The Young Man and the Sea

The Young Man and the Sea

When Martin Berka sat down for an interview with a New Zealand radio station in December 2011, he didn’t have to go far to find a chair. He was aboard a 10.5‑metre rowboat in the middle of the Tasman Sea. The interview, conducted over satellite radio, was the first substantial contact he’d had with the outside world since setting off from Sydney Harbour 18 days earlier, and he was excited to report good weather.

“The forecast for the next few days looks quite good,” he told the show’s host. “Hopefully we don’t have to make any more stopovers with the weather beating us down, as we had in the first two weeks.”

The team, consisting of Berka and fellow Kiwis James Blake, Andrew McCowan, and Nigel Cherrie, planned to row from the Harbour Bridge in Sydney to the Harbour Bridge in Auckland – a distance of 2,500 kilometres.

“Stopovers” was a nice way of putting it. The journey, a four-man adventure dubbed the Team Gallagher Trans-Tasman Rowing Challenge, had already suffered a series of delays before the first oar struck the water. The initial idea was floated in 2006: put together a New Zealand team to make an unassisted crossing of the Tasman Sea that separates Australia and New Zealand. The team, consisting of Berka and fellow Kiwis James Blake, Andrew McCowan, and Nigel Cherrie, planned to row from the Harbour Bridge in Sydney to the Harbour Bridge in Auckland – a distance of 2,500 kilometres – at just under three kilometres an hour. In other words, walking speed.

MapBerka, an assistant professor of economics at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, had grown up an avid outdoorsman and was a member of the Varsity Outdoors Club while attending UBC. Although he had experience rowing crew in New Zealand, he’d never rowed on the open ocean, and was eager to push the boundaries of what is possible, to know what it was like for the early explorers, to see if he was up to it, and to enjoy the adventure.

Berka had joined the team in 2008, getting to know his crewmates over the years it took to plan the trip. The goal was to raise funds, in collaboration with the Sydney Aquarium, to construct an artificial reef off Borneo. Stressors ranging from ocean acidification to rising sea temperatures have been threatening the coral reefs for decades; scientists estimate 10 per cent of the world’s reefs are now dead, and another 60 per cent threatened, a number expected to rise to 90 per cent over the next 20 years. Team Gallagher hoped to raise enough funds to link the Borneo reef to an educational campaign in New Zealand schools, allowing each school to “own” a single coral and monitor its growth through a web-based interface.

After four years of fundraising, another year of planning, and finally a three-week storm delay, the team set off on November 27, 2011, powering out of Sydney Harbour at a relatively supersonic three knots (about five-and-a-half kilometres per hour). The only other four-person row team to make this trip took 31 days, but Team Gallagher hoped to do it in three weeks.

Then came the stopovers.

The rowboat
The team’s rowboat – 10 metres long, 2 metres wide. Photo: James Blake

A 10-metre long, two-metre wide boat is confining enough with four grown men. Add to that more than 400 kilos of food, water, and equipment, and it becomes claustrophobic, even on the wide-open ocean. But when the seas swell to the size of a two-storey building, and the headwind pushes back so hard that you are essentially rowing in place, it’s time to deploy the sea anchor – an underwater parachute that holds the boat in a relatively fixed position – and cuddle with your buddy in a cabin the size of a coffin.

This was where the team found themselves only three days out, when a churning sea and 60-knot winds forced them to retreat to the two tiny holds for four straight days. “The first big storm was hard because I kept wondering what would happen if the boat did not hold up structurally,” Berka later said from solid ground in New Zealand. “It was also my first time on high seas, and I remember thinking that the sensation of riding down big waves (while stationary on a sea anchor) felt like falling down an elevator shaft. I recall clearly being quite resigned to my destiny after that.”

A month on the open ocean coupled with a drastically altered sleep schedule is a recipe for surrealism.

