Rower Alex Gregory Won Two Olympic Golds For GB But His Latest Challenge Rowing The Polar Seas Ended In A Fight For His Life

‘The Polar Row’ set off in July 2017 to be the first and fastest rowing boat to cross the perilous Arctic Ocean. Three men from the six-strong crew would be rowing at all times, whatever the weather, including the Olympian Alex Gregory. They rowed from Svalbard to the Arctic icesheet, navigating through fields of icebergs while being shadowed by humpback whales. But after turning and setting a course for Iceland the weather went nasty, throwing massive waves and relentless winds against the small boat and its isolated crew.

They were rowing double shifts, and had turned off the navigation systems to save power for the life-giving watermakers, before seeking refuge on the lonely island of Jan Mayen, 340 miles short of their goal but still the holders of eleven world records. It turns out, as Alex Gregory tells RSNG, that they were lucky to make it at all…

RSNG Tell us about the original goals for your Arctic row?
ALEX GREGORY, OLYMPIAN
‘The ‘Polar Row’ was a pioneering Arctic rowing expedition aiming to achieve something no-one has done before. The skipper of the crew, Fiann Paul, devised the idea a number of years ago in an attempt to add to his Ocean Rowing speed records and impressive Ocean Rowing resume.’

‘In addition to crossing Arctic waters first and faster than anyone before, the expedition was raising money for a charity as well as conducting a study in human performance. Dr Danny Longman, a professor at Cambridge University and member of the crew was studying the effects of long term activity on the human body.’

RSNG What kind of training did you do for it?
AG
‘My training consisted simply of long rowing machine training. I had spent my life in a rowing boat on the water and on an ergo, but the time and intensity of my previous training was very different to what we would be encountering in the Arctic. My priority when preparing for this row was time in the seat without worrying about the score. It was a switch in mindset and something I found quite difficult to do. In Olympic sport everything is about speed – this time, speed was insignificant so I had to undo 30 years of thinking to prepare!’

‘For a couple of weeks I had ice-cold, inactive, sodden feet – I lost all feeling in them’

RSNG What’s it like rowing somewhere that cold?
AG
‘It was beautiful. The Arctic is a beautiful place, but it’s beauty is harsh and stark. We started off in Svalbard, a place I had spent a month when I was 16 years old. Everything about the place was familiar to me, I felt strangely comfortable there and I love the landscape so to get the chance to spend more time there was very special indeed. While on land and for the first part of the row the weather was wonderful. Clear blue skies and 24 hour sunlight meant the temperatures, despite being low, never dropped below freezing.’

‘While rowing, our bodies would warm up and we would sweat having to remove layers. This in turn brought problems because as soon as we stopped we would become chilled very quickly in damp clothes. As the row progressed and the weather worsened, the sea water also began to creep into our clothing as waves came over us. My recovery periods were spent shivering in the tiny, wet cabin with all my waterproof clothes on waiting to warm up on the oars again! This was a difficult time especially for our feet because in rowing your feet are the least active part of the body. Almost every other muscle in the body is used but the feet remain relatively stationary and of course we didn’t have anywhere to walk.’

‘My boots were regularly filled with ice cold seawater so for a couple of weeks I had ice cold, inactive, sodden feet. There was very little I could do to warm them up so far a long period of time I lost the feeling in my feet. Once we eventually made it to land most of us had ‘non freezing cold injuries’ to our feet which was excruciatingly painful. Even wearing socks was unbearable. A small price to pay for the experience we had, but to anyone considering something similar, I would encourage the footwear situation to be considered in minute detail!’

RSNG When did things start to shift to a survival scenario?
AG
‘A few days and nights after turning South the weather began to change, starting as a headwind, then shifting almost instantly into a strong tailwind. The tailwind was useful to us as it was pushing us towards Iceland, but the speed and intensity of the wind became very difficult and we quickly realised our lives were not as secure as they should be out there.’

