Standing on the shoulders of giants
Historical records show some truly incredible feats undertaken by our ancestors from the Nordic nations. These peoples produced some truly outstanding pioneers, setting forth into the unknown, not knowing where they were heading or what they would find, guided simply by folklore, theory and ambition. The crew of the current Polar Row are emerging from the shadows of this past, rowing in the wake of these early seafaring ghosts, following their ancestral Vikings while setting their own pioneering route.
Ocean rowing is growing in popularity as a contemporary challenge, but its true significance is only revealed when we look back through history and realise just how significant it has been in the settlement and movement of the human race around the world. One of the most astounding stories of ocean rowing comes from two early Norwegian rowers Frank Samuelson and George Harbo. Considered to be the first Ocean rowers, in 1896 they were the first to cross a complete ocean when they completed a crossing of the North Atlantic. The pair left Manhattan on 6th June and landed on the Isles of Scilly 55 days later. Their time to cross was not beaten for 114 years, and even then it required a team of four rowers rather than two to do so. This incredible pioneering and brave feat was achieved in a primitive open top boat. Taking inspiration and emotional strength from the feats of these two gentlemen, the members of the Polar Row are proud to also be undertaking a first with a Norwegian on board; the link to the pioneering past is still strong.
Moving into the modern history of exploration a number of Arctic explorers stand out. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, born in Canada to Icelandic parents, made a wide contribution to early Arctic exploration with some extraordinary tales of discovery and survival. In 1919 he became the president of the Explorer’s club, and in 1921 he was awarded the Founder’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographic Society for his explorations in the Arctic. He paved the way for women to join the originally all male explorers community, now a prestigious and world-renowned society. Today there are only two Icelandic members of The Explorers Club: Ari Traustian advisor of the Polar Row project and Fiann Paul, the captain of Polar Row.
If successful, the Polar Row will be awarded the title “The first recorded crossing of the Norwegian and Greenland Sea”. This is accurate, although we would like to acknowledge previous, related, voyages. One such voyage was led by Captain Joan Kulstad, although his crew nearly died from extreme dehydration and starvation. Similarly, there are reports of successful rowing expeditions between Bear Island and Tromsø which are now very difficult to verify. This distance of 330 miles these days is not recognisable as being long enough to constitute an ocean rowing distance, but taking into account today’s technologies, the difficulty level is easily comparable and possible excedes some of the modern challenges. Since then no one has succeeded in rowing all the way from the Norwegian mainland to Svalbard; Polar Row truly has set it’s sights high.
One of the best ocean rowers of all time is Eugene Smurgis. Little is known about this epic figure, potentially a result of inadequate promotional exposure from his homeland of Arctic Russia. Smurgis rowed in the Arctic four times between 1988 and 1993 in primitive, simple boats over distances ranging from 400 to 1600 miles, although he would occasionally stop on land. On his fastest row, Eugine reached an average speed of 0.8 Knots, which, when considering his limited technology and the fact that he was rowing with his 15 year old son, is an impressive feat. By 1990 he had also reached the Northern most latitude at 77º, 44’0’’N. Interestingly Eugine Smurgis was the only ocean rower who completed his attempted routes. None of the more recent expeditions ever reached the completion of their Arctic rows.
More recently, in 2011, a team of six aimed to reach the magnetic North Pole. The team rowed for nearly 4 weeks towards the magnetic North Pole at an average speed of 0.6 Knots, but ended the expedition 390 NM away from the true magnetic North Pole. Abandoning their boat in the open waters the crew made it home safely but unfortunately could not claim the Northern-most latitude reached record as there was no final arrival point. The Ocean Rowing society and Guinness Adjudicators did not approve the expedition.
In 2012 a team of four aimed to row from Canada to Russia but ended their expedition in Alaska. They rowed approximately 600 miles in a straight line and achieved an average speed of 0.9 Knots. As a result of their efforts, the team were awarded the record of “The farthest open water row in the Arctic”.
Charles Hedrich rowed from Alaska to Greenland in 2014, a journey during which he stopped multiple times. While this row was approved by neither the Ocean Rowing Society nor Official Guinness Adjudicators, it could be argued to be the most successful Arctic rowing expedition since those of Eugene Smurgis. Later, in 2013, a team of four attempted to complete a partial North West Passage crossing, but managed only half of their proposed route. The team rowed 715 miles in a straight line over the span of 54 days and achieved an average speed of 0.5 Knots.
It is clear that although the scope of Arctic ocean rowing exploration is limited, it enjoys a rich heritage. This heritage can be traced back to the Greek explorer Pytheas in the 4th century BC, who explored Iceland, Greenland, and possibly even Svalbard. Although the fundamental objectives may have changed from essential exploration to find new lands to the sporting challenge, the spirit of adventure remains the same. Modern expeditions must be completed under the weight of expectation that comes with the publicity inherent in an interconnected world. Contemporary dreaming must therefore be accompanied by a degree of realism in order to achieve the success of achieving one’s previously stated goals. Time will tell how successful Polar Row will be. The crew are all aware and respectful of those who have dipped an oar in the icy waters before them. Motivation to survive and succeed will certainly drive them on into their place in history.