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Shaun finishes his epic voyage in New Zealand

One man’s epic quest to row into history books

Matt Ogborn @mattogborn

There does not seem to be a month that goes by in this day and age when one celebrity or another returns triumphantly from a “heroic” solo or group expedition into the wilderness.

The great outdoors is an enticing lure for these masters of self-promotion, especially those starved of sporting battle. However, it is the feats of the common man or woman that resonate more. Adventures where the call of the rolling sea, treacherous mountain pass or jungle proved too strong to resist despite the comfort of home.

When you happen to come across not one, but two, adventurers in the same humble family, then the plot thickens even more.

Shaun Quincey became the second person in a row boat to navigate the dangerous stretch of water between Australia and New Zealand, called the Tasman Sea, last year. Long considered one of the most challenging crossings on earth, the only other person to make it across was Shaun’s father, Colin, 34 years ago.

Yorkshire born and raised, with a healthy infusion of the county’s grit to boot, Colin left England when he was 18. He served his apprenticeship in Tall Ships’ races, together with a stint on the George Voch - a German square rigger sailing into Hawaii.

Shaun, 27, revealed: “My granddad did a whole lot of scouting stuff and, growing up, my Dad was naturally adventurous and always getting into the outdoors. He got lost on the River Thames a number of times on little canoes and, at 18, he went hitchhiking around Europe.”

Having made it to New Zealand, Colin became frustrated with the lack of adventurous spirit shown by young Kiwis. Consequently, his inaugural Tasman Trespasser voyage came into being.

Anders Svedlund, a Swedish-born naturalised New Zealander, was the first person to attempt the crossing in 1969. However, he was overturned five days after leaving Auckland’s Manukau Harbour and forced back to New Zealand.

Eight years later, Colin set off in his Yorkshire Dory rowboat from Hokianga in New Zealand and crashed on to Marcus Beach along Australia’s Sunshine Coast 63 days and seven hours later.

Colin relied on his trusty sextant, along with the sun, moon and stars, whereas Shaun could call upon the very latest in satellite communications. Not only that, Shaun could speak to his loved ones at any time, unlike his father, who could only rely on the nature around him to gird his mind.

Nevertheless, one son’s arduous journey can still be compared favourably to his father’s gutsy quest. Anyone who can combat 12-metre swells, immense fatigue and the occasional moment of self doubt to complete a journey such as this one can be considered a hero in any age.

Shaun was born in an army jungle hospital in Singapore, where Colin was based with the Royal New Zealand Navy, before the family upped sticks and went back home to New Zealand when he was two years old.

Drawn into the fevered national sport of rugby union from a young age, after a brief flirtation with football, rowing did not figure too much in Shaun’s life until he turned 14. Like many aquatic adventurers before him, once he found his sea legs there was no going back.

“My body was breaking a bit too much playing rugby and I liked rowing a bit more. I loved rowing skiffs in eights and a quad for a number of years. It teaches you how skill, endurance and strength all combine. Once I discovered surfboat rowing, though, I realised I wanted to ride down waves and crash through them.”

The team aspect that Shaun was so used to was something that proved especially hard to switch focus from, especially in such an isolated place as the Tasman Sea.

“My friends say: ‘You’ve always played team sports, how do you row alone?’ That was one of the challenges. My father doesn’t mind being by himself, but I hate it. I like chatting and being sociable. You are setting goals for yourself and driving yourself, rather than having that team motivation.

“I would sit on the rowing machine for really long periods of time before I left. I started off with one hour and the longest I did was 17 hours. That started to teach me a little bit about keeping your mind busy, setting mind games, little goals and keeping your head occupied. If you can keep your head in the right space, you can keep going but, if your head wanders into another space, it’s not so good.”

As world sports have become more competitive and professional across the board, there has been a greater emphasis put on the mental side to give athletes an extra edge that can prove the minute difference between winning and losing.

“I emailed some psychologists and asked if they could help me but they said: ‘No, we can’t. At the end of the day, you are either going to do it or you’re not. There’s not too much we can help you with. Stay positive, visualise and go for it’.

“What I used most was visualising in my head someone arriving on a beach having been the first person to row from Australia to New Zealand. If I got into the 10th hour of rowing, then that was what I would visualise.”

Food and drink can often be the difference between success and failure, too, with many sports coaches and organisations finally tapping into the essential role nutrition plays in the end game.

“I had a fantastic dietician who helped me learn the basics of endurance nutrition with the use of electrolytes and fluids, but there’s only so much you can do. You want to eat foods that you like and you want to eat foods that will stay in your stomach and give you energy.

“For me, it was Mars bars. I could eat hundreds of those and just keep going. Sometimes when I would eat too much porridge, I had to wait for it to go down and you’ve got to tense your stomach when you’ve got to row all the time, so it hurts when you are trying to row with a full stomach. It was a combination of trial and error.”

