The row less trav­elled

A cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the Mediter­ranean

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - WORDS & PHOTOS HUW KINGSTON

You might think that cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing the Mediter­ranean would be a rel­a­tively easy ad­ven­ture. Think row boat, think four-me­tre waves, think Force 7-8 winds and think again.

THE AN­GLED CAT­WALK ended on the high­est stage in western Europe, the 4810m sum­mit of Mont Blanc. A cloud sea stretched be­neath my boots and the day could hardly be more per­fect. Switch­ing on my phone to snap some sum­mit photos in came emails that I was not about to read on the top of Europe. But some­thing led my eye to just one:

From: Marin Medak. Sub­ject: My plans have changed… I opened it and scanned the words.

“We failed to get fund­ing for the new busi­ness. I want to do the row with you. I will or­gan­ise every­thing.”

Th­ese words gave me as big a high as the sum­mit it­self. I was five months into my mediterr an­née jour­ney; a year-long at­tempt to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the Mediter­ranean from Gal­lipoli back to Gal­lipoli.

I’d met Marin Medak, a young Slove­nian ad­ven­turer, just be­fore my trek across the Alps had be­gun near Slove­nia. He had read of my jour­ney on so­cial me­dia via a Greek kayaker. A cou­ple of years ear­lier Marin had headed an ex­pe­di­tion to row across the Atlantic.

Since leav­ing Turkey I’d pon­dered the prob­lem of Libya; of en­ter­ing and travers­ing a country racked by civil war that was, by any mea­sure, some­thing of a bas­ket case. Cy­cling across its 1800km width was not ad­vised.

As I trekked through the in­com­pa­ra­ble Dolomites, it hit me. While the Libyans were hav­ing an ar­gu­ment, could I not have a row? Could I not row from Tu­nisia and by­pass Libya by head­ing across the guts of the Mediter­ranean? I called Marin. He was happy to help but couldn’t join me, as he was busy

Row­ing to­ward that pot of

gold. A rain­bow pro­vides some cheer on a rainy day.

seek­ing fund­ing for a new busi­ness ven­ture.

Then a month later, in one stroke of magic, every­thing changed with that email on the sum­mit of Mont Blanc.

As I con­tin­ued my jour­ney on foot, bike and back in the sea kayak through France and Spain and across to Africa, I also be­came the owner of an ocean row­boat. Never in my wildest dreams had this been in my plans… or my bud­get. Marin found a boat lo­cated on Cape Verde off West Africa. He flew there to close the deal, work on the boat and or­gan­ise the ship­ping to Tu­nisia.

Af­ter Christ­mas I ped­alled on through Morocco and a bizarre 1500km ride across Al­ge­ria com­plete with po­lice es­cort. Of­ten a ve­hi­cle front and back and a cou­ple of BMW mo­tor­cy­cle out­rid­ers too. Through towns and cities the sirens would wail and the traf­fic was held up at red lights and round­abouts. Was it the Pres­i­dent? No just a mid­dle-aged bloke on a moun­tain bike. Cross­ing into Tu­nisia I re­gained my free­dom and in late Jan­uary ar­rived by bike to Ham­mamet and its ma­rina. A few days later Marin ar­rived by ferry from Italy, weighed down by vast quan­ti­ties of lug­gage. The first thing I no­ticed was the end­less pots of Su­docrem. The re­al­ity of the next stage was start­ing to sink in.

Our first chal­lenge was to re­lease Mr Hops, our boat. Day af­ter day we took the 70km jour­ney to Tu­nis Port. As we jumped through one hoop the Tu­nisian Cus­toms would throw an­other high in front of us. Some were rea­son­able, oth­ers far­ci­cal. But we played the game and jumped hoops for Mr Hops. We vis­ited of­fice af­ter of­fice but mostly we waited then, af­ter wait­ing, we waited some more. We drank bad cof­fee and spoke bad French.

Fi­nally, af­ter a week of pa­per­work, every­thing changed once the Cus­toms had in­spected Mr Hops. De­spite us telling them, even show­ing them pic­tures, they were, I think, ex­pect­ing to find a fancy speed­boat owned by th­ese Aus­tralian and Slove­nian play­boys. What they found when they opened the con­tainer was a very dusty, rather worn look­ing craft rest­ing on a few old tyres. “Il n’y a pas mo­teur?” they asked. There is no mo­tor?