‘Once the seas began to rise up around us, the water was not in any way predictable. The general direction of wind was mostly the same, but the waves would come at us from all angles, knocking us all over the place. We realised that if we were to capsize, then at the very minimum three of us would be in the water as there were always three rowing at a time. In those waters, at that temperature, immersion would mean hypothermia very quickly indeed and due to the cold air, the cabins were already saturated through condensation and wet clothing. There would be nowhere warm and nothing dry to change into – it was a very dangerous situation to be in.’

‘It was essential we didn’t capsize, so every time we were on the oars we would have to shout to each other in order to steer the boat to ensure we remained lined up with the wave. If we were caught side on, which did happen a few times, the risk of capsize was great – this demanded constant concentration.’

‘The boat we used was amazing. It was a Rannoch R45, a vessel designed to cope with everything an ocean throws at it. The boat dealt with the water incredibly well, but these boats are designed to be able to capsize and self-right. This is all very well but when the air temperature is no more than 2°C (35°F), not taking into account windchill, the risks become significantly higher. We had to remain upright and that was the priority!’

‘I wrote a final text message to my family in the hope they’d find it on my phone if we didn’t survive’

RSNG Why were you so far from help?
AG
‘We were rowing from the Northern most point ever reached by a rowing vessel, to Iceland. That journey requires crossing a vast expanse of cold Arctic ocean leaving us for most of the time hundreds of miles from land. To add to this, the Northern latitudes are much less inhabited anyway, so even if we had skirted a coast there was very little human life in the vicinity. This was part of the appeal, part of the challenge, and I suppose one of the reasons it hadn’t yet been done!’

RSNG Did you ever feel like things weren’t going to be recoverable, and how did you maintain morale and the drive to survive?
AG
‘There were low moments when I thought that if we lose concentration just once, or we get unlucky we may capsize. I‘ve followed ocean rowing for years, I know capsize does happen and no-one does it on purpose! My most helpless and lowest moments were certainly in the cabin when I felt a lack of control – you can feel and hear the weather and water outside. The team out there is doing everything they can to drive us further on, but that uncertainty is ever present.’

‘There was a moment I wrote a final text message to my family in the hope they would find it on my phone if we didn’t survive. It was a precaution, I didn’t necessarily think we were going to die, but I knew we were treading a line closer than normal and in reality I didn’t have full control over which side of the line I was going to fall.’

‘I can’t say I enjoyed those moments, I don’t think any of us did, but there was never a moment of giving up. If we’d reached that moment we’d have pulled the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) emergency device and called for rescue. That moment never arrived and would only have arrived if we’d capsized.’

‘I also knew that I had put myself in this situation, and despite the joy, pain, discomfort, fear, enjoyment, fatigue and all sorts of other emotions I was feeling, I wanted to be there and I was fully committed to finishing with the rest of the crew. There was no option but to plough on until we hit land! We were all in it together and supporting each other was of paramount importance.’

‘The sea was wild – I remember being sideways on the peak of a wave, looking almost vertically downwards’

RSNG What was the scariest moment?
AG
‘When our Autohelm broke down. This was an automatic steering device that kept us on the course we had programmed into the navigation equipment. Due to the strong weather conditions it basically burnt out and sent the boat spinning out of control. One moment we were heading into the direction of wind, the next we were side on to the enormous waves rearing up around us.’

‘Our boat had no stabilisation as the rudder was simply flapping underneath us. It only takes a second to capsize – luckily we didn’t. The sea was wild, I remember being sideways on the peak of a wave, looking almost vertically downwards, almost on our side, not knowing where or how the boat was going to fall. After a couple of minutes we’d regained control using our oars and we could hold ourselves in position using our strength while we locked the rudder and fixed a spare Autohelm device. This was the scariest moment.’

RSNG What was the best moment?
AG
‘The best moment was after weeks at sea, appearing from the cabin ready to row yet another shift, glancing in the direction of travel just to check, only to see the clouds in front of us parting to reveal an huge expanse of black, volcanic rock. We’d finally made it to the island Jan Mayen.’

