The world’s most record-breaking explorer, Fiann Paul, plans to establish three Guinness World Firsts in January of 2023: First to Row the Scotia Sea, First to Row from the Antarctic Continent, and First to Row the Southern Ocean South to North. To top it off, he aims to gain all three in a single expedition.
Inspired by the journey of another renowned explorer, Endurance captain Ernest Shackleton, Paul’s team will embark on an 800-nautical mile rowing journey across the Southern Ocean and the Scotia Sea, in some of the most tumultuous ocean waters on the planet. As a nod to the Endurance’s crew, Paul hopes to have the Polar Medal awarded posthumously to Shackleton’s carpenter, Harry “Chippy” McNish, who made the Endurance’s lifeboat seaworthy enough to make what has been called the greatest small boat voyage of all time.
Paul says that the “epiphany” for the voyage came as he sat by a fire looking at the stars. “Shackleton’s story came to mind, at least some elements of it,” he recalls. “The lifeboat journey succeeded thanks to the genius of both the Endurance’s Captain, F. Worsley, as well as McNish. Like them, we are using our creativity and skills to make the pieces of the puzzle fit.”
Covid blocked the expedition for two years, a delay that Paul calls “draining.” He used the time to raise money and assemble a crew on the sly. “There are perhaps 10 people in the world who meet the requirements of the expedition,” he says. “But once it is known, the ‘world’s-first’ title can be lost to someone who has a lot of money and can do it faster, so I had to recruit in stealth mode.”
The team will row both the Southern Ocean and the Scotia Sea, exceeding the difficulty level of even the Drake Passage. Over about two weeks, the six crewmembers will row in groups of three 24 hours a day, changing shifts every 90 minutes.
Paul expects to face waves the size of buildings as well as freezing winds, high humidity, and sub-zero temperatures, but those are not the biggest dangers. “Pack ice on a high swell is the scariest environment that a small rowing boat can ever encounter,” Paul says. He is also well aware of the risk of equipment failure and the psychological challenges wrought by sleep deprivation, hunger, risk of injury or illness, and exhaustion.
The reward will be stunning natural beauty and an extraordinary bookend to Paul’s ocean-rowing career, one as marked by world’s-first records as by a singular focus. “You cannot do this kind of thing one leg out unless you do it commercially with clients,” he says, “but I’ve never been interested in that. I don’t want to go backward. I’d rather take the momentum somewhere else and harvest my work forward.”
Paul, widely considered a Renaissance Man due to his intellectual and artistic exploits, is fond of quoting Benjamin Franklin, Soren Kierkegaard, and Carl Jung. He has been called the only explorer who struggles to “talk the walk.” Commercializing his story holds little interest, though a film crew will document the expedition from a support vessel — a requirement under international law, albeit an unwelcome one.
“Most of the funds are used for the supervising vessel,” he says. “And it costs so much every day that we won’t be able to simply wait out bad weather. We will just have to row through whatever we get. There’s simply no other choice.”
Two weeks from the journey, Paul describes himself as “a bit anxious, a bit excited, a bit tired.” He says that it is “unthinkable” how many things must work. Ocean expeditions require far more planning than mountaineering in terms of permits, equipment, and logistics. He has designed much of the equipment himself, including the tailored sea suits and the boat, which he says arrived on King George Island just after this past Christmas.
While Paul remains in top physical shape through the year and is confident of his crew’s fitness, he acknowledges that psychology is the least preparable element of all — ironic, perhaps, as he is a Jungian psychoanalyst. Paul believes that mindset is innate; rowing, he says, is unique as a sport because it is equally a test of endurance and power. “In this case, we are also doing distance and dealing with an extreme environment,” he observes.
A distraction from all the preparation is writing. Books documenting extraordinary voyages, from “Into the Wild” to “Kon Tiki,” have become huge bestsellers, yet Paul would rather focus on the aspects that explorers do not typically discuss, rather than the glory of a successful expedition. The psychology of extreme adventuring fascinates him above all else. “Maybe this will convince me to write an adventure book,” he muses, “even though I don’t like them, myself.”
As the world’s foremost adventurer, Paul has been uniquely humbled by elements external and internal. Of his next brush with history, Paul offers a simple piece of wisdom: “I cannot fight with nature.”