PACIFIC ISLANDS MONTHLY
Tales of Great Pacific Rowers
Over the next few months the following warning
should be broadcast regularly throughout the South Pacific:
If you should encounter on the high seas a bearded man in a small rowboat named Hele on Britannia, drifting aimlessly or rowing like mad, please do not attempt to rescue him. He is not the last survivor of some great maritime disaster, but an ordinary British eccentric named Peter Bird, who, of his own free will, is rowing across the Pacific from California to Australia.
According to American press reports, this lonely long-distance rower left San Francisco on August 23, 1982, in a home-made `plastic boat 10 metres long and a metre and a half wide. His intention? To beat the world endurance record of another Englishman, John Fairfax, who, it seems, took 180 days to row across the Atlantic back in 1969.
To succeed, Peter Bird had of course to choose a larger ocean. This meant the Pacific.
At least here in Tahiti, nothing more was heard about this not terribly interesting attempt until mid-February when Bird's very British promoter, Kenneth Crutchlow, disembarked at Papeete's Faaa international airport. Equipped with an enormous I Queen's Guard royal moustache, Mr Crutchlow informed us with a completely straight face that he owned a fleet of London taxi cabs, operating out of Sonoma, California. He then turned on the old trick of trying to make Peter Bird appear as some kind of shy hero, claiming that he couldn't swim and was mortally afraid of sharks.
Luckily, these silly claims
were quickly brushed aside by news of the very real achievement of the
lone sculler: Peter Bird had already covered 4790 miles in 177 days, and
was at that time drifting at the end of a sea anchor in rough seas 146
miles north-west of Borabora.
While congratulating Peter Bird on his
remarkable performance, and wishing him bon voyage all the way to
Australia, we cannot help feeling that the title "Great Pacific
Rower" still belongs to the Swedish-born, naturalised New Zealander,
We first met him in July 1974, when he quietly stepped ashore from his plastic five-and-a-half-metre boat right in front of our home here at Papehue, on the west coast of
Tahiti, during a truly epic trip across the Pacific. The sole reason why Anders repeatedly escaped to the sea was his love of nature, and the peace of mind he experienced when lost in the solitary contemplation of it.
Unlike Peter Bird, he cared very little for records, shunned all publicity, and never kept a log or wrote down the story of his accomplishing the amazing feat of rowing across
the Indian to Madagascar in 64 days, he went straight back to Auckland, and, without telling a soul where he had been, resumed his old trade as a house painter.
Anders Svedlund's plastic rowing boat, Waka Moana, was covered at both ends and open in the centre where he had fitted a sliding seat. The boat was just under six metres in length, and when fully laden displaced one tonne.
After three years - the time it took him to
save enough money - he set out again on what was to become an even
The point of departure was Huasco in Chile, which he left on February 27, 1974, at the oars of the same old plastic boat he had : used for his Indian Ocean trip, but now renamed Waka Moana.
His only aim was to follow the sun for as long as he could. He rowed with such determination, however, that he sighted his first Polynesian island after only two months.
Since he had no navigational instruments, and it was uninhabited, he never found out its name.
But he didn't at all mind being alone on land for a change, and managed to pick and open a few green coconuts.
The next island he came across seemed on the contrary to be definitely over-populated, and was full of weird concrete buildings. It was the top-secret Moruroa, a nuclear testing base.
But the French pilots and navy men patrolling the area never imagined for a moment that people could come all the way from South America in a small boat of the sort they used for fishing and fun. So he rowed all day unnoticed along the northern coast of the island, within shouting distance of the shore.
Moruroa is situated at 22 degrees south latitude, and Anders made the mistake of trying to reach the Austral Islands still further south, which involved him in a losing battle against "strong westerlies. Luckily for him, the captain of an inter Island cargo boat, whom he encountered at Rimatara, took pity on him, and brought both him and the Waka Moana to Papeete, whence he rowed on the calm lagoon waters out to our home.
We immediately took a great liking to Anders, whose only fault was his excessive modesty and gentleness.
He devoted his first week in Tahiti to mountain-climbing which he considered the best way "to stretch old sealegs."
But we cornered him eventually, and got very straightforward answers to some questions that had long intrigued us.
For example, he had no radio and no books, so we suspected he must have felt mightily bored at times. No, he said, the sea offered a splendid, everchanging spectacle, which he never tired of watching. It actually made him so happy he often burst into song. Mostly he sang old Swedish folksongs he had learnt as a child. He could go on singing for hours. He made up poems, too. Or he discussed philosophical and religious problems with himself.
We were equally interested however in the more practical sides of his spiritual quest, among other things how much sleep he managed to get. Anders assured us that he slept very soundly for 10 hours a night. He slept on a mattress in the forward "cabin" which was so low that he had to crawl in and out of it.
He added that Waka Moana, when left to her own devices, had a most fortunate propensity to turn her nose to the wind, which prevented her from capsizing. The one thing he regretted was that she heaved and rolled so much that it was absolutely impossible for him to stand on his head for any length of time. To function normally one must stand on one's head for at least an hour a day, he said.
During his first rowing adventure in the Indian Ocean, Anders had equipped himself with a kerosene stove. But it didn't work well, and he soon ran out of kerosene. This time he made all possible space available for the storage of food. When he left Chile he had in his aft cabin 250 kilograms of flour made from roasted South American quinoa wheat. It kept better for having been pre-roasted, he said. Twice a day he mixed this flour with water to make cold porridge. He also carried a good supply of honey which he poured over the porridge. For desserts, he had about 50 kilograms of dried fruit. His water supply did not exceed 300 litres. But he had been able to catch some rain water.
Finally, he took the wise precaution of swallowing a vitamin C tablet every day.
A Tahitian welcome for Anders Svedlund when
he came ashore at Papehue, on the west coast of Tahiti, during his 1974
rowing marathon in the Pacific.
Marie-Therese Danielsson* is hanging the lei round his neck. This picture was taken shortly before the grapefruit incident, told on this page, which delayed him in Western Samoa.
What surprised us most was that Anders had no fishing gear. But the explanation was simple: he was a vegetarian (and a teetotaller, as well).
When, at the end of July, Anders decided to continue his voyage, we gave him what we considered a most appropriate farewell gift: a sackful of green, slow-ripening grapefruit, likely to last him for several weeks.
With this last sack loaded aboard, the weight of the water and food supplies was over 600 kilograms. Since the canoe itself weighed 360 kg, it was more than a ton that Anders had to drag across the ocean with the help of his two tiny oars. It was not without serious apprehension that we watched the heavily loaded Waka Moana confront the choppy seas outside the reef and disappear in a westerly direction - "towards Australia," as Anders himself in very broad terms had formulated his sailing direction and destination.
As we learned two months later, Anders had kept rowing in his usual style towards the setting sun at an average speed of about 40 miles a day. But he eventually had to give up - because of our grapefruit!
They simply did not agree with his accustomed diet of cold porridge, and before he could bring himself to throw them overboard he was suffering from chronic colic which caused him such severe pain that he had to put into Apia harbour. His date of arrival was September 9, which meant that his whole Pacific trip had lasted six and a half months.
We saw Anders a few years later in Auckland. It was obvious from his dejected air that the sort of urban life he was then leading made him even sicker than our Tahitian grapefruit had.
His solution was, of course, to go to sea
again. But before he could do so, quite unexpectedly, he set out on
another, much longer, voyage, as related by the following brief item in
an Auckland newspaper of April 23, 1979:
Ocean Rowing Society
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