Whatever happened to real adventure in our lives? Has it virtually disappeared? Yes, firefighters, police officers, and a few other occupations find a sort of adventure virtually everyday in their work.
The pioneering, once-in-a-lifetime kind of adventure, however, seems to have moved from our earthly realms to outer space. Even there, adventurous breakthroughs of late seem few and far between.
This writer devoted a recent column to the awesome experience of the Russian cosmonaut who was the first human to walk in space. Now we have the incredible epic of new pioneers who have just made their mark on stormy seas back in this world.
This amazing — indeed, mind-boggling — story began in earnest last month. It was a 13-day journey in a boat crewed by six men who barely survived brutal conditions. It’s a tale that shows how truly riveting adventure still happens right here on Mother Earth.
Between the southern tip of South America and the edge of Antarctica lies what is called the Drake Passage, some of the most threatening and turbulent waters to be found anywhere. Drake Passage is perilous enough to cross by motorized boat, but no one has ever attempted to cross the passage in an “unassisted” vessel (no motor, no sails), until, that is, this last December. That’s when six young men, three from the U.S. and three more from other countries, formed a crew using only oars in a 29 foot rowboat to make the journey. Interestingly, no one hailing from local, South American climes, who would be familiar with this part of the world, showed any interest, likely regarding it as a fool’s errand.
When they pushed out to sea a few weeks ago, gripped with with fear, exhilaration and adrenalin, this erstwhile crew of six wasn’t quite ready for what lay in store for them — a harrowing, 600 nautical miles.
Huddled aboard their craft, named the Ohana, they made their way ever so slowly, enduring conditions of which legends of daring explorers are made. They rode over waves as high as 40 feet, with strong winds hitting them hard from every direction. And lest they capsize, they had to keep the boat moving every minute of every day towards Antarctica.
The grueling routine never let up: three crew members rowed in an open hold for an hour-and-a-half at a time while the other three rested. This 24 hour routine wore them to near exhaustion, but they kept going, as their lives depended on it. They struggled with capsizing and other close calls every day, well aware that the near freezing water would prove deadly in minutes if they were to fall in.
There was no rest for the weary aboard Ohana. While waiting their 90 minute turn at the oars, one would lie in a small, cramped area, in a fetal position, while two others lay shoulder-to-shoulder in another cramped space. Their bathroom, or Ohana’s “head,” was a bucket. And whether they were rowing or “resting,” they eventually grew delirious from lack of sleep.
The toughest part of the journey, however, as they described it, was how relentlessly they were pounded by the elements. Near freezing water forever splashed over the bow, and into their faces, numbing their hands and feet. Add to this a crippling seasickness that hit all of them. The safety straps they wore around their ankles would wear into their boots; through to the skin of one crew member’s ankle, down to the bone.
And that’s not all: giant whales breached suddenly and constantly through the water, many ominously close to Ohana, at the same time mesmerizing and terrifying all of them. And then there were the icebergs, of all sizes, seemingly out of nowhere, each avoided with luck, or after real struggle. Along with whales and icebergs, the endless storms could have quickly destroyed their small craft.
This went on for 13 days, and 13 even more terrifying nights.
Rowing the Drake Passage overnight, as one of the crew described it, “…feels like being in a washing machine, blindfolded.” He recounted how they could not see the horizon at night, so they had no sense of progress. These nights aboard Ohana were as if “time were standing still.” Most threatening of all in the total darkness were the gigantic, building-sized, rolling waves. Whenever they failed to ride one, it would pound their boat mercilessly. It was during those nights that the mental challenges were most intense. And they were all cold and wet, all the time.
The Discovery organization, so as to document the epic journey — watch “The Impossible Row” — followed them at a distance in a much larger, motorized boat. But that offered little comfort at the time, as the Ohana crew would endure at most a couple of minutes were they to capsize or be battered by whales, etc.
So why would anyone undertake such a voyage? Interviews reported by AP seem to offer little more than that the Drake Passage “was there.” Maybe it’s rooted in this cultural notion that it’s our fate to test whatever is our measure of dauntless courage.
But no matter how you try to explain it, it came from an idea, an inspired (and arguably insane) idea to do the near impossible. And it wasn’t without entering into the true grit of history. Ask one of the world’s leaders of expeditions to Antarctica, Wayne Remy of Flagstaff, Arizona, who has crossed the treacherous passage in mechanized boats more than 50 times.
“This is really a big deal in Antarctic history,” he told AP. He added, “100 percent of their progress was done with those 12 arms for 600 (nautical) miles. That’s just phenomenal. I can’t even imagine.”
They may have all lost weight after their ordeal, but they gained something else that most of us cannot imagine, much less explain. Congrats to Colin O’Brady of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, who documented the journey on Instagram; Andy Towne of Grand Forks, N. Dakota; John Petersen of Oakland, California; Jamie Douglas-Hamilton of Edinburgh, Scotland; Cameron Bellamy of Cape Town, South Africa; and Fiann Paul of Reykjavik, Iceland. They did it as a team. Each reached deeply within and found something to keep him going.
Isn’t that something inside us for all to find? Emerson said it best: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
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