"The nights were a nightmare, something akin to sitting in the pitch black on a broken rowing machine with buckets of salt water being thrown in your face every ten minutes" - James Adair, Indian Ocean Rower.
We speak with a man who left his desk job in London to pursue his dream adventure by rowing from Australia to Mauritius.
In March 2011 James Adair set out to undertake a gruelling once-in-a-lifetime adventure trip by laying down a challenge for himself, despite everyone warning him against it due to all the dangers it would surely entail. Together with good friend Ben Stenning, the two friends narrowly escaped death in a successful unsupported paired row across the Indian Ocean. With no previous ocean rowing experience, the pair set off from Geraldton, Australia, to row some 3,200 nautical miles to Port Louis, Mauritius, a crossing which they successfully completed after 116 long days at sea.
We hear what life at sea was like on their epic ocean adventure and revel in the success story of two regular ‘9 to 5’ working guys, both of whom sought a fresh challenge in the world of adventure travel. We find out how life-changing the trip has been and what advice James can give anyone else looking to embark on a similar adventure trip.
We discuss James’ reasons for embarking on such an adventure and how he battled against the odds when their crossing became difficult in his fight to maintain their forward momentum. We discuss time spent with family and friends at the end of their epic crossing, their chosen destination on the beautiful island of Mauritius and we attempt to unravel some of the secrets of an Indian Ocean paradise island.
(James emerging from the very cramped and smelly cabin. Click any image to enlarge).
Two ordinary guys give up office desk jobs to follow their dream adventure. But why?
Sandgrouse Travel: Hi James, we’re delighted to be able to speak with you. We’re completely in awe of your Indian Ocean row with Ben. What an amazing achievement, a great tale of two regular guys who chased their dream to victory. Your story is a truly inspirational one from beginning to end. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
It’s been over three years since your successful crossing, completed on 14th August 2011. Now that you have had some time to digest your achievement, do you still relive the experience and think about it every day?
James: There is normally one thing every day that takes me back to our four months at sea. Certainly I found the first few months of having a baby very reminiscent of some of the tougher nights we experienced at sea; waking up exhausted and knowing that you have to get up to perform a delicate task whilst half asleep!
But when contrasted to most everyday situations; working in an office, commuting, going out in the evening – at these times the row feels almost surreal, like it might never have happened.
In general it is great to have the experience to fall back on in your own mind; to remember being alone on the immense ocean is a great tonic for stressful situations, nothing seems as bad… but then not much can match it for beauty and excitement.
("Sunsets such as this are pretty hard to forget in a hurry").
Overcoming all the odds and succeeding in completing a massive dream
Sandgrouse Travel: When you were only 14 years old, you were diagnosed with the rare illness Guillain-Barré syndrome. Your immune system mistakenly attacked your motor nerves in this horrible illness and you were left paralysed and unable to move a muscle. You undertook a programme of rehabilitation and your recovery went well. However, this was with the exception of being left with virtually paralysed feet, which has left you dependent on the use of assisted foot supports in order to walk. Can you explain how the illness and subsequent adjustments affected your outlook on life and whether the Indian Ocean row was motivated by the desire to prove a personal point to yourself as well as other people around you?
James: I suppose my answers are clichés really but I would have to say that it demonstrated to me in no uncertain terms that you only live once and that everyone, able-bodied or otherwise, has certain barriers put in their way to doing things, and some are insurmountable but most are not.
For the rowing a huge part of my motivation came from proving to others that I could do it, or would die trying, but in the end I realised that I was trying to prove it to myself more.
(All alone heading out to sea - it would be 116 days until the pair next sight land).
James: I might get sued by a famous footwear maker for stealing their catchphrase but I’d say ‘Just Do It!’ There were times when I doubted we could do it - financially, physically and mentally - but I’m so glad we went through with it because the biggest part of it was getting to the start line. There are no barriers if you want something enough.
Sandgrouse Travel: Would it be fair to say your life has changed for the better and you feel more complete after satisfying an urge by undertaking and completing your challenge?
James: Certainly I feel much more relaxed having proved that I could do it. But life was good beforehand if I’m honest. Certainly I have a great appreciation of small things, which are really big things when you think about them: running water, fresh food, dry beds that don’t move in the night.
("There's only so much enjoyment to be had from boil-in-the-bag meals").
