Six men are embarking on a row from South America to the Antarctic across arguably the most hazardous stretch of water on earth. The Drake Passage is off Cape Horn, on the southern tip of Chile, where the Pacific, Southern and Atlantic oceans meet and the furious winds of the roaring 40s latitude are funnelled into the narrow stretch of water, creating huge waves.
“It is one of the most interesting, one of the most dangerous rows in history,” said team member Jamie Douglas-Hamilton, who is British. “But what makes it so interesting is it’s not a done deal. We are talking about it, and the press talk about it, as though we’ve already done it. But there is so much that can go wrong.”
The team plan to leave from South America in December. The exact date depends on the weather. They aim to make their way to the Antarctic Peninsula, then continue through the roaring 40s, furious 50s and to the screaming 60 degrees south and into the Southern Ocean.
Although the Passage can be hectic, on other days it can be calm, earning itself the nicknames the Drake Lake or the Drake Shake.
“The weather can whip up very quickly, and the waves come from different sides. But it’s a very small boat,” said Douglas-Hamilton, who has rowed the Indian and Atlantic oceans.
“You can capsize, you can barrel roll, and if you get wet you have to change very, very quickly or risk hypothermia. You don’t even know how the wildlife will react down there. Will orcas try to ram the boat, thinking it’s something else having never seen an ocean rowing boat? That’s why it’s so exciting.”
The six-person team is lead by Icelander Fiann Paul, 39. Paul and Douglas-Hamilton, 38, were in a team together that rowed the Indian Ocean. During that crossing, as they added a bit of salt water to their drinking water, Douglas-Hamilton came up with a business idea. He has since launched his own company, Actiph, selling ionised water, which helps hydration.
Paul has rowed a host of oceans, including leading a team that became the first to row the Arctic Ocean, in 2017. They paddled from the Norwegian mainland to the Svalbard archipelago in the far north and then on to Jan Mayen Island near Iceland.
The current trip needed a step up in planning for Paul. The cost, permits and logistics have been more demanding then any other crossing, let alone finding a team.
“When you filter the whole world’s population and you find people who have courage, skills, time, fitness and money then you have maybe 10 individuals on the planet,” he said. “That’s a big deal.”
The other four crew members are Americans Colin O’Brady, Andrew Towne and John Petersen and South African Cameron Bellamy.
O’Brady, in particular, has bought a great deal of attention to the row. He rose to prominence last year when he became the first person to walk unsupported solo across Antarctica, a trip he dubbed The Impossible First. Since O’Brady announced The Impossible Row on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, American media have been captivated.
Cultural commentator Joe Rogan, speaking on his podcast, could not get his mind around the expedition: “What? Oh my god! What the f***, man?,” he said. “Why do people have to do things like this?”
“Bunch of crazy a******* get together,” he said.
It means there might be more attention on their trip than any other ocean row in history. The Discovery Channel plans to post daily updates on their Instagram account, using the hashtag #theimpossiblerow.
Permits require them to have a support boat on hand at all times, which is not the norm for ocean rowing. This is intended to make the trip safer overall, but nothing is a given in the Drake Passage.
Paul said: “It could be less dangerous or overwhelmingly more dangerous than anything I’ve ever done.”
For Douglas-Hamilton, he is hoping to experience the full force of the ocean at least once during the trip.
“Probably my best memory from the Indian Ocean was in a storm,” he said. “There was one day when the wind had died down, but the seas were absolutely enormous. When you were on top of these waves you could see as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful. It was probably the best memories of my life”
“So, it’s something I want to go into and I’d almost be disappointed if it was completely flat,” he said. “Luckily, it’s the Drake Passage, so it wont be.”