‘Naked rower’ Tom Robinson speaks about 14-hour ordeal stranded at sea

By Chrissie Goldrick 11 October 2023
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Dubbed ‘the naked rower’ by mainstream media after being found by a cruise ship clinging naked to his upturned rowboat, Tom Robinson says he achieved everything he wanted to achieve on his journey, despite missing out on his planned world record.

As Tom Robinson headed out to sea from Vanuatu on 1 October this year, 15 months after leaving Peru to row, single-handedly, across the Pacific Ocean from South America to Australia, he had every reason to believe that most of the hard yakka was behind him and he was on the home straight. But at 5pm on Thursday 5 October, as Tom was sitting inside the cabin of his self-built wooden rowing boat Maiwar, contemplating dinner after a hard day’s rowing, a freak wave washed over the top of the little boat and flooded in through the open hatch.

“And then just like that, all of a sudden my whole world was turned upside down and I had to hold my breath because the cabin instantly filled,” says Tom, now safely reunited with his family at home in Brisbane.

Tom made what he calls a “fatal” error leaving the hatch open. “If the hatch had been closed, then the boat would’ve self-righted, and it’s often closed when it’s rough. But to me, it didn’t seem at all rough enough to warrant closing the hatch, so I had it open to let air into the cabin.”

Tom Robinson’s trans-Pacific rowing feat was supported by the Australian Geographic Society. Image credit: courtesy Tom Robinson

Luckily for Tom, it didn’t prove to be a fatal error, but the next 14 hours would see the 24-year-old Australian Geographic Society–sponsored ocean adventurer clinging, naked, cold and wet, to the hull of his little boat, buffeted by wind and smacked by waves until a cruise ship arrived to pluck him to safety the next morning.

“The boat was upside down and the cabin full of water. I had to swim out and climb onto the top of the boat and it was getting dark. I made a few attempts to right the boat, which were unsuccessful, and by that stage, the Epirb emergency system was already going off, so I secured myself with ropes and clung to the hull for the next 14 hours just praying and hoping that help would come,” he says.

In 2021, a few months after qualifying as a boatbuilder after a four-year apprenticeship, Tom quit his job and laid the keel of the ocean rowing boat he designed by hand and eye. He then worked six days a week for five months, handcrafting a traditional and sustainable wooden boat that would withstand the rigours of an 8,500 nautical mile (15,700km) trans-Pacific journey. The boat – named ‘Maiwar’ after the Aboriginal name for the Brisbane River – is 7.3m long by 2m wide and weighs over one tonne when fully loaded. Image credit: courtesy Tom Robinson

Close to midnight Tom heard a plane flying overhead. Despite the darkness, the pilot of the Noumea-based French aircraft spotted Tom standing up on the red and white hull. As dawn broke a second spotter plane flew over, later followed by the arrival of P & O’s Pacific Explorer which took a 180 nautical mile detour to make the dramatic rescue. Tom acknowledges how lucky he was the ship was sailing so close to his position, about 100nm west southwest of Luganville in Vanuatu.

How did suddenly finding himself aboard a grand luxury ship among 2000 guests feel? “Yeah, it was a very big shock, and it was all very surreal. I’d never been on a cruise ship before. Everyone wanted to take pictures with me, and other people wanted to kill me,” he says.

Tom was just 50 days from home when disaster struck. Image credit: courtesy Tom Robinson

Tom’s expedition began in Peru in July 2022. The then 23-year-old boat builder from Brisbane aimed to fulfil a childhood dream be the youngest person to row across the Pacific Ocean, the first to do so in a boat designed and built by themselves and with hopes to complete the second longest rowing journey in history.

His experiences on the first leg of his epic voyage undoubtedly equipped Tom with the mental strength and survival skills to endure what was to come later. His planned 75-day crossing from Peru to the Marquesas turned into a 160-day marathon after winds and currents knocked him off course. He eventually made landfall on remote Penrhyn Island in the Cook Islands in December 2022 after a tough battle with prevailing currents which had seen him rowing hard for 10-12 hours each day, living off limited rations.

For the past nine months, Tom has threaded his way through various island nations of the South Pacific connecting with people and cultures whose lives are dependent on healthy productive seas. “There’s a simplicity in the way that the Pacific islander people I met live that is so beautiful,” he says.

“That’s something that I’ll always remember and always aspire to be like that. Their Christian faith is just so impressive to me and stands out as an amazing feature of their lives and something that will always stay with me. And they’re happy people and kind people. And I think above all, they’re selfless people. They would give you the shirt off their back, and sometimes they tried to. I think we could all learn to be a bit more selfless.”

Tom surrounded by new friends at a church gathering in Luganville on Espiritu Santo Island, Vanuatu, shortly before he headed out to sea for the final stage of his trans-Pacific crossing. Image credit: courtesy Tom Robinson

Tom was just 50 days from home when disaster struck, and I ask him if he’s had time to reflect on the journey and missing out on those rowing records yet amid the media scramble that’s ensued since news of “the naked rower” hit the headlines a few days ago.

“To be honest” says Tom, “finishing off that last 50 days wasn’t that important to me. It’s not about the record in the end, it’s about the experience along the way. The whole journey was far more exciting and adventurous, enjoyable and terrible than I could have ever imagined, and I had a lot more of an adventure than I ever expected to. I think a lot of people will just read the website or the headlines, and the headline is that ‘he didn’t make it’, I guess. But for me, yeah, I really did achieve everything I wanted to achieve. I couldn’t really ask for more.”

Related: Tom Robinson shares epic tales from first leg of world record-breaking solo journey