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Sea of solitude

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November 2019 Issue

In 2018, Kiwi Scott Donaldson became the first person to solo kayak across the Tasman Sea – a feat he has chronicled in his new book Relentless. 

For two months, solo sea kayaker Scott Donaldson’s colour palette consisted almost entirely of blues and greys.

During his record-setting crossing of the Tasman Sea, his most consistent company were two tropical fish, dubbed Ringo and Donk for their habit of bashing their scaly heads against his hull.

Some days saw fleets of dolphins and lazy albatross glide across his path, or stroppy sharks following his paddle strokes.

And some days it was just Donaldson, alone on the Tasman Sea with his thoughts.

“The biggest challenge for anybody is that sensory deprivation – the lack of input,” Donaldson says. “It’s a key difference between going solo in the bush and having a stint at sea.

“I was good for a week, then two weeks, but by week three it started setting in, because the brain gets starved of the usual stimulation.”

Coping with isolation though is a very trainable concept, Donaldson says.

When it began to feel oppressive, he would shift his perspective to appreciate the sensations of freedom instead of loneliness – always focusing on the positives.

Another technique was avoiding emotional triggers, and if he could help it, Donaldson kept his mind from his family, who were no doubt anxious for his reunion with Aotearoa’s shores and the end of his mammoth journey.

Donaldson’s 62-day paddle saw him become the first person to kayak 2200km from Australia to New Zealand in 2018.

It was his third attempt at the record – his first in 2013 saw him turn back when his satellite phone became water damaged, and his second in 2014 was thwarted by a storm an agonising 80km from shore.

The logistics involved in planning the journeys have deterred Donaldson from repeating the feat, but the time on the water he “would repeat tomorrow”.

“For that level of focus, you have to eliminate the rest of your life to achieve it – I wouldn’t repeat all that,” he says.

With up to 16 hours a day of intensive upper body workout, Donaldson’s arms, shoulders and core were lean and mean by journey’s end, but missing leg day for two months took a toll, and his muscles atrophied.

“It was like being in hospital for months,” he says. “I had a rotating seat so every paddle stroke came through my legs, but I was still sitting on my butt muscles all day, and after a few weeks, I ended up just sitting on nerves.”

Friction and damp also wreaked havoc on his skin.

“One thing you don’t think of is skin management. If you’re tramping for two months, you can imagine what your feet would look like in your boots,” he says.

Managing the pain he endured daily came down to body awareness and stamina.

“The hard part was knowing whether something was just pain, or pain and injury,” he says.

“Is it a problem, or is it my body complaining? If it’s just complaining, then I’m not going to listen to it.”

Adjusting to life on land was at times overwhelming for Donaldson, who suddenly had new avenues for his attention.

Old sensations, such as sleeping with a pillow, felt foreign and uncomfortable.

“Everything was new and novel and I saw it through different eyes,” he says.

“TV was too busy, and I couldn’t watch it for too long, which was a good thing,” he says.

Recovery has been a long road, and Donaldson’s leg rehabilitation is an ongoing process.

Where his next adventure will take him, he’s not sure – and a kayak adventure isn’t off the cards.

“Never say never,” he says.

Buy Scott’s book Relentless here. Subscribers get a 10% discount.