‘Po­lar Row’ team smashes records in icy Arc­tic Ocean

Top-of-the-world ad­ven­ture to aid sci­ence, Hi­malayans

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY NI­COLE AULT

“Seven days, seven hours, seven world records.” Fiann Paul pithily sum­ma­rizes the first leg of his pro­posed world-record-smash­ing “Po­lar Row” across the Arc­tic Ocean: five men cramped in a row­boat for a frigid week, sub­sist­ing on de­hy­drated meals and two-hour sleep­ing shifts, proudly bear­ing the Ex­plorer’s Club Flag to sig­nify that their ad­ven­ture is sci­en­tific — and a true ex­plo­ration.

“It’s one of the last chances to ex­plore some­thing on this planet,” Mr. Paul, the cap­tain of the ex­pe­di­tion, said in a phone in­ter­view. “We call our­selves ex­plor­ers be­cause we ex­plored this route by man­power.”

Like a true ex­plorer, Mr. Paul is holed up with his crew in a small moun­tain hut in Sval­bard, a Nor­we­gian ar­chi­pel­ago, be­fore set­ting out on the sec­ond leg of his jour­ney, to Ice­land, in a few days. Even the home base has its per­ils: While in Sval­bard, the team is le­gally re­quired to carry a gun to ward off po­lar bears.

They won’t com­plete the two-leg mis­sion un­til they dock in Ice­land at the end of the month, with more than 1,700 miles in freez­ing, open sea and — they hope — 11 world records un­der their belts.

A Sval­bard gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial doubted the team’s abil­ity to ac­com­plish its goals, Mr. Paul said, and slapped it with the high­est in­sur­ance fees.

Though there is no emer­gency mo­tor on board, no sails and no trail­ing sup­port team, the crew in­sists any doubts will be proved un­founded.

For that first leg, Mr. Paul’s team of five, in­clud­ing an In­dian navy com­man­der and a for­mer mem­ber of the Nor­we­gian na­tional row­ing team, set out on July 20 from Tromso, Nor­way, in­tend­ing to chal­lenge — and sur­pass — five world records. Av­er­ag­ing 2.58 knots for 512 miles — cross­ing ap­prox­i­mately 1 de­gree of lat­i­tude per day — they reached Longyear­byen in Sval­bard by July 27.

If they had been go­ing at the pre­vi­ously held world record av­er­age pace for row­ing in the Arc­tic, just 0.78 knots, they would still be in the mid­dle of the ocean.

Be­sides achiev­ing the fastest av­er­age row­ing pace in the Arc­tic Ocean, the Po­lar Row crew was the largest to row across the Arc­tic and the first to row from south to north across it. They also reached the north­ern­most lat­i­tude by a row­boat in a proper ocean cross­ing and broke the world record speed for row­ing across the whole Arc­tic Ocean.

“It was very un­ex­pected,” Mr. Paul said mildly, re­fer­ring to their achieve­ments.

The trip isn’t just about chas­ing records. Through the Po­lar Row, Mr. Paul hopes to raise nearly $26,000 to build a school in the Hi­malayas, a place he has vis­ited and felt he could help ef­fec­tively be­cause con­struc­tion there is less ex­pen­sive than in Western coun­tries. Or­ga­niz­ers have raised about 10 per­cent of the funds so far, he said, adding that they are on track to meet the Jan­uary fundrais­ing dead­line, with con­struc­tion slated to start next spring.

Mr. Paul’s own two world records com­plete the team’s seven. The Pol­ish­born ath­lete, who now lives in Ice­land, is the first per­son to row across four oceans — the At­lantic, Pa­cific, Arc­tic and In­dian — and holds world records for the fastest row­ing speeds across those oceans.

In­spired to break records on the ocean near­est his Ice­landic home­land, Mr. Paul be­gan re­cruit­ing team mem­bers for the row­ing ven­ture last fall — a del­i­cate busi­ness, he said, be­cause he feared some­one might try to beat him to the punch if the re­cruit­ing ef­fort be­came too pub­lic. He reached out to peo­ple he knew, ad­ver­tised qui­etly and fi­nally made the ex­pe­di­tion pub­lic in mid-July when their boat was al­ready in the dock.

“It was a lit­tle bit frus­trat­ing [to keep it quiet], be­cause you have so much to of­fer,” he said.

The team has the sup­port of sev­eral prom­i­nent ad­vis­ers, in­clud­ing Olympic row­ing cham­pion Steven Red­grave, who praised the team’s ac­com­plish­ments af­ter the first row, Mr. Paul said.

