Sea Worthy?


In 2007 Andrew McAuley set out on the challenge of a life-time — to paddle a sea-kayak from Tasmania to New Zealand. Tragically, when in sight of land at Milford Sound on the south island, he was lost at sea. His kayak was retrieved but his body was never found. A recent film of this extraordinary adventure has revived speculation over just what went wrong; and the deeper moral question of the compatibility of the roles of father and adventurer.

In some circles Andrew McAuley always will be known as the bloke who almost got there — who almost managed the herculean task of paddling a kayak across the treacherous Tasman Sea. They will say he didn’t finish it off; that getting there means actually stepping onto New Zealand soil, looking back and saying: "I did it!"

His wife says otherwise. She says he was within sight of land when his last message was sent. He had traversed 1600 kilometres of the wild and lonely Southern Ocean, for goodness’ sake, and was within 30 kilometres of his destination. "That’s good enough for me," she said. "He made it." (I’m with the wife on this, to the extent that my view matters a toss).

But the opinion I’m really hanging out for is that of young Finlay, his three-year-old son. What will be his judgment when he is old enough to understand what happened? Will he side with his mother and judge the trip well done; or will he too fall into the "Andrew almost … " crowd, with just a hint of resentment that his father wasn’t there for him when it mattered?

And that’s my second question — does the father of a three-year-old have the right to take such a risk as Andrew did? His right as husband, friend and citizen can be negotiated on the basis of rational argument with wife, colleagues and civil safety authority. "Right" here pivots on agreement reached, there being no absolute entitlement on which to draw. But when it comes to the rights of the child to the certainty of a father, what then?

We, the viewers of this drama, are led to understand that McAuley had been an adventurer all his life, that his wife shared that passion, and that he had long dreamed of this particular challenge — the crossing that no one else had achieved. And then young Finlay arrived. What was Andrew to do? Does he put all that aside and wait (as an active father, but wait, nevertheless)? Wait for Finlay to wend his carefree way through kindergarten … then primary school … and secondary school … until he too can express a clear and reasoned view on the question his father poses? By that stage McAuley is too old, the challenge has been met by others, the point of the expedition is lost.

Or does he go, and risk it all? Does he back the judgment of years, his faith in mortal strength and stamina of mind and body, his knowledge of the sea and of his flimsy craft? Does he place himself across that great divide between risk and challenge? On this question alone there hangs so much — a man’s life, no less, together with the lives of a young wife and son — that there can be no global answer. We humans are arguably the only species on this planet that are the makers of our own destiny. We do the best we can with what we know.

Responses to McAuley’s choice range from the bleeding obvious — that the rights of the innocent child must take precedence — to those who support whatever right McAuley has to the fulfilment of a life’s ambition. In this his wife is torn: "And I almost then didn’t want him to go but, you know, we’d been through too much in the preparation …"

I say that the rights of his child (and of others uniquely and deeply tied to him) place upon McAuley (as I am certain he understood) an enormous moral burden. I say that the most solemn condition of his going is that he must take the most exacting precautions, must make the most painstaking preparations to ensure his safe return. And we, observers of this tragic venture, now have a responsibility to ask whether he did that; and indeed whether such precautions were possible. We have a responsibility to ask these questions because there will be other fathers — and mothers — who choose to risk it all.

Margin for error can be understood as the distance between risk and challenge. These states are not interchangeable. Risk is a constant — we must adhere to the principle that life must not wilfully be put in jeopardy. Challenge, on the other hand, is a summative variable, to be manipulated with exquisite care and sensitivity in terms of its various components: skill, training, experience, will, purpose.

The first point to be made in assessing this question is that, despite his death, McAuley’s trip was doable. That he was within sight of land when he died was evidence enough that the venture was not intrinsically impossible. However, by not completing the journey, we also must conclude that somewhere in the planning or the execution, there was not sufficient margin for error. Risk overlapped with challenge, fatally.

But what is an acceptable margin for error? After the loss of six lives in the 1998 Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race we know what the Southern Ocean can do. Force 10 gales are not the exception; they are to be expected. As his weather consultant, Jonathon Bogais, asked: "Visualise what it’s like to have a wall of water coming towards you — this is what you are going to experience. Do you want to do it?" And McAuley kept saying: "Yes, I do." For Andrew McAuley "normal circumstances" must mean being able to paddle a sea kayak, slightly modified, for 30 days in those conditions. Herculean, to say the least, but that is the test he set himself, and from which he had a moral responsibility to return. In his own words: "I’ve got a boy that needs a father and a wife that needs a husband … "

Why then did he not? The official response to this question is in the findings of the New Zealand coroner’s inquest into his death. At another level, however, I think the answer may lie in part with a further thought on the question of risk and challenge: maybe, in a case like this, the idea of an adequate margin for error needs to be suspended. Maybe, where the sea-kayak meets the Southern Ocean, there is no room for "risk" and "challenge" to co-exist as separate entities which are measurable and understood. Just maybe, endeavours such as these fall outside the traditional rules of safe human conduct, and margin for error has to be replaced by something as unquantifiable as "luck".

If, in such extreme conditions, we are not able to maintain the essential distinction between risk and challenge, if we cannot sustain an adequate margin for error, if we find ourselves entertaining concepts as uncertain as "luck", then we may be forced to conclude that the trip, as planned, stretched just too far the notion of "manageable adventure" and entered instead the realm of the foolhardy. In other words, it broke the fundamental rules of safe practice by which McAuley, as a father and an experienced adventurer, had implicitly vowed to abide.

If this is the case, then Andrew will have chosen the distinct possibility of death as partner on this voyage, as suggested in the recording of the journey by his uncontrolled sobbing as he first put out to sea. "I’m wondering why I’m doing this," he had said. "I really am. And I don’t have an answer." If that’s what it came down to — luck — we are bound to conclude that the trip as planned should not have been undertaken in that form.

In his last direct message to wife Vicki, McAuley said, "I never will do anything as hard as this again. That’s a promise, Vic … "

Tragically, that is a promise he will keep.

The documentary of Andrew McAuley’s trip, Solo, was broadcast on ABC1 last month and is now available to watch here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.