Travel: the adventurer who rowed across the Mediterranean

Two hours on, two hours off is the only way to get an ocean rowing boat across the Mediterranean, discovers adventurer and author Huw Kingston

Huw Kingston rowing on Mr Hops. Picture: Huw Kingston
Huw Kingston rowing on Mr Hops. Picture: Huw Kingston
Huw Kingston rowing on Mr Hops. Picture: Huw Kingston

In 2014 Australian adventurer and environmentalist Huw Kingston set off from Gallipoli on a year-long circumnavigation of the Mediterranean which saw him visit 17 countries as he travelled by kayak, foot, ocean rowing boat and bike. In this extract from the book recounting his adventures, he leaves Tunisia with a new travel companion in a boat called Mr Hops.

Finally, on 12 February, after clearing customs and border police and on a beautiful morning, Marin rowed us away from Yasmine Hammamet. Vili had come to see us off and there was much we had to thank that fine man for. The long oars dipped into the Mediterranean waters and we headed east, away from the Tunisian coast. When my first shift came around there was just one small thing. I’d never rowed before. I also realised that for the next 2,000km I would be facing west again, facing away from Turkey.

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After a couple of hour-long shifts to ease me in and some pointers from Marin, we soon dropped into the two hours on, two hours off rhythm that would to be strictly adhered to day and night. When my head lay on the frilly cased pillow for the first time I pondered how I’d cope, how my body would cope. But as we set off to row across the Mediterranean I also realised that any suffering was self-imposed; was nothing compared to that experienced by the tide of refugees flooding out of Syria right then, or the Anzac diggers trapped on the beaches of Gallipoli a hundred years before.

A headwind slowed our progress in the first 24 hours out of Tunisia, and I soon learned that these bathtubs of the ocean stall in any sort of headwind or sidewind. Pushing a tonne around the water with a couple of sticks is not conducive to speed. A few fishing trawlers came close during our first night, reminding us that throughout our voyage we needed to be alert for shipping.

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 was well used. I rowed whilst watching, for entertainment, Marin pierce the blisters on his hands one by one. Clear fluid flowed down to his wrists and dripped into the bilge. Any muscle that had hidden away in the past 10 months of walking, kayaking and riding now had its day. Too often I fell asleep at the oars in rain or sun and on a couple of occasions slipped off the seat. The build plate on Mr Hops ominously included the line: ‘This boat is built for ocean rowing only and is NOT for pleasure use.’ I could see that plate from the rowing position and those words shouted to me day and night.

I could add ‘ocean rowing’ to my CV now, but not yet with the prefix ‘expert’. That remained the domain of Marin Medak, who outrowed me by a third as much on our two hour shifts. Then again his legs were a third longer and 50 per cent younger; poor excuses I know. But I was getting there. There was one shift, deep in the night with the sea and wind running onto our stern, when it all clicked; I felt the rhythm. Full compression of the legs each stroke, good catch in the water, late pull on the oars with legs fully extended. I didn’t stop to eat or drink for 90 minutes lest it all fall apart. On the next shift it did.

‘Ten minutes,’ goes the call from the man on the oars … You pull the sleeping bag a bit closer around your neck. ‘Seven minutes,’ you hear. You sit up, bang your head on the cabin roof which tends to wake you fully, and pull on jacket, trousers. Don’t forget to smear your butt with Sudocrem. Check your watch – five minutes to go. You pull on shoes and throw open the hatch door. ‘Good morning/Good evening/How’s the temperature?’ says one. ‘Did you sleep?’ says the other. You reach for the cut-off plastic bottle and piss downwind. I’ve never known an activity where you pee so much. A final glance at your watch, pull on the gloves and at the allotted hour, to the minute, we swap places. You start rowing, he pees, climbs inside, eats, peels off clothing, closes the hatch, sleeps.

‘Ten minutes’ goes the call from the man on the oars …

Marin called the shots and I was not about to rock the boat. There were three main reasons. Firstly he was way more competent than me; secondly he had done so much to make this leg of my journey a reality that I was happy, rarely for me, to put my fate in another’s hands. Finally I just didn’t have the energy beyond what I was doing now. There is a certain lethargy that gets you at sea.

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We made good progress for five days, to within 60km off Malta, before the sea and wind got up and we were forced onto the para anchor for a day and a half. Deploying this large cone of sailcloth into the water helped Mr Hops hold position as we sat out adverse wind and weather. Force six southerlies took us north before a sou’easter pushed us north-west. Finally the wind swung around to the north-east to push us back southwest. Mr Hops was doing circle work in the Mediterranean.

Not rowing was worse than rowing. With the two of us crammed into a cabin made for one there was little comfort, and each wave that smashed into Mr Hops reverberated through our bodies and tossed us into each other. I couldn’t face food, managing a couple of oranges and a slice of cake in the whole period. Worse was that, with two of us in the cabin only one got to rest his head on the frilly pillow. Marin claimed both purchaser’s and skipper’s rights.

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Via a poorly functioning satellite phone, Jure told us that the big easterly storm was now due around the afternoon of 18 February. We were able to start rowing again on the morning of the 17th, and that night the wind swung in our favour, from the west. Behind our backs the lights of Malta showed and beckoned us on. Ships became more numerous, heading for the narrow channel between Malta, the main island, and Gozo.

But by dawn on the 18th it seemed unlikely we would beat the storm, and when an easterly sprung up soon after, that seemed to seal it. It became a waste of time rowing into it so out went the para anchor again. The cliffs of Gozo were little more than 15km away and whilst there was no chance of landing amongst them they represented something solid so close by. The Maltese authorities confirmed Jure’s prediction; around noon the weather was going to get ugly.

Mediterranean, a year around a charmed and troubled sea, by Huw Kingston is published by Whittles Publishing, £19.99.