The row less travelled

By Huw Kingston 17 August 2016
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You might think that circumnavigating the Mediterranean would be a relatively easy adventure. Think row boat, think four-metre waves, think Force 7-8 winds and think again.

THE ANGLED CATWALK ended on the highest stage in Europe, the 4810m summit of Mont Blanc. A cloud sea stretched beneath my boots and the day could hardly be more perfect. Switching on my phone to snap some summit photos in came emails that I was not about to read on the top of Europe. But something led my eye to just one: From: Marin Medak. Subject: My plans have changed…

I opened it and scanned the words.

“We failed to get funding for the new business. I want to do the row with you. I will organise everything.”

These words gave me as big a high as the summit itself. I was five months into my mediterr année journey; a year-long attempt to circumnavigate the Mediterranean from Gallipoli back to Gallipoli.

huw kingston rowing mediterranean

During the attempt to beat an approaching storm, distances each shift were scrawled on the wall to motivate each other. (Image: Huw Kingston)

I’d met Marin Medak, a young Slovenian adventurer, just before my trek across the Alps had begun near Slovenia. He had read of my journey on social media via a Greek kayaker. A couple of years earlier Marin had headed an expedition to row across the Atlantic.

Since leaving Turkey I’d pondered the problem of Libya; of entering and traversing a country racked by civil war that was, by any measure, something of a basket case. Cycling across its 1800km width was not advised.

As I trekked through the incomparable Dolomites, it hit me. While the Libyans were having an argument, could I not have a row? Could I not row from Tunisia and bypass Libya by heading across the guts of the Mediterranean? I called Marin. He was happy to help but couldn’t join me, as he was busy seeking funding for a new business venture. Then a month later, in one stroke of magic, everything changed with that email on the summit of Mont Blanc.

As I continued my journey on foot, bike and back in the sea kayak through France and Spain and across to Africa, I also became the owner of an ocean rowboat. Never in my wildest dreams had this been in my plans… or my budget. Marin found a boat located on Cape Verde off West Africa. He flew there to close the deal, work on the boat and organise the shipping to Tunisia.

After Christmas I pedalled on through Morocco and a bizarre 1500km ride across Algeria complete with police escort. Often a vehicle front and back and a couple of BMW motorcycle outriders too. Through towns and cities the sirens would wail and the traffic was held up at red lights and roundabouts. Was it the President? No just a middle-aged bloke on a mountain bike. Crossing into Tunisia I regained my freedom and in late January arrived by bike to Hammamet and its marina. A few days later Marin arrived by ferry from Italy, weighed down by vast quantities of luggage. The first thing I noticed was the endless pots of Sudocrem. The reality of the next stage was starting to sink in.

huw kingston rowing mediterranean

A sea of clouds swirl around the Alps as Huw soaks up the view from Mont Blanc. (Image: Huw Kingston)

Our first challenge was to release Mr Hops, our boat. Day after day we took the 70km journey to Tunis Port. As we jumped through one hoop the Tunisian Customs would throw another high in front of us. Some were reasonable, others farcical. But we played the game and jumped hoops for Mr Hops. We visited office after office but mostly we waited then, after waiting, we waited some more. We drank bad coffee and spoke bad French.

Finally, after a week of paperwork, everything changed once the Customs had inspected Mr Hops. Despite us telling them, even showing them pictures, they were, I think, expecting to find a fancy speedboat owned by these Australian and Slovenian playboys. What they found when they opened the container was a very dusty, rather worn looking craft resting on a few old tyres. “Il n’y a pas moteur?” they asked. There is no motor?

Previously we had been told we would pay a large bond, returnable when we rowed away from Tunisia. But when they saw Mr Hops, they took pity and reduced the bond to zero. In bitterly cold conditions we made Mr Hops ready and stocked with supplies for 40 days. Whilst it is not considered good luck to change a boat’s name nor make it a male, the boat was launched, with beer over the stern, as Mr Hops. This was a nice beer-flavoured counterpart to my sea kayak, the wine focussed Miss Grape. He would also allow me to hopefully ‘hop’ past Libya. Finally, on 12 February, Marin rowed us away from Hammamet. When my first shift came soon after there was one small thing; I’d never rowed before.

It was hard to get into a pattern of living with never more than an hour of sleep. The blisters and sores came as expected; the Sudocrem well used. The build plate on Mr Hops included the line: ‘This boat is built for ocean rowing only and is NOT for pleasure use’.

huw kingston rowing mediterranean

(Image: Huw Kingston)

We made good progress for six days to within 50km of Malta before the sea and wind got up. We lay on the para anchor for 24 hours before rowing into the most vicious storm and a tow for the last miles into Gozo Island. Here, in a house straight out of Game of Thrones, Australian couple Lisa and Ian found and looked after us royally.

