which it never did. It was the black water that made me decide to give up and wait until morning. I had been rowing on both trips in near full moon conditions so I could usually see the waves coming. But with the cloud cover, the water became black with bit of frothy white wash. I couldn't discern when a wave was going to hit the boat. While not too rough, it was enough for me decide it wasn't worth it. So begrudgingly I got into the cabin.

This was probably the most disheartening and frustrating moment. Getting close to see the lights on shore and not being able to get in. I knew the easterly winds had made the trip much longer than necessary. I had an event on the follow evening, and now with likely having to wait out morning winds, I'd be pushing it to get there in time. I had also got close enough to land to get normal mobile phone signal so I let my parents know it would be a morning rendezvous. Thankfully, one difference with this trip and the big one is that I don't need to be anywhere at a specific time.

I made one emergency repair as my radar pole fell over an hour after I'd gone to bed. Nice to know I can manage to get geared up and out on deck in rough-ish weather.

At 4 am on the Thursday I woke to the gentle lapping of water on the side of the boat. I decided to get going before the wrong winds picked up and I had ways to go. My seat seemed to keep breaking every 10 minutes or so. While annoying, it also was the time I took quick snack and water breaks so I didn't have to stop. If you've been wondering what's occupying my mind while rowing, mostly Harry Potter audio books ;) Music only gets you so far.

I made it Mandurah by noon with the sea breeze helping the last two hours. I thought it would be a bit more sheltered when I came around the breakwater, but the wind seemed to pick up and push me towards the rocks on the other side. I made a truly desparate plea to small boat passing by, basically throwing my rope at him as I asked for help. He just saved me from hitting the rocks. A Swiss tourist captured the rescue moment and emailed the photos through the next day!

I must thank the many unknown strangers in WA boats who've rescued me in high winds. I didn't learn who this was as he had to drop in a shallow bay near a marina as he couldn't come in any further.

Unfortunately, the delightfully strong winds made a mission of getting the boat off the water at the private marina (Dad had to sweet talk getting the gate opened). We also ended up having a slightly terrifying swim with the boat trying to get it to the dock/ramp in the wind (my fear for the boat mainly and injuring my father somehow). But alas, we got it on the trailer and headed back to Perth.

Reflecting on the two trips, I would say they did a good job preparing me for the big trip. One hopeful thing that I've since learned is that I may be able to avoid the seasickness horror by increasing the frequency of tablets taken initially. Stop the first wave of it and I may be able to avoid it. Beyond creating a few more little routines, there isn't much more to test out I've been told after a good few days on the open water. The unexpected will still be the unexpected despite the back ups for back ups.