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Riaan Manser – Just do it!

19 September 2016

On the scale of adventurous people, Riaan Manser registers off the chart. Currently on honeymoon with his wife, Vasti, they’re rowing a distance of about 4 000km from California to Hawaii in a six-metre-long rowboat. That’s quite impressive, but not nearly as impressive as some of the other things he’s done…

Riaan Manser manages to inspire you from the moment he says hello over a shoddy satellite phone connection from his position on a boat on the Pacific Ocean, somewhere between Hawaii and California. As we talk, he’s busy sipping on his morning coffee, which his wife, Vasti, just made for him. They’re on their honeymoon, but unlike other couples on honeymoon, they’re not sailing along the shore, snorkelling and stopping over at quaint coastal towns. No, Riaan and Vasti are rowing from California to Hawaii.

They get up every morning at 8am and row until 8pm on a six-metre boat. Sounds strange, but honeymoons are supposed to be about bonding. And what better way to bond with your new life partner than spending a month with nothing but fish (and some sharks) to keep you company. Riaan grabbed newspaper headlines when he became the first person to cycle around the perimeter of Africa. Starting in 2003, it took him 24 months to complete the journey, which he did all by himself. To put that in perspective, the perimeter of Africa is 37 000km and consists of 34 countries. On average, he cycled 90km per day and at the end of the trip, had lost 14kg.

According to Riaan, the trip was magical and he saw, ate and experienced many wonderful things. There were scary moments too, like the time he was thrown in jail by drugged teenage rebels in Liberia. Fortunately, this epic adventure caught the attention of the late Nelson Mandela, who requested an audience with him and called him “an inspiration for the youth of Africa”. For most of us, that would be enough adventure for a lifetime, but Riaan was just warming up. In 2009, he set another world record. This time he travelled by kayak around the entire island of Madagascar. This 5 000km trip took 11 months. Sharks rammed his kayak, loneliness took its toll, but worst of all was the two nights he spent in prison after officials suspected him of being a mercenary.

At the time, Madagascar was in turmoil, but that didn’t stop Riaan from completing his mission. In 2011, Riaan partnered with Dan Skinstad to circumnavigate Iceland. The two paddled 2 300km through some of the coldest, harshest conditions known to man, but his most epic adventure was still to come, and it all started with a so-called holiday. Vasti Geldenhuys, Riaan’s long-time partner and support system, wondered whether they might go on holiday to New York. Riaan said yes, but unlike most people who hop on a plane and fly for 16 hours, Riaan and Vasti climbed aboard their boat in Morocco and rowed for 172 days until they reached New York. This earned Riaan another world first, but more importantly, gave Vasti the title of the first African woman to row across any ocean. This is Riaan’s adventure story.

How did this life of adventure start?
I was fairly successful at a young age. I had a nice house and a nice car, but I always talked to my friends about doing something special like cycling around the outline of Africa. It’s that conversation we all have at times. “I’m going to do this, I want to do that…” Then one day, three years after I first had the idea, I decided: “I’m going to do this.” I was sick of talking about doing it and I gave up my house and car and I did it.

What adventure has stuck with you over the years?
It has to be that first one. That trip around Africa was the start of everything and it’s hard to describe the sense of accomplishment I felt. I proved to myself that I could do it. Looking back on it now, 16 years later, I’m proud of what I did. I made history and set a record. Then there’s the trip to New York. That very moment we stepped from the boat onto the jetty was amazing. It was nice for Vasti as well, as she became the first African woman to ever do that. Sailing through all those large boats and alongside the Statue of Liberty in our little boat has to count as one of the best moments of my life.

How do you keep motivated?
It’s a personal choice and it’s not always easy. The two most important things in my experience are preparing well in advance and not finding excuses not to do something. One also needs a good reason, but it doesn’t have to be big. My advice to armchair travellers would be to start small and work up from there.

What was your scariest moment?
There are too many to mention, but I suppose it’s always the last one that sticks with you the most. On the first night of our rowing trip from California to Hawaii, the boat capsized at around 4.30am while we were sleeping. The cabin was completely submerged, so you could actually see under the ocean through the windows. I also hit my head against the fire extinguisher, so there was blood everywhere. Then there was the time I fell off the boat and it was impossible for Vasti to turn it around to pick me up. Luckily I grabbed the fishing line trailing behind the boat, otherwise I would have been left behind. A scary element of the trip we’re on at the moment is the traffic. We’re in the middle of a busy shipping lane and the larger ships often don’t see our small boat, so we have to make contact via radio to ensure that they see us. When we sleep, we try and wake up every 90 minutes to check whether everything is still in order.

And your happiest moment?
It has to be the day we arrived in New York. Rowing past the Statue of Liberty, knowing that we achieved what we set out to do.

Any advice for amateur adventurers out there?
Adventure is waiting around every corner and the most important thing is to stop talking about it and just go. I always tell people that there’s an ocean between saying and doing. Most people just need to get going and stop making excuses. Making excuses is simply not good enough.

To keep up with what Riaan and Vasti are up to, log onto There you’ll find images, in-depth details
on Riaan’s various expeditions and a live tracking system to see how the honeymoon adventure is going.

Text: Gerhard Horn