‘It was a feeling of beautiful relief and satisfaction. It felt at that moment that the risk was over, as though we could all dive off the boat and swim to land right there and then! We’d survived and made it to safety. For the last three days we’d been rowing double shifts as we’d turned all power off in the boat to conserve power for the water maker. We’d been steering by magnetic compass alone and rowing for three hours at a time night and day. Almost instantly, as that land appeared the water flattened out and we were in calm, beautiful water again. I’ll never forget that sight.’

RSNG What life lessons did you take from the experience?
AG
‘It’s important to know why you’re doing something in the first place. Be clear and honest with yourself, however complex the reason or situation may be. If you know why you’re doing something then it’s more likely the result will be satisfying and the outcome will be what you want. This experience was, in my mind, a huge success. I saw, felt and witnessed everything I wanted and indeed encountered more than I bargained for, but all in all it was an incredibly satisfying adventure. This wasn’t the case for all of the crew who’s reasons for doing it were not aligned with the majority and in fact probably turned out to be unsatisfactory. A shame after such a fulfilling experience.’

‘I’ve learned not to jump into situations so quickly before doing due diligence on everyone and everything involved in a project. I had been at a strange point in my life where I was looking for or needing something to replace the life as an Olympic athlete I had left behind. This caused me to throw myself head long into this project and trust the words of everyone involved – not a sensible way to approach something so potentially dangerous.’

‘I’ve learnt that as a parent what our children want more than anything in life is our time. They don’t care that I have won the Olympics or that I was some brave Arctic explorer, all they want is for me to take them outside and swim in the river, climb a tree, help them with their homework and pick them up from school. We have a responsibility as parents to be there for our children, teach them, inspire them and be with them. This was truly the inspiration and drive for my more recent project, writing my book Dadventures a guide for parents to do fun, unusual and interesting activities outdoors with their children so long-lasting memories can be made.’

‘I’ve learnt that the body is capable of much, much more than we think it is’

RSNG What about the physical challenge of the row?
AG
‘I’ve also learnt that the body is capable of much, much more than we think it is. Our bodies are amazing things, and if our mind can find ways through situations then our bodies can cope with almost anything we throw at them. There may be longer term health issues as a result of the strain we put on our body, but we will get through them and survive at least!’

RSNG Did you have any surprising animal encounters?
AG
‘To me this expedition was all about the experience and what we might encounter, and this journey did not disappoint. Despite the seemingly inhospitable, harsh, cold environment there was life everywhere. The seabirds fascinated me and were everywhere, constantly. Along the coast of Svalbard Puffins would come to see us, they would always follow the same pattern, fly over to us, circle our boat a couple of times then fly off on their way.’

‘The birds that were with us the whole way, no matter how far away from land we were was the Northern Fulmar and these really were impressive creatures. Whatever the weather, however bad the conditions were they would be out flying alongside us, all around us. In some ways I came to rely on them, in my mind, I’d tell myself that if they could survive out there then we could. Of course this is not necessarily the case! These birds were perfectly adapted to life on the waves and their aerial skill was phenomenal. They would skim the waves, following the contours of the rising and falling sea with incredible ease and precision. It was a constant delight to watch.’

‘The most notable encounter I had was the first of many whale encounters. One calm, beautiful day, not long after turning South I was rowing when something caught my eye just off the end of my left-hand oar. As I looked a huge grey arching back of a humpback whale appeared out of the water, slid through seemingly in slow motion and disappeared under the water again. Directly behind it was a much smaller whale, perhaps half the size. As we drifted slowly past the whales continued off into the horizon, breaking the surface for a breath every now and then, we were the most insignificant things in the world to them – it was a wonderful encounter and one I will never forget.’

WHAT NEXT? Watch this

featuring Alex’s Gregory’s sea-rotted hands, the result of rowing in gloves for so long…

Join Alex and other speakers to hear about their adventures at Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports Tales Of Endurance Events

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