Colin Quincey, the first person to row solo across the Tasman Sea, has passed away in Northland, aged 73.

Quincey, a longtime smoker, died of lung cancer at Kawakawa Hospital, having spent the past five years living in Paihia where he would row a small boat, and volunteer at the Citizens Advice Bureau.

In 1977, the 32-year-old Quincey was down to his last day of food when he crash-landed in the dark on the Sunshine Coast, 63 days after leaving the Hokianga Harbour in the open wooden Yorkshire dory he had built.

He had only a short-range radio for communication from his row boat, and reckoned his survival odds were 50/50 in those pre-GPS days.

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In a remarkable family feat, his son Shaun repeated the trans-Tasman row, in 54 days, from Australia to New Zealand in 2010. They are still the only solo rowers of the Tasman, and both men's boats are kept at Auckland's Maritime Museum.

Colin Quincey's life since he made the headlines was also adventure-filled.

"He had three wives...you could say he was a hard man to hang on to," Shaun Quincey told the Herald.

"Normal problems were never big enough for him. He needed bigger challenges."

These adventures included a solo sailing attempt to Tonga, where he would eventually teach, which ended with his yacht sinking near the Poor Knights Islands, after it struck a container. The man who had rowed alone across the Tasman required rescuing.

At the age of 60, he headed to Burma to help build a school, but was among a number of people taken hostage for three months by "local militia", according to Shaun.

Colin Quincey and two others managed to escape and kept going in fear for their lives, "swimming the Mekong River" along the way. His diary recorded it as "sad and scary" times.

Quincey had been painting houses in Ponsonby when he struck upon the Tasman rowing idea.

Forty years after his famous row, Quincey told the Herald the adventure was a grind of "eat, sleep, row". The highlights included an encounter with an orca longer than his boat, leading to a brief period of frantic rowing before realising it was a pointless exercise.

"I stopped and sat and chilled out and watched," he recalled.

"It came within about six metres of the boat and had a look for a few seconds. There was this big, black eye ... looking at me. The blackness of it was intense. I looked back and there was some sort of communication there.

"Spiritual? Yes. Absolutely magic. Was the trip worth it? Yeah, for that 15 seconds, yes...ultimately it's luck whether you get there or not."

Quincey, born in Hull, was an officer in the Royal Navy and after rowing the Tasman joined the New Zealand Navy, where his duties included running survival courses.

Reflecting on his father's incredible life, Shaun Quincey said his Tasman row had given Colin "a big chunk of confidence".

"He just liked adventure," he said.

Kiwi Scott Donaldson became the first solo kayaker to cross the Tasman Sea this month.