2 x Olympic Gold medalist Alex Gregory is rowing from Norway to Iceland via Svalbard. No big deal.
Alex Gregory MBE has done what so few have done, he’s won two Olympic Golds at two different Games (London and Rio). He rowed in the Coxless Fours.
But what do you do when you’ve achieved greatness and it’s time to let some else have a go in the boat? Apparently you switch to ocean rowing and sign yourself up to a mammoth expedition across the Arctic…
Alex, we work with athletes doing the toughest of challenges every day but, frankly, what you’re doing sounds a bit crazy. Can you give us an overview of what you’ve gotten yourself into?
Ha ha. Well, The Polar Row is an ocean rowing challenge that is stepping away from the norm. We’re attempting something that no one has ever done before, pioneering routes across Arctic waters. The expedition is broken up into two legs…
- Tromsø (Norway) to Longyearbyen (Svalbard). If successful we’ll be the first crew to row across the Norwegian sea and it’ll be the Northern most row ever achieved.
- Longyearbyen (Svalbard) to Siglufjörõur (Iceland) which will make us the first crew to row across the Greenland Sea and will be the longest row ever done in Arctic waters.
It’ll be a gruelling journey with no prevailing currents to help the crew across the great expanse of water. It really will be a human powered expedition, physically demanding, mentally challenging and incredibly exciting to be a part of.
Ok, sounds pretty epic. What made you want to move into ocean rowing after a successful Olympic career on the flat?
I've always had a love for the outdoors, wildlife and adventure. I suppose those were some of the draws of rowing for me when I first took up the sport as a 17 year old all those years ago. I was able to participate in a sport, outdoors, in interesting, contrasting environments.
Once I decided to pursue rowing to the highest level there was no chance of anything much else in life, rowing really did take over. I trained 7 days a week, 350 days a year for 16 years in pursuit of Olympic Gold, which meant there was no time for an adventurous lifestyle. I was controlled and institutionalised, a necessity if I wanted to achieve my goals.
Having recently moved out of the professional GB Rowing system I have the freedom to pursue other interests and aspirations. When I was younger I spent a month on the island of Svalbard as part of the British Exploring Society, it truly was a life changing experience. I vowed to repeat some sort of adventure later in life, so when this opportunity arrived with the connection to Svalbard, of course I had to grasp it!
I'm desperate to learn more about my ability to cope with hardships, discomfort and pressure in totally different environments and with a group of people I don't know all that well. All these components draw me to this experience, the challenge of it all just fascinates me.
Why this particular challenge and why now?
The timing is right for me. I have a period in my life now where I have flexibility and the opportunity to pursue such exciting projects. There certainly is an element of luck that this expedition is happening now, when I first came across it I jumped at the opportunity. The draw of visiting Svalbard again is strong, I have such good memories of my time there, I'm eager to see the Island again.
More than that however, deeper than that, I want to push myself and do something that few people have done before. I'm very lucky to have won two Olympic Gold medals, but this is something completely different.
The history of human endeavour has always fascinated me, I've grown up reading books of exploration and discovery and this is my chance to step into that world.
Amazing. Who else is in the crew?
We are a crew made up of people from all over the world, with varying levels of rowing experience but all with high levels of athletic ability. The crew is skippered by one of the most successful ocean rowers in history, Fiann Paul who has carefully picked the crew based on performance and mindset. I feel very lucky to have become a part of this project, the planning and logistics have been a steep learning curve but I have no doubt learnt from some of the very best. Here’s the low-down on the crew…
Fiann Paul - The Skipper.
Finn is an Icelandic athlete and artist. He’s a career long ocean rower and was the first person to simultaneously hold overall speed records for the fastest rowing across all 3 major oceans. Upon completion of this project he will become the first person to row 4 oceans and the first to hold speed records on all four. Finn is meticulous with planning and detail and calm under pressure. He is a fantastic leader and will see us achieve what we are capable of.
An ultra endurance athlete and four-year varsity rower at U.C. Davis, Carlo proved himself in the world of ocean rowing as part of a four person crew that took first place overall in the 2016 Great Pacific Race.
