Stefan will be rowing the Northwest Passage this summer – A little Q&A

Q: You will be rowing the Northwest Passage this summer?

A: Yes, I will be part of an expedition team that will attempt to row the Northwest Passage this summer.

WHY?

Q: Why on earth would you want to do that?

A: It sounds awfully corny, but ever since I was a little boy, I dreamt of joining an expedition to a faraway, dangerous place.

Q: How long did you have to wait?

A: Quite a while, actually, I’ll be turning 50 this September.

 

Feature logo and all pics of boat (c) Northwest Passage Expedition, rest royalty-free

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WHAT IS THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE?

Q: For those who didn’t major in geography, what is the Northwest Passage?

A: The Northwest Passage is the sea lane that connects the North Atlantic with the North Pacific via the so-called Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The Passage is generally considered to have its Eastern entry point at Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, relatively close to Greenland. Its Western entry point is considered to be the coastline of Northern Alaska. There are many islands and a number of different routes. It is not uncommon to hear people speak about the Northwest Passages in plural.

 

SIZE & EXPERIENCE OF THE TEAM

Q: So how many people are you on the team?

A: In total there are four of us.

THE EXPEDITION LEADER, LEVEN BROWN

Our skipper (= captain) and expedition leader, Leven Brown, who is based in Scotland, is certainly one of the most experienced ocean rowers and skippers alive today. He set 7 ocean rowing records, 5 of which still stand to this day, and he has rowed more than 30,000 nautical miles.

REST OF THE TEAM

The other team-mates, Art (Karts) Huseonica and Mike Harding, are seasoned adventurers and have both had extremely distinguished military careers before successfully moving into civilian roles. Art is based in Arizona, in the U.S., Mike is living in Southeast England. Just like Leven, Mike has completed the first leg of the expedition, last year.

A couple of days ago, I met Mike for the first time in a pub in Brighton, which is reasonably close to where he lives. We’ll definitely catch up again before the expedition. I won’t meet Leven or Art in person before the expedition.

STEFAN HACKER

Q: That brings us to the last member of the team: you. You said you signed up, because you dreamt of joining an expedition since you were a young boy. For a person with a relatively ordinary office work background like yourself, any offer to join an expedition would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we get that.

Were there other aspects that attracted you to this expedition in particular?

 

OCEAN ROWING IS OFTEN AT THE FOREFRONT OF ADVENTURE THESE DAYS

A: Naturally, seeing the extremely high standard of the skipper, my team-mates, the planning, and the equipment, was very positive. I’ve found ocean rowing fascinating for a long time. While, without any doubt, mountaineering is still a main area of where adventure happens today, and the vast majority of my heroes are from this discipline, let’s be honest: the biggest mountains have all been climbed a long time ago. Over the last 4 decades, a lot of records were set and broken in sailing. Today, with improvements in technology and a still small, but gradually increasing group of practitioners, ocean rowing appears to be at the forefront of adventure.

KEEN INTEREST IN OCEAN ROWING

A couple of years ago, I did a one-day ocean rowing taster course and a bit of rowing on the Thames. In all honesty, I never made it past beginner-level in any real sense. However, a friend of mine and I had had serious plans to prepare for the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, a row across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean. We had started to draft a 2-year plan, but then things started falling apart quickly, because of incompatibility of costs and the required time off with our work commitments and situation at the time.

 

THE ORDINARY GUY

Q: So you have no serious adventure or rowing experience, you are ‘the ordinary guy’ on a team of professionals. Were you told why you were chosen?

A: I won’t lie to you. One other team member had to withdraw last minute, about three weeks ago. There is a chance that if the application process would have been running for several months, then someone else would have made it. Or not, I don’t know.

SKIPPER’S HISTORY OF ‘SPICING THINGS UP’

As those who know Leven, the expedition leader, will tell you, he does have a history of spicing things up by choosing people of different backgrounds for his expeditions. While I’m sure that the other team members are far more interesting to hang with and have far better stories to tell, I guess in this particular context, I appear to be the spice.

STEFAN’S SKILLS AND EXPERIENCE

Q: Do you have any skills or experience, that you are bringing to the table/boat?

A: Nothing too out of the ordinary. When I finished high school in my hometown of Burghausen, near Munich, in Bavaria, Germany, I had to complete one year of obligatory military service, those were the rules back then. Like every recruit in the area where I live, I was placed with the Bavarian Mountain Troops. The training was very hard and on various occasions we spent up to two weeks high up in the Bavarian Alps, including in the middle of winter. With extremely little chance to sleep.

