Grant Rawlinson is a Kiwi based in Singapore whose efforts to travel from Singapore to New Zealand by boat and bike are depicted in the documentary The Sea Decides, which is screening on June 20 at The Roxy, Wellington, 6.30pm with Q&A to follow. It is one of the many fine films at this year's Doc Edge Documentary Festival, all of which are available to watch online until July 11 at www.docedge.nz
I had an incredible childhood on a sheep farm in back-country Taranaki. There were just nine other kids at my primary school and three of them were my two sisters and brother. From an early age, I realised I preferred to use my own human power. I didn't enjoy motorbikes or horses as much as I liked paddling, biking or walking. I remember being a kid on the back of dad's motorbike, thinking I'd rather be running along beside it.
I loved boarding at New Plymouth Boys High. One of my biggest lessons I learnt there was when I was in seventh form and I didn't get into the First XV. I'd kind of expected to, so it was a massive shock and because I'd been over-confident, when it didn't happen, it was so painful. But the powerful lesson I learnt and have taken all through my life is that you can never take anything for granted.
I graduated from Otago with a Bachelor of Surveying, when I saw an opportunity on a notice board about a job in Singapore. This is before email, when you had to post a letter to apply for a job. Four months later, I got a phone call from a Singaporean chap who'd arrived in Dunedin to interview me. I freaked out, as I'd accepted another job in New Zealand and I'd completely forgotten about this one. But I thought, the least I could do was turn up and explain, he'd flown all that way after all. But he said, at least sit down and I'll share something about the job. He talked for an hour and I decided I really wanted to go to Singapore.
Singapore gave me amazing opportunities, including the chance to represent Singapore for rugby on the international stage. I went to the Hong Kong Sevens twice, and the second time, in 2002, I broke my leg. I had several operations but it never really healed. I lost all flexibility in my ankle and I lost speed. In October that same year, I was still hobbling when my team went to Bali for the 10-a-side tournament. I'd been the year before and it was amazing so, when they flew to Bali, I felt terribly sorry for myself because rugby was what I lived for. It was an outlet for my competitive streak and I loved the deep friendships and I never wanted my rugby playing days to end. While they were away, on Sunday morning, another teammate who also didn't go, called me. He said a bomb had gone off in Bali. One guy had walked to the ATM minutes before the blast and he survived, but the rest of my mates were in the bar. Eight out of the 15 who went lost their lives, and the others, bar one, were badly injured. There were so many funerals and memorial services. Seeing mothers bury their children, wives and parents grieving, it was horrific and from then on, I never felt sorry for myself again.
As my leg healed, my focus shifted back to the world of adventure. I'd done my first proper expedition in my early 20s when I walked across Scotland, from the west to the east coast. It took 19 days. And because I'd always been fascinated with Everest, towards the end of my rugby career, I moved into mountaineering. I went on two expeditions to Everest. The first in 2010 was a big failure and the second in 2011was successful and almost all our team stood on the summit. But I also invested $100,000 on those Everest expeditions, so I started to wonder, how could I have adventures without spending a lot of money?
Together, with my mate Alan, we devised a trip that started on the summit of Mt Ruapehu and ended on Aoraki/Mt Cook. We made the journey using 100 per cent human power, with as little support as possible. When we came down Mt Ruapehu, dad met us with our bikes and we cycled 70km to Taumarunui, where we put the boat in the water. We used an inflatable kayak that my wife and I call "the divorce machine" because we have such great arguments in it. Alan and I kayaked 240km to Whanganui with our bikes, then posted the divorce machine home and cycled to Makara Beach. We rented kayaks from a guy called Tim – our biggest expense – and Tim kayaked Cook Strait with us. From Picton we cycled to Mt Cook and we finished on the summit of Aoraki. It took 21 days and 19 hours on a budget of $2000 and our journey was entirely human-powered. For anyone who knows New Zealand, they'll understand our biggest challenge was weather. Sometimes you might wait months for the right moment, but it lined up so we could do it in 21 days, That was so lucky. Alan and I climbed Ben Nevis in Scotland next, then cycled 2000km to the English Channel, paddled across, then rode to Mont Blanc in France before doing similar things in Asia.
When I started planning to kayak from Singapore to Australia, cycle across Australia and row across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, a lot of people said I was foolhardy to take risks when I have two small children. But we manage risk in a responsible way, and there is huge preparation that no one sees. We have more communication and safety equipment on our boats than many ocean-going yachts. And driving down the motorway is not risk-free, but people do it, so it's how you frame that risk.
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Climbing Mt Everest was tough physically, being at altitude, but being on the Tasman Sea is much tougher mentally. Sometimes bad weather means you're stuck in the cabin for long periods, strapped in and tossed around like you're in a washing machine, going in the wrong direction, losing hundreds of kilometres. That's challenging, so I'd use what I call "shortcuts to mental strength". A bag of tricks to distract myself. I'd practice gratitude, meditating, mindfulness, all that stuff. At first, they worked for a few hours at a time as I cycled through my tools. As it got tougher I'd be cycling through them on a minute-by-minute basis ... try this, try that. But the biggest thing that kept me going was knowing that human-powered journeys are my life's purpose.
Coming back in on day 24 of my first attempt of the Tasman Sea, I arrived at a small town called Ballina. I'd done a massive 2200km circuit and this fishing port has a big breaking bar. The surf was so rough that day, the bar is closed, so I'm sitting there, a couple of miles offshore, because I've arranged to be towed across the bar, as it's not safe to row. As I waited, I called our meteorologist in Australia to say it hadn't worked, but as soon as I was in, I started planning to go again. Before I'd even landed from my first attempt, I was planning my second. That's my state of mind. I wasn't broken. Sure it was tough, but this is my purpose. And in life, when you have setbacks, you learn from them. When I think of my three attempts of the Tasman Sea, I've loved every one and the belief that I'm following my purpose gives me strength.
It was heartbreaking to travel between Singapore and Australia, to row through rubbish patches 50 nautical miles offshore and see all the human trash that had accumulated. I can explain it to people in a boardroom or a classroom, but they need to see it and feel it and smell it themselves, to really make that connection, that's what getting out in mother nature does. When you adventure into these places and see the effect human behaviour has on the planet, you can't help but develop a deep sense of stewardship for the environment.