‘The Impossible Row’. Historic first row of the Southern Ocean
“The great sea moves me, sets me adrift” goes an old Inuit song. A century on from its translation into English and a world away, this arctic ode echoed across the frozen Antarctic continent last month as six rowers made landfall and stepped into the record books.
Fiann Paul, the crew’s captain, who conceived and developed the idea for an all human-powered expedition to cross the infamous Drake Passage, recited the poem to his wave-weary crew.
“It moves me like algae on stones in running brook water,” Paul recited. “The vault of heaven moves me. Mighty weather storms through my soul. It carries me with it. Trembling with joy.”
It was a short trip – as far as ocean rows go. Yet the feeling of joy was unparalleled when the expedition dubbed ‘The Impossible Row’ made landfall on the Antarctic mainland. Rowing around 1000 kilometres in 12 days to cross from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica was a far cry from some of Paul’s previous exploits. From the relatively tame Atlantic to the vast Pacific, the Indian to the Arctic, Paul had rowed all of the world’s oceans but one; he knew this would be his most difficult expedition.
“I could imagine that going to space could be the only more challenging expedition plan,” Paul told World Rowing after his safe return home to Iceland. “However, five hundred people have gone to outer space while no one had rowed the Southern Ocean, so I am actually not so sure about that.”
Years in the making, the expedition charted a course across the shortest route possible that just happens to be one of the most notorious stretches of water in the world.
“The Drake Passage is the place where three oceans meet and all the water of the planet transfers,” explaines Paul. “The only weather system here is the storm system.”
Rowing three at a time in 90-minute shifts for 24 hours a day, the 10 metre long ocean rowing boat bobbed around like a toddler’s bath toy sometimes on top of the towering waves and sometimes with the horizon blotted out by walls of water all around.
Fortunately for the crew on this expedition, international maritime law requires that an assisting vessel be with all human powered boats in the Drake Passage.
“This increased our safely tenfold,” says Paul, adding that the vessel was there in case of an emergency, but provided no support during the trip.
The television network, Discovery, used the vessel to film a documentary series, “The Impossible Row” produced in part by American crewmember, adventurer and elite endurance athlete Colin O’Brady, whose story the cameras follow here.
While O’Brady came with no rowing experience, he served as Paul’s first mate and was certainly no stranger to the Antarctic, recently becoming the first person to cross Antarctica solo and unassisted. Other members of the crew included two more Americans, Andrew Towne, a US National Champion in rowing and running who has climbed the tallest mountain on every continent, and John Peterson who captained his rowing team to national silver while at Yale University. The final two members of the crew were Jamie Douglas-Hamilton, a Scottish entrepreneur and decorated ocean rower, and South African extreme endurance athlete and life-long rower, Cameron Bellamy.
By crossing of the Drake Passage, the crew of the Impossible Row set five Guinness World Records as a crew, three of them world firsts including the southernmost latitude reached by a rowing vessel. As for Paul, he earned three more individual titles including the never before achieved ocean explorers ‘grand slam’ for being the first to row across all five of Earth’s oceans.
Over the years as an ocean rower, Paul has amassed an impressive collection of dozens of Guinness World Records. When it comes to the most prestigious category of Guinness records, however, the Impossible Row’s success now pushes Paul’s total up to 13 ‘World Firsts’, surpassing even the achievements of renowned mountaineer Reinhold Messner.