Michele Hewitson Interview: Shaun Quincey

By Michele Hewitson

Shaun Quincey followed in his father's wake to become only the second person to row solo across the Tasman. Photo / Richard Robinson
Shaun Quincey followed in his father's wake to become only the second person to row solo across the Tasman. Photo / Richard Robinson

Shaun Quincey, who in March became the second person to row solo across the Tasman, hasn't rowed for longer than 10 minutes since. Fair enough. He spent 54 days rowing - when he wasn't drifting, crying, trying and mostly failing to sleep, worrying about sharks and container ships. I was beginning to suspect he doesn't even like rowing.

"Me?" he said. "I like surf rowing." Which is not proper rowing. "No, I don't like it." In fact, he hates rowing. "Yeah. Pretty much!"

He's written about his adventure in Tasman Trespasser II: The Shaun Quincey Story (published on November 1), and in his book he relates the story of his first time on a rowing machine, at Takapuna Grammar, as a 14-year-old. He rowed 2km. This was obviously a formative experience. He cried and vomited. Those 2km were "horrific, and by far one of the most painful experiences I'd ever done".

So of course he thought, when he turned 24, that rowing across the Tasman - nearly 4000km, from Coff's Harbour to Ninety Mile Beach, where he came ashore - might be fun.

Fun! "I just thought some of it would be fun: rolling down the big waves and seeing the wildlife." He was failing to convince either of us.

There were about three minutes of what some people might call fun. He saw an albatross. He had a chat to a whale. What did he say to the whale? "I said, 'How're you going? Far out!"' He had not gone completely mad because he didn't imagine that the whale answered.

He is terrified of sharks and he is a surf lifesaver, another aspect of him that makes complete sense. He had to steel himself - and this could take hours - to get into the water to scrub barnacles from his boat. "Well, I just hate sharks! They're bloody awful things. No one likes them you know! Only a few National Geographic people like them."

So it makes perfect sense, that when he grew up he'd get, as he puts it, a bee in his bonnet, about rowing across the Tasman when you pretty much hate rowing, and where you will have to get in water where there may be bloody awful sharks. He doesn't know why he did it. He said, "maybe I'm still just trying to convince myself."

He says he was bored. He got his big idea after he realised he was bored while swimming in the Auckland Harbour Crossing, in 2008, with a hangover. I have no idea how you manage to get bored while swimming with a hangover, but he did. He gets bored, obviously, easily.

When he reached NZ after his row, he said: "It was boring and stressful and I've done it." He was frightened almost all of the time and he got bored with being frightened.

I reminded him of that first "horrific" experience on the rowing machine, and that to then take on the Tasman made no sense at all. He said, "No, not at all." As an adventurer, he's a paradox. He's the most laid-back person I've ever met, and is fiercely competitive.

He is terrified of flying, mostly, he suspects because of the lack of control. So he went to sea in a tiny boat in which he was at the whim of waves and weather. He is madly obsessive, but for short periods, then he's over that obsession and is happy enough having nothing to obsess about.

He's not a particularly emotional or reflective person who went to sea, alone, on a harrowing adventure which you'd have thought tested his emotions and caused him to reflect. He doesn't much enjoy his own company. He likes to talk. "I'm at my worst when I'm not around other people."

I'd have guessed that the bee was his father, Colin, who was the first to row solo across the Tasman, from NZ to Australia, in 1977, before his son was born. I read a line from his father's book, in which he says he believes he came back from his adventure a better and wiser person. Has his son? "Umm. Maybe wiser. I don't think I'm better. I'm pretty much the same as I was." He managed not to find out anything about himself. "No!" This was a concept madder than hating rowing and rowing across the Tasman. He had thought he might "come back with a few sort of psychological things going on. But no."

He had no moments of spiritual epiphany. "I guess I'm less spiritual now." How spiritual was he before? "Not very!"

How to put this? He's a straight up sort of bloke so: "Who is this book for?" He had a stab. "Um, I think for people who followed the adventure. I really tried to write the book so that anyone could read it and understand a little bit about the journey. I think just anyone who's interested in a bit of an adventure."

He said this perhaps hopefully. Then he said, "who do you think will read it?"

I said I had no idea because, really, is this supposed to be an inspirational book? "No!" he said, because despite what you might think before you meet him, he appears entirely sane.

You wouldn't say that writing his book was the most enjoyable experience of his life. To write it he had to re-live his 54 days in that damn boat, so you could say he's done it twice - and it was, as he would put it, bloody awful.

He says that when he was writing, he'd sometimes start sweating and have to go to bed or do some exercise to take his mind off being back in that tiny, dank, damp cabin where he once spent seven days in a row cooped up, trying not to go mad, - or to give up, which for him would probably have been the least attractive option.

I had a go at summing up his adventure for him. It was boring. "Yeah." He had blisters on his bum and a nasty rash all over. "Yeah." He was hot and cold and wet and he ran out of loo paper. "Ha, ha. Yeah." He was sleep deprived, depressed, unhappy, lonely and bored. "Yeah, that pretty much describes it." Had I missed anything? "No. That's pretty much the trip. It was an ordeal. It was pretty much about finishing it really."

I wondered whether he'd managed to explain to readers why he'd done it. That was the wrong question. He hadn't tried. Had he managed to explain why to himself? That's probably the real question. "Yeah, I'd say so. I still don't really understand why I did that! I was incredibly driven to do it. It was all I wanted to do. But I don't understand why it meant so much to me at the time, no."

After reading his book you can't help but conclude that his attempt was also an attempt to get closer to his father - although that may be too much of a psychological thing. His parents separated when he was six and he chose to live with his mother, while his brother went with his father. He writes about having lived in 26 houses by the time he was 17.

His father writes in his book that when he made his decision to row the Tasman, he had just resigned from his sixteenth job in 11 years. He has moved around over the years: from running an orphanage in Cambodia and building schools in Tonga and now lives in Darwin. He refers to his life as "kaleidoscopic". When Quincey was 16, he wrote to his father asking: "Why are you doing all this stuff? You've got a family here?" He couldn't explain it. He just felt there's a need to go and help other people around the world."

They have a close relationship now but there's no need to get all emotional about things. His father gave him a copy of his favourite book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, to take on the boat. His son used it as a coaster for his coffee cup. When he emailed his father to tell him he wanted to row the Tasman, he replied: "That's a good idea."

He says he never considered his attempt as being a competition with his father but "people will always compare it". He writes, "I didn't even want to consider not sharing the accolades with my father." Which says a bit, doesn't it? "I think so, yeah."

He is a jolly and amiable fellow who looks a bit Hobbit-ish - with his curly hair and friendly face and because he is happily stout and he likes a drink and a good feed. It's possible, if fanciful, to imagine that an interview with a Hobbit would be a bit like an interview with him. He's a chap who happened to row across the Tasman but who still can't figure out why he embarked on such an adventure when it's so much more comfortable at home.

I said, "We haven't really got any nearer to why you did it, have we?" He said, habitually cheerful, "No. I don't really know. No idea." Perhaps, I said, hopefully, it was a heroic thing to do. He said, "Nah. It was selfish and stupid. But somehow I'm pretty rapt with myself!"

- NZ Herald

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