A hairy experience

Perhaps planning to row 3,500 nautical miles from Australia across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius was not such a good idea while working in a shipping office.

Plenty of ex-mariners were on hand to shake their heads at our naivety, especially when they found out we had no real sailing experience … and had never rowed.

I was working in London as a dry-cargo shipbroker for HSBC Shipping Services (now Hartland). My rowing partner, Ben Stenning, was a ship’s agent for Bollore in Ghana. The idea had originated seven years before at university, and had subsequently been fuelled by a few glasses of red wine and disillusionment with our first jobs, the daily commute, the depressing flat.

From the safety of my office I would draw a line across the southern Indian Ocean with a voyage calculator, reducing the average speed from 14 to two knots, guessing how long it would take. Staring at that piece of blue on the screen, it was hard to imagine what it was like in real life.

We started to find out at dawn on 21 April 2011. Having trained for three months on the River Thames, we set off in our 23ft boat, Indian Runner. As we rowed out of Geraldton, Western Australia, I looked back on the grain silos illuminated by the rising sun. It was strange to think I had fixed cargoes from this port on ships that must have turned up on a morning like this, with no knowledge of the realities behind all the emails and charter party details.

I didn’t have much time to ponder this because soon we were in the shipping lane, frantically calling vessels on the VHF radio to persuade them to give us a wide berth. Then we were into 10 hard days of battling to clear the shallow waters of Australia’s continental shelf, whose short seas and nightly onshore winds are so strong that only two pairs of rowers had ever made it across the Indian Ocean before us.

Once in deeper water, we took it in turns to row two hours on, two hours off during the day and three hours on, three hours off at night. No two days were the same. Sometimes it was incredibly rough and we would surf down the waves; on other days there was not a ripple on the glassy surface. Some nights it was impossible to see a thing due to downpours or dense cloud cover. On others we could see the full brilliance of the Milky Way or the eerie “moonbows”, while below us the sea glowed with bioluminescence with every oar stroke.

We encountered sharks, whales, pilot fish, tuna, storm petrels, shearwaters, squid, dolphins, flying fish, pelagic crabs and a host of other visitors. At one point a dorado stole the hose of our bilge pump. Another time sharks kept appearing whenever we were about to take a swim. When we were 1,120km from Australia, a moth landed on the boat. After taking one look at us, it decided it preferred its chances alone.

We saw occasional ships, and spoke to them on the radio, but did not clap eyes on another human being for 116 days. That meeting with two French Mauritians was fortuitous. A huge breaking wave capsized us a couple of miles from landfall, and Ben and I were washed up onto a coral reef. Our rescuers, expecting to find honeymooners or tourists, were amazed to encounter two skinny, heavily bearded, near-naked men.

Back at work, at offshore vessel broker Chart Shipping, I now have a massive appreciation of the realities of shipping and the vastness of the ocean. It’s a lot easier to imagine, when calculating a charter, what that patch of blue is really like.

  • Rowing after the White Whale: A Crossing of the Indian Ocean by Hand, by James Adair (Polygon)