I have been waiting for weeks to get this interview. If you read my blog than you know who Mike Rowney is. If not he is a paraplegic attemptig to be be the first para to single-hand sail around Australia...for Charity.All pictures come from his website and were either taken by him or for him. (read more)
Here is the interview he did for me via e-mail.
Ralph: Hi there Mike, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. What's the news with the "Challenge?"
Mike: Hi Ralph, not a prob. What's new? It's a waiting game at present, but I am using the break constructively, did some repair work on a local Sailability boat. Training as in swimming everyday and doing a little weight work, as I wasn't very fit when I left due to the work load building my boat, had to give the pool and gym away 6 months before I took off, and the fitter and lighter you are as a para the easier it is. As of lately working ahead of myself, again a task I had to forgo before I left.
Ralph: What is it about sailing that you love most, and how did you get started?
Mike: I began with a sheet of corrugated iron, used for roofing, bent in two. I joined each end with wood and nails and tar that I scrounged off the road workers back in South Africa in the 60's. We flattened out the bottom, put a wooden beam down the middle and made a mast out of bamboo, sails out of wheat bags from the local bakery and painted with enamel paint...Real Huck Finn stuff.
My next step was watching "The Dove," Robin Lee Graham, a 16 year old American boy that sailed around the world. From there I progressed to "South Sea Adventures," which was a book in the school library. In 1987 I progressed from dreaming to reality. I was stuck on the Greek island of Rhodes waitin for a ferry to Haifa, Israel, where I was planning to work on a kibbutz and escaping the European cold
We as kids had great fun every weekend, sailing up and down the localabout river. We constanly had to hide the boat from our elder brothers and bigger boys
I got the chance to work for a delivery skipper, sailing and delivering bareboat yachts around the med. It was a trial by fire. I was green and we sailed in all weather. My skipper was good and I was keen to learn. At the end of the charter season, I got pushed into skippering my first delivery with my girlfriend at the time as my "deck hand." Very nerve wracking but it was the best thing. After that, I got my first license and the next year I was back in the Mediterranean doing my own boat deliveries.
What turns me on? The freedom, the test and the chance to live out my childhood dreams.
Ralph: Sailing around Australia is a huge undertaking, ther is 25,760 kms (15,000 plus miles) of coastline alone. What got your sails full with this idea?
Mike: It's hard to get an exact distance around due to the coastline - best estimate so far is 11,500 sea miles. Doing that sail in 2002 up to Darwin as crew got my head going, but I would say it was a combination of paraplegic Vinny Louwers (who comes from Melbourne, Austrailia) and the fact that in 2002 he circumnavigated the world (non stop).
I was in my first year of paraplegia and full of desire to regain my pride and prove to myself that I could. I must say now, over three years into the project, my main motivation is the kids, not too fussy about proving anything.
Ralph: Tell me about your boat and the modifications you have made to allow you to sail independently. How long did that take?
Mike: After a year of looking, I found my boat. I knew because of my prior sailing life exactly what vessel I wanted and I finally found it. During this search I decided to get the Harrington rods removed from my spine - reason being was that I felt if I took a bad spill backwards on the trip, I could diplace them and be in big trouble. Painful, but worth it.
I am glad I did it because my back gained more mobility and was much more comfortable. I found Gypsy Rose sitting lonely on a mooring in the Swan River in Perth, Australia which was where I live so I was lucky all round. Australia is huge and it would have cost me to ship the boat.3
The Gypsy Rose is a 26 foot international folk boat, a Swedish design with a long history. First designed in 1939; first big acclaim was coming in second in the first Trans Atlantic race in 1967. For a small craft it has alot of histroy and is well proven. She is a long keel design with an encapsulated keel - cast iron placed within the vessel and glassed in. This means no bolts and for me, takes away the worry of lowering my keel.
Along the west coast of Australia, lobster fishing is a big industry. There are lots of ropes and floats and my idea was that they would flow under and out the back instead of catching my keel and prop. My estimate was spot on. Many a time I listened to the bump, bump of floats against my hull and watched with relief as they popped out the back.