 

ONE MONTH IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA

I’ve experienced some stress situations, when I was working as a paid development consultant for an NGO in Papua New Guinea for one month in 1998. The country had been on the verge of a military coup. Because of the general strike, the prison wardens decided to free all inmates from jail, as the latter would have starved otherwise, with no wardens there to feed them.

THE TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE BLOG

For almost nine years, now, my wife Ellie & I have been running Berkeley Square Barbarian, a successful London travel and adventure blog. Collaborations have included Bhutan, Everest Base Camp Trek, and Kilimanjaro. I was initially going to join a good friend of mine on K2 Base Camp Trek next month, but had to cancel because of the expedition.

HIKING

Funnily enough, a London-based hiking group called GO London have never sponsored us, but we do almost all our hiking through them, sometimes two weekends per month. I’m only mentioning their name here to make their founder, Gary, feel bad for never doing a collaboration with us.

CAVING, CANYONING & OTHER PURSUITS

Through the blog, I also got the opportunity to do some caving in the deepest section of the largest cave in the UK, to go through a so-called sump (a section of a cave entirely submerged in water), to do some packrafting, paddleboarding, long-distance open water swimming, tandem skydiving, canyoning, rock- and ice-climbing.

 

ULTRA-RUNNING

Q: Apart from the blog, do you keep fit and exercise on a regular basis?

A: Yes, my ‘main thing’ is running, in particular I love ultra-running (distances longer than a marathon), ideally on mountainous trails. I go for 10k+ runs almost every day. Sometimes I might ‘squeeze in’ two 25k+ runs per week. When it comes to races, I almost always go for ultra-distance.

Michelle from UKRunChat recently very kindly invited me on her podcast to chat about my ultra-running and how it helped me with the preparation for the expedition.

THE EXPEDITION THAT SHOULD NOT BE POSSIBLE

Q: Your Northwest Passage Expedition has been called ‘The Expedition that should not be possible’. Why is that?

A: Unfortunately, without climate change, our Expedition would not be possible. Over the past decades there has been a serious reduction in the amount of sea ice. There are now longer, warmer summers, where there is comparatively little ice blocking the way. The risk of becoming ice-bound is much lower than it used to be.

CONTRIBUTING TO CLIMATE CHANGE RESEARCH

Q: Doesn’t it concern you, that climate change made your expedition possible?

A: Absolutely, and very much so. Ever since I was 12 years old, I was involved in fighting environmental destruction and pollution. As a little kiddo, I was part of a group of like-minded children, who campaigned against polluting perpetrators like unsafe incineration power plants. This included organising protests and meetings with local politicians. Our Northwest Passage Expedition will collect data for climate science. Every two days we will take samples from the ocean. These will be used by New York University for their research into climate change.

THE BOAT

Q: What about the boat?

A: Yes, that’s another reason why we should be in a good position to succeed: Hermione, our boat, was designed by Leven for Arctic conditions. Our skipper named her after his late mother. The boat is almost unsinkable, almost unbreakable, and self-righting. Another plus is that she is longer (almost 13.5m/44ft) and heavier (>2t) than other rowing boats that have been used in previous attempts. This makes her less susceptible to strong winds and high waves.

START DATE

Q: When does the expedition start?

A: It’s all weather-dependent. But we will be sitting in waiting next to the start line from mid-July, just over a month from now.

WHERE DOES THE EXPEDITION START FROM?

Q: Where is the start line?

A: Cambridge Bay. It is pretty much the midway point on that stretch of water that starts, where mainland Canada ends, high up north: The Northwest Passage. Very close to the North Pole. To be more precise, Cambridge Bay is a tiny settlement, located on Victoria Island in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut.

THE TWO LEGS OF THE EXPEDITION, LAST YEAR AND THIS YEAR

Q: Why don’t you start at the entrance to the Northwest Passage, at Pond Inlet, in the far Northeast of Canada?

A: During the first leg of this expedition, last summer, another team rowed all the way from there to Cambridge Bay. Our leg of the expedition will be the second and final leg of the expedition.

THE FINISH LINE

Q: Where is the finish line?

A: In the very Northwest of Canada, just before we reach Alaska, there is an island called Herschel Island. That’s our official finish line. In order to get back to civilization, we will then switch on our electric motor, make a U-turn, and travel all the way back to Tuktoyaktuk, several hundred kilometres. Alternatively, depending on a number of factors, we might choose to go up the Mackenzie River to Inuvik, which would be a similar distance. This would save us a bus ride from Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik.

