The yacht race to Hobart may have grabbed the headlines, but more far more challenging events have been happening on the Tasman Sea. A four person rowing team arrived in Sydney Harbour the morning of December 30th 31 days after departing New Zealand.

Steve Gates, Andrew Johnson, Kerry Tozer and Sally Macready rowed across the “ditch” in a purpose-built, twin cabin boat made of balsa and fiberglass.  Thirty-three feet long, it weighed a ton and a half fully loaded.  They are the first Australians to make the passage under their own steam. Check out pics before they disappear at: http://www.theage.com.au/photogallery/2007/12/30/1198949663732.html.

Early in the arduous journey, a four-day storm generating thirty foot waves forced the rowers to hole up in the tight space of the boat. “When you’re stuck in there for four days with three people, you’ve got condensation running down the walls, everything’s wet, you’re wet… and there’s no room, so if one person moves they kick the other person in the head – that’s pretty tough,” Mr Gates said.

Two days out they lost their sea anchor. The replacement lasted only eight hours. One of the solar panels failed, as did pins in the rudder. Despite headwinds and huge waves, they had a fast and relatively safe passage considering the perils. On Christmas night, however, they were almost run down by a freighter.

Only quick action with a powerful spotlight saved them from disaster. They had been rowing in pairs, two hours on and two hours off, 24 hours a day, cat napping in the cabins in between shifts. Their mental toughness was amazing, and they may have brought a new term into the lexicon: butt blisters.

Among the first to congratulate the team by wireless were two kayakers still out in the ditch as it is commonly called by seafarers. James Castrission and Justin Jones started their journey nearly two weeks earlier from the town of Forster, just north of Sydney. Plagued by storms and adverse currents, it took them nearly a month to reach the halfway point. For two entire weeks they made virtually no progress, adding about 1000 kms to the crossing.

A recent podcast from the “womb” of their boat, Lot 41, describes two “rather large predators” who are rubbing themselves up against the hull like curious cats. The sharks were attracted when Justin went overboard to remove a buildup of barnacles.  The two young men are exhausted, struggling to maintain morale.  They are still over 400 kilometers from New Zealand.  Log on at : http://www.crossingtheditch.com.au/

The Tasman Sea has been crossed before by the solo New Zealand kayaker, Colin Quincy, in 1976, but the two young men out there in the ditch are no doubt haunted by the loss of  Australian Andrew McAuley, who disappeared last February within sight of the coast of NZ.  His kayak was found but his body has never been recovered.

If there have been any positive repercussions from the McAuley tragedy, it may be the trepidation of the trip itself.  Extraordinary precautions have been taken by both teams to ensure that their young lives were not been jeopardized by inadequate preparation for the challenges of crossing the ditch.  Dangerous adventures such as this deserve no less.

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