Money was a big factor. I used some cash that the yatching community in Rhode Island, along with a wealthy Greek friend, had donated to me after my fall - to be used, as they stated, "to buy a car and furniture and a good telly" - as they realized I was broke after my fall having "like a fool" taken out no insurance when I went back to Greece in 2000.
I figured that buying a boat was better than a car and a telly. I think they expected that anyhow when they sent it. As I couldn't afford a large vessel and knowing that I wouldn't want to do it in any other boat as space is an issue. Being a para, the smaller the area to move in the better. "It's only the meek that think so" quite wrongly, that you need a large vessel at sea to be safe - the difference is comfort, storage space, a real toilet and a shower. When trying to make windward, a bigger engine. With long distance cruising, if you haven't got horse power at times when you heading into the wind it will drain you if you only have your sails to depend on.
What I have to do is duck and weave if I am sailing to windward and I don't have horsepower so I sharpen my act up and watch the weather windows like a hawk, moving as soon as I get a break and sitting on anchor or on a jetty if I can in bad weather. Hence the slowness of my trip. I can't, and don't want to "muck up". I have no shore crew as such and apart from good people I meet along the way who help out, I really am on my own.
The main adaptations were making the outside cockpit area all on level by putting foam covered panels over the walkway. To get below I made up a chair, foam covered and a bar that I placed across the companion way leading down into the boat. Down below I again with foam covered panels created one level. To get up I reach up grab the bar, lift into the intermediate chair, and then again a lift up to the cockpit area outside and vice versa.
I use the "kiss theory" (keep it simple stupid) trying to get technical means more hassle in the long run. This, of course, works better while you are sitting in port and harder when you are on your ear. I drag myself inside with teak bars I put into the roof. My toilet in good weather, is my climbing harness suspended over the side (the low side) by a halyard from the mast. A real bidet - as a para this is not easy but in good weather it's nice and clear and ther is no rush in bad weather. It's down below, right up front with a cut down commode and a bucket - Primitive, but it works.
Under the panels inside in the walkway, I have a 200 litre water bladder and I used a simple manual pump to get the water out. In the back locker I have two 50 litre fuel bladders. My max fuel carrying capacity is 150 litres. Sounds like a lot, but on one leg I had to account for 800 miles of no fuel stops in tidal country, 12 meter tides - very savage and my little 8 horsepower inboard engine was working very hard keeping my out of trouble.
At times your totally under the mercy of the current. The best edition I made was my fighter pilot cockpit bubble. The picture you put on my side shows me working the begginigs of it. This gives me pretty much all round visibility, and most of all dry. This sits over the companionway (entrance into the boat) and all my ropes and lines are fed into this area, enabling me to drive the boat in relevant shelter and comfort.
What you must realize is that in a 26 foot boat I have about 3 feet of freeboard. This is the distance between the water and the deck. In bad weather I can sit down below and on my low side watch the water sliding past my window. In short it's a wet board and my bubble keeps me dry and sane. The big adaptations were running all of the gear back to the cockpit so I could raise, lower and/or reduce, and increase my sails from the cockpit area. I also with the help of a friend, designed a system whereby I can drop and or raise my anchor from my cockpit (no electric, all manual).
All these changes and the strengthening of many areas of the boat took me 15 months of non-stop work, with lots of help from good people who pitched in and/or sponsored me with equipment and of course the local Royal Perth Yacht Club who made me an honorary member for the duration on my trip and helped out with cranes and berthing space and cradles. You will see from my website that I have over 30 sponsors and am constantly adding more. I started this on a shoe string and depended on people believing in what I am doing and supporting me in that endeavor.
Ralph: Have you had any mechanical problems while sailing that you could't fix, any problems at all?
