Northwest Passage Diary: We needed Mother Nature to help. She hasn’t

The Arctic rowing trip has run into heavy weather

We’ve all been there at some point: that state of absolute exhaustion when all you want to do is sleep. It’s a regular occurrence on this trip, a bid by myself and three companions to row 3,000km across the Northwest Passage, the sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Our original intention was to row around the clock, seven days a week, to keep the boat constantly moving. Our team of four would row in pairs, 12 hours each per day. I did this when I rowed across the Atlantic a few years ago with Tori Holmes and it worked well.

However on this trip, the weather has interfered. Our boat, The Arctic Joule, weighs about 2,300lb fully loaded, so it is virtually impossible to make progress into any sort of stiff wind or swell.

Last week, we were stuck on anchor for almost two days. On numerous occasions, the wind subsided enough for us to think we could jump back on the oars. But within 15 minutes, it would revert to a strong headwind and we would find ourselves back on anchor.


On a recent morning about 1am, although all three anchors were deployed, the wind – the strongest we have experienced on the trip – began to push us out to sea. Given how hard we had to worked to get here, the last thing we wanted was to be forced backwards.

We decided to wait for a lull in the wind, and then row as hard as we could to shore, about 2km away. I’ve never rowed as hard in my life. Denis and I went flat out for 30 minutes, and I wondered if an oar would snap. Kevin manned the steering wheel and kept us going with words of encouragement.

Adrenaline roaring through our veins, we made land and set about securing the boat. We began to set up the tent, but one tent pole bent and another snapped in half with the force of the wind. We decided to sleep on the boat, but after a few hours Kevin and Frank opted to sleep on the beach and kept a watch on the winch gradually tightening it as the tide came in. There was a real risk of damaging our centreboard, the retractable fin underneath the boat that helps with steering and manoeuvrability.

Shortly after 8am on Saturday, things had calmed sufficiently and we pushed off the beach and continued on our way. But the following evening, while filming underwater, Frank noticed that our centreboard was not down.

On investigation, which involved drilling into one of our hull compartments, we discovered that the lowering mechanism was no longer working. It took a couple of hours to rig up a homemade solution.

A shortened journey
It was the tennis player Arthur Ashe who said: "Success is a journey, not a destination. Doing is usually more important than the outcome." His words have occupied my mind a lot over the past week.

It is now impossible for us to make our intended final destination of Pond Inlet. We knew we would need help from Mother Nature to pull this off, and the weather has not been favourable. We have less than five weeks before the ice begins to set in for the winter.

We had three objectives for this expedition: to make it to Pond Inlet and complete the voyage as intended; to draw attention to the topic of climate change and to carry out scientific data collection for the Canadian Department of Ocean and Fisheries; and to document this trip and share the experience with those who are interested.

Through this and other recent articles in The Irish Times, I hope we are doing a good job of the last part. Our film documentary, when complete, will give viewers a deeper insight.

However, we will not make it to Pond Inlet. Though the reasons are beyond our control, it still hurts.

As I write, we are 550km from Cambridge Bay, which is only our halfway mark, and it could be the end of August before we get there. If so, this is where our expedition will finish.We are still giving this everything we have but it has been a difficult week.