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February 2011 Issue
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Water baby

Meet the mum with a penchant for long-distance solo sea kayaking adventures

Catching up with Robbie Banks is about as difficult as a tiger catching its own tail. Juggling a job, children (Amy, 18 and Jessie, 15) and their sport and study, sea kayak guiding and instructing, and personal adventure requires precise scheduling. I invited myself to tag along on one of her sea kayaking courses so I could get answers to the questions I’d always wanted to ask a long-distance solo female kayaker.

As the second to youngest in a family of eight, growing up in Tauranga, Robbie was a tomboy and water baby. She progressed from a clinker dingy called ‘Pee Wee’ to kayak slalom racing and white water rafting, then in her 20s to dragon boating and kayak racing including a 120km canoe marathon race down the Katherine Gorge in Australia’s Northern Territory. After that adventure she chilled out scuba diving for a while before being drawn back to competiveness and multi-sport events.

Now in her 40s, sea kayaking provides relaxation as well as adventure. Bitten by the solo bug after 10 days paddling around Kenepuru, Pelorous Sounds and Abel Tasman, Robbie has gone on to kayak solo 210km down the Coromandel Peninsula from Fletchers Bay to Waihi Beach and then 366km from Tutukaka to Cape Reinga.

What drives or motivates your passion for adventure?

The personal challenge, the buzz of adventure and exploration, a sense of freedom and escapism from the feeling of groundhog day. Never knowing from one day to the next what might happen or who you may meet. People are so friendly and interested to know what a woman on her own is up to. The hospitality can be very humbling, the pleasure of new friends made

 What’s the attraction, the allure of going solo?

Freedom, flexibility, peace and quiet. There is an unexplainable profoundness to being at the mercy of the elements while totally alone – both empowering and humbling. The compromise of forgoing company and safety in numbers is the luxury of having quiet and space to just be.

Do you doubt your singular wisdom – are you afraid you’ll make the wrong decision and launch in foul weather instead of taking a lay day?  

The hardest time emotionally is at night when the waves sound bigger, louder, and the wind rattles the tent, imagination and fear or concerns grow in the darkness. Usually a good feed and a glass of sav always helps calm me and I sleep reasonably soundly. Reading about others’ adventures and courage help keep the inspiration burning. I am a shocker for having a midnight comfort food munch while reading a yarn or too.

I deal with the concerns by working my trip planning days on/off water around the weather and actually look forward to the excuse for a lay day every now and then. I always plan back up options and consider what ifs, research my options for escape/pulling out. Proper preparation prevents piss poor performance.

 How do you cope with fear?

This might sound kind of weird but I have less fears while on kayak adventures than I do when dealing with everyday life. My kayak trips seem easy in comparison – I know what factors I am dealing with and I work within them, I appreciate the beauty around me and the laws of nature seem so much more straightforward than the natures of humanity/personalities dynamics.

As long as I understand what I am dealing with and recognise my abilities appropriately, a healthy fear is part of the experience and challenge.

I also have little tricks, like my kayaking companion YUB – Yellow understanding ball. He goes wherever I choose to go and doesn’t argue. He smiles back at me from the deck – always smiles, never eats my food.

 What future challenges have you got lined up?

Finding a balance as always between earning a living, paying the mortgage and fueling the fires to plan other adventures.

When I asked Melz Grant (who recently completed a South Island. circumnavigation with her father Max) if she’s going to tackle the North Island now, she said she’d leave that to Robbie Banks. What’s your reaction?

I would really like to meet up with Melz, and have a chat about future adventures.

– Ruth Henderson