Sandgrouse Travel: It appears that in Ben Stenning you found your kindred spirit, an ideal companion and partner for such an adventure - someone on a similar wavelength to yourself…quite literally. Your book and film portray Ben to be someone you could trust and rely upon. How fortunate do you think you were, looking back on your trip, to have been able to share this experience with Ben?
James: It made all the difference that we were friends before setting out on this voyage. It meant that we’d had time to talk about what we wanted out of it and were either aiming for the same thing or had an understanding of what the other person thought. There are no secrets on a boat that small so you either do it with a friend or you get lucky with the other crew. Ben himself is a hugely disorganised, confused, unfit blagger with terrible eyesight and no natural ability on boats. However, he more than made up for these small failings with his huge sense of humour, his caring nature and bizarre sense of dress, which kept me constantly entertained throughout the whole voyage. By the end, my respect and affection for Ben was deeper than before.
("Sunset over a millpond - The Indian Ocean could throw mighty waves at us but equally be as calm as a village pond. A truly remarkable place").
Sandgrouse Travel: At the time of your unsupported row, more people had walked on the moon than had rowed successfully across the Indian Ocean. The Atlantic Ocean was a well-worn route in comparison and arguably less dangerous. To what extent did you wish to take on a challenge that was high in risk factors and deemed unrealistic in order to prove people wrong or make a point to the world?
James: I would be lying if I said I didn’t do it, to some degree, to prove a point. The longer and harder it was, the more weight I felt it would carry. Certainly I’m not alone in this. John Ridgeway, who, along with Chay Blyth, crossed the Atlantic in 1967, said he did it because he wanted people at drinks parties to point him out and say ‘that’s the man who rowed across the Atlantic.’ Still, in doing it to prove a point, I realised that most people, or at least the people you may be trying to prove something to, are not that interested anyway so in the end you realise you’re really trying to prove it to yourself – and that is where the greatest satisfaction ultimately comes from.
("Sometimes just trying to keep the tiny boat in a straight line required all our strength").
Life at sea, endurance and resolute determination
Sandgrouse Travel: Being a sea-faring novice, you had a quick learning curve to climb and quickly became adjusted to the feeling of disorientation due to the small size of your boat. Tying essential knots, use of the sea anchor and even eating meals in your first week or so was a real struggle for you both. How long did it take to become adjusted to the confinement of being aboard such a small vessel? Did you feel claustrophobic and if so, how did you cope with this?
James: It took us at least three weeks before we felt truly comfortable. It is amazing what the body and mind will adjust to as the new norm and it wasn’t long before we felt much more at home on our little boat, and with all the smells and sights of the deep ocean. There was still the knowledge that we were very exposed but this was counter-balanced by the huge freedom we felt being away from all the noise and distraction of modern life. In a way, the risk posed by being out there was the same thing which gave us the feeling that we were doing something special – after all, if the experience is completely controlled and risk-free, then it’s like being at a theme park.
(James and Ben rode some massive waves in their 16ft ocean going rowing boat - gaining impressive speeds on the rides down).
("Keeping the cabin door open meant we could enjoy some conversation from time to time").
Sandgrouse Travel: Battling the relentless onshore winds as you left Australia must have been tough! At what point did you have to dig deep and throw yourself into the physical and mental challenge of the rowing and forget the glamour of the challenge?
James: With the shallow waters and onshore winds of the West Australian continental shelf, it makes it very difficult to get away from Australia and into deeper water. Pretty much from the first night at sea, I realised that it would be
a very tough physically having to adjust to the new routine of rowing and sleeping at a time when the rowing was the hardest part of the trip. But mentally we were very fresh and motivated and we were both driven by pride and fear of early failure; having put so much into the preparations, we didn’t want to end up back in Oz after a couple of days.
("The incredible Shearwaters flew like daredevil WWII fighter aces, darting from left to right only inches from the surface of the water. This plucky fellow stayed by our sides for some time, a friendly figure in a desolate place'".
James: We quickly fell into a routine where we took it in turns to row, three hours on/off in the day and two hours on/off at night. One of the things about this routine was that we suddenly found half of our day was spent awake at night which was odd, but when the weather was good, it was fantastic since there was no light pollution to interfere with the Milky Way, shooting stars, phosphorescence in the water and all of the other wonders of the night sky and sea. When the weather was bad however, the nights were a nightmare, something akin to sitting in the pitch black on a broken rowing machine with buckets of salt water being thrown in your face every ten minutes.
