Paul Gleeson’s Arctic diary: A huge adventure but a lot at stake

Next month, four Irish and Canadian rowers will attempt the first crossing of the Northwest Passage in the Artic Ocean, a notorious route, in a season

The iconic Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen once said that “adventure is just bad planning”.

Given that he was the first person to reach the South Pole and was also the first to sail across the North West Passage, I think he knew a thing or two about expedition planning so for me, his words on this topic carry some serious weight.

I’d be lying if I said trying to plan this expedition has not been a tad daunting – it definitely has been on so many different fronts.

From designing, building the boat and funding the expedition to assessing navigation challenges, food & water considerations as well as safety and logistic planning, the plate has been well and truly stacked over the past year.

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My perspective has also broadened significantly over this time on another element of planning that is far more important than anything we are doing and that is the planning we are collectively doing around protecting our planet. I will come back to this later but this has now become a huge part of our expedition.

I think a common perception is that an adventure like this begins when we set off from Inuvik in July but the reality is that the adventure really began 15 months ago when we decided to do this.

The main part of our planning has revolved around the boat. First of all deciding on the boat we will use and secondly trying to come up with the funds to pay for it as well as all the other expedition costs.

It goes without saying that we’ve been doing a lot of training too but in a way that’s the easy part.

Initially we considered simply buying an existing ocean rowing boat but as we looked into this in more detail, we came to the conclusion that we would need to come up with something very specific and somewhat unique for our trip.

A flatter hull shape would be needed to avoid the potential of the boat getting crushed in the ice and we would also need to heavily reinforce the boat to prepare for the worst possible conditions up in the Arctic. Therefore we decided that we would have to design and build our boat from scratch.

Original plan
The original plan was to have the boat built in the UK by a very knowledgeable builder (Justin Adkin) who rowed across the Atlantic the same year that I did.

However, due to logistical challenges we decided to have it built locally here in Vancouver and we’ve been incredibly fortunate to find an absolutely amazing designer and builder (Robin Thacker) who is as passionate about this as we are.

When we first met with Robin, we were very upfront and told him that we would be willing to put our own money into this project but that ultimately we would need a corporate partner to pull this off.

A situation like this really is the proverbial “chicken and egg”. If we don’t put our own skin in the game, we will not get the project moving and will probably not be taken seriously by a potential partner. But we quite simply don’t have the necessary “skin” to get this over the line without the support of a corporate sponsor so we were definitely taking a calculated risk here.

We sat down with Robin and agreed that we would pay him in tranches. This would mean he gets the funds as he needs them over the course of the build and in turn, it gives us as much time as possible to find a corporate sponsor.

Out of time
We got to a point last December where we were simply out of time. If we could not give Robin the next payment, then he would not be able to complete the build in time for our departure. This was a major tipping point for us with the expedition – either we put a significant additional amount of our own money into this to keep the possibility alive of doing the trip this summer or we put the expedition off until 2014 to give us more time to find a sponsor.

The extra catch here is that even if we added in more of our own funds, there was no guarantee that we would find a sponsor and if we didn’t, then all we would have to show for our toil, sweat and money would be a half built boat.

Although it was definitely a calculated risk, we decided to put more of our own money into the boat.

Although this was not an easy decision and did require a leap of faith on our part, we all felt really confident that we would find a sponsor in time and that we simply had to back ourselves on this.

We all agreed that this was as far we would go with our own money. We all have responsibilities and financial commitments outside of this expedition so this really was our last roll of the dice.

I distinctly remembered the point at which I made up my mind to go for it and it was while I was out on a training run. I chatted with Denis Barnett that night about it and although it was definitely a risk for all of us, we agreed that it was worth it, we had put too much into this to simply “shelve it” until 2014.

For me it wasn’t all anxious emotions, I actually had a very strong sense of excitement and hope at this time.

I suppose anybody who has ever taken the risk of starting their own business has been in exactly the same position so really we weren’t doing anything completely out of the ordinary here but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t worry me a bit.

So when Dr Eddie O’Connor and the team at Mainstream Renewable Power decided to come on board as our partner, it was not only a huge relief but it has actually significantly increased the meaning behind this expedition for us.

In March of 1923, British mountain climber George Mallory was touring the United States to raise money for an expedition to climb Mount Everest planned for the following year. At that time no one had ever made it to the top of Everest. In 1921 and 1922, Mallory was a member of the first two expeditions that tried to reach the summit of the mountain but both had failed. During his 1923 fundraising tour, Mallory was often asked why he wanted to climb Everest.

The question seemed somewhat insignificant to an adventurer like Mallory and eventually he came up with a standard answer – “Because it’s there.”

If you asked me why I initially wanted to do this expedition, my answer would have been quite simple – bit like myself I suppose . . . I love doing these types of expeditions and testing myself to see how I will cope in extreme conditions.

This expedition will put me way out of my comfort zone and for me this is exactly the place where I learn a lot about myself and also about life in general. When I rowed across the Atlantic it was an enormously humbling experience and an amazing source of perspective. I got to spend three months in Mother Nature’s classroom and I realized that if you pay attention, she can be one of the best teachers around.

However, my motives for wanting to do this trip have shifted significantly over the past 12 months. We really have no business doing what we are attempting to do.

The only reason we can even attempt this is because of the alarming rate of climate change that is taking place. Ten to 15 years ago, the passage would have been ice choked in the summer so an expedition like this simply would not have been possible. The rate at which climate change has accelerated since then means that a trip like ours is now possible which is not good for any of us.

We can only attempt our expedition because the Arctic ice is melting. The June 2012 edition of the Economist magazine contained a large feature on "The Vanishing North" which laid out some of the most recent scientific thinking on what the melting of the Arctic means for many of us.

I would not consider myself an "echo warrior" type but I found this reading quite disturbing.

Small extract
Here's a small extract from what I read:"Around 125,000 years ago – when the IPCC (Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change) thinks the Arctic was last much warmer than today – polar meltwater raised the sea level by 4 to 6 metres. If that happened again today it would displace a billion people and inundate most of the world's biggest cities, including New York, London and Mumbai. The chances of that are uncomfortably high – though it might take a couple of centuries – because of another Arctic surprise"

So for all of us on the team, this trip is not just about the adventure of what we are doing but more important than that it’s about making a real statement about how fast our planet is changing and highlighting the simple fact that we need to do more to protect it. We might not see this in our lifetime but future generations will and I would love to be part of the generation that in time will be thanked for slowing down and ultimately reversing climate change.

We will be shortly announcing “The Mainstream Movement” which is something we will be doing over the course of the expedition which we hope will impact governments and policy makers all over the world.


Paul Gleeson's diary will appear throughout the summer. To follow the expedition log onto www.mainstreamlastfirst.com