Aborted kayak bid shows scale of challenge

By Geoff Cumming

Previous tragedy and earlier gear failures illustrate difficulty of Tasman

Scott Donaldson with his wife Sarah after being rescued off the Taranaki coast. Photo / Glenn Jeffey
Scott Donaldson with his wife Sarah after being rescued off the Taranaki coast. Photo / Glenn Jeffey

Scott Donaldson's aborted attempt to cross the Tasman Sea illustrates just how treacherous the ocean can become in intense storms — and the size of the challenge that the kayaker faced.

The only previous solo crossing by kayak ended in tragedy in February 2007, when Australian adventurer Andrew McAuley, 39, was presumed to have drowned 35 nautical miles (65km) off Milford Sound after his kayak capsized.

In 2008, Australians James Castrission and Justin Jones made history when they became the first people to kayak from Australia to New Zealand.

The pair also set the record for the longest ocean crossing by a two-man kayak. Their adventure took 62 days.

Donaldson abandoned his first attempt in April last year after only two days when the cockpit of his kayak developed a leak.

He left Coff's Harbour on April 19 on his second attempt, the departure timed for helpful currents.

But within a fortnight he lost battery power forcing him to put ashore at Lord Howe Island on May 6.

A violent storm on June 10 wrecked his rudder, slowing progress and requiring more energy to keep the craft on course while paddling. Around the same time the desalinator he used for fresh water packed up. He was about 350 miles from land at the time. He has since required three air drops of food and water. An attempt to repair the rudder, using equipment dropped on June 20, was abandoned after water began to flood a rear compartment.

However, late last week he closed to within 30 miles of land and preparations for a New Plymouth welcome began. But this week's fierce winds drove him about 10 miles further from shore. Donaldson hunkered down in his cabin, strapped into his bed, to ride out the storm. Midweek, his support team were buoyed by a forecast change to northwesterlies. It was hoped he would be able to resume paddling overnight and reach Opunake early next week.

But conditions on Thursday night were the worst he had encountered. The kayak rolled three times and he sustained injuries to his face and chest when the straps on his bed failed. Even worse conditions were predicted for overnight with winds peaking at 60 knots. He requested a rescue around lunchtime.

The attempt was shoestring-funded. His small support team included wife Sarah, Rotorua policeman Nigel Escott and Auckland kayak manufacturer Gordon Robinson.

They kept in contact by Satphone and a satellite tracking advice which plotted the kayak's whereabouts. When Satphone contact was lost for 11 hours last Friday, Escott sent a search plane up before contact resumed. Sarah Donaldson's call for help when food and water supplies were needed in June was answered by Taupo-based pilot John Funnell, who flew three missions to drop supplies.

His kayak is a modified version of a standard Outbacker model design by Robinson's Silverdale firm, Barracuda, with a cabin big enough to accommodate Donaldson's 1.9m frame to sleep and allow him to sit up and stretch in bad weather.

He was equipped with a personal locator beacon, emergency locator beacon, VHF radio, GPS backup devices and liferaft.

Donaldson had hoped the mission would raise money for Asthma NZ. The multisport veteran, 44, suffers from asthma, as does his 4-year-old son Zak. But the mishaps and assistance flights have left the team struggling to meet costs. Contributions can be made on his website.

- NZ Herald

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