Monthly Archives: July 2013

Early beginnings and driving north

“Baffin or bust!” The words are scribbled on the white shrink wrap enveloping our boat the Arctic Joule and they ring out to us like a war cry. It’s been such a crazy journey to get where we are now, such a tumultuous roller coaster ride of effort and emotion, that we’re all a little stunned that we’re on our way.

It was over 18 months ago that Paul Gleeson and I sat in a small coffee shop on Commercial Drive in Vancouver tossing around ideas for future expeditions. We’d met a few weeks earlier at an outdoor festival in North Vancouver where we were both presenters. I had learned that Paul was from Limerick, Ireland, the hometown of my parents, and we got chatting about our past adventures. We enjoyed the banter and continued our conversation over coffee a few days later.

Paul had rowed the Atlantic in 2006 in a uniquely designed ocean rowing vessel that allowed him and his partner Tori Holmes to journey for almost three months, totally unsupported, from the Canary Islands to Antigua. The possibilities of his voyage intrigued me for a project I had been musing over for the last decade and a half and I wanted to learn more. Paul himself was fascinated by Antarctica and the South Pole and was equally keen to learn about my journey across that icy wasteland.

It was only at the end of our meeting that I mentioned to him my idea of traversing the Northwest Passage solely under human power in a single season, possibly now in an ocean rowing boat. “Just tossing the idea out there” I remember saying with feigned enthusiasm. “Maybe you’d like to team up?”

At the time I was in the midst of prepping for another adventure (a 1400km ultra-running expedition across the belly of South America called Expreso de los Andes) and didn’t think much of it until I received a call from Paul a week later. “I’ve thought of anything else” he exclaimed, “Let’s do this!. Let’s row the Northwest Passage!”

Commitment was immediate and we decided a team of four would be the ideal size for the effort. We would each chose a teammate to join us, me asking friend, adventurer and documentarian Frank Wolf to join our team and Paul choosing friend and fellow Irishman Denis Barnett to round out our four. Truth be told, Denis would choose Paul as he’d heard about the trip before the call and would text Paul with a simple note “I need this!”

With our team formed we set about the more challenging part of expedition planning: sponsorship acquisition. We’d do this while balancing time with our real life responsibilities of working a full-time job, taking care of a family and following a rigorous exercise program geared to the trip ahead. Life became very busy all of a sudden.

Over the following months we’d spend countless hours targeting appropriate potential partners and crafting proposals that might entice them. Our hopes would build when our proposals were entertained and quashed when they were dismissed. Our fervour in the face of perpetual rejection seemed obsessive if not mildly masochistic but we marched on to the beat that we were going to do this thing, “hell or high water”.

By November 2012 we realized that if we had any hope of having our boat ready for the summer of 2013 we’d need to start construction immediately. “Exposing a little of our own skin” as Paul put it, “demonstrates our commitment.” We invested our own money to get the boat started.

By mid-February we were out of funds, deeply in debt and seemingly out of luck. For the first time in our planning the prospect of postponing the expedition to 2014 started to creep into our conversations. Our boat builder had halted construction awaiting another instalment (the boat a mere shell of a hull at this point) and a malaise fell over the team for the first time since the start.

Our rescue flare came in the form of a casual comment from Denis Barnett’s girlfriend Niamh Cunningham when she suggested she could introduce us to the CEO of a renewable energy company in Ireland that she’s known since childhood. “Mainstream Renewable Power would be a perfect fit for you lads” she said, her words erupting brightly in our consciousness but fading just as quickly, smothered by the blanket of previous rejections. But the flame refused to extinguish and within a week we had spoken with Eddie O’Conner, the CEO of Mainstream Renewable Power, and learned of his passion to combat climate change.

Within another week O’Connor had made the decision to fund our effort. The turn around was so fast we were left bewildered. Eddie O’Connor was now “Fast Eddie” to us. Through a naive obstinance we always believed the expedition would happen and now it would.

The last few weeks have been a flurry of activity from making final tweaks to The Arctic Joule to acquiring food, equipment and clothing, to testing everything to make sure it all works. Invariably you feel like you’re forgetting something but at a certain point you need to accept you’ve done everything you can and get on with the job. We’ve reached that point.

We’re on the road now as I write this, travelling between Fort Nelson and Whitehorse on the Alaskan Highway. In coming weeks and months we’ll be blogging to the Vancouver Sun, sharing our stories from the expedition as we row across the Northwest Passage from Inuvik, NWT to Pond Inlet, Nunavut. Our voyage is a trip into the unknown as no one has done what we’re planning to do. I hope you can follow along.
- Kevin

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