On the fifth day the weather broke, and the foursome was eager to jump back on the oars, thrilled to find themselves cruising at 120 kilometres a day. The men rowed in pairs, day and night, in one and a half hour shifts. In their off-time they prepared freeze-dried meals by pouring boiling water into a pouch – that was until their stove broke, and they had to make do with lukewarm food and rations of muesli bars, nuts, raisins, and sweets. Non-rowing duties – from checking the global positioning system to running the desalination machine for their drinking water – took only about two hours a day, and the rest of their time was spent snatching whatever sleep could be had before the next turn at the oars.

Bailing the cabin
Martin Berka bails his cabin after stormy weather. Photo: James Blake

A month on the open ocean coupled with a drastically altered sleep schedule is a recipe for surrealism. One night Berka enjoyed a full moon, and the next it had disappeared completely, forcing him to question his sanity before realizing he was witnessing a lunar eclipse. On one occasion, while surfing some large waves, he rowed past a loaf of French bread. He spent his time on the oars taking in what wildlife the ocean had to offer, consisting mostly of albatrosses and other birds. On the rare occasions when the seas were calm, he saw basking sharks, a minke whale, and millions of orange jellyfish flowing with the currents, lighting up a bioluminescent sea. His mind wandered to the life he put on hold, missing his family, his friends, his work, and the lush greenery of solid land.

The hardest part, by a huge margin, was the mental part. The helplessness, the endless waiting, the uncertainty, the boredom, the longing.

It was during the respite from the initial storm – on December 15 – that Berka had his chat with the radio station. “Hopefully we’ll be home around just after Christmas,” he told them. “If we’re lucky.”

The team
The team bought survival suits the day before departure.
Photo: Stephanie McEwan

They were not. A low pressure system was approaching, and as the current pushed them north, strong winds began to push them west, back toward Australia. The meteorologist tracking their trip from a small town near Sydney – a man nicknamed “Clouds,” who also forecasts weather for the America’s Cup – sent them unambiguous satellite texts such as “This is the worst weather pattern I have ever seen on the Tasman,” and “Must row south.” Although they skirted the worst of the storm, by Christmas Eve they had to return to their cabins to hunker down, and it was not until January 3 that they emerged from their crypts to row again.

Before setting off, Berka had prepared himself physically, expecting the challenge to be equal part mind and body. “But in fact,” he says, “the hardest part, by a huge margin, was the mental part. The helplessness, the endless waiting, the uncertainty, the boredom, the longing. The actual rowing was hard, but it was a reward, as we were moving towards our target. But the lack of control is nearly complete, and it was very new to me. You are very much at the mercy of the elements, and we had chosen a particularly bad year.”

To make matters worse, Berka had somehow acquired an infection in his foot, which had grown to the size of a tennis ball. Once a day he had to inject himself in the thigh with a four-centimetre needle, timing his aim for the brief moments of calm that articulated the pounding surf. “I remember thinking how funny the syringe with the needle in my leg looked, swinging around a bit in waves,” he wrote in a later summary of the trip. “It was also not easy to stay relaxed as required (try injecting a contracted muscle) when using every other muscle to brace yourself steady in a cabin that is tossed around in waves.”

On January 16, 2012 – after 51 days at sea – the team rowed into The Bay of Islands near New Zealand’s northern tip, exhausted but healthy. Berka had lost thirteen kilograms during the voyage, confirming his theory about how rowers train for such an arduous journey: Get fat before you go, and the first week will get you fit. Berka left the boat, at this point, to join his fiancée, who had to leave unexpectedly and permanently for Japan shortly thereafter. The rest of the team augmented their now-meagre food supplies and spent another three days rowing to Auckland.

“I now realize how egoistic these types of trips are,” Berka admits in hindsight. “Unless you have no friends or family, risking your life in this way exposes all those who care for you to a large amount of unnecessary emotional stress. Especially when things don’t go well. And, on the flipside, you learn how much you depend on the caring of and the interaction with other people, because you are very alone in the middle of the sea. So I would recommend that everyone who wants to do this first checks with themselves whether it isn’t just a big ego trip. Irrespective of the answer, you will come back more humble.”

Visit the Team Gallagher website for more information about the row.

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