First, Colin O’Brady crossed Antarctica alone on skis. Now he plans to row there.
O’Brady, 34, who last year won a race to be the first to traverse Antarctica solo, unsupported and unaided by wind, has announced his next exploit. As part of a team of six, he plans to row 600 to 800 miles across Drake Passage, from Cape Horn at the tip of South America to Antarctica.
If successful, they would be the first to row unaided by wind all the way to the Antarctic Peninsula, O’Brady said. Such records are difficult to verify because there is no central clearinghouse documenting every attempt, and explorers have been known to debate what it means to be unaided and unsupported.
In 1988, a team led by the adventurer Ned Gillette rowed the passage, but they hoisted a small sail to help move the vessel at the start and rowed only to the outer islands, not the main Antarctic Peninsula. “That’s the only other similar attempt,” O’Brady said.
“The driving passion is to add one more grain of sand to human achievement,” he said. “Doing something that’s never been done before really appeals to me.”
The craft will be a typical ocean rowing boat, 25 feet long and about four feet wide. There will be some custom elements for the cold, like reinforced hatches and extra sealing.
The quarters will be confined. At any given time, three men will be rowing with two oars each and the others will be in tiny cabins for sleeping. They expect to use 90 minute shifts for the entirety of the crossing.
They don’t expect to have an easy time. Waves could reach 30 feet. There could be icebergs. “You can’t just stop,” O’Brady said. “The boat needs to be in constant motion.”
“Drake Passage is very infamous in the world of maritime travel,” he said. “It’s one of the most dangerous and treacherous waters in the world.” This is partly because of the confluence of three competing currents, from the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern Oceans.
“The biggest risk is fully capsizing and having your boat sink,” O’Brady said.
“In the worst storms, we put out a sea anchor,” essentially a parachute; the currents fill up the parachute, and basically hold the boat in place. “We jam ourselves into the cabins, which are watertight. The boat could flip and roll, but not sink … hopefully.”
Compounding the challenge, O’Brady had never rowed a boat until a few months ago. “I’m a total novice.”
He makes up for that with an experienced team. Fiann Paul, the Icelandic co-captain, is an experienced and record-breaking ocean rower. “But he’s never been this far south or in these kind of conditions,” O’Brady said. The other members of the team include former collegiate rowers.
The expedition plans to set out from Chile on Dec. 10, taking advantage of the Antarctic summer, and the row should take about three weeks.
A major sponsor of the trip is the Discovery Channel, which will film a documentary. It will follow the rowers in a 120-foot boat, but will not offer support, food or fuel. “In a worst-case scenario, they are there,” O’Brady said.
“We dream big adventures,” he said. “But we can’t write a check by ourselves.”