THE DISTANCE

Q: How long is the distance you’ll be rowing this summer?

A: Leven, our skipper, estimates that the total distance of the expedition (last year + this year) will end up being around 2,100 nautical miles. That’s 2,400 miles, or 3,900km.

Because this year’s leg of the expedition is going to be roughly half the distance, we are expecting to do around 1,050 nautical miles. That’s 1,200 miles, or 1,950km.

 

EXPECTED DURATION

Q: How long do you expect the expedition to take, from start to finish?

A: Leven is expecting it to take between 8 and 10 weeks. We will all be ready to roll in Cambridge Bay from mid-July, but everything depends on the weather. We might be leaving as early as 15 July. On the other hand, the weather might force us to sit it out for up to three weeks or so. Impossible to tell.

EXPECTED TIME OF COMPLETION

Q: So what does that mean for the expected time of completion?

A: In an absolute worst case, it could be as late as the second half of October, but we are all hoping to arrive at Herschel Island around mid-September to very early October. Fingers crossed. Then Tuktoyaktuk or Inuvik (using electric motor) within two days max. Then a couple of days to make arrangements and celebrate, and three days or so to get back to our loved ones.

CAN WE TRACK THE EXPEDITION REAL-TIME?

Q: Is there any way of tracking the expedition in real-time?

A: Yes, there is. On our expedition website our position will be updated continuously. My wife will also regularly post updates on our blog, our Facebook page, our Twitter/’X’ and Instagram feeds.

NAVIGATION

Q: How do you navigate?

A: As with all other matters at hand, apart from basic rowing skills, I am entirely unknowledgeable. However, from speaking with Leven, I understand that compasses and GPS do not work well, so close to the North Pole. The maps of the Northwest Passage lack details in many regions. Even if they wouldn’t, they simply can’t predict where there is an impenetrable layer of sea ice. Even the shallows, which are plentiful, move from one location to another with the currents. Apart from crashing into sea ice, shallows or land, there is a serious risk of crashing into icebergs.

It is my understanding that a good part of the navigation will rely on sight and will be determined ad hoc at any minute of the day. We will aim to avoid physical obstacles as well as high waves, excessive winds, bad weather, dangerous currents, and the like.

VISIBILITY

Q: What’s the visibility?

A: I’m being told that up there, it is either very strong winds or thick fog. There is nothing much in-between on most days. During thick fog, visibility can go down to a few metres, so you are basically flying blind. This is a particularly frequent occurrence from early September onwards, as are the darker nights.

TEMPERATURES

Q: What about the temperatures?

A: On an average day, the temperatures will be rather lovely, at around -5C (23F) to 5C (41F). Mind you, during strong winds, -5C (23F) will feel a lot colder than that. The winds will mostly be Northerlies, meaning they come from near the North Pole. During an extreme cold front, temperatures can easily sink a lot lower than -5C (23F).

 

POLAR BEARS

Q: Apart from the difficulty in finding the right route, the risk of crashing into obstacles, the waves, the storms and the at times low temperatures, what are the other main risks?

A: The risks are plentiful. Polar bears, for example, are the largest land carnivore. The biggest one ever recorded weighed over a metric ton (1,000 kg/2,200lbs), large males regularly reach up to 800kg (1,750lbs). Different from other bears, they see humans unambiguously as food.

Unless you deter them with a flare gun or heavier armoury, they will usually not stop hunting you. They are excellent swimmers and can swim for many days without breaks at an average speed of around 6kph (3.75mph). Their Latin name is Ursus Maritimus, sea bear. It takes them less than a second to climb out of the water. This means that we’ll always have one team-member on polar bear watch.

OTHER RISKS

Q: Any other risks?

A: Like with all expeditions, the tiniest issues can turn into an expedition-ending calamity, if not addressed properly and immediately. One of us accidentally bangs our head or breaks an arm while we bump into an iceberg or run aground. Or it could be that after capsizing and selfrighting, one of us gets into hypothermia. Frostbite and even sunstroke, as well as an uncontrollable infection or excessive weight loss are all serious risks. On some of the expeditions in the past there had been cases of cabin fever.

We wouldn’t be able to perform an appendicitis surgery or any surgery, really. At times we will be more than two weeks’ rowing away from the next settlement. A far cry from the situation with, say, Nepal mountaineering, where, up to about 6,500m (21,000ft), you are hardly ever more than 20 minutes away from a helicopter, if the weather is okay. The Canadian Coast Guard will take significantly longer than that, and of course we will try our hardest to avoid a rescue call.

ANY WORRIES?