Tyler Carnevale, a 23-year-old New Jerseyan who has climbed In­done­sia’s Mount Agung and Peru’s Salka­n­tay Trek, said he came across Mr. Paul’s ad­ver­tise­ment in March, Skyped with Mr. Paul and be­came a con­firmed team mem­ber in April. Though an ex­pe­ri­enced en­durance ath­lete, he had no ex­pe­ri­ence in row­ing, he said. He earned a seat on the boat by pass­ing a test on a row­ing ma­chine.

Mr. Carnevale will join the team for the sec­ond row, set to be­gin early this month but likely to start sooner since the first trip ended ahead of sched­ule.

More records to break

Mr. Paul will lead a team of six, four of whom weren’t on the first leg, to row south for Siglufjor­dur, the north­ern­most town in Ice­land, with the goal of set­ting even more records: At 1,240-plus miles, it will be the long­est open-wa­ter Arc­tic row with­out stops. The six row­ers will also be the first crew to row the Arc­tic Ocean in both di­rec­tions, achieve the north­ern­most lat­i­tude start­ing point and — if pos­si­ble — try to break their own speed record, which Mr. Paul ac­knowl­edged will be a dif­fi­cult en­deavor.

One of the new crew mem­bers is Danny Long­man, a re­searcher at the Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge with a doc­tor­ate in evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy, who will record changes in the men’s phys­i­o­log­i­cal con­di­tions dur­ing the trip for his project on the ef­fects of stress on hu­man evo­lu­tion. His par­tic­i­pa­tion earned the team the Ex­plorer’s Club flag, car­ried by just 202 sci­en­tific ex­plor­ers — in­clud­ing the Apollo 11 crew — be­fore them.

Along with weight loss and hor­mone fluc­tu­a­tions re­sult­ing from sleep de­pri­va­tion, mus­cle tears, joint wear and men­tal fac­tors will likely weigh on the row­ers, Mr. Long­man said.

“Once you step out of a tightly con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment, it be­comes a psy­cho­log­i­cal bat­tle,” he said, con­trast­ing the pris­tine, tightly reg­u­lated con­di­tions of an Olympic row­ing event with the harsh, un­pre­dictable en­vi­ron­ment of the Arc­tic.

Mr. Paul ob­served the phys­i­cal strain, not­ing that his rest­ing heart rate dur­ing the row was at 95 — al­most twice the nor­mal rest­ing heart rate for an ath­lete.

“The body’s me­tab­o­lism is so speeded up that it makes it dif­fi­cult to go to sleep dur­ing the rest pe­ri­ods,” he said.

Be­sides phys­i­cal chal­lenges, the team faced tech­ni­cal prob­lems too. The boat’s power backup sys­tem failed, re­quir­ing the row­ers to turn off their mo­bile de­vices and limit use from their elec­tric wa­ter maker.

For all the stren­u­ous con­di­tions, how­ever, Mr. Paul cred­its ex­plor­ers such as Rus­sian rower Eu­gene Smur­gis, who held the record for row­ing to the north­ern­most lat­i­tude be­fore the Po­lar Row team broke it, with hav­ing ac­com­plished in­cred­i­ble feats with far more prim­i­tive equip­ment.

“We are spoiled kids com­pared to him,” said Mr. Paul, not­ing that their 28-foot row­boat con­tains nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems, medicine and nu­tri­tional foods. “I do con­sider that he achieved more than us.”

Mr. Carnevale pointed out that be­cause of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances, ven­tures into the un­known are more ap­peal­ing and fea­si­ble, bring­ing back a by­gone era.

“It’s a nice re­birth of that pe­riod of ex­plo­ration,” he said.

De­spite tech­no­log­i­cal as­sis­tance, Mr. Paul said, the Po­lar Row pre­sented its own phys­i­cal and men­tal chal­lenges. Tem­per­a­tures hov­ered around freez­ing, and the head­winds they faced were “a val­i­da­tion of our man­power per­for­mance,” he said.

It’s not all a harsh test of en­durance, Mr. Paul said he en­joyed see­ing wildlife in the ocean and found the trip most relaxing “when the weather was good and the clouds are beau­ti­ful.”

“It is best in the mo­ments when you have hope and be­lieve ev­ery­thing is fine and on track,” he said. “There are def­i­nitely times when you look at a sit­u­a­tion ra­tio­nally and think maybe you won’t make it.”

As for Mr. Carnevale, he is ex­cited for the chance to be an ex­plorer — to go places where no one has been be­fore.

“Maybe that’s some­thing,” he said, “be­ing one of the last pi­o­neers in this world, do­ing some­thing for the first time.”

ON A MIS­SION: The in­ter­na­tional row­ing crew’s small craft proudly bears the Ex­plor­ers Club Flag to sig­nify that their Arc­tic ad­ven­ture is sci­en­tific — and a true ex­plo­ration.

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