Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Rowers driven by the power of love

Mal and Sarah Skelton want to raise awareness of the disease Friedreich's Ataxia. Photo / Supplied
Mal and Sarah Skelton want to raise awareness of the disease Friedreich's Ataxia. Photo / Supplied

This is a story about the power of love, and the might of friendship.

For Mal Skelton, love will power his arms through 700,000 strokes of the oar across 2141km of the Tasman Sea.

For his mate Scott Petrie, knowing he is being there for a friend will help him push through the pain and discomfort of more than 50 days propelling 24ft of plywood, fibreglass, dehydrated food and dreams across an unforgiving stretch of water.

The two men - one a Kiwi, the other an Aussie - are rowing from Coffs Harbour, northern New South Wales, to New Plymouth, leaving on October 29 and aiming to make landfall 50 days later.

The pair, who have never met, but formed a friendship online through a shared passion for endurance kayaking, are seeking sponsors and support to help them raise $200,000 to $250,000 and recognition for the disease Friedreich's Ataxia. Money raised will go to the Friedreich Ataxia Research Association (Fara).

It's personal.

Kiwi-born Mr Skelton's wife of 17 years, Sarah, was diagnosed with the neurological muscular disorder at the age of 14. It causes progressive damage to the nervous system, and the mother of his two children has been wheelchair-bound for the past two years.

"We just celebrated her second year of not dying, because she should have been dead at 36. She's taken on the fight against it like I have taken on the fight to fundraise for it. It would be easy to sit there and go 'there's no treatment, there's no cure, there's no hope' and give up. But she's taken the attitude that 'as long as I'm here, there's hope'."

He knows a large body of water fuelled by powerful currents pushing up from the Southern Ocean lies between him and his contribution towards the search for a cure.

But Sarah will get him there, Mr Skelton said.

She has written him letters to open during tough moments on the journey and will travel from their Cairns home to meet him on arrival in New Plymouth.

"This will be the longest we've been apart. I'm not going to get homesick, but I'm going to get Sarah-sick. I'm going to miss her so much. I've got 700,000 strokes of the oar to do and I'm rowing towards my wife. Every stroke gets me closer to her and a cure.

The ocean-going kayak will require 700,000 strokes of the oar to cross 2141km of the Tasman Sea from NSW to Taranaki. Photo / Supplied
The ocean-going kayak will require 700,000 strokes of the oar to cross 2141km of the Tasman Sea from NSW to Taranaki. Photo / Supplied

"I just want to grow old with my wife, I want her to see our kids grow and have kids of their own."

He did not have words to express his gratitude towards Mr Petrie for joining him on the journey.

"I'm grateful beyond words."

The men, who will document their journey online, will pack supplies for 80 days at sea, but are aiming to complete the crossing in 50.

They will take turns to row and rest in two-hour shifts and had already discussed what to do if deprivation and stress caused tempers to flare, Mr Skelton said.

Air it.

"You can't sit there and stew on something. We can't have negative vibes on the boat."

How to help

Information and donations can be made directly on the Fara website at fara.org.au Donations should have #row as the reference. Facebook page for the row: http://on.fb.me/24U9DBO

- NZ Herald

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