Book review: Solo [80]


Andrew McAuley was a great adventurer and in 2007 he set off for New Zealand. It was the latest in a long series of sea kayaking achievements. He was the first to cross Bass Strait without stopping. He crossed the Gulf of Carpentaria in 6.5 days, learning to sleep at sea, coping with exhaustion and saltwater sores and all the while developing endurance and the mind set for extreme crossings. Then in 2006 he organised an expedition with Laurie Geoghegan and Stuart Trueman to the Antarctic, going further south than any kayak had been before. For Andrew it was also a training run for the Tasman crossing.

Many of us tracked Andrew’s progress dot by red dot as he left Fortescue Bay for New Zealand. We watched anxiously, admiring his courage, skill and determination in the face of all kinds of adversity: 40 knot winds, massive seas, in a capsule more cramped and self-contained than any space ship. He navigated a straight true course to Milford Sound, crossing 1600km of the southern ocean. And we remember the day his call for help was broadcast.

Few of us had the chance to learn of the training, boat design and preparation that led up to this voyage, or to understand the circumstances of Andrew’s last day. With her first book “Solo” his wife Vicki has cut through the confusion inevitable when the media try to explain such an event. She has written an account that is extraordinarily open. Her book shares insights into the mind and soul of an adventurer. I don’t know any book that has gone so far in this regard and with such honesty and understanding.

The first part takes you into a conversation with Vicki and Andrew. Vicki starts by describing Andrew’s background as she discovered it during their early days together. She blends his writing with her own, doing no more than change the typeface as they switch between each other. The effect is like being in a room with the two of them as they describe how they met, fell for each other, their early life and adventures and the background to the Tasman crossing. They give a wealth of detail: how the boat was designed, a map of its construction, fittings and gear layout; an equipment list; what failed and what worked. They describe his preparation and the arduous mental and physical training. This section is full of detail and anecdotes that had me either laughing or totally absorbed.

The second part covers more familiar territory, the Tasman crossing details that we followed assiduously on the web. It provides background to many of the events that we heard only in distorted fashion from the news or casual conversations. There is a description of the first attempt in December 2006, the bureaucratic issues that delayed the start, and later Andrew’s decision to turn back into strong headwinds having realised the potentially lethal effect of heat loss from an uninsulated hull. Then to the second trip in January 2007. The brief understated text messages and occasional images on Andrew’s web site were compelling enough at the time, now Vicki draws on Andrew’s log and the sections of video that survived and brings into sharp focus just how tough the expedition was on both of them.

And then the tale becomes hard. Vicki takes us through Andrew’s call for help, the circumstances of the rescue attempt and the impact on herself, Finlay, family and friends. She pulls no punches, describing her grief openly and frankly. This is compelling and not easy to read. Yet by the final summary it is clear that it is essential if one is to have any hope of understanding or reconciling Andrew’s nature as an adventurer, the tragedy that followed and what it should never cost. Only Vicki can really judge this and she does so wisely and clearly.

This book is compelling reading, full of information, wisdom and lessons, I thoroughly recommend it.