Pre­vi­ously we had been told we would pay a large bond, re­turn­able when we rowed away from Tu­nisia. But when they saw Mr Hops, they took pity and re­duced the bond to zero.

In bit­terly cold con­di­tions we made Mr Hops ready and stocked with sup­plies for 40 days. Whilst it is not con­sid­ered good luck to change a boat’s name nor make it a male, the boat was launched, with beer over the stern, as Mr Hops. This was a nice beer-flavoured coun­ter­part to my sea kayak, the wine fo­cussed Miss Grape. He would also al­low me to hope­fully ‘hop’ past Libya. Fi­nally, on 12 Fe­bru­ary, Marin rowed us away from Ham­mamet. When my first shift came soon af­ter there was one small thing; I’d never rowed be­fore.

It was hard to get into a pat­tern of liv­ing with never more than an hour of sleep. The blis­ters and sores came as ex­pected; the Su­docrem well used. The build plate on Mr Hops in­cluded the line: ‘This boat is built for ocean row­ing only and is NOT for plea­sure use’.

We made good progress for six days to within 50km of Malta be­fore the sea and wind got up. We lay on the para an­chor for 24 hours be­fore row­ing into the most vi­cious storm and a tow for the last miles into Gozo Is­land. Here, in a house straight out of Game of Thrones, Aus­tralian cou­ple Lisa and Ian found and looked af­ter us roy­ally.

I could now add ‘ocean row­ing’ to my re­sume, although not yet with the pre­fix ‘ex­pert’. But I was get­ting there. On one shift, deep in the night with the sea and wind run­ning onto our stern, it all clicked; I felt the rhythm. Full com­pres­sion, good catch in the wa­ter, late pull on the oars. I didn’t stop to eat or drink for two hours lest it all fall apart. On my next shift it did.

The call from the man on the oars goes, “10 min­utes!” You pull the sleep­ing bag closer… “Eight min­utes!” You sit up, bang­ing your head on the roof and pull on jacket and pants. Check the watch; five min­utes to go. Eat, pull on shoes and throw open the hatch door. “Good morn­ing/Good evening/ How’s the tem­per­a­ture?” asks one. “Did you sleep?” asks the other. You reach for the cut-off plas­tic bot­tle and pee. I’ve never known an ac­tiv­ity where you pee so much. A fi­nal glance at your watch and, at the al­lot­ted hour, to the minute, swap places. You start row­ing, he pees, climbs in­side, eats, peels off cloth­ing, closes the hatch, sleeps. “10 min­utes!”…

Fi­nally the storm eased – a lit­tle. Af­ter a grand send off from Gozo we rowed away.

A big fol­low­ing sea greeted us – three to four me­tre waves, Force 7-8 winds – which saw Mr Hops surf­ing at an ex­hil­a­rat­ing six knots or more. A big wave broke across the cock­pit pro­vid­ing a good soak­ing, but emerg­ing from that we saw our EPIRB flash­ing and beep­ing. Malta Ma­rine Res­cue called us on the ra­dio: “You’ve set off your EPIRB. Do you re­quire a res­cue?” We ex­plained not.

We had lit­tle choice but to head for Val­letta on Malta, it be­ing our last land be­fore Crete two or more weeks away. We needed to in­ves­ti­gate the EPIRB is­sue. In dark­ness we flew along the coast of Malta, try­ing to pick the nav­i­ga­tion lights into Val­letta. Marin ex­pertly guided Mr Hops in­side the break­wa­ter, re­bound mak­ing for very con­fused seas.

“Row, row, row, keep row­ing!” came the shout from be­hind. I looked back and there was a Pi­lot boat. They threw a line aboard and, just in the nick of time, pulled us out of the

Clock­wise from top: a wa­ter­level view of the mighty Mr

Hops on a beau­ti­ful clear day; the per­fect trekking morn­ing with sun­shine and a cof­fee in hand as Huw con­tem­plates the days ahead; a sea of clouds swirl around the Alps as Huw soaks up the view from Mont Blanc; af­ter get­ting the “10 min­utes” call from Marin, Huw fu­els up and gets prepped in that short time­frame be­fore his next night­time row­ing shift kicks off.

path of a large ship steam­ing out from Val­letta Grand Har­bour.