Q: Aren’t you worried about all the things that can go wrong? How do you sleep at night?

A: I’ll be frank with you, I did have a few nightmares during the first few days, just after I had signed up. They usually involved those pesky furries, heavy storms, or me floating on my back on the water, while I watch Hermione drift away from me on a cold, starry night. However, that was only during the first few days. Now my wife tells me that I have a smile on my face, when I’m asleep, and I certainly wake up with a spring in my step.

HOW IS THE EXPEDITION BEING FUNDED?

Q: Who is funding the expedition?

A: Each regular member of the expedition is in for £25,000. Mike, who is doing both legs, had to chip in a cool £50,000. The plan is to recover all of that money through sponsors. In turn, sponsors get their logo placed on the boat, on the website, and they get to profit from the media coverage of this world first. They can use our expedition in all their marketing and other material. There are many other options, too. For example, I could visit the offices of a sponsor and do a talk with slide show and Q&As, and potentially a book signing.

I’ve also set up a GoFundMe page, to recover some of the expenses.

IS ANYONE GOING TO WRITE ABOUT THIS?

Q: Book signing?

A: Well… I’m currently looking for a publisher to sign me up in turn for an advance. Being a travel blogger of almost 9 years’ standing, I feel confident that I will be able to put my experience in writing in a way that will find a reader or two. Especially if it’s free handouts at corporate sponsor events haha…

Joking aside (and I realise this approach is not new), but I hope to find an angle that will not just be a factual recount of the experience, but that will mainly focus on the journey that goes on in your head, when you’re on an expedition. Overcoming the obstacles in your brain, your fears. I’m planning to include flashbacks to other critical periods in my life, including conversations I’ve had, and references to literature and poetry. Having met Leven and Karts over video call, and Mike in person, I’m also in no doubt that there will be hilarious on-board banter and insightful, unexpected conversations to quote from about highly unusual topics.

Ideally, I’d like the book to feel more like a novel than a first-person account of something that actually happened. That said, I’d still want it to be useful for other ordinary guys like me (and ordinary girls), who are hoping to join an expedition or maybe just looking for a distraction on their morning commute.

ARE YOU ALSO FUNDRAISING FOR CHARITY?

Q: A lot of expeditions are involved in charity fundraising. What about you?

A: Yes, the expedition as a venture, as well as at least one of my fellow team-mates, are involved in charity fundraising. So am I. My chosen charities are the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Hackney Quest, and Cancer Research UK. I have a close connection to all three of these, which you can read about here.

HOW MUCH DO YOU PLAN TO RAISE?

Q: How much money are you hoping to raise for your three chosen charities?

A: I’m hoping to raise a total of £50,000. Considering that I might be on sea in a month’s time, and that I’ve just joined the team, this is almost as big of a challenge as finding sponsors for my share in the expedition. On the other hand, I’d call it a good effort, what, with all that rowing for up to ten weeks and all, and I think potential donors will easily spot the close connection I have to all three of those charities. So, fingers crossed, hopefully we’ll get this done by the beginning of October, when I’m hoping to return to London.

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6 Comments

  1. What a great post. And what an adventure! How amazing to be able to do a Big First. It was really interesting to learn about all the challenges this expedition presents. Good luck Stefan, we’ll be following your progress and please keep a lookout for polar bears!

    1. Thanks so much for reading and for the comment, Mitch. Will definitely keep you updated (well, Ellie will, but she’ll be sent all the updates and pictures by me haha..). 🙂

  2. Best of luck Stefan!! I still have a great memory of the day I met you and Ellie on that walk in Goring. You guys had an exceptional energy that I will hardly forget.. and that I am sure you will bring into this adventure 🙂

    Good Luck and my very best wishes!

    1. What a lovely thing to say, Giulia. Thank you so much. Ellie & I both hope to see you again on another hike when I’m back from Canada. 🙂

  3. Wow! This is big. I’m a little worried but mostly excited for you, and I think all your intense physical training will do you well. Personally, I was in bad shape after canoeing on the Mississippi for about 45 minutes 🙂 I really do hope you write a book, too. I’ll be first in line for a signed copy. Look forward to following along on this adventure.

    1. Thanks so much for your moral support, Cynthia. Yes, I’m not entirely without concerns either, especially about those pesky furries, but I’m sure with Leven, Karts, and Mike on my team, things should pan out just fine, and I guess I’ll rise to the challenge, fingers crossed. 🙂

      Canoeing on the Mississippi sounds like quite something, too. It’s such a massive river. I’ve only been on it once, in New Orleans, about 35 years ago…

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