Certainly the isolation was exhilarating; the thought that we were over a thousand miles from land was exciting and being alone with nature and the ever-changing sea and sky gave us time to think in a way that we never had before.
("You should have seen the size of the fish I almost caught us for supper tonight!").
James: On Day 75 we were hit by a wave when I was coming out of the cabin and a lot of our electrical equipment failed because of this, including our main GPS, and with the conditions it was impossible to dry the cabin, so for three nights we slept in what was essentially a puddle.
James: Difficult to pick one but I think around Day 100, we had a brief visit from a pod of pilot whales which was amazing and it came at a good time when the sun was shining, we were getting closer to Mauritius and were starting to dare to imagine the first beer, bath, breakfast.
("Some of the skylines, cloud formations and ocean sunsets will stay with us forever").
James: Although the sea seemed endless, it was always changing in colour, temperature, state, life and witnessing this, especially as we became able to read it better, was hugely enjoyable.
("Ben drying off his backside in the midday sun").
Sandgrouse Travel: During your row you encountered a variety of wildlife, such as the great white sharks off the coast of Australia, the huge pod of dolphins that surrounded and swam alongside your boat, the friendly storm petrels, the pilot fish and not forgetting Timothy the Moth! Can you please share with our readers and us some of your best memories of wildlife encounters from the 116 days at sea?
James: Having a moth land on the boat when we were 750 miles from Australia was bizarre, as were many of our encounters, like seeing tiny crabs on driftwood in the middle of the ocean. Apart from the great white, we had just five days in all of seeing other sharks, which were very placid and unthreatening. The whales were many but we had mostly fleeting encounters. The shearwaters we saw every single day for four months which was amazing. But probably our best animal friends were the pilot fish and dorado which followed us across, as if following some very slow moving whale or piece of flotsam; they were almost tame by the end.
("Timothy the moth became one of our most unlikely of companions on the 116 days at sea!").
Sandgrouse Travel: When the water pump failed and all attempts to fix it were unsuccessful, you were forced to resort to hand pumping your drinking water. Can you explain how you turned this seemingly depressing set of circumstances into something which would eventually become one of the overriding highlights of your trip?
James: We would each pump for about two hours a day to get the basic ration of water we needed for drinking and cooking. This meant that we had at least four hours of enforced conversation a day, which was great because it meant we could talk and joke and suddenly it felt like more of a trip between friends as opposed to a slog undertaken mostly alone.
(Ben Stenning enjoying a calmer moment at sea).
James: Our first swim was in water depths of nearly 5 miles, so jumping in I certainly had a sense of vertigo. The water was incredibly clear but there was nothing to see beyond your toes other than the shafts of sunlight disappearing into the dark blue. We were looking out because it was so long since we had seen a shark off Australia…
The success story and the Mauritius after party!
Sandgrouse Travel: I know there is a certain feeling of achievement as you conquer obstacles that are presented to you in the pursuit of success. Can you give us an example of those obstacles and how you overcame them, and explain to our readers the feeling of success?
James: My greatest sense of achievement comes from the fact that we did it and despite a number of setbacks (mainly to do with equipment failure), and some differences of opinion, we didn’t fall out.
Sandgrouse Travel: I imagine what happened at the end of your adventure, with your boat being capsized by a freak wave off the coast of Mauritius and your subsequent fight for survival, really holds a special place now in your memory and your heart? Can you explain the feeling as it unravelled so quickly and how you rationalised the event, now you are reunited with your family?
James: Due to the very unique conditions on the last day, we were forced to try and make landfall by rowing through a small gap in the reefs off the east coast of the island. The weather was picking up as it was getting dark and we were capsized by a wave. Having got back on the boat and set off flares (during which Ben shot me in the leg with one), we were capsized by another wave which saw us eventually trying to swim for the gap in the reef but not managing to find it, and after a few hours we were washed onto the reef. That made for a painful crawl as we tried to get over it. But eventually we were rescued by some local French Mauritians who reunited us with our loved ones. We had already been looking forward immensely to seeing them and sharing our tales from the crossing, but the disaster of the final day made it even more special.
(James and Ben were extremely lucky to survive their final ordeal - found thanks to the infalliable efforts of a local search party in Mauritius).
James: Living in a small ocean rowing boat for four months is a pretty spartan existence; there is no room for luxury and no smell other than salt water. So having Mauritius as the final destination was incredible because it was such a contrast to this. I remember on Day 116 of our ocean crossing, we could smell the island before we could see it and as it came into view, with its verdant mountains, it looked like Stephen Speilberg’s new film Jurassic World. But we also knew that there would be our friends and family, beers, beaches, everything we had dreamed of for so many months.
