Waves surrendered their foaming crests to the sky, sheared off and carried in the wind to hammer against the hull of the small boat like nails tossed from a speeding car. The crackling surface seethed and thrashed at the gunwales, licked the scuppers, and water lobbed into the cockpit.
The storm front had hit with unexpected ferocity just two days into Shaun Quincey’s historic solo row from Australia to New Zealand. Confined to a cabin the size of a Port-a-loo, he could do little but peer out of the Perspex hatch and watch as waves 14 metres high rose over the bow of his seven-metre boat Tasman Trespasser II. He was shaken like a bug in a can for 42 hours.
Since then, he has been rowing towards New Zealand, gradually reeling in the 2300 kilometres between Coff’s Harbour and Taranaki. The solo row across the Tasman Sea has been achieved only once before, by his father Colin, who rowed from Hokianga Harbour to Marcus Beach in Queensland in 1977.
Shaun Quincey’s introduction to rowing began with a lie. At age 13, when asked at Takapuna Grammar School if he had ever rowed before, he said he had. It was a white lie, to be fair—“how hard could it be?”—and in any case the muscular young Quincey felt some sense of entitlement to the sport, as if his father’s solo row across the Tasman in 1977 somehow ran in his blood.
Just days later, he sat unsteadily in the sliding seat of a rowing eight on the start line of a race down the Waikato River, and promptly realised that whatever genetic predisposition he may have inherited from his father, it was woefully inadequate for the task ahead.
“I caught about 10 crabs in that race,” he admits wryly, referring to the slingshot effect created when a budding though technically incompetent rower makes an enormous divot in the river and is nearly tossed out of the boat by his own oar. “We didn’t do so well in that race.”
He went on to row competitively for a decade in surf boats, taking on the seas as they lashed the shore of Auckland’s west coast. But that sense of entitlement, ownership, of the Tasman never waned. “I’ve just always needed to do it,” is the resigned explanation.
When tandem kayakers James Castrission and Justin Jones arrived at Ngamotu Beach near New Plymouth on January 13, 2008, after crossing the Tasman in 62 days, Quincey watched on with intense jealousy. “If someone rowed it solo from Australia, I’d feel like something had been taken from me,” he says. “It’s personal. It’s mine to row. And until I’ve done it, everyone else can back off.”
When given breath, this intense internal monologue of the jovial, benign, utterly endearing Quincey seemed to surprise both of us—a tight knot of ambition buried deep in his psyche, a knot only the Tasman can work loose.
His father carried that same burden of wanderlust. Quincey’s parents broke up when he was just six and his father moved south, then to Tonga, Cambodia and finally Darwin, chasing the same fickle desires of the soul that urged him to row over the Hokianga Bar and out to sea in 1977. And into the void of an absent father young Quincey threw his dreams, vowing to emulate his dad’s crossing, but in the opposite direction. Instead of rowing away, Quincey would row home, as if towing 30 years of family history back to where it belonged.
“I’ve always respected Dad,” he says. “What he achieved was a world first, and it hasn’t been done since, and I guess I’ve always looked up to that.”
The project has meant hours of quizzing his father about that achievement in forensic detail, a journey to the start line that has inevitably brought them closer as father and son as well. But while his father could help him with the details of equipment design and weather conditions, physical conditioning was up to Quincey alone.
As part of preparations late last year, Quincey attempted to break the million-metre indoor rowing record of 128 hours, held by Nigel Gower from the United Kingdom. He tore into the early metres, but during the third day on the rowing machine his body turned on him. Spells of giddiness blurred reality, addled judgement. Severe cramp seized his legs, back and gluts.
He forged on.
Unlike the Tasman, the million-metre record was a race against the clock, and by the 700,000 metre mark he was losing. Late that same evening, a doctor and paramedic advised him to stop. Reluctantly, he hobbled off the seat and faced a new reality—a reality in which his body had limits—and the horizon of his ambitions rushed inwards. It was tempered only by the fact that he had thoroughly demolished the world record for 500 km. But the big one, the million metres, had slipped quietly out of sight, stroke by agonising stroke.
It was a lesson on the effect that extreme fatigue would have upon his body. It forced Quincey to step back and look upon his human frame as he would any other vital piece of equipment that would be required for the voyage—a fragile contraption requiring rest, repair and a constant flow of fuel.
