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Adventure travel: Rowing to New Zealand

By: Shamus Sillar

Singapore-based expat Grant ‘Axe’ Rawlinson doesn’t shy away from adventure. His torrid first-up attempt at summiting Mt Everest a few years back was the kind of thing that would have made plenty of people pack up their ropes for good, but Grant returned the following season and successfully reached the top of the world’s highest mountain.

Since then, he’s tackled various rugged routes in a series of human-powered expeditions called “Peak to Peak” – one in New Zealand, another in Europe, and most recently in Malaysia.

Later this year, Grant sets off on his most audacious journey yet. He’s planning to make his way from Singapore all the way down to New Zealand. And he’s going to row there. We bailed him up to get the crazy lowdown.

rowing to new zealand, adventure travel
Grant with rowing-mate Charlie Smith who will be joining him for the first leg of the voyage


Here at Expat Living we’ve followed your past adventures with plenty of interest (and, at times, mild horror); now you’ve set yourself a new and completely epic challenge. Give us a brief description of your mission.

Yes, my next expedition is fairly ambitious! It’s called ‘Rowing from Home to Home’. This is an attempt to travel all the way from Singapore (where I’m currently based), back to my home country of New Zealand, using solely my own human power – a journey of some 12,000km.

I will be using a specially designed Ocean Rowing boat built by Rannoch Adventures, boat-builders in the UK, to attempt to row 4,500km from Singapore through the Indonesian archipelago and across the Timor Sea to Darwin. From there I will continue for 4,000km on bicycle across Australia. From the east coast of Australia, I will then attempt to finish the journey with a 2,500km row across the notoriously challenging Tasman Sea.

What gave you the idea for it? Are you doing it for a particular reason?
I love human-powered adventures, as you well know – journeys that take me through remote and beautiful but very challenging land and seascapes. I just find the whole concept of human-powered journeys very rewarding. They are also environmentally friendly and I hope to use the expedition as a catalyst to inform, inspire and challenge people to live, travel and work in more environmentally and sustainable ways

How many people will it involve, and how long will it take?
I have another rower – Charlie Smith from the UK is joining me on the first leg, Singapore to Darwin. I will cycle across Australia with no more than two or three other people as I try to keep the team numbers small and compact. I’m still sourcing a teammate for the Tasman row. I also have an expedition project manager, physical trainer, meteorologist, nutritional consultant, and a number of other people who contribute in so many ways.

Is there one part or aspect of the journey that you think will be the most challenging? Why?
The row through Indonesia has never been attempted before, and the serious challenges in this first leg will include shipping traffic, strong currents and winds, lots of navigational hazards, not to mention extreme heat, remoteness and no support vessels to rescue us in case of emergency. Cycling across Australia will be a long slog with limited stops and some strong headwinds. The third and final leg across the Tasman could be brutal as the Tasman Sea is rough, fickle and scary.

rowing to new zealand, adventure travel
The custom made vessel – Simpson’s Donkey

You’ve already taken possession of the amazing-looking vessel – and named it! Why did you choose Simpson’s Donkey?
My boat is a 6.8m custom-built ocean rowing boat named Simpson’s Donkey after the legend of John Simpson, a medic in the Australian army during World War I. Simpson used a donkey to rescue over 300 wounded men from the battlefields of Gallipoli, until he himself was ultimately killed in the line of duty. Simpson and his donkey have become synonymous with courage, bravery and hope under extreme conditions. Just as Simpson and his donkey were lifelines to the wounded soldiers, the boat is our lifeline. Although she doesn’t move very fast, we ultimately depend on her sturdiness and reliability to carry us to safety.

Give us an insight into the boat itself: how it operates, what it holds, what happens in emergencies, and so on.
We will be rowing one of the latest and fastest ocean rowing boats available in the world. The boat is designed and manufactured in the UK by Rannoch Adventures. The hull is moulded from a blend of fibreglass and carbon, making it extremely strong but lightweight. The boat is self-righting, so in the event of rough weather capsising our vessel (which will most definitely happen) the boat is designed to roll back over by itself (as long as the hatches are firmly shut!). We will have solar panels and battery systems on-board to power a water-maker that we will use to make our drinking water. We also have a GPS system for navigation, an electrical autopilot which controls the rudder, a VHF radio, an AIS beacon which identifies our position to other ships, GPS tracking devices, emergency beacons and a satellite telephone for communication.

We’ve seen the map of your intended cycling route through Australia; it looks long, hot and dry. How do you make sure you have enough water on a cycle like that?
I just need to carry enough water containers to last a couple of long days cycling at a time. There are normally water stops at no more than 300km intervals, from what I can tell from my research, so a couple of big days on the bike would mean maybe carrying eight to 10 litres of water capacity.

What sort of training have you been doing or will you be doing before you leave?
Lots of rowing training, strength training in the gym three times a week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday), rowing on the erg (Tuesday and Thursday), and rowing the boat itself at the weekends. That’s the physical prep; there is also a massive amount of technical prep and training to do with the boat and systems onboard so I can not only operate them but also service and repair them.

How can people get involved or follow your adventure?
The journey is set to start in January 2017. You can follow my progress through my Facebook page or website.

Are you actually heading to NZ for good? Or will Singapore see more of Axe in the future?
No, I will be returning to Singapore – but probably not by rowing boat!

Luckily there are other ways to keep fit in Singapore, we don’t all have to row an ocean or two.

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