A former collegiate rowing coach at both U.C. Davis and Santa Clara University, Carlo now owns and operates the Mermaid Series, a women's triathlon and running race series. Carlo's athletic accomplishments include the 115-mile CPR Row in a double, the Leadville 100-mile Run, 4 ultra-marathons (50+ miles), a 508-mile solo bike race (Furnace Creek 508), and 8 Ironman triathlons.
Jeff has been involved in solo and team sporting achievements for over 30 years including rugby, boxing, marathons, and open water and ocean swimming. Jeff played rugby for W-S-M, OA's and captained Hertfordshire Rugby.
He has succeeded in being an accomplished player, and coached at H.R.F.C, and is a Vice President of the club. Jeff is a driven and competitive person and maintains his high levels of fitness through endurance training, rowing and CrossFit. Jeff is an asset to the team, the oldest member in age but certainly not in physical ability.
Danny received his PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Cambridge. His current research with the ADaPt Project utilises ultra-endurance challenges to enhance knowledge of our adaptive capabilities. Danny has played a number of sports to a high level, being a member of the GB Canoe Squad and being elected Vice President of the Cambridge University Boat Club to compete against Oxford University in the boat race.
He is also a keen adventurer, being part of the 2009 Artemis crew attempting to break the Atlantic record where his crew averaged 100+ nautical miles a day. More recently, Danny completed a 6-month unsupported cycle expedition from Mexico City to Ushuaia, Argentina through diverse and tough terrains.
The youngest member of the crew, Tyler is an endurance athlete with an extensive history in distance running. Tyler has summited Indonesia’s Mount Agung (3,031 m) and completed Peru’s Salkantay Trek (75 km) reaching 4,650 meters in elevation through arduous terrain both in record times. Tyler has an accomplished past in the sport of wrestling and played rugby for the University of Maryland.
A commander in the Indian Navy, ex-Special Forces member and an accomplished combat diver, paratrooper, and survival expert. Roy has completed 40-mile speed marches with 30+ kilograms of equipment in less than 4.5 hours and has an extensive record of maritime qualifications including the Marine Commando Course, a Basic Nuclear Biological Chemical Damage Control and Firefighting Course, Seamanship Courses, and the Watchkeeping Certificate. Roy has also participated in free swimming and fin swimming events ranging from 1 to 10 hours in duration and will act as mechanic and engineer on this expedition.
Tor was a rower in a Norwegian National team. As an ocean rower he rowed the whole coast of Norway (Lindesnes to the North Cape) in a traditional wooden boat. He completed several long kayak, cycling and skiing trips, including a Greenland crossing on skis. Today, Tor is a PHD-student at the faculty of law, at the University of Tromsø.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge on the trip?
There's no doubt we are heading out into something of an unknown. The crossings we are attempting have never been done before and that comes with much uncertainty and risk.
As a few of us have never rowed an ocean before, we just don't know what it's going to be like out there amongst the waves, we’ll be relying on Fiann, Carlo and Danny for that experience.
Rowing in Arctic waters adds the danger of cold that is not necessarily the case in other oceans but that’s something we can plan for and - to an extent - predict.
Personally I’m most concerned about letting the team down. I have a wealth of rowing experience so it's expected that I will perform well, but this is so far away from anything I have experienced before. Rowing on the ocean will certainly be a leveller, so I'm sure mental strength and the ability to maintain positivity in the most uncomfortable and demanding environments will be key. This aspect excites me, but also concerns me!
I’ll bet. Talk us through the logistics behind the challenge?
This whole project is like a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle with very few images on the front to be honest! It's an enormous undertaking to get everything in place at the right time so the next pieces can be found and placed in the correct way.
Fiann has been the jigsaw master, an incredible strategist overseeing every aspect of the project in an incredibly calm manner, even at times when the project seemed in jeopardy. When a lesser man would have given up and folded, Fiann never lost confidence, pushing on with positivity and direction.
I often heard that one of the hardest aspects of an ocean rowing was actually getting to the start line, well I certainly understand that after this experience! The fact is that it's a full time job for a number of people to successfully put a project like this together. None of us in the crew have that luxury so we have all been putting everything together 'part time'.
Very soon the crew will find themselves in Tromsø ready to row the first leg up to Svalbard. They will be pushing off land with no safety crew following and no support vessel. We will be truly alone out there in the cold Arctic waters, this is a pioneering expedition pushing the boundaries of human performance and exploration.
