‘Polar Row’ team smashes records in icy Arctic Ocean
Top-of-the-world adventure to aid science, Himalayans
“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.