Life

Kayaker Richard Barnes took 67 days to cross from Tasmania to New Zealand in a record-setting battle of nerves on one of the world’s most turbulent seas.

How a solo kayaker crossed the Tasman

A man in weather/water protection gear paddling a large blue kayak with "Blue Moon" written on its side. The ocean is grey and the sky cloudy, with land distant on the horizon.
Richard Barnes heading out from Tasmania on day one of his epic journey.
Credit: David Barlow

Suddenly, Richard Barnes was in a hurry. After 67 days at sea, land was in sight. He had been advised by the local coastguard to land before the tide changed, at midday, and so after paddling 1670 kilometres from Fortescue Bay, Tasmania, the final few had some extra charge to them. Last Saturday morning, Barnes, 61, pulled into Riverton, a small town on the southern tip of New Zealand. He reached the shore elated, salt-stained and a little bedraggled, following the adventure of a lifetime. The Sydneysider had become the first person to “cross the ditch” in a kayak solo, nonstop and unsupported.

That Tasman crossing holds special status in Antipodean expeditioning folklore. In 2007, Australian kayaker Andrew McAuley nearly completed it, only to die within sight of land. A year later, Justin Jones and James Castrission became the first people to kayak across the Tasman in a double. Only one man had crossed alone, New Zealander Scott Donaldson, although he stopped at Lord Howe Island and received food drops along the way. Barnes is the first to manage the feat without such interruption or assistance.

“Being ‘first’ is a bonus, the main goal was to experience the adventure,” Barnes told The Saturday Paper in an email, relayed via his satellite phone, a few days before making landfall – the first time he had spoken to the media since leaving Australia.

While the distance does not compare with the record for the longest ocean-crossing by kayak, held by Poland’s Aleksander Doba for a 6558-kilometre journey from Portugal to Florida via Bermuda, the Tasman Sea is notorious for its unpredictable, difficult weather conditions. Even in seemingly reasonable conditions, rogue waves can cause havoc. A few weeks ago, Barnes capsized.

“I didn’t even hear this wave coming, so likely [it was] as yet unbroken and from portside behind,” he said. “In the moment of breaking and contact, [the kayak] skipped sideways and then proceeded to roll past horizontal.” Fortunately Barnes, attached to the boat by a leg rope, could clamber back into the kayak; his mostly attached equipment was secure. “Minor skin dings the only physical damage,” he added.

The successful voyage is all the sweeter for Barnes since his first attempt, in late 2021, had to be called off as Cyclone Seth caused dangerous weather conditions. Barnes paddled for 75 days, only to end up back where he started.

“Whilst many things were learnt from the first run, it left me feeling like the task was incomplete,” said Barnes, who is one of the Lane Cove River Kayakers. “I felt alive again when we decided to go for attempt two. Success for me revolves around stepping ashore in New Zealand. Seeing land a day ago was exhilarating, the prelude to landfall. I suspect recontacting with people, and friends in particular, will be the most exciting.”

Barnes’s first attempt at the crossing saw him depart from Sydney; a number of other attempts have used a similar route, aiming for New Zealand’s North Island. But his decision to depart from Tasmania on attempt two and aim for the bottom of New Zealand proved fortuitous – northern New Zealand has recently been devastated by Cyclone Gabrielle. Last week, Barnes paddled across the remaining distance of Foveaux Strait that separates the South Island from Stewart Island in relatively calm conditions.

 

Barnes made his journey in a custom-designed kayak, Blue Moon. At 10 metres long and containing a covered sleeping area, a seat for kayaking and a transition area, the boat weighs 200 kilograms empty and was more than 600 kilograms when stocked with supplies at the beginning of the journey. A structural engineer by trade, Barnes was personally responsible for many aspects of the design.

“Ocean-going kayaks are simply not available from the local department store,” he explained. “The few that have been made have been tailored to suit the paddlers. My design philosophy included a separate vestibule (chamber) to the sleeping area, in order to keep water out of the bedroom. Cooking occurs in the vestibule. All electronics are set up in the bedroom. That aspect is unique and has been very successful.”

The purpose-built kayak came equipped with solar panels, a sea anchor, rainwater catchment, navigation lights and enough storage space for 90 days’ worth of food – largely Weet-Bix, dehydrated meals and a few bottles of Coca-Cola. Barnes said that his engineering experience was invaluable to the successful expedition.

“All designs have compromises, such as strength versus weight, speed versus comfort,” he said. “Engineers weigh up all the variables. Even then not every choice is perfect. The ability to rectify problems out on the ocean has been essential to get this far, and intimate knowledge of the design really helps when improvising repairs. Throughout, my rudder and sea anchor arrangements have been weak links, and have needed ocean repairs.”

Design failures hit hard, given Barnes’s background. “On my hardest day, I lost my main sea anchor and broke my rudder restraint system,” he said. “For a while, I despaired that these setbacks would halt my journey.”

But the ocean always provided regular inspiration. Barnes said a particular highlight was “when two very large sea creatures, yet to be identified as maxi-dolphins or mini-whales, put on a leaping show just for me. So close and so graceful.”

Depending on weather conditions, wind direction and ocean currents, Barnes would cover anywhere between 15 and 50 kilometres per 24-hour period. After a long day of paddling, he would set a sea anchor to stabilise the boat overnight. Some nights, Barnes would drift a dozen kilometres in the right direction; other nights would see his prior progress eroded while he slept.

Throughout his journey, Barnes has kept a blog with daily entries on the Lane Cove River Kayakers website. In a recent entry, just days before landing in Riverton, he pondered the toll of the trip.

“Someone asked whether albatross had stepped in to help with a haircut,” he wrote. “Not quite, but a number one all over will be a high priority on landing.” Blisters have not healed and “trivial cuts” had “regressed”. Seat padding that had started at 50 millimetres in thickness was down to five, and after two months of action Barnes said his sleeping bag needed “two run-throughs in a dry cleaner”.

But otherwise, the kayaker and his craft were in good condition – including all the electronics that had survived the journey intact. “Time to land, so the overall expiry dates on the individual items, and the whole motor, are not exceeded,” he wrote.

So what next? Barnes said he had promised his family this trip would be his last major ocean kayaking adventure. “Blue Moon is heading for a museum,” he said. But given his guiding ethos, it certainly will not be his last adventure. “A key goal of this adventure is to foster all to adventure more, at whatever level suits the individual,” he added. “There will be other adventures. I am booked to go white-water kayaking in Mexico next November.”

In one of his more philosophical blog posts during the journey, Barnes pondered whether the expedition was making a positive contribution to society. He wrote that he hoped the trip had promoted adventuring, particularly among younger people, and sparked conversations.

“Ultimately, success or otherwise, Blue Moon crossing the Tasman will not change the world like a miracle cancer cure, or climate change fix,” he wrote less than a week before making landfall. “But perhaps each person doing their little bit contributes meaningfully to society.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 25, 2023 as "Kieran Pender".

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