These were almost the first words that my new weatherman, Lee Bruce, uttered when we met for the first time on a Skype call last week. What he means is that the winds between Tarawa and Australia make it impossible to get from one to the other. As Australia is my stated destination, this was bad news.
I knew that I had my work cut out this year, especially as last year I’d had to make landfall in Tarawa rather than my first choice of Tuvalu. Tuvalu, which lies about 660 miles south of Tarawa, would have set me up better for this year’s row, but it was a big gamble to try and make it there. My watermaker had broken, so I had no way of generating fresh drinking water. I was living off my limited reserves of water ballast, so the potential downside of missing Tuvalu was too big a risk to ignore. Death from dehydration in mid-Pacific was not an appealing prospect.
So Tarawa it was, but as Lee so succinctly put it, this has put me in a very difficult starting position for this year.
If you look at the wind chart left, you can see the problem. Once I pass the Solomon Islands and get into the Coral Sea (the green and yellow area) the winds pick up. And they are all out of the southeast.
What this means is that while I am rowing, I will always be rowing beam-on to the waves, which is not fun. And whenever I stop rowing (for eating, sleeping, podcasting or blogging) I will be blown off course.
But there is some good news. Sometimes, just sometimes, the wind in Tarawa comes out of the north, or even north-northwest. If I can set out into such a wind, I can make some useful southerly progress before the unhelpful southeast winds kick in again.
And other people have managed to make it. Looking at the stats, Mick Bird rowed from the Marshall Islands to Cairns via the Solomons in 1999. The Marshall Islands are west and north of Tarawa, so are an even worse starting point than mine. I’ll be seeing Mick Bird next week in Vancouver, WA, so will be interrogating him to find out just how he managed it.
Jason Lewis pedalled from Tarawa to Australia in 2000, although they had to be towed the last stretch in order to reach an official Australian port of entry. (See Solomons leg and Coral Sea Crossing in his online logbook.)
Last week I exchanged a few emails with Jason, and he had this to say: “I was considering altering course for Thursday Island in the Torres Straits to clear customs and Immigration. As I’m sure you know, Cairns is the nearest such venue to the south, and the Aussies are sticklers for mariners entering via designated ports. They will come to you if pushed, but they’ll charge you arm and a leg (Cooktown, a mere 200 miles from Cairns, would have cost something like seven grand US).”
So as if the navigational and meteorological challenges weren’t great enough, apparently there could be a financial challenge too. If I have to be towed to Cairns, that will cost me. But if I land anywhere other than at a designated port of entry, that will cost me too. And if I land up on Thursday Island, that will also have financial implications. My boat ends up in a very inconvenient place, so if I decide to go ahead and do the Indian Ocean (which is still very much under discussion, but won’t be decided until/unless I get to Australia) I would have to get my boat shipped from Thursday Island to the Australian mainland.
At the moment I have raised only $5,000 of my bare-bones budget of $20,000, let alone the $100,000 I had really hoped for. So getting clobbered for any of these extra expenses would be way beyond my means.
There are many possible scenarios. Australia, Thursday Island, Papua New Guinea… PNG would be the easiest to get to, as it lies downwind from Tarawa. That’s where Erden Eruc ended up after 331 days at sea in 2009. No doubt by then any piece of dry land looked pretty good. I’ve got nothing against PNG – but it’s not where I said I was going. And I like to deliver on my commitments as nearly as I can.
So I will try for Australia, but I wanted to manage your expectations. It’s not impossible – just nearly.
Interesting metaphor here. The further off course I go, the harder it is to get back on track. Ecologically, are we getting ourselves into a situation where we can’t get there from here?