On April 24th, 1916, Ernest Shackleton and five members of his crew set off on an 800-mile voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia in a small sailboat named James Caird. Weeks earlier, their now-famous ship, Endurance, had become hopelessly disabled as the Southern Ocean froze. For weeks, facing what some historians have called a “negligible” chance of success, the James Caird crew fought off gale force winds, waves reaching five stories high, and sub-freezing temperatures to achieve what has been described as the greatest small boat voyage in history.
In January 2023, the world’s most record-breaking explorer, Fiann Paul, will embark on the same harrowing route for only the second time in over a century. But unlike the James Caird, Paul’s vessel — christened the Mrs. Chippy after the cat of the Endurance’s carpenter, Harry McNish — will make the journey without a sail. To make the journey, Paul and his crew consisting of First Mate Dr. Mike Matson (USA), Jamie Douglas Hamilton (UK), Lisa Farthofer (Austria), Stefan Ivanov (Bulgaria), and Brian Krauskopf (USA) will row 24 hours a day, in shifts of 90 minutes, for no less than two weeks.
If successful, Shackleton Expedition 2023 will establish three Guinness World Firsts for the team: First to Row the Scotia Sea, First to Row from the Antarctic Continent, and First to Row the Southern Ocean South to North. A fourth goal is having the Polar Medal awarded posthumously to Chippy — the human, not the cat — whom, along with Endurance’s captain F. Worsley, Paul credits with turning a near-certain nautical disaster into a maritime triumph.
“Shackleton and his crew were essentially on a lifeboat,” Paul says. “They had been forced to abandon ship and then fled ice floes onto the smaller wooden boats as cracks appeared beneath their feet. My crew and I will be put to the same test as we battle similar elements.”
Often described as a modern day Renaissance Man, Paul is also a self-professed dopamine enthusiast who needs no more than two hours of sleep a night once on an expedition . Although his planned expedition was initially delayed by Covid, Paul has spent the past few years defending his thesis in Jungian psychology in addition to meticulously planning the voyage, recruiting and raising additional funds.
While Paul says that he can count the number of qualified rowers in the world on two hands, he was forced to assemble a crew on the sly for fear of giving a better-financed competitor a heads-up. “Unlike being the fastest, world-first records are forever,” he says. “They cannot be surpassed; they cement your legacy as an explorer.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Paul holds more of these records than anyone. Most notably, he was the first to open row the Drake Passage using only human power, a feat he memorialized in an essay for The Impossible Row. He says that Shackleton Mission 2023 will be even more challenging. Like James Caird, Mrs. Chippy will have to contend with waves as high as mid-level office buildings as well as gale-force winds, high humidity, pack ice, and sub-zero temperatures. Meanwhile, the crew faces a raft of psychological challenges, not least of which will be the effects of sleep deprivation, constant fear and anxiety, hunger, and exhaustion.
Finally, Paul will face an adversary that Shackleton did not: international law. Under the Antarctic Treaty, the 2023 expedition is required to be shadowed by a supervising vessel. Ideally, he says, any explorer would prefer to go it alone as a matter of principle. And there are practical implications: because of the vessel’s expense, he will not be able to choose a launch window based on the weather. Like Shackleton, the timing has been decided for him.
“We will just have to row through whatever we get,” Paul clarifies. “I cannot fight with governments just as I cannot fight with nature.”
Two weeks out, the stoic Paul admits to feeling “I am really worn out but at the same time I keep burning to nail it solid.” Mrs. Chippy arrived on King George Island just after this past Christmas, A film crew is en route to document what Paul hopes to be the pinnacle of his record-breaking career, in which he has open-rowed all five oceans — a “Grand Slam.”
After this, the 42-year-old plans to write a book and pivot to a new adventure on land, though it will be difficult to replicate the challenge of a pursuit that is far more complex than mountaineering. “Most of the expedition is preparation,” he observes. “It’s mind-boggling the number of individual elements that must all fall perfectly into place for us to succeed.” “Everything starts with a vision that needs to convince others and make them want to join and invest in your project.”
Though he has penned celebrated essays, delivered lectures, and exhibited both his own photography and art in galleries around the globe, one success that has eluded Paul’s career is widespread fame. While he possesses more Guinness World Records in his field than Roger Federer, Paul says that he has always struggled to “talk the walk.” Glorifying achievement, which precedes its commercialization, holds far less interest than understanding the innate desire of the explorer to embrace the difficult over the easy — and to confront the immutability of death. Paul has spent years studying indigenous people who survive in the most extreme climates, believing that they have held onto answers lost in modern culture.
“The people I most admire are those who can strip their lives down to a blank slate, a tabula rasa so to speak, and then rebuild themselves as they want,” Paul says. “There is probably not much you can do about your mindset, but an explorer is always testing the bounds of their endurance — physically, mentally, and spiritually. That, along with intricate planning, is the real expedition.”