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Rowing in Icy Waters: An Extreme Challenge

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Screenshot from the Row to the Pole website for Day Thirteen of their multi-week row to the magnetic North Pole.


The "Day Thirteen" update on the Row to the Pole website reads: "The crew fight against turbulence during a 20 hour row..."

When the part-sledge, part-boat vessel pushed off on less than two weeks ago from Resolute Bay in Canada, four hundred and fifty miles of ice-riddled water stood between the six-man crew of the Old Pulteney Row to the Pole expedition and the magnetic North Pole. If successful, the journey, which will take between four and six weeks of rigorous, sometimes almost round-the-clock, rowing, will be the first time the magnetic marker is reached by boat, an eye-opening testament to the melting that has occurred in the ice cap.


The Spirit of Adventure

For Jock Wishart, a seasoned explorer and leader of the Old Pulteney Row to the Pole expedition, the challenge of "getting there by boat" after finishing his second trip to the North Pole was just too tempting—and possible today in a way it would not have been a decade ago.

In 1988, Wishart circumnavigated the globe by boat, traveling seventy four days on the Cable and Wireless Adventurer and breaking the previous world record for circumnavigation in a powered vessel by more than seven days. (Wishart's record has since been beaten.) In 1996, Wishart co-founded of the 1996 'The Ultimate Challenge' and subsequently organized the biennial land-based Polar Race. He's no stranger to arctic terrain, and he embraced the idea of navigating massive ice formations and racing against the coming freeze to reach the magnetic pole by boat. Reveling in the challenge of a new spin on his past arctic expeditions, the Old Pulteney Row to the Pole expedition was born.

According to Wishart, the changes in the ice—and in available water in which to row—is dramatic, which makes the Row to the Pole quest possible. The change in quantity of free and accessible water where once there was solid ice also makes the expedition one with an environmental undertow. According to Wishart, the trip will shine another light on climate change, one from there in the middle of water that was once ice surrounding entry to the North Pole, a location at one time considered ice-locked.


An Extreme Trip

A 'row' of this magnitude and in these conditions is one full of possible pitfalls and unforeseen challenges. During early stages of the journey, the crew is logging fourteen or more hours a day in the boat—and consuming a reported 5,000-7,000 calories a day to keep up with the demands of the trip. While the crew spends most of the day on the boat and on the water, they have pulled ashore to stretch out and make camp, a night's sleep interrupted at least once by polar bears.

The crew recently posted to their blog that they are mid-way through the trip, having logged more than two hundred and thirty miles and reaching Penny Straits, a section of the trip predicted to be particularly tricky in terms of navigating dense ice—and potential bottleneck. The logged entry, however, notes that the passage was less of a challenge than expected, only 30% ice coverage, a density dramatically lower than the ice reports they'd reviewed.

Making Connections

The challenge of the expedition, in and of itself, may fuel the small crew through the weeks of rowing—along with many, many pounds of dehydrated food packs. For the onboard BBS photographer who plans to make a documentary of the expedition, the soul of the journey may lie in recording and capturing the day-to-day moments of row—the challenges, victories, team dynamics, and rigors of the journey.

The six-man crew also includes an oceanographer who is collecting data and samples throughout the journey, information that will be helpful for future studies and research into climate change and may help scientists better understand the shape of the ongoing changes in polar regions. The multi-week journey offers an amazing opportunity to gather firsthand information related to climate change and environmental and geo sciences.

Students interested in following the expedition and cheering from cozy and warmer sidelines can still get hands-on with some of the science surrounding the voyage.

  • Polar Puzzle: Will Ice Melting at the North or South Poles Cause Sea Levels to Rise?: The increased free water (versus ice) enabling the Row to the Pole is directly related to the melting of the ice caps. In this ocean sciences project, students can explore the relationship between climate change and sea levels.
  • Making It Shipshape: Hull Design and Hydrodynamics: The design of the boat being used in the Row to the Pole expedition is critical to its potential success and involved collaboration between a boat designer and a sledge expert. Students curious about hydrodynamics can explore the relationship between boat design and drag in this project.
  • Geomagnetism*: The Row to the Pole is specifically heading to the "magnetic" North Pole. Students curious about the distinction between the magnetic North Pole and the geographic "North Pole" can explore geomagnetism and devise an independent project using the questions in this Abbreviated Project Idea as a starting point. ( For those curious, the pole position, charted in 1966, maps to these coordinates: 78°35.7N 104°11.9W / 78.595°N 104.1983°W.)


Further Research

For additional coverage of the Old Pulteney Row to the Pole expedition, check the following sources and articles:

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