By Jeff Moag
Published: Canoe & Kayak Magazine, May 2007
Soon after Andrew McAuley turned up missing in the Tasman Sea on Feb. 9, just 30 miles from finishing an unprecedented 1,000-mile crossing from Tasmania to New Zealand, pundits began second-guessing him. How could anything be worth such risk, they scolded, especially to a man blessed with a loving wife and young son? For years now, solo sea kayakers have notched an ever-longer list of improbable adventures, not to mention a catalog of harrowing close escapes. But they always lived to tell.
Peter Bray had not one, but two small boats sink under him in the North Atlantic. Thanks to his cool head, modern electronics and a bit of luck, rescuers plucked him out both times. Ed Gillet's 1987 crossing from Monterey, Calif., to Hawaii was a succession of narrowly averted disasters. Out of food and hallucinating after 2,200 miles and 63 days at sea, he nearly missed the islands altogether.
"It's inevitable that solo kayakers get into trouble," says expedition paddler Jon Bowermaster, who has paddled in such challenging places as the Aleutians and the Tasman coast, but never alone. "I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon of people saying he shouldn't take that risk because he has a family. Andrew, certainly better than anyone, knew the risk."
McAuley, whose resume included paddling 330 miles across Australia's Gulf of Carpentaria, and three kayak crossings from Australia to Tasmania, had planned meticulously for the trip, placing great trust in a homemade cockpit canopy designed to right his modified production kayak in the event of a capsize. The canopy, nicknamed "Casper," did that job on several occasions. But McAuley's video diary, found when the kayak was recovered without the canopy, also tells of him having to climb back into the kayak after a hard capsize. The video reveals that McAuley had glimpsed the high mountains of New Zealand's South Island—tantalizingly close to completing one of history's most audacious kayak crossings.
If he had managed another 30 miles, we'd be hailing him as a genius, says noted kayak adventurer Jon Turk. "It seems that if you live, then by definition you are a competent, risk-taking adventurer, but if you die, it's too easy to call you a crazy suicidal," he says.
The 3,000-mile Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Race from the Canaries to Antigua saw no fewer than six mid-ocean wipeouts in 2006. One competitor was thrown from his boat when a rogue wave toppled it in the middle of the night. He surfaced about 100 feet from the boat and managed to swim back to it. In the same race, two 20-something women with no expedition experience capsized 1,300 miles from shore. They clung to the hull of their 24-foot rowing boat while a C-130 search plane scrambled from the U.S. mainland to find them. Thanks to their Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), it did.
McAuley had the same EPIRB technology those women had. But he either couldn't activate it, or chose not to. He did make a distress call, but the New Zealand Coast Guard reports that only two words were clear: "help" and "sinking." The batteries in his satellite phone were almost completely tapped, and his backup phone was ruined. Even his watch had failed him. Piece by piece, the safety net modern adventurers take for granted escaped McAuley.
He was truly on his own, like the adventurers of an earlier age. In 1928, Franz Romer first applied the European mentality—"because it is there"—to a technology the Inuit developed to enable survival rather than test it. The German paddled a modified Klepper kayak from Portugal to the Caribbean by way of the Canary Islands. Continuing from Puerto Rico for the U.S. mainland, he paddled directly into a hurricane, which swallowed him without a trace. He had missed the posted warning by one hour. Nasty luck.