Sandgrouse Travel: Mauritius is a cluster of beautiful islands with a rich heritage of culture, unique sights and tantalising cuisine. It’s packed full of delicious and rich vegetation benefitting from its tropical climate, offering wonderful dining experiences. Did you enjoy the food and drink you sampled in Mauritius?
James: Yes yes yes! It was wonderful. We spent a lot of time eating. Obviously we were very hungry anyway and had spent a lot of time fantasising about food but it helped that Mauritian cuisine is so amazing and varied. I think some of our fellow hotel guests were quite surprised at the amount of visits to the buffet we were managing to get in! I particularly enjoyed the wide variety of fresh fish and the wide selection of dishes available.
Sandgrouse Travel: I read in ‘Rowing After the White Whale’ how in your subsequent rest days and island vacation, you played golf on Mauritius and also went back on the water by taking a chartered boat trip to go humpback whale watching with your family around the north of the island. It must have been incredible to share a boat trip in such a magical setting with your family and friends and be able to relax under engine power for a change! Did you use that time to review your remarkable rowing achievement and does Mauritius now hold a special place in your heart as being a part of your conquest?
James: We had a great holiday in Mauritius at the end. Taking the boat trip out to the islands after being on land for a few days was funny because it felt a bit like revisiting our old world but in a bit more comfort. Seeing humpback whales breaching right next to us was as good an encounter as any that we had during our time at sea and we got to enjoy it with a gin and tonic in hand!
We played a lovely golf course out there and I was glad to find out that the club didn’t have any regulations regarding facial hair which would have prevented me participating.
One of our highlights in Mauritius was getting a tour of the Mavros silver workshop by Forbes Mavros, a silversmith based in Mauritius. Hyperlink: http://www.patrickmavros.com
Their shop is on the Fulham Road in London but many of their items are made in Mauritius and modelled on things Forbes has found while beachcombing. The island is also famous for its ship model building and we saw an amazing exhibition of replicas.
But most of time was spent relaxing, eating, turning taps on and off in amazement and catching up on four months of missed news.
Sandgrouse Travel: We certainly feel the island of Mauritius is unique for its beauty and tranquility and would therefore be the perfect location for a honeymoon and romance vacation. Can you explain the feeling of being reunited with your girlfriend and now wife Tory, and sharing the special occasion on Mauritius with her in your own adventure-style honeymoon together?
James: When Ben and I walked into the hotel with our massive beards, wild dishevelled hair and random bits of borrowed clothing, I think the staff thought we were some kind of odd honeymoon couple.
But joking aside, being able to share Mauritius with my girlfriend at the time (now wife) was great because it is a very romantic place but also somewhere there are lots of things to do. We’re hoping to go back soon as I’d like to dive the reef we capsized near and also catch up with our rescuers and other Mauritian friends.
Sandgrouse Travel: Do you have plans to do anything else wild and exciting in the future?
James: I’d like to learn how to sail and to do this with my family and Ben, and I have spoken about rowing the Pacific but that won’t be until at least 2020…
Sandgrouse Travel: We at Sandgrouse Travel all second the advice you received as you set out on your departure, ‘stay positive, take care of each other and enjoy it’, and agree this is a great life mantra. Would you recommend people pursue their dreams and adventures?
James: Absolutely. The rewards are there and I truly believe that nothing is off limits to anyone! Success is not the only thing that separates courage from stupidity. It is perhaps the taking part that is the key ingredient. Embracing life itself through the challenge is indeed the privilege. Proving something to yourself is also important. Biting off more than you can chew is dangerous, but the rewards are always worth it.
Since his trip, James has produced two enlightening documentary accounts of his adventure via book and film. We really enjoyed reading ‘Rowing After the White Whale: A Crossing of the Indian Ocean by Hand’. It’s a truly inspirational read and fascinating account of his and Ben’s crossing. We also love the full feature movie-video ‘And Then We Swam’, as it gave us a real feeling of being there and is a very powerful portrayal of their adventure. 'And Then We Swam' was winner of Best Exploration and Adventure Film at the prestigious Banff Mountain Film Festival 2014 and is currently touring via International Ocean Film Tour. We are delighted to be showcasing the trailer within Sandgrouse TV on our forthcoming website.
For details on how to purchase James’ book or film, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.