Northwest Passage Diary: All aboard: 960 dried meals, 600 tea bags, whiskey, chocolate and four men

Tomorrow (with luck), Irish rower Paul Gleeson will set out to row the Northwest passage with three companions. His expedition diary will appear in The Irish Times

Denis Barnett, Frank Wolf, Paul Gleeson and Kevin Vallely, with their boat, prepare to tackle the Northwest Passage

Denis Barnett, Frank Wolf, Paul Gleeson and Kevin Vallely, with their boat, prepare to tackle the Northwest Passage


In recent weeks many friends and family have asked my fellow explorers and me whether we are looking forward to our rowing expedition. The answer is, we haven’t really had time to think about it.

Tomorrow, all going well, I will sit into a 25ft rowing boat with three other men, high up in the Canadian Arctic, to row 3,000km across the Northwest Passage, a sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Some see it as four madmen heading off on a wild adventure. The reality is quite different. Yes, there is obviously an element of adventure but for all four of us there is an enormous amount of meticulous planning.

In the past six weeks I have been in London and Jersey for speaking engagements, then back to Ireland to see my family, attend a friend’s wedding and do some work with our expedition sponsor Mainstream Renewable Power. All the while we have been trying to get a million things done in Canada before our departure.

Kevin Vallely has been setting up our communication systems and liaising with people and organisations who are helping us with our weather planning. Our communication system is crucial as it will enable us to receive forecasts from the Canadian Ice Service. It includes two satellite phones, a laptop and an iPad, and will allow us to share all aspects of the trip with the outside world – including The Irish Times – over the next two to three months.

Denis Barnett has been putting the finishing touches to the boat, fine-tuning our rowing set-up to make it as ergonomic as possible, and adding in a back-up steering system and extra solar panel to power our batteries.

Balancing act
We decided to take two batteries instead of one, which gives us the ability to run our charging system off either battery. Although this means a little extra weight, we felt it was more important to prioritise safety over weight. There is a balancing act involving everything on board: the more weight we have, the harder the boat is to pull.

For example, our life raft weighs 61kg, a huge amount of additional weight for something we hope never to use, but going without one simply wasn’t an option. Better to be looking at it than looking for it.

Frank Wolf has been looking after food supplies, equipment and clothing. An experienced film-maker, he is also making a documentary about the trip. Our food supply include 960 freeze-dried meals, 700 power and chocolate bars, 600 tea bags and a few bottles of good single malt whiskey.

So the lads have been busy. Come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure what I’ve been doing, but time has flown. Training has taken a back seat for the past two weeks but a break from it is no bad thing as we will each be rowing 12 hours a day for the next two or three months.

The Northwest Passage is the collective name of the series of Arctic waterways through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America, through the Canadian Arctic archipelago. The waterways separate the islands of the archipelago from each other and from the Canadian mainland.

The first leg of this journey has now begun. We’re driving our boat 3,700km from Vancouver to our starting point at Inuvik. We shrink-wrapped the boat to protect it as 750km of the drive is on the Dempster Highway, an unpaved road.

Bears, moose and buffalo
As I write from the back seat of our truck, the landscape is stunning. Already today we’ve been greeted by black bears, moose and buffalo.It’s 26 degrees outside, Creedence Clearwater Revival are banging out the tunes, Frank is driving, Denis is sleeping and Kevin is taking photos.

The scene is set for one of the most difficult challenges of my life. There will be physical hardship, but the uncertainty of Mother Nature is a bigger worry. We can prepare and train all we like but, ultimately, she will decide whether or not we make it across the Northwest Passage.

How this all plays out we don’t know but that’s part of the attraction. There’s an expression I read many years ago that comes to mind at this moment: “If you wait till you’re sure, you’ll never do anything”.

Are we sure we’ll pull this off? Absolutely not, but there’s only one way to find out.

Dispatches from Paul Gleeson’s Northwest Passage trip will be published in The Irish Times over the coming weeks. You can follow the team’s progress at:

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