I could now add ‘ocean rowing’ to my resume but not yet with the prefix ‘expert’. But I was getting there. On one shift, deep in the night with the sea and wind running onto our stern, it all clicked; I felt the rhythm. Full compression, good catch in the water, late pull on the oars. I didn’t stop to eat or drink for two hours lest it all fall apart. On my next shift it did.

The call from the man on the oars goes, “10 minutes!” You pull the sleeping bag closer… “Eight minutes!” You sit up, banging your head on the roof and pull on jacket and pants. Check the watch; five minutes to go. Eat, pull on shoes and throw open the hatch door. “Good morning/Good evening/How’s the temperature?” asks one. “Did you sleep?” asks the other. You reach for the cut-off plastic bottle and pee. I’ve never known an activity where you pee so much. A final glance at your watch and, at the allotted hour, to the minute, swap places. You start rowing, he pees, climbs inside, eats, peels off clothing, closes the hatch, sleeps. “10 minutes!”…

Finally the storm eased – a little. After a grand send off from Gozo we rowed away.

A big following sea greeted us – three to four metre waves, Force 7-8 winds – which saw Mr Hops surfing at an exhilarating six knots or more. A big wave broke across the cockpit providing a good soaking, but emerging from that we saw our EPIRB flashing and beeping. Malta Marine Rescue called us on the radio: “You’ve set off your EPIRB. Do you require a rescue?” We explained not.

huw kingston rowing mediterranean

Evening sunlight lights up the Alps as Huw descends from the Mont Blanc summit. (Image: Huw Kingston)

We had little choice but to head for Valletta on Malta, it being our last land before Crete two or more weeks away. We needed to investigate the EPIRB issue. In darkness we flew along the coast of Malta, trying to pick the navigation lights into Valletta. Marin expertly guided Mr Hops inside the breakwater, rebound making for very confused seas.
“Row, row, row, keep rowing!” came the shout from behind. I looked back and there was a Pilot boat. They threw a line aboard and, just in the nick of time, pulled us out of the path of a large ship steaming out from Valletta Grand Harbour.

We waited out more wild weather. Everyone from Algeria to Malta had been telling me this was the coldest, stormiest winter in the Southern Mediterranean for many years. The wind dictated what we did and to a very large extent where we went. As Marin said, “This is so much harder than rowing the Atlantic with its consistent swell, its predictable wind.” It is why these unwieldy craft – bathtubs of the ocean – have rarely traversed Mediterranean waters. We were aiming for Crete then Cyprus, but those plans were blown away.

We left Malta on the morning of 26 February. It was wet and cold for the first 36 hours and, with southerly winds, we headed toward Sicily. Both Marin and I felt less than average – he used the bucket and I wasn’t far from it. It is the lethargy that gets you. Everything is a chore; nothing appeals to eat and you become aware of burning up but not replacing energy. I fell asleep at the oars on more than one occasion. The Italian Coastguard came to spotlight us one night by ship and buzzed us one day by plane. Not desperate refugees trying to escape troubled zones in North Africa but doing this for a challenge of choice. A pod of dolphins travelled with us one night. A sparkling, mesmerising show of phosphorescence as they swam around and under Mr Hops.

Then, finally, came some warmth. The wind came with us too and sickness was blown away. We passed through the area on the Mediterranean Sea furthest from any land, with Italy far to our north and Libya far to our south. In celebration I pulled out a freeze-dried Mediterranean Fish Stew. Much like the Mediterranean itself, there wasn’t much fish in it.

huw kingston rowing mediterranean

(Image: Huw Kingston)

The westerlies pushed us toward Crete, averaging some 90-100km per day and night combined. At night a full moon lit things up and Mr Hops glided on a roadway of silver. Jure, our meteorologist, warned of a change afoot: of a very strong easterly wind that would reach us before we reached Crete; a wind that would stop us dead in our tracks and send us scuttling, helpless, backwards for at least three days. Initially it was a throwaway line I used, like tossing a baitless hook into the sea. “Perhaps we should go north to the Peloponnese in Greece?”

