Standing on the shoulders of giants
Rowing in the past...
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. One such pioneer is Norwegian whaler Johan Kulstad, who suffered shipwreck at Svalbard after a voyage from Norway.
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.
Official Origin of Ocean Rowing
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.
Polar Row and the Icelandic connection
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 Trausti Guðmundsson an advisor of the Polar Row project and Fiann Paul, the captain of Polar Row.
First officially recognized and best Arctic Ocean Rower
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, the record stands until today. Interestingly Eugine Smurgis was the only Arctic ocean rower who completed his attempted routes. None of the more recent expeditions ever reached the completion of their Arctic rows.
Although the strength of Smurgis’ warrior spirit exceeds any other Ocean rower from any other time period, his story is one of unfulfilled potential. His is not the tale of the American Dream. He did not receive the lavish funding that Admiral Bird enjoyed from John D. Rockefeller, and as a result could not reach the heights that his ability so clearly allowed. In contrast to Byrd, Smurgis barely had enough money for food. However, through sheer strength of spirit he was able to overcome such fiscal constraints to cross the Arctic ocean in a basic open rowing boat. Even with the development of modern technology, this feat has not been repeated. The rowers of the Polar Row are in no doubt that Eugene Smurgis would have been widely renowned as the worlds pre-eminent ocean rower if he had the finances to pursue it.
A unique heritage of exploration
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.