Monday, September 07, 2009

Arrival Day + 1: HELLO TARAWA!

I stepped ashore, setting foot on dry land for the first time in 105
days. This was now my third arrival after prolonged periods at sea, so
I wasn't surprised when the ground seemed to lurch beneath my feet. My
brain had adapted to being on a constantly pitching boat, so now it
was over-compensating when I stood on terra firma. I looked up at the
crowd of several hundred people that had come to greet me, and
wondered if my first act on arriving in Tarawa would be to topple over
like a drunkard.

Then two big hunky men in traditional island outfits approached and
knelt in front of me, forming a cradle with their arms. "Thank heavens
for local tradition" I thought, as I sank gratefully onto the
proffered cradle.

I was carried to a plastic chair, and the hunky men were joined by
several more who performed a local dance of traditional welcome. I
felt like visiting royalty as I smiled appreciatively. They presented
me with a coconut, its top lopped off so I could drink the cool,
refreshing, sweet coconut water inside. It was exactly what I needed.
I was feeling a bit woozy after my exertions. It had been an
exhausting 3 days.

As I approached Tarawa from the south on Sept 4th, I hadn't been sure
if I would manage to make landfall under my own steam. Given the
strong easterly winds that had prevailed over the previous few days, I
thought it much more likely that I would get close to the island but
miss it by several miles, and would need a boat to come out to catch
me as I whizzed past.

But finally Neptune decided to give me a break. I had already made it
safely past the island of Abemama (where Robert Louis Stevenson lived
for a while). I was making good progress in a northwesterly direction,
but there was a problem. Unless I managed to shift course to north-
northwest, I would run slap into the island of Maiana. I had to choose
whether to go south of it, which would mean I had no chance of getting
to Tarawa under my own steam, or else east of it – which was the way I
wanted to go, but was it possible? Under present wind conditions, no,
it wasn't.

Then, finally, the long-awaited southeasterly wind arrived. Woohoo!
Now I was in fine shape. The wind only lasted a few hours, but I was
able to ride it all the way up the east side of Maiana, which lined me
up nicely for Tarawa.

I rowed late into the night until I was reasonably sure I was clear of
Maiana and its reefs. Then I tried to grab a quick nap, but I kept
opening one eye to squint at the GPS to make sure I wasn't going to
shipwreck. At one point I got up and rowed some more, just to make
doubly sure. It would have been a real shame to get this far only to
end up on a reef within sight of the finish.

So as I approached the final 20 miles into Tarawa, I had had less than
6 hours of sleep in the previous 48 hours, and the heat was brutal.
The wind had dropped away to nothing and the sun was intense. When I
got to 9 miles out, I really wondered if I was going to make it. After
rowing 3000 miles, the last 9 seemed to loom very large. I put some
good rocking music on to help me through.

And finally, mile by mile, I crossed off the final hours of my voyage.
After each mile I posted another Tweet and had a bite of food. A boat
arrived to escort me the last mile or two to land. On board were
Nicole, Hunter (from Archinoetics) and Conrad (our cameraman). Also
Rob, the New Zealand High Commissioner, who put his sea kayak in the
water and paddled alongside me.

But I could feel that I was getting depleted. As I always seem to do,
I get over-excited on my final day and push myself too hard. I arrive
on land dehydrated, sunburned and exhausted.

The last mile was really tough. I wondered if it would ever finish.
Rob told me I was rowing against the incoming tide. I was reduced to
counting tens. Just ten more strokes. Then another ten. Then another
ten. As I crossed my finish line of latitude, I collapsed backwards
off my rowing seat.

But nothing that an ice cold beer wouldn't cure (oops, ignore this
bit, please, Dr Aenor!). Nicole knew what was needed. I heard some
splashing as I lay on the deck with my eyes closed, and then Nicole's
head popped up over the side of the boat. She had jumped off the
escort boat into the water and swum over to Brocade, beer in hand. It
was a bit warm after its time in the water, but tasted pretty darned
good regardless. Now that's what I call a dedicated Program Director!

So now I am on Tarawa, quite possibly one of the most remote places on
the world. I'm dying to tell you all about it, but this blog is long
enough already, and the Solicitor General's wife's aunt is waiting to
give me a much-needed massage. So I'll sign off now, but will tell
more tomorrow. I intend to blog every day until we leave Tarawa,
probably Sept 17th. But internet access here is very limited, so
please forgive me if I miss a day or two.

Photos and videos coming soon. Stay tuned!