Mike: Engine problems: Lost my starter motor going into a very tidal 13 mile passage to get to a town and the Yacht Club Commodore came out to get me - towed me in with his boat. Lots of oil problems until I got up into the Kimberley region of W.A. - very wild place, where I pulled into Sygnet Bay Pearl Farm.
I worked there as a skipper for a number of years before my accident. They kindly rebuilt my engine and the whole crew worked for a day without pay and donated that to Wheelchairs - 30 people created 45 chairs - That's the Kimberley people for you. During a real bad section, 450 miles in bad weather, my two self steering systems - one being electric and one mechanical (on the Fleming a vane broke and the weather didn't allow me to get up and fix it as I was taking waves over the backend where the vane was situated).
The electrical backup auto pilot also decided to die. The way I have the boat set up, I need to be able to use a self steer in order to be free to operate all the control lines. There is no option with this, except to take a crew on. In big winds I found myself stuck on the helm by myself. I tried to lash the helm and ease the sheets, as I did this my lashing came away and the boat Gibed in 30+ knots, got tossed like a salad, but mainly had a heart stop due to how close I came to maybe losing my mast from the gibe, or breaking some gear
I finally resolved this situation by creating a self steer with a combination of ropes and blocks. I steered for two days with two lines I had run into my nest down below, so I stayed dry and could adjust my control lines.......and SLEEP.
Ralph: Have you done any competitive sailing since the "chair"? The technology really allows us a equal competitiveness now.
Mike: To be honest Ralph I am a "passage maker" not a racer. I have done a little racing, but I prefer the challenge of the open sea. I am a cranky bugger and not a very good team player. Better I sail alone, only the seagulls have to listen to listen to my bitching. It's a comparison that's similar to an indoor rock climber and a mountaineer.In saying all that I admire and respect the sailing skill involved in competition sailing.
Ralph: What are your plans with the charity you are helping? Do you have others you are working with?
Mike: I am stuck on this one, firstly it's a completely volunteer set up. All donations go directly into buying the materials to build the chairs, all the costs such as rent for the workshop and admin are covered by the Rotary Club and Christian Brothers, over 70 volunteers go through the workshop 4 times per week. They are producing 250 chairs per month. The chairs are designed for children and get distributed in 52 countries free of charge, and given to kids who have no chair and no way of accessing one.
My plans? Finish this trip, get as many kids a chair as I can, and I well may get sponsorship from an airline and distribute some chairs myself. Recently I made contact with some disabled Phillipinoes making handsicrafts to make ends meet. So maybe I will head there after my sail. I need to get on with my own life, and find something to bring some cash in, this trip has cleared me out.
Ralph: What are your other interests?
Mike: Freedom and the ocean. I used to fish, commercially for a number of years, now I just look. I swim and free dive alot.
Ralph: What would you say to a disabled person that wanted to do something like what you are doing?
Mike: Make sure you are genuinely passionate about doing it, don't even try otherwise. It has to be a passion. Don't do it for anything else. Or anybody else, because way out to sea all alone and Mother Nature turns it on, it's only passion that will see you through.
Don't think it's easy, or that you won't be scared. Realise before you let those ropes off the dock and your way off shore that you can't just say "I have had enough." and get off the bus. You must be sure you can keep your cool at least till you reach port, or a safe anchorage.
If you feel you may lose it don't let the ropes go. If you love the ocean, the freedom, the fear and the adrenalin rush,love that feeling of "yes I made it," and look back at the miles and the experience with pride...then why not. Skeptics will be lurking, waiting for a chance to shoot you down, especially because your disabled. Don't even waste a second on these people, they are just voicing their own fears.
Ralph: Thanks again for doing this, and keep me updated. I look forward to the finish.
Mike: No worries Ralph. Don't leave yourself out of the equation brother, your out there doing it, and I admire you for that. It's all relevant. Do what you can, and use what ability we have been left with to the max. There are alot of disabled people out there all smashed up just waiting. THEY NEED HOPE
I am so proud of this interview, and Mike and if you like it leave a comment, and please check out the AroundAustraliaChallenge website.