They trained their bodies. They prepared and packed all forms of gear and gadgetry. But still, like all adventurers learn, they couldn’t control one thing that threatened to devour them: nature.
Andrew Towne is back in Minneapolis, but his mind remains firmly somewhere off the southern coast of South America. It’s there last month that he and five other men became the first people to row a boat unaided 600 miles across the fierce ocean waters of the Drake Passage, destination Antarctica. They had expected to be on the water at least 21 days, but finished in just more than 12, and hit land Christmas Day. They spent at least two full days on sea anchor in their 29-foot vessel, said Towne (shown in glasses), because the ocean was too stormy to paddle in, making their feat more remarkable.
“I’m focused on it right now very deliberately because when I shift back to work and other parts of life I will have a record I can show my kids some day,” he said Tuesday.
What a record it will be.
One of his row mates, Jamie Douglas-Hamilton, of Scotland, wrote on Instagram that he suffered frostnip, a mild form of frostbite, on his fingers and toes in the constant icy, wet conditions. Another partner, renown adventurer Colin O’Brady, wrote online of the mix of exhaustion and euphoria. Towne dealt with leg and foot injuries brought on by repetitive motion. Teams of three rowed 90 minutes at a stretch, took a 90-minute break, and then started the routine all over again for the duration.
“It was the hardest thing any of us have ever done as we battled four storms in the Southern Ocean with waves reaching 40 foot and … the weather was against us with constant side waves semi-capsizing us many times.”
In an interview Tuesday, Towne talked about moments of harrowing storms and worry, injuries suffered during the relentless pace, and bonding with his mates. His comments are edited for length and clarity:
Most people know this is something unparalleled, but can’t conceive of doing it. How would you describe it?
Across the 12 ½ days there were four emotions that came and went. You feel a lot of fear. I felt a lot of fear, which I combated with adrenaline and focus. And that fear comes from just-above-freezing waves 30-feet tall crashing down on you, at the same time the wind and current and pushing you in a different direction and rocking you. That created in me a fair amount of fear -- how tough was our boat? In those brief instances when I was not leashed to the boat, was it possible that a rogue wave might knock me overboard and take me away?
Second emotion was exhilaration. There were moments of glasslike water when the crew rowed together that create a sensation called swing that felt absolutely beautiful. Similarly when we reached Antarctica … that put us on cloud nine.
The third emotion was exhaustion because there were long stretches where you are neither afraid for your life or high on the natural beauty around you. You just feel like you are grinding. The night shift, where you’ve got total blackness, you’re just duking out the miles, in the dark … every 10 minutes out of nowhere you get a bucket of cold water over the top — those were lows. You just feel tired, why am I doing this?
You know love is a strong word, but I think it might be appropriate for your teammates, who are going through the exact same time in the same elements, rowing the same stroke, and on the opposite shift still experiencing the same weather, but in charge of your safety and forward progress. Each of those emotions came out so many times across the expedition. Even though it was only 12 ½ days, it was such an intense, compressed period that it felt like a lifetime.
Was there in your plan going in that you had to toss out when you were in the middle of ocean?
There were lots of small things like that. You would adjust to small deviations like any expedition. Two bigs things that we didn’t plan for was getting blown off course during the fourth storm we encountered (in the final push). We had to drop sea anchor for more than 12 hours. You move with a sea anchor, just slower. It changed our targeted landing point in Antarctica. We had very little margin for error. If we had been blown any more east, we would have been blown back out (of a strait). We would have had to either add extra days to the expedition or come back headwind directly, which might have been possible. We couldn’t plan to be blown off course twice.
The second thing we couldn’t prepare for: desalinators. They function worse in the colder water. The closer we got to Antarctica, the saltier our drinking water became. It definitely was getting saltier than any water I’ve ever drank. To me it was as salty as water that you might gargle with.
Did the sea anchor days have value, as far as resting?
Yeah, you’re spooning in dry suits with all you gear on. Even your life preserver sometimes. You’re so dead-tired that when you go in the cabin and you have 4 ½ hours (before taking a shift sitting on deck), you fall asleep. I fell asleep within five minutes. You could take a person out of that tightly packed situation, and somebody new could just jump in wet, cold gear, and you’d barely even register. You barely wake up.
What was your worst moment?
The low point was the fourth time we had to drop sea anchor for 12 hours, within 100 miles of Antarctica. It was the worst storm that we encountered with swells 30-feet tall — waves crashing down on us. Because we were doing shifts on the deck, you had to just sit there on the deck. I was wearing five synthetic base layers, a synthetic jacket, a full Antarctic dry suit, a full Gore-Tex (suit), a full Canada goose down parka. It was waterproof, but the seas were so bad I put a garbage over it to help it not soak. Even with all those layers, you’re just suffering. Imagine the Ice Bucket Challenge … two five-gallon buckets of ice water emptied directly into your lap. To have that 10 times over the course of 90 minutes as the sea is just throwing you rope-a-dope style against the boat? You can’t even hold on because even with gloves on, your hands are so cold and soaked that you need them in your jacket or pockets.
The only way I got through it, I counted to a 100. Or I actually sang the campfire songs that we used to sing at Concordia Language Villages up in Bemidji.
How did you stay motivated to continue?
Rowing is the ultimate team sports. The only thing you can see is how you are moving as one, and whether the boat is responding to your collective effort. Similarly, when you are on that shift, you know that your buddy just got hit by that same wave. And you know about your buddy’s injuries. Your buddy knows about your injuries. And you row for the three guys who are asleep because you know they’ll row for me. It’s a very powerful motivator.