One man he was keen to grill ahead of the epic journey was, of course, his father. However, there was only so much the previous Tasman conqueror could provide for what was a solo endeavour.

“As soon as I told Dad I was going to row the Tasman, he took a few days to digest it, then he sent me an email back and it said, basically: ‘This is fantastic. I back you 100 per cent, but you’ve got to do it all by yourself’. Once you are out there, you realise that it is up to you.

“The world has changed in terms of navigation and technology between the late 70s and now, so much so that whatever advice he gave me was probably going to be redundant anyway. He had very little to do with the boat building and things like that. He came to where I departed from, but it was up to me and I think that it was great advice because, if you can’t get to the start line yourself, you are not going to get across.

“He had nothing at all during his quest. He was measuring the angle of the sun and all that with a sextant. He had one little radio, which he could talk with to ships a kilometre away. That got covered in salt water in the first two days and broke, so he was on his own. It was pretty crazy.”

When it came to his turn, Shaun truly found out the lengths and depths he had to go to in order to keep his mind and body intact for a voyage, filmed with the aid of a tiny Panasonic camcorder, which lasted the better part of two months.

“It was incredibly daunting. The scariest part was that the last person to try it had died. There had been a two-man crew and four-man crew that hadn’t been able to do it too. It was just: ‘What makes me so different from these people?’ I had a huge expectation that I was going to be able to do it. It didn’t matter why or why not, I just knew I could do it because Dad did it. It kept me going where other people may have stopped.

“My surfboat rowing background gave me a big advantage in that, if there was a big 12-metre swell running, I  could surf down those  and it was awesome. I knew how to line the boat up, where to sit in the boat on a wave to make the most of it. I clocked up 18 knots going down one wave. It was pretty fast in a row boat like that!”

As the likes of the book and film The Perfect Storm have so vividly illustrated, it is not just hard on the people going out to sea but those left behind whose love and support is tested time and again.

“My girlfriend Lisa, who is now my fiancée, is a physiotherapist. She saw me off from Coffs Harbour and was waiting on the beach back in New Zealand for me. She is a great girl and that was hard as well. You go away and they don’t know whether you are coming back. It’s just one of the other realistic challenges of the trip.

“It’s nice to have someone you know you are coming back to. There is a counter argument to that, though, where if you had nobody back at home, then you didn’t know what would be going on back home. This brings into question of whether it is good to have a satellite phone or not.

“If you didn’t, you would probably get into a sense that this is cool and you become happy with it. I would call someone at home and they might be in a pub with a beer and bowl of chips about to go to a concert. They might call me and I would be in the middle of a storm so I would have to say I am stuck here, this is rubbish and give them my coordinates just in case. It was a real vice versa.”

Nevertheless, Shaun conquered the demons that occasionally plagued him to repeat his father’s feat in the opposite direction and get one up on neighbours Australia into the bargain.

“They had two kayakers who got across a couple of years before me. I beat their time, so it was neat! There will always be rivalry between the two countries.”

What next then for Shaun, who has parlayed his mesmerising adventure into motivational speaking engagements around the world?

“We are putting together a 16-man crew to row from Barbados to Jamaica, then repack the boat and go from Jamaica to Cancun. You have to watch out for cyclones in that area and you have lots of reefs around there as well. They are incredibly dangerous and also landing on an island is pretty hard, as opposed to a country, because there are no big ports, just small ports, and a lot of them are surrounded by reefs.

“You may sit out off the island coast for two or three days just waiting for the right weather and wind to find a way through because, when you are rowing, you don’t often have the power to direct where you go. I am skippering the crew and it will be a whole new challenge to me.

“The first hour is fun for everyone, then they realise: ‘I am shattered and I have this for another 40 days’. They get two hours’ sleep and have to go again. It will be interesting and I hope we can do it in 50 days. All depends, though, as it could be 100 days.”

Fifty or 100 days, Shaun Quincey has already made his mark to show how sturdy the human body and mind is. Not only that, he is proving an inspiration to those in New Zealand and the other adventurers among us elsewhere, who cannot resist the lure of taking on Mother Nature’s most demanding children.

Watch the UK TV premiere of “Alone Against The Tasman” this Friday, December 9th, at 12pm, 4pm & 8pm on Eden (Sky channel 532 and Virgin Media 208). Learn more about Team GB rowing ahead of the Olympics

If you enjoyed this, then read Max Benson’s feature on ruthless British sport “Irresistible Force”

One Response to “Taming the Tasman”

  1. Malky the hoop December 18, 2011

    What dedication. An inspirational story, of which I knew nothing before reading this. Great insight from Matt Ogborn.


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