Safety is of course of the upmost importance however, the boat is packed with all the latest tracking and emergency facilities and, of course, we have search and rescue cover in place.
The boat is loaded with 40 days worth of nutrition for 6 men. The diet has been carefully pieced together by Danny Longman and Fiann Paul, who have both studied nutrition and have many years experience in human performance. The calorific input is extreme due to the physicality of the challenge and the cold environment we will find ourselves in. At around 10,000 calories/24 hour period, each person will be adequately fuelled to enable us all to perform in the essential way. As we will be rowing 2 hours on, 2 hours off on rotation for the duration there will be no differentiation of night and day.
To add to this unusual environment there will be 24 hour daylight due to the Northerly latitude, so each rower will have 6 separate meals in each 12 hour period. The meals are a mixture of high calorie freeze-dried expedition food, powdered complete nutrition, high calorie energy bars and added extras such as dried fish to complete the complex and demanding nutritional requirements. I can tell you I'm looking forward to this diet, it's incredibly well thought out and healthy.
Hydration is certainly going to be key in this expedition and something we are taking very seriously. To some degree we must be even more careful in the cold environment because we won't necessarily notice the inevitable sweating that will occur.
To this note we are delighted to be partnered with the very best in hydration knowledge and products. Having the opportunity to work with Precision Hydration gives us as a crew absolute confidence that our needs will be met thus maintaining and improving our performance throughout the expedition. We will be using SweatSalts and PH 1500 consistently throughout the challenge and we're all grateful for the support and advice from the team at PH.
This crew is committed to doing everything within our means to make this expedition a success, and this 360 degree view of the best nutrition and hydration is absolutely essential. As my old rowing coach Jurgen Grobler would say 'your health is your business' and that's the mindset we are most certainly taking here.
What bit of the trip are you most looking forward to?
I'm most looking forward to being right in the middle of the Greenland sea, as far away from land as we can get. Hopefully by that point we will be in a secure routine, our bodies will have fully adjusted to everything involved with life at sea. No doubt we will be battling with sleep deprivation and extreme fatigue, but life will be simple…
Row, eat, drink, rest, row, eat, drink, rest, repeat.
Our lives outside will seem a distant memory, we will be in our own bubble probably feeling very small on a cold, inhospitable ocean. Six men's lives will be contained within a 28 foot long ocean rowing boat, our lives will be in each others hands, we will have to be a team, a community, a family trying to achieve something no one has ever done before. The thought of that really appeals to me. Coming from a team sport, this is the next step.
What bit of the trip are you least looking forward to?
There's no doubt I'm least looking forward to waving goodbye to my family as I leave for the start of the expedition. I'm stepping into the unknown with men I don't know well at all. We're undertaking a challenge that’s not normal and has very real risks. I've spent a lot of time away from my family while I was competing internationally, in fact I missed two of my children’s births for the sport - but this is something different.
My feeling is that I want to show my children that if there's something they want to do in life they must go for it. Work hard towards it and strive to achieve it. We all have dreams and aspirations, this is one of mine. I want my children to understand this and enjoy the process with me. I want to be able to go into their schools when I return and share the story, share the experience and inspire them to aim for things that seem out of reach. Leaving will be hard, but I know very well that the memories and emotions on return will be totally worth it.
What has a typical training week looked like for you in the build up to this challenge?
Training has been extremely difficult to fit in whilst planning for this expedition and trying to work and balance family life at the same time. To some degree I'm relying on the 30 years of aerobic training base I have amassed over the years, but there's no doubt the specifics of the rowing stroke is something that needs to be addressed.
I have been making sure that 5 times a week I have been rowing for 2 hours at a time on the rowing machine at a steady state and low intensity and I have also been working on my power and basic strength.
As an athlete my physical strength was the part that declined the fastest after a break in training, so I'm conscious I need to make sure I'm as strong as I can be before leaving for sea. I'm relishing the flexibility of my own training programme though. All my life I have been working to a very strict scientific programme, now I can adapt and address certain areas myself, it's very exciting.
Exciting is an understatement Alex! So, how can people follow your progress?
Anyone can follow our progress and updates via the channels below….