Some bad wind hit us and we paid out the para anchor again. For another 24 hours we were jolted left, right, left, right by waves. Every organ in my body was smashed against its neighbour in a cabin designed for one, not two. I slept not a wink. Then Marin announced a plan. This young man, possessed of fierce intellect and determination, had sketched out a ‘give it our all’ option to reach the Peloponnese. We might, might just make it in time. But it was all or nothing, never mind the bollocks, every second counts rowing for 36 hours or so.

The wind swung in our favour and we hauled in the para anchor and started rowing again. But I had become lazy; my strokes insincere. With less than 50 days to the end of my year-long journey, I was thinking too much of that end. I was thinking of time back home with family, of the smells and sounds of Australia… I was letting the team down and had no excuse. Marin kicked me in the butt and I woke up to myself, and our position. We began to scrawl the distance covered per shift onto the inside of the cabin wall. H: 4.3 miles, M: 4.3 miles, H: 4.6 miles, M: 4.7 miles, H: 5.1 miles, M: 5.5 miles. We pulled on those oars like there was no tomorrow; we stuffed food into ourselves, we grabbed sleep, we pulled…

Land appeared hung over by grey, rain squalls hit us, we pulled…

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Beach riding in southern France. (Image: Huw Kingston)

We planned one landing place then another as time and weather changed. Finally we took aim for tiny Finikounta. Marin’s cogs and wheels whirred and ground, calculating drift, wind, what time the easterly would hit that could mean all was in vain. He feverishly plugged new waypoints into the GPS and as if to challenge him further our electronic compass said thanks and goodnight. Bastard! We pulled…

Darkness fell and the light show began. Clouds, blacker than the night, issued sea-shaking claps of thunderous applause first, before then opening their bladders to piss on us. Bastards! Hail, rain, cold. We pulled…

As we came toward small Venetiko Island it was Marin’s shift. I peeled off soaked gear in the cabin and tried to warm up. Then I heard it amongst our tiny radio masts. I heard the whistle of a new wind. The wicked witch of the east had arrived. Bastard, bastard, bastard! Soon the sea was up and Marin, already 24 hours into this marathon, pulled ever harder toward the island. I shouted instructions: “Two miles… 1.7 miles… one mile…” Another cloud dropped its load and waves broke on rocks nearby, unmarked on our chart. “0.4 miles… 0.3 miles… 0.2 miles… ” Mr Hops came around to turn up the lee of the island as the moon found a gap from which to shed some light. It was 8pm and we were some seven nautical miles from Finikounta.

huw kingston rowing mediterranean

During the attempt to beat an approaching storm, distances each shift were scrawled on the wall to motivate each other. (Image: Huw Kingston)

The respite was temporary before we again felt the full force of the wind through the gap between island and headland. It was my turn once more. I squeezed Marin’s shoulder hard as we swapped places and he collapsed into the cabin. Still tired arms pulled on the oars, wasted legs sprung lifelessly against the footplate. The wind blew us sideward but Mr Hops inched his way across the gap. I was certain that, once in the lee of the headland, all would be calm. But we were pushed further out from it. Progress was painfully slow; less than a mile in two hours. I tried to pull back toward the land but my resolve began to weaken. It was Marin’s turn soon. It was pouring rain. Better he sleep and stay dry than cop another soaking. I didn’t wake him. I buckled down and rowed as hard as I had ever rowed before and finally, finally, found myself in calm water aside from raindrops on its surface. I rowed another hour before the realisation all I was doing was dropping a blade in the water and pulling it straight out again. I called, “10 minutes.” After four hours and with two miles to go, I climbed into the sleeping bag, wet clothing and all.

As torches and headlights flashed from the wall of the tiny harbour of Finikounta I climbed out of the cocoon into a handshake offered from Marin Medak. “It is unbelievable what we have done Huw,” he said. An hour later, or even less, we would not have been there.

There, at 4am on Sunday 8 March, was a small gathering of people. Amongst them, here in a place we never intended to be, arriving by a mode of transport I never intended to use on my journey, was Stavros Georgarakis, the Greek kayaker through whom Marin had first learned of my journey.

Amongst the unbelievable hospitality those following days, Finikounta had one other surprise. On the narrow main street, the only street, a mannequin stood forlornly in a doorway seemingly attached to no shop, belonging to no one. It wore a faded navy sweatshirt emblazoned with ‘Rowing League’ and ‘Heritage Rowing Club’.

Huw’s mediterr année journey began at Gallipoli on 26 April 2014 and finished back there, 363 days, 14,000km and 17 countries later. He was raising funds for Save the Children.

In September 2016, Huw is touring Australia talking about his expedition. Find out more.