Row, row, row your boat ... across the Indian Ocean

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am

Nathan would have been more impressed if his teacher, Mick Moran, was swimming and not rowing across the Indian Ocean from Western Australia to Mauritius. As it stood, Nathan, a nine-year old in Moran's learning support centre class, could already point to Moran's start and finish on the classroom globe. But then Nathan challenged his teacher, who next April will attempt to row 3,100 nautical miles over some 100 days, to swim back to China.

Moran, 44, gently reminded his pupil that he was rowing, not swimming. And then, not entirely inaccurately, Nathan began to sing: Row, row, row your boat. Except, there is nothing gentle about it and the ocean is no stream.

In 1971, Anders Svedlund of Sweden became the first person to row across the Indian Ocean. Since then, only two others have successfully completed the journey, including Simon Chalk, who is now organising the inaugural Indian Ocean Race in April 2009. Moran, who moved to Hong Kong 18 months ago from Britain, hopes to be among those who complete the journey.

'There are very few things that you can do where you're the first one to actually take part in,' Moran said. 'So, why not? The Atlantic's been done a few times and it's still an amazing challenge to do that, but the Indian Ocean has just got a different attraction.'

When Moran sailed around the world from 2004-05, he met, and spent a week sailing with, Chalk, who suggested that he try rowing. Moran, who had not rowed before, decided to give it a try and spent a year rowing with an off-shore rowing club in the UK. He was slated to complete the race with a friend, before the friend pulled out and Moran decided to go at it alone.

Moran, a special needs teacher at Bradbury School, bought his boat and after a delay, it finally arrived in Hong Kong, where Moran is fitting it with electronic and communications equipment. He is doing the physical training for the race, but also the mental training, as there will be little human interaction in what he estimates to be a 31/2-month race.

'Are you by yourself?' Nathan asked one morning during class.

'Yes, I'll be all by myself,' Moran said. He did not sound perplexed, but at the same time, Moran said he had been reading all sorts of books on rowing and any other adventure expeditions that required a pressing tenacity and stubbornness to see the task through to fruition. He turned to the books for logistical advice - if he can make it to 20 days, for example, then the odds would be in favour of him being lasting the entire journey.

While Moran will be alone, he will not be without communications. There are plans for a radio, a satellite phone, GPS chart trackers and a waterproof laptop. With the ability to make calls, receive texts and send e-mails, Moran said the satellite phone could be what keeps him sane.

'As long as I can talk to someone every day, I think I'll be alright,' Moran said.

Just in case, he'll ask loved ones, including daughter Rosie, 20, to write letters that he can open along the way. He also has plans to get his students involved, both the ones in his class and those in the mainstream classes at the school. Already, some of the students were aware of what he was planning to do. Already, some of his colleagues were calling him crazy.

'People who sail understand why I want to do this,' Moran said. 'But people who don't sail or row, who haven't been on the ocean, they'll tell you I'm mad. The teachers here, they say it. But in the best way possible.'

Perhaps a bit of madness is necessary?

Moran asked his students, there are seven in total, how many months equalled a hundred days.

'Ten months!' Theo yelled out and raised his hand at the same time.

By the time day 90 rolls around, it might seem like Moran has been out on the water for nearly a year. Moran, who, in a reference to the movie Castaway, joked of taking along a volleyball and painting on a face, said surviving the race was less about madness and skill than it was about having the stubbornness and determination to get through 12 hours of sailing a day, drifting at night and the threat of losing what little communication he has with the outside world.

'I hope I'm stubborn enough,' Moran said.

Pamela asked if he would take an aeroplane from Hong Kong to Australia (yes) and the students, who were in the middle of studying units of measurement, wanted to know how many metres he would row (six million). Moran asked them what there would be lots of and the students shouted out food (true), but they had yet to grasp that over 100 days, there would also be a lot of sea.

'Oh,' they said when Moran alerted them to the vast amounts of blue on the globe.

'Are there flying fish?' Theo asked.

Moran nodded but did not add that there would be sharks and whales.

There was one topic his students didn't ask after - the nearly HK$1 million Moran needs to raise in order to complete the race. The boat cost HK$215,000 and an extra HK$300,000 is required for equipment. There are transportation, training and food costs.

'Money is my biggest challenge at the moment,' Moran said. 'I've invested quite a bit of my own money so far, but more than that, it's just the ability to take the next step. It's very easy to sit back and say, 'Right well, I haven't got the money together so I won't commit to getting the boat, I won't commit to getting this bit of equipment'. What I've found is the only thing to do is [to] take the next step and not worry.'

Moran decided to do the race, took out a bank loan and bought the boat. He said it was the best way to demonstrate that he was in the race and not just contemplating entry.

The race will have solo boats and teams of two and four. The challenges, for Moran and everyone else, will include extreme sun, hurricane-like winds and 50-foot swells. And like those who aspire to achieving that something different - in this case a 23-foot long boat - Moran said this race came about as the next step up from sailing the world.

'I [had] just reached a point in my life where I wanted to do something different and I wanted to travel around the world,' Moran said.

He had never sailed before and was part of a team of 18 who completed the race. It was an experience that left him wanting both the responsibility and the freedom of a solo adventure.

'I set myself a challenge to sail around the world when I had never sailed before and I did that but at the end of it, I still felt that it was a case of people showing me what to do,' Moran said. 'It was a great sense of achievement, but this will be something that I've got to do pretty much by myself. It's going to be pretty extreme. Apart from the physical element, the mental side of it is going to be even harsher.'

A year to go and Moran said there was so much to be done. His students asked if he would still be in Hong Kong for Christmas. Moran said yes, but come Easter, he would be gone. To anyone else, Moran's plans present a formidable challenge. His students just wanted to know why he wasn't going to the South Pole.