We waited out more wild weather. Ev­ery­one from Al­ge­ria to Malta had been telling me this was the cold­est, stormi­est win­ter in the South­ern Mediter­ranean for many years.

The wind dic­tated what we did and to a very large ex­tent where we went. As Marin said, “This is so much harder than row­ing the Atlantic with its con­sis­tent swell, its pre­dictable wind.” It is why th­ese un­wieldy craft – bathtubs of the ocean – have rarely tra­versed Mediter­ranean wa­ters. We were aim­ing for Crete then Cyprus, but those plans were blown away.

We left Malta on the morn­ing of 26 Fe­bru­ary. It was wet and cold for the first 36 hours and, with southerly winds, we headed to­ward Si­cily. Both Marin and I felt less than av­er­age – he used the bucket and I wasn’t far from it. It is the lethargy that gets you. Every­thing is a chore; noth­ing ap­peals to eat and you be­come aware of burn­ing up but not re­plac­ing en­ergy. I fell asleep at the oars on more than one oc­ca­sion. The Ital­ian Coast­guard came to spot­light us one night by ship and buzzed us one day by plane. Not des­per­ate refugees try­ing to es­cape trou­bled zones in North Africa but do­ing this for a chal­lenge of choice. A pod of dol­phins trav­elled with us one night. A sparkling, mes­meris­ing show of phos­pho­res­cence as they swam around and un­der Mr Hops.

Then, fi­nally, came some warmth. The wind came with us too and sick­ness was blown away. We passed through the area on the Mediter­ranean Sea fur­thest from any land, with Italy far to our north and Libya far to our south. In cel­e­bra­tion I pulled out a freeze-dried Mediter­ranean Fish Stew. Much like the Mediter­ranean it­self, there wasn’t much fish in it.

The west­er­lies pushed us to­ward Crete, av­er­ag­ing some 90-100km per day and night com­bined. At night a full moon lit things up and Mr Hops glided on a road­way of sil­ver.

Jure, our me­te­o­rol­o­gist, warned of a change afoot: of a very strong east­erly wind that would reach us be­fore we reached Crete; a wind that would stop us dead in our tracks and send us scut­tling, help­less, back­wards for at least three days. Ini­tially it was a throw­away line I used, like toss­ing a bait­less hook into the sea. “Per­haps we should go north to the Pelo­pon­nese in Greece?”

Some bad wind hit us and we paid out the para an­chor again. For an­other 24 hours we were jolted left, right, left, right by waves. Ev­ery or­gan in my body was smashed against its neigh­bour in a cabin de­signed for one, not two. I slept not a wink. Then Marin an­nounced a plan. This young man, pos­sessed of fierce in­tel­lect and de­ter­mi­na­tion, had sketched out a ‘give it our all’ op­tion to reach the Pelo­pon­nese. We might, might just make it in time. But it was all or noth­ing, never mind the bol­locks, ev­ery sec­ond counts row­ing for 36 hours or so.

The wind swung in our favour and we hauled in the para

The west­er­lies pushed us to­ward Crete, av­er­ag­ing some 90-100km per day and night com­bined.

an­chor and started row­ing again. But I had be­come lazy; my strokes in­sin­cere. With less than 50 days to the end of my year-long jour­ney, I was think­ing too much of that end. I was think­ing of time back home with fam­ily, of the smells and sounds of Aus­tralia… I was let­ting the team down and had no ex­cuse. Marin kicked me in the butt and I woke up to my­self, and our po­si­tion. We be­gan to scrawl the dis­tance cov­ered per shift onto the in­side of the cabin wall. H: 4.3 miles, M: 4.3 miles, H: 4.6 miles, M: 4.7 miles, H: 5.1 miles, M: 5.5 miles. We pulled on those oars like there was no to­mor­row; we stuffed food into our­selves, we grabbed sleep, we pulled…