The greater the input, the greater the output, but the equation was not without limits. Together with a nutritionist, Quincey designed a food intake in the way that someone might methodically calculate feed for a racehorse. Diet was reduced to numbers, and one number in particular—9000—the number of food calories (kcal) required per day to feed the engine that would propel him across 2300 km of ocean.
He invented his own muesli, combining grains, nuts and dried fruit with oats and powdered milk, then slopped in olive oil until the caloric value of the brew topped 2000 kcal—more energy for breakfast than most adults consume in an entire day. Throughout the day he would snack on fruit cake—getting through two cakes a day—and a couple of bags of pick ’n mix lollies. Two serves of freeze-dried meals for lunch, and another two for dinner, washed down with a protein bar and eight litres of water.
Energy in is energy out. Follow the cake as it passes Quincey’s lips and enters his stomach, where it is chemically broken down. Carbohydrates are hydrolysed into simple sugars, such as glucose and fructose. Fats are metabolised into fatty acids and glycerol. All are oxidised to produce a magical molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which transports chemical energy in Quincey’s body and powers the movement of the myosin heads in muscle cells. Muscles act on the bones, bones on the oars. More cake, more fuel, more recycling of ATP, more water moved by the blades, more distance covered.
But this is a regrettably inefficient relationship. Of the 9000 kcal that goes through Quincey’s cake-hole, only 20 per cent will be available at the end of the oars, the equivalent of a tiny outboard, rated at less than one horsepower. The rest of the food energy is gobbled up in friction and mechanical losses inside the body, and consumed to keep the rest of the human contraption ticking over.
Even given the phenomenal intake of fodder, Quincey expects to lose 15–22 kilos of body weight over the two months at sea.
Just three days in four will bring conditions conducive to rowing. Quincey will sleep six hours a day, rest for four, and row flat out for 14. And as he explains, “It’s not the number of miles covered in a day that counts, it’s getting up and doing it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.”
But when he explained this regime to me just days before departure (eat, row, eat, row, eat, row, sleep), I got the impression that he had somehow distanced his brain from his body, judgement from grunt, mind from matter. He talked about eating two fruit cakes a day for weeks on end as if it were normal, and as if it were all happening to somebody else.
That man in a boat, the mere engine of a life-long ambition, was a prospect still a week distant from the flurry of pre-departure details, last-minute fixes, arrangements and interviews.
“Leaving will be a relief,” he admitted then. “From the day I set off I’ll just have one job to do, every day, and all the time in the world.” He gracefully bowed out of the phone call and jogged to his next appointment—as a guest on a local radio station.
Perhaps this intellectual distance, between the actions of a sane mind and what is so obviously an objective that will stretch his human capability to breaking point, is a necessary attitude for any ocean rower to foster. But I couldn’t help suspecting that when Quincey came face to face with the Tasman, it wouldn’t be relief that he felt. After all, fewer people have rowed an ocean than have been into space.
So it came to be true. Over the last month at sea, Quincey has faced raging seas, dead calm, oceanic currents that ran like rivers, whales, dolphins, and foreboding shadows that loomed under his boat—shadows he was too scared to identify. He has enjoyed perfect rowing days, sleepless nights, storms, and brief moments of sublime pleasure—when a moth alighted on his shoulder some 300 km from land, his grin lasted for days.
And though mind and matter were so judiciously, clinically, held apart in the weeks before departure, they collided spectacularly once he left shore. His darkest days were in the first week. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why am I doing this? This is crazy, I should go back’,” he recalls over a crackling satellite phone connection on day 22.
“I had three days in my cabin in a storm and it really sank in that there was nothing anyone could do to help me. It was the feeling of total independence that was frightening—total reliance on my own decisions. I couldn’t talk to anyone, I just had to make judgement calls.”
Farther from shore, Quincey became more content with his circumstances, but he faced opposition from the weather. A strong easterly hounded progress. He would row for an entire day against the wind and, hands shredded, salt rash burning on his buttocks, tumble into the cabin to realise he had made just five nautical miles towards his goal. It was like rowing uphill.
Then, in the relentless seaway, his steering cable snapped and he was confined to his cabin for 10 days straight, amid turbid seas and lightning strikes. It was hard, in those days of rolling and waiting, not to personify the weather as an opponent, not to regard every approaching band of frontal cloud as some sort of personal attack.
