Finding Solo: An introduction

The following is an introduction I wrote for Lynn Paterson’s forthcoming book, Finding Solo: One woman’s epic battle with the NZ coast:

On February 20, 2018, I interviewed Jason Marshall for a series I was writing on customers and friends of Crave cafe in Morningside. I’d seen Jason around the café for years but never really got into a conversation. It quickly turned out to be one of those chats that move along easily, as if you’re mates already. We spoke about his upbringing, his career in hospitality, then his switch to personal training and his work at the local gym. But there was one element of his story that captivated me more than others: his partner, Lynn Paterson, and the extraordinary feat she’d accomplished when she kayaked solo around the North and South Islands of New Zealand two years before.

The key detail of the story Jason was that Lynn’s book hadn’t yet been published — something about Lynn working on it but struggling to get her head around the hundreds of blog posts and thousands of words she had written along the way. What she needed was a writer to help her out.

I met Lynn for the first time a month later, on March 23. More than anything it was to give Lynn an opportunity to see whether or not she could work with me. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is the key for Lynn. If she thinks you’re a plonker, or a bullshitter, there’s no second appointment. Lynn herself makes a big first impression. She’s tall, beautiful, a fiery redhead (whether it’s natural or not). She’s got hard edges and a soft centre. There’s a 10 foot wall around her emotionally, but there’s also a step ladder to get over the other side if you know where to look (and if you’re prepared to keep looking when she shifts it to another spot). We hit it off and one month later, we began interviews.

The plan was this: 12 interviews, based on the key moments of her trip, as well as on the blog material Lynn had written in tandem with those events. That was a lot of reading. And a lot of talking. The advantage though was that we could approach the story from a clean page. Lynn had spent hours and days and weeks and months completing her voyage, and was totally embedded in it. I knew nothing about it. Bringing our two minds together would be a challenge, but our assumption was that if we could make it work then the written story would feel fresh and dynamic, as if the reader was discovering these moments at Lynn’s side.

We began with a timeline of the key events: the Takapuna send-off; passing East Cape; suffering hypothermia in Mahia; hitting 100km; losing her kayak Thelma off the roof of her campervan, Cuzzie; meltdown at Flat Point; crayfish and paua beside a bonfire; night paddle into Wellington; Cook Strait crossing; paddling towards Christchurch; discovering the Catlins; aiming for Bluff; circumnavigating Stewart Island; Fjordland, Puysegur, the Chasin’ Beaver, Acheron Passage, Breaksea Sound, the Black Pearl, Milford.

It went on and on. Adventure after adventure. After two hours my head was spinning. Two things were obvious. Chronicling this journey well would not be easy. But … what a journey. Lynn had achieved something truly significant, and no matter how difficult it was going to be to sort through it, the story was worthwhile. The achievement was worth it. Lynn was worth it.

Something was missing though — the emotional heart of the story. We had the Where of the story, and the What and the Who and How. But there was no Why. Not yet.

‘Why did you paddle solo around New Zealand?’ I asked Lynn.

‘Because it was a dream of mine,’ she said.

‘Yeah, but why? Why was it a dream? And the real question: what type of person spends more than a year kayaking solo? Why solo? Why do it alone?’

Her answer, and our subsequent exploration of the emotional heart of her story, is what’s behind the book’s title, Finding Solo.

Lynn told me about her son, who she essentially separated from in the months before her trip. His behaviour became too much for her to handle, so she cut ties. At the same time, she moved out of the home she shared with Jason, and set up in a flat. Alone.

Okay. Now we were getting somewhere. Whether Lynn wanted to go there or not.

Next question: what type of person cuts ties with their son … and then paddles solo for a year?

We were getting to the deep stuff now. What Lynn perjoratively calls ‘the Mills and Boon’ stuff.

‘You’re not turning my story into a fucking Mills and Boon,’ she would say.

But I wouldn’t give up. I felt the story didn’t make a lot of sense without knowing the answers to the questions. Why? Why solo? Why cut ties?

So she told me the story of how, when she was 15, her mum took legal action to claim half the farm her father had left Lynn and her brother, and all the circumstances surrounding it. Her mother’s affair. Her father’s broken heart. Her father’s early death.

As Lynn told me the story, all I could see I was the girl of 15, grieving, alone. Solo.

Lynn must have been reading my mind.

‘Don’t go all fucking Mills and Boon on me.’

And that’s how it went, for the next three months. A couple of interviews a week. Lots of reading. Lots of transcribing. Lots of wrestling. Me trying to tap Lynn’s soft emotional centre, Lynn resisting at every turn and throwing the Mills and Boon line at me if I ever got too close. We also struggled to settle on a title. But it was obvious from the start that SOLO would be in there somehow. Because this was a story about being made SOLO from an early age, about choosing SOLO much later in life, and then discovering the meaning and the limits of SOLO once she was finally upon the ocean, alone, seeing the coastline of New Zealand in a way no person has ever seen before.

By the time our conversations centred on her journey up the west coast of the South Island, and again up the top of the North Island, Lynn’s recollection became more spiritual than historical. Things happened to Lynn on those parts of the journey that she could only describe in spiritual terms.

‘Don’t go thinking I’m believing in God all of a sudden,’ she would say. ‘I’m not a Christian or anything.’

What Lynn discovered were the spirits of the land, the Maori spirits from whom she sought permission to pass certain ‘gateways’ on our coastline. To this day, she is convinced that had she not obtained that permission, she wouldn’t have finished.

And then there was her constant battle with ‘Mother’ — unsurprisingly. The Mother in this case was Mother Nature, that ‘bitch’ (in Lynn’s words) who did everything she could to stop Lynn from proceeding, until Lynn sat on the beach and did a deal with her.

‘I’ll go when you tell me it’s okay to go,’ Lynn said.

There is some irony to the title FINDING SOLO. People would say to Lynn that she was on a journey to discover herself. That may be true, but it’s an idea she resisted. She didn’t need to find herself, she said, because she knew who she was. But what came out in the telling, and definitely in the writing, was that this was also a journey towards the discovery of others: strangers she encountered along the way and who became lifelong friends; members of her support crew without whom she wouldn’t have got very far at all; and a realisation that what she had with Jason, ‘Mr Have-A-Chat’ as Lynn calls him, was too good to walk away from. This became the subtext of the story.

‘Fucking Mills and Boon.’

Lynn was exhausted and emotionally spent by the time we finished writing this book. You’ll discover why. She had to relive a journey that took everything out of her — but more than that, she had to wrestle again with spirits, emotions, and thoughts, that she thought she had said goodbye to.

But it was worth it. And the result, I hope, is an amazing read.

David W. Williams, January 2019