Land ap­peared hung over by grey, rain squalls hit us, we pulled…

We planned one land­ing place then an­other as time and weather changed. Fi­nally we took aim for tiny Finikounta. Marin’s cogs and wheels whirred and ground, cal­cu­lat­ing drift, wind, what time the east­erly would hit that could mean all was in vain. He fever­ishly plugged new way­points into the GPS and as if to chal­lenge him fur­ther our elec­tronic com­pass said thanks and good­night. Bas­tard! We pulled…

Dark­ness fell and the light show be­gan. Clouds, blacker than the night, is­sued sea-shak­ing claps of thun­der­ous ap­plause first, be­fore then open­ing their blad­ders to piss on us. Bas­tards! Hail, rain, cold. We pulled…

As we came to­ward small Venetiko Is­land it was Marin’s shift. I peeled off soaked gear in the cabin and tried to warm up. Then I heard it amongst our tiny ra­dio masts. I heard the whis­tle of a new wind. The wicked witch of the east had ar­rived. Bas­tard, bas­tard, bas­tard! Soon the sea was up and Marin, al­ready 24 hours into this marathon, pulled ever harder to­ward the is­land. I shouted in­struc­tions: “Two miles… 1.7 miles… one mile… ”An­other cloud dropped its load and waves broke on rocks nearby, un­marked on our chart. “0.4 miles… 0.3 miles… 0.2 miles… ” Mr Hops came around to turn up the lee of the is­land as the moon found a gap from which to shed some light. It was 8pm and we were some seven nau­ti­cal miles from Finikounta.

The respite was tem­po­rary be­fore we again felt the full force of the wind through the gap be­tween is­land and head­land. It was my turn once more. I squeezed Marin’s shoul­der hard as we swapped places and he col­lapsed into the cabin. Still tired arms pulled on the oars, wasted legs sprung life­lessly against the foot­plate. The wind blew us side­ward but Mr Hops inched his way across the gap. I was cer­tain that, once in the lee of the head­land, all would be calm. But we were pushed fur­ther out from it. Progress was painfully slow; less than a mile in two hours. I tried to pull back to­ward the land but my re­solve be­gan to weaken. It was Marin’s turn soon. It was pour­ing rain. Bet­ter he sleep and stay dry than cop an­other soak­ing. I didn’t wake him. I buck­led down and rowed as hard as I had ever rowed be­fore and fi­nally, fi­nally, found my­self in calm wa­ter aside from rain­drops on its sur­face. I rowed an­other hour be­fore the re­al­i­sa­tion all I was do­ing was drop­ping a blade in the wa­ter and pulling it straight out again. I called,“10 min­utes.” Af­ter four hours and with two miles to go, I climbed into the sleep­ing bag, wet cloth­ing and all.

As torches and head­lights flashed from the wall of the tiny har­bour of Finikounta I climbed out of the co­coon into a hand­shake of­fered from Marin Medak. “It is un­be­liev­able what we have done Huw,” he said. An hour later, or even less, we would not have been there.

There, at 4am on Sun­day 8 March, was a small gath­er­ing of peo­ple. Amongst them, here in a place we never in­tended to be, ar­riv­ing by a mode of trans­port I never in­tended to use on my jour­ney, was Stavros Ge­or­garakis, the Greek kayaker through whom Marin had first learned of my jour­ney.

Amongst the un­be­liev­able hos­pi­tal­ity those fol­low­ing days, Finikounta had one other sur­prise. On the nar­row main street, the only street, a man­nequin stood for­lornly in a door­way seem­ingly at­tached to no shop, be­long­ing to no one. It wore a faded navy sweat­shirt em­bla­zoned with ‘Row­ing League’ and ‘Her­itage Row­ing Club’.

Dur­ing the at­tempt to beat an ap­proach­ing storm, dis­tances each shift were scrawled on the wall to mo­ti­vate each other.

Evening sun­light lights up the Alps as Huw de­scends from the Mont Blanc sum­mit.

Huw’s mediterr an­née jour­ney be­gan at Gal­lipoli, Turkey, on 26 April 2014 and fin­ished back there, 363 days, 14,000km and 17 coun­tries later. He was rais­ing funds for Save the Chil­dren. www.huwk­ingston.com

Clock­wise from far left: beach rid­ing in south­ern France; keep­ing the di­ary up to date; Mr Hops is ap­pro­pri­ately launched with some, er, hops.

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