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SA adventurer Riaan Manser and his wife Vasti were stuck on a small boat together for 173 days – What they learnt could help you through lockdown

2020-04-13 08:13
Riaan Manser
Riaan Manser (Photo: Supplied)

South African adventurer Riaan Manser shares with Channel24 the lessons he has learnt from his expeditions - conquering extreme loneliness and overcoming physical and emotional hurdles during extensive periods of isolation. 

We speak to Riaan and his wife, Vasti, on a phone call from their home in Betty's Bay where their son James is playing in the background, only coming to interrupt his parents when he asks for a piece for cheese, and later a second snack food. 

The adventure junkies arrived in Cape Town on a flight from Syndey, one day before the nationwide lockdown was implemented.

"They were going to cancel our flight out of Sydney, and Vasti was crying because she thought that we would not be able to get home. I was trying to keep her calm, and I told her that there would be no better place to spend the 21-days than our house in Betty's Bay, and I was absolutely right - it could not be more perfect." 

"Never once have we felt bored," says Vasti. "Riaan built a treehouse for James, and we've been finding time to work on the projects that we've haven't had time for." 

Vasti, who is an advocate, is still preparing for her upcoming cases, with the Cape High Court operating as an essential service during the lockdown. 

As we start our conversation, Riaan says that he wants people to keep in mind that his journeys are long - his expeditions are not a weekend getaway, he spends time away from home for years in total solitude. 

"It's a unique space that my career has put in me in. It has brought on deep, uncomfortable, and honest thought processes within myself. But I am a more well-rounded, open-minded, and thoughtful person because of my career..." 


In 2009 Riaan Manser set on a world first when he became the first person to circumnavigate Madagascar by kayak. The expedition lasted 11 months, a feat he achieved alone and unaided.

The incredible 5000km journey, 5000 km, was demanding, both physically and mentally. Not only did Riaan have to overcome severe loneliness, but natural disasters, extreme weather conditions, and ten hours in saltwater wreaked havoc on his body. 

Speaking to Channel24 about the experience, he says: "I felt like my life was in constant danger. I had no crews following me, and no speed boat could rescue me if things went wrong. I was in a tiny kayak, all alone."

Some of his daily challenges included lack of food, freshwater, and complete isolation meant he didn't see his family for a year. 

About how the ordeal affected his outlook on quarantine during the coronavirus outbreak, he says: "99% of the population hasn't seen the virus physically manifest. Most people haven't seen somebody die in front of them, and the outbreak might not seem 'real.' It's currently an invisible danger hanging over us.

"That was my situation in Madagascar, I had danger continually hanging over me, but I had to keep paddling to find a way around Madagascar," he explains. 

Many people are in quarantine alone and don't have their family with them. They are by themselves dealing with the unsettling feelings that lockdown brings - uncertainty, fear, impatience, boredom and stress. 

But Riaan says that when he returned home, he felt like he had hit the restart button on life, and he wasn't bogged down by everyday negativity.   

Putting it into perspective, he says: "There was a week when I lost touch with South Africa, no SMS or any contact. And the last message I received was one saying that the president would make a statement. When I recovered my connection mere days later, we had gone through three presidents. But my life hadn't changed."

Riaan's wife Vasti, who has been listening in on the call adds: "It's not going to be the same world that we left when we entered lockdown. And I hope that we will appreciate the things that we took for granted before, and that we have a fresh outlook on life." 


Four years after his solo trip, Riaan and his wife Vasti took on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. They endured a 173-day expedition from, Agadir, Morocco to New York City, USA.

"When we set out everybody thought that the focus would be about the actual crossing in the rowing boat, but it ended up being about the relationship between Vasti and I. Was it going to go off the cliff, or was it going to be saved?" He says, looking back at the 5-month journey he undertook with his then-girlfriend.

They both agree that this is the same situation that many people across the world are finding themselves in.

"Our relationship first had to go to a complicated place for it to come out stronger than ever. Being in isolation allowed us to solve a lot of things and speak more openly. Relationships are going to battle at times; it is inevitable. No relationship is perfect, and going through this challenging time together is also going to strengthen your bond," says Riaan. 

Vasti concurs, saying that when they stepped on the boat, everything was very "happy-go-lucky," but due to the stress of isolation, and external factors their relationship soured. 

"We capsized, I was thrown out of the boat, and our lives were at risk," says Riaan. Vasti adds: "It was stressful, and that added to our relationship woes. It got to a point where we didn't speak to each other for two days."

But being confined to a small space, with nowhere to run away from their problems, meant they had to confront their issues head-on, which was a big positive. 

Having a frank and open discussion about their relationship was only one side of the coin. "It's imperative to take time for yourself, and have a breather, not taking care of someone else," Vasti explains. 

"Space is relative; if you don't have space to distance yourself from someone physically, then it is okay not to talk to one other and spend time 'alone,' even when you're not alone," says Riaan.  

He adds: "The boat that we were living in was the size of a fridge, we were sitting shoulder to shoulder. When I was half a metre away from Vasti, that felt like a lot of space for me." 

Riaan has noticed a shift in tone on social media from day one, to where we are now. "People are getting impatient, and that's manifesting at home. We need to make make an effort to get on with each other," he says.  

What he learnt on the boat during the 173 days, with his partner was that complaining, blame and anger will do nothing to improve the situation.  

Vasti adds: "For us, being stuck together in that boat was a saving grace, and we might not even be together today if we didn't go through that."  


In 2018, Riaan was joined on his 7-metre rowing boat, by rowing rookie and a total stranger Fanafikile Lephakha for a 5500 km expedition from the Canary Islands to Barbados which would last nearly two months.

"Fana and I didn't know each other at all, only from the brief conversations that we had. And wisdom comes from hindsight.

"We went into that trip with the attitude that we would do it no matter what. If Fana went in with a position that he would win an argument, or make a point, or I wanted to show him up, we would both lose, because then we wouldn't achieve the goal that we both agreed on."

About the challenges of being in isolation with someone that he didn't know well, he says: "We had a tough time; it was not easy. On day eight, we had our first argument, but that was probably the best thing that could have happened." 

"We had a very honest and uncomfortable discussion about our perception of each other, and that's when everything changed. We still argued, and it was still uncomfortable at times, but I wasn't mistrusting of him, and he wasn't mistrusting of me. After the frank discussion, the conversations after that became a lot easier, " he explains.  

Vasti adds on to what Riaan is saying, and says: "We have to accept the situation that we are in. We can all agree that we're doing this for a good cause."

"We have to remind ourselves what our goal is. We have to understand it, and we have to believe that nothing will derail us," Riaan elaborates further.

But a goal isn't just a pie in the sky idea it's something that you are always actively working towards, says Riaan. 

"If you believe that hobbies or exercise is the way you need to go to resolve boredom, then that's what you need to go and do. If you need to talk to your family and focus on building relationships within your family, then you need to do that physically," he elaborates further. 

Applying his learnings to the current lockdown reality, he says: "If you are not sure about why you are doing something or what the end goal is, then you are going to have more problems than the more determined person. They know why they are doing this, and they are going to have an easier time sticking it out."