Riaan Manser vividly remembers the exact moment his life changed forever. After another long week managing clinics for a medical company in South Africa, he went for a run in a particularly beautiful wooded park, stopping at a rock to catch his breath. “In that moment, as I was looking at the beauty all around me, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t happy. Oh sure there was money in the bank and I had a beautiful girlfriend but I realized there was more to life. I didn’t get off that rock until I made a choice to change my life.” One year later Riaan was bicycling around the perimeter of Africa, alone and unsupported. So began his career as an adventurer.
Riaan followed his successful two-year Africa adventure with a solo kayak trip around Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world. Since severe loneliness plagued him during those journeys, in 2011 he partnered with Dan Skinstad to circumnavigate Iceland in a double sea-kayak.
Vasti Geldenhuys, his girlfriend of fourteen years, was extremely supportive of Riaan’s chosen path. One evening, while discussing what adventure Riaan would take on next, Vasti said she too wanted to do something significant with her life. “As the conversation progressed, she kiddingly said she wanted to visit New York. I told her okay but we were going to go my way.” That was April 2013. Eight months later the couple boarded their custom row boat named Spirit of Madiba, in honor of Nelson Mandela, for their adventure dubbed Take Me 2 New York (TM2NY).
Their plan was to row 20 hours a day, each taking two-hour shifts, averaging boat speeds of two to three knots. After leaving Morocco December 30, 2013 they realized Vasti was not strong enough to row their 23-foot boat alone. They altered their routine, rowing eight to ten hours in a 12-hour shift, breaking for meals and to watch amazing sunsets. They held to that plan until they approached the Bahamas where varying conditions required they adjust rowing routines to maintain progress. Wind was truly their enemy throughout the entire journey.
As in Riaan’s previous expeditions, the TM2NY journey was unsupported. However unsupported didn’t mean without contact. Solar panels powered an array of electronics including iPads, VHF radio, a chart plotter and a satellite phone. A desalination system provided the fresh water needed to rehydrate the high calorie freeze dried meals stowed on board. Most importantly, they also carried personal locator beacons and an emergency position-indicating radio beacon. “If something goes horribly wrong, at least the closest ship will get the signal” said Riaan.
The couple also placed a Yellowbrick tracking device aboard their boat to enable family, friends and supporters to follow their progress. When in good satellite range Yellowbrick also allowed them to send short messages for all to see.
A message sent February 20, 2014 was one they hoped they would never have to send. “Five-meter wave hit us. Capsized boat.” A thousand miles past the Canary Islands, Vasti spotted the swell that would capsize the boat, throwing Riaan overboard. Her Vasti held on literally for dear life as the boat rolled upside down, Vasti’s foot stuck in the footholds. Within seconds the boat righted itself with Vasti still in her seat and Riaan amazingly clinging to a rope several feet away from the boat.
Though frightened, they were both very lucky to be uninjured. The Spirit of Madiba was not so lucky. The wave took out the Imtech Communication Satellite phone they used to do radio interviews, send photos for articles Riaan was writing along the way and for their important weekly contact with loved ones. Vasti especially missed her emotional, yet rejuvenating Sunday calls with her parents.
“Every jog in the Yellowbrick tracking tells a story,” Riaan said. “Though I trust my staff with my life, it was always an uneasy feeling, relying on a third party for our forecast. In hindsight, I would have spent more time with my staff prior to leaving, studying forecasts together so that we were clearly on the same page when predicting weather.”
One of Riaan’s most memorable moments was when he saw land for the first time. April 15, after 74 days at sea, San Salvador Island in the Bahamas came into sight. “We were very emotional,” said Riaan, realizing later, they had landed within one kilometer of where Christopher Columbus reportedly made landfall in 1492. News of their arrival spread quickly throughout the island. “The people of San Salvador were so welcoming, accommodating and eager to help.”
Vasti’s most memorable moments were when wildlife came to visit. “Whales would swim alongside us for hours. We just had to make a stop in Sanibel Cay for her to see the swimming pigs,” beamed Riaan.
Hearing stories about the infamous Gulf Stream, the couple was prepared for anything the stream would throw at them. “We were fortunate to have taken an unexpected detour en route from the Bahamas to Miami. That delay allowed the Gulf Stream to settle enough to make the crossing uneventful.” May 7, after 134 days at sea and over 5,000 miles, Riaan and Vasti made history, landing on U.S. soil in Miami. The couple shared a hug and a kiss before landing in the record books as the first couple to row from mainland Africa to mainland North America. “If Vasti wasn’t with me, I wouldn’t have been able to have this moment,” Riaan said.
They remained in Miami to rest their bodies, reprovision, and to make themselves available for the press. “Our plan is to leave Miami, heading directly out to the Gulf Stream and ride it all the way up to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina,” said Riaan. “From there we will finish our journey rowing into New York harbor.”
Leaving Miami May 15, they headed out to sea only to be greeted by a vicious storm that spawned tornadoes and torrential downpours. Riaan said the rains almost sank their boat, nearly ending their adventure. Luckily they made it safely back to Haulover Park further up Miami Beach and waited for the northerly system to subside before beginning again.
Sailors say never cross the Gulf Stream with a North wind in the forecast. Northerly winds prevailed for well over a week after that first attempt. Friday, May 23 at 9:00 a.m., Riaan and Vasti were finally heading back out to sea where they honestly felt the most comfort. The evening before their departure Vasti reflected on the journey ahead. “I am scared. Don’t know what to expect from the Gulf Stream, especially in a row boat! The best thing for my nerves is to get into the boat and just row. Giant seas or not. It still feels unreal, the fact we have done this amazing journey successfully. Well almost, just another 960 nm to go! What a privilege.”
All At Sea will continue to follow Riaan and Vasti on the final leg of their journey.