“After days of head winds, you get to a point when you find yourself saying, ‘Why won’t you give me a break?’ But I’ve learnt it’s like a game of chess. I have to be patient, I have to wait my turn,” he says.
Quincey’s girlfriend, Lisa Jones, says although his million-metre record attempt had been gruelling, “at least he could tick off the metres. But now, out in the Tasman, he can’t control his environment, and those days locked in the cabin are really hard for him to deal with.”
Quincey agrees. “I never thought I would struggle so much with the loneliness. Lying in a cabin is far harder than rowing for 10 hours. The physical stuff I can handle; it’s the boredom and loneliness that gets to me.”
The agony of constant back pain, the scale of the challenge, the sleep deprivation and the isolation all combine in a constant search for cracks in his character. On Quincey’s small, liquid estate, sanity is challenged by every toxic thought.
On foul-weather days that make rowing impossible, he keeps himself occupied with carefully articulated routines. “I plan at the beginning of the day to write two letters to friends, take 60 photos, clean my electronics, tidy up the tools…any little goal that I can achieve to make myself feel like I’m making progress,” he says. “Otherwise thoughts start running through your head, like, ‘You’re not going to make it’, ‘You’ll capsize and won’t come up’.”
“Honestly, if Dad hadn’t already rowed this I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, I would have given up weeks ago. Just knowing he got there is such a driving force—the old man did, so can I.”
Norwegians Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo were the first mariners game enough to row across an ocean, in an open wooden boat from New York to France in 1896. Seventy years passed before it was successfully crossed again. In 1971, John Fairfax and Silvia Cook crossed the Pacific via Mexico and the Kiribati Islands. More than a decade later, Peter Bird made the first solo crossing of the Pacific from San Francisco to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in 294 days—he later died attempting the return trip.
All ventured forth chasing the same antique promise of adventure and solitude that has always sent sailors to sea.
For Quincey, the lure is imprecise—a sense of entitlement, perhaps some hope of fulfilment or reconciliation, buoys his dreams. Other ocean rowers are more explicit. For New Zealanders Rob Hamill and Phil Stubbs it was to win the inaugural Atlantic Rowing Race in 1997. Which they did.
But ask Hamill now, and he will say that the real motivation was the physical and emotional challenge. “It’s really about finding out how you would react to a challenging situation; whether you would curl up into a fetal position or stand up and get through it,” he says. “It might sound a bit melodramatic but there have been plenty of ocean rowers who have had to face that test.”
Hamill had to face some frightening conditions, but like Quincey, it was the isolation that offered the greatest challenge. “I was so exhausted, so sleep deprived, and even though Phil was there, it was the solitude that got to me. All my emotions were amplified.”
Events of long ago washed over him, and in particular the grief that had devoured his life after the Khmer Rouge executed his brother Kerry in 1978, after the yacht he was on strayed into Cambodian waters. “I really grieved for him out there,” says Hamill. “That little boat was like a prison, like a coffin.”
A small boat on a big ocean is an un-place, an ark of personal ephemera, a floating vessel for those who need to escape the real world, those trying to recapture a sense of reality; for Hamill a prison, for Quincey a sanctuary—it’s all things to all people.
Look at the sea and all you will see is a reflection of yourself, warped and puzzled by the wind and swell. Perhaps the only common element in any of these quests is simply a renewed sense of self.
But if Quincey is on a course to enlightenment, he’s not there yet. Rather than philosophical grandeur, it’s the nagging premonitions of simple mistakes that preoccupy his mind. “I’m most concerned about doing something stupid and losing a vital piece of equipment. Not falling overboard, but rather losing my sea anchor or something.”
Quincey will be weaving through vortices in the East Australia current until he hits longitude 165ºE. From there to the coast of New Zealand will just be a drag race.
“I’m not even halfway there yet, but I’m already thinking constantly about arriving on the beach, about seeing my friends and having a good feed—eggs Benedict and a flat white. That’s what I’m dreaming of.”
Will he surge down a breaking wave to a welcoming crowd, or, like his father, arrive unseen, drag his boat up the beach and knock on the door of the nearest house? “It’s a long story, but I just landed on the beach from New Zealand, in a rowing boat,” his father explained to a bewildered resident that day. “Can I use your phone? Has anyone got a cigarette?”