Solo by Vicki McAuley
Doomed Australian kayaker Andrew McAuley attempted a solo and unassisted trans-Tasman crossing in 2007. He spent 30 days at sea and disappeared as he neared New Zealand. His body has never been found.
There was only one person who could have finished his book after his death and that was his devout wife Vicki.
How do you define this book? It’s a harrowing, emotional ride. I shut it several times to stop myself from weeping. Could the journey get worse? Yes. Could their miscommunications have doomed him? Perhaps. Should she have stopped him from leaving? In hindsight, yes but that is what unwavering, undying love will do for you. It makes you believe in the unbelievable.
And while the book doesn’t make for easy pleasant bedtime reading and, of course we all know the tragic ending, it goes some way to explaining the unexplainable - what possesses a man to take a kayak and try to traverse the mighty Tasman. And what happens to the family who stand by his side.
Death from extreme adventuring isn’t uncommon for Australians.
Victorian climber Iain Sedgman, keeps a database of accidents among Australian mountaineers. He’s recorded 350 incidents and 96 deaths going back to 1955, telling a Sydney newspaper recently, that “anyone who's been climbing for more than five years would know someone who's died doing it".
Andrew McAuley used to climb mountains – ironically it was his wife that introduced him to kayaking. They spent their honeymoon on one. She figured it was less dangerous. But extremers never know their limits.
I live in the Blue Mountains and regularly see mountaineer Lincoln Hall with his stumps for hands negotiate the day to day shopping in our local village – a legacy from his near-death experience on Everest in 2006.
And I am still haunted by a conversation a few years ago with mountaineer Sue Fear prior to her death. She was driven to go on another adventure. Always planning her next escapade, her in-between existence working in an outdoor clothing store to raise funds for the next challenge was biding time until she could leave again. She needed the fix and talked about life on her adventures where everyone on the mountain was acutely aware it could be their last breath. I admired her immensely.
Andrew’s widow Vicki McAuley tries to explain something of that adventuring drive – a mutant gene called D2D24 that seemed to be in abundance in Andrew. And Vicki McAuley explains what it was like to live with that kind of superhuman. Real life didn’t usually measure up.
Vicki McAuley has had a lot of nightmares and counselling since Andrew went missing so close to the shore in New Zealand. She writes honestly and from the heart and includes extracts from the journal Andrew was writing – a book that was meant to be released after his successful voyage. Andrew even wrote a joyful finish for the book – so different from the one in reality.
For me, one of the hardest parts was reading the terribly sad, almost indecipherable text messages as he neared the end of the voyage as equipment and his own exhaustion let him down. The messages were kept short to save on batteries, the messages becoming more cryptic so that, in the end, only Vicki could decipher them.
But unfortunately for Andrew no-one really believed his final message to the world. The audio was scratchy and hard to make out - many assumed it was a hoax.
``Do you copy? This is kayak one. Do you copy, over? I've got an emergency situation. I'm in a kayak about 30km from Milford Sound. I need a rescue. My kayak's sinking. Fell off into the sea and I'm going down.''
The other part that is painfully sad to read is the sound their dog made at the family home in the Blue Mountains, the same time Andrew is believed to have fallen from the kayak.
"Around midnight, across the Tasman Sea at our house in Glenbrook, my neighbour reported that the otherwise placid Noushka turned her muzzle to the sky and howled - a piteous, languid howl, that echoed long into the night."
There are a lot of what ifs with this book. Vicki McAuley asks them herself. ``If only the tracking beacon hadn't failed . . . If only he had paid that extra $7000 for the Argos tracking beacon . . . If only the pivot arm on Casper (the cockpit canopy) hadn't failed . . . If only he had activated the EPIRB.''
Some may read the story and feel inspired by Andrew’s ill-fated voyage others will dismiss it as the selfish pursuits of a father of a young son with a dependant wife. For me, his battle is a little clearer but the loss still nonsensical.
However Vicki McAuley doesn’t want the world to be angry at Andrew McAuley and her soulful book, part- love story, part requiem may finally let others forgive him and put the matter at last to rest.