12,000km odyssey a true test of physical, mental stamina

Grant Rawlinson rowing towards Darwin on the first leg of his journey from Singapore to New Zealand. Having reached Darwin, he will next have to cycle down to Coffs Harbour, before ending with another rowing trip to Taranaki.
Grant Rawlinson rowing towards Darwin on the first leg of his journey from Singapore to New Zealand. Having reached Darwin, he will next have to cycle down to Coffs Harbour, before ending with another rowing trip to Taranaki.PHOTO: ALISTAIR HARDING

Pointing out the journey on a map with his index finger might be easy now, but Grant Rawlinson's 78-day rowing expedition was anything but straightforward.

The unpredictability of the wild waters was one of the lessons Rawlinson learnt while on the first leg of his 12,000km rowing-cycling overland-rowing journey from Singapore to New Zealand.

The 42-year-old Kiwi, together with English partner Charlie Smith, 26, left Singapore on Jan 3 in a 6.8m ocean rowing boat. For 24 hours a day, they took turns rowing in one- to two-hour shifts through the Indonesian archipelago to Darwin, Australia.

Along the way, they made four stops, including in Timor Leste, where they were invited to former president Jose Ramos-Horta's home.

Seated in the living room of his Bukit Batok Housing Board apartment yesterday, Rawlinson recalled one incident when they were stopped at sea by a fishing boat whose crew members were wearing ski masks.

"They asked where we were going," he said. "They weren't friendly and weren't smiling."

But after Rawlinson replied in Indonesian that they were heading to Bali, the men "just stood there and looked at us for quite some time" before eventually sailing away.

"It was an uncomfortable situation... If they had thought there was something worth taking on the boat, it could have been different," said the former Singapore national rugby sevens player.

On one occasion, they fought a massive storm and an opposing current for three days and two nights.

To avoid getting caught in a cyclone in the Timor Sea, the pair relied on the weather forecast delivered through a satellite phone by their professional project manager based in New Zealand.

"It was a matter of trying to predict one week into the future whether a cyclone was going to develop or not," said Rawlinson.

With a favourable forecast, the pair rowed "as fast as possible" across the Timor Sea for eight days to avoid running into it.

Apart from the physical toll, the 4,500km journey also proved to be a severe test of mental strength.

In trying conditions, the mood on the boat sometimes turned tense.

"I knew progress, speed was our safety net. By getting there as fast as possible, we would run less of a risk of being caught in a storm, and the sooner we could see our family again," said Rawlinson, the father of 16-month- old twin daughters.

While disagreements were inevitable, the key was to stay positive and never hold grudges against each other, he added.

But there were also several moments to treasure - close encounters with dolphins and eating under a visible Milky Way.

Having completed the first leg, Rawlinson will do the 4,500km second leg on his own next month, cycling from Darwin to Coffs Harbour in New South Wales, a trip he estimates will take about 46 days.

The rowing boat will be shipped to Coffs Harbour and Rawlinson will embark on the final leg with another partner, fellow New Zealander Rob Hamill, some time between September and October.

They will cover a distance of 3,000km across the Tasman Sea to New Plymouth in Taranaki on New Zealand's North Island.

For Rawlinson, who quit his job as a regional sales manager for this trip, an adventure with no uncertainties would not be an adventure at all.

"Before I left on this trip, I didn't even know if it was going to be possible to get to Darwin," he said.

"If it was really easy, I wouldn't have done it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'Odyssey a true test of physical and mental mettle'. Print Edition | Subscribe