5 Things Colin O’Brady Learned on “The Impossible Row” to Antarctica

Paul and crew, cruising into Antarctica. courtesy of Discovery

Colin O’Brady is the kind of guy who makes you to want to throw out your couch. He recovered from a debilitating burn injury by winning a triathlon and summited the 50 High Points in the U.S. in record time — just for kicks. Did we mention the Explorer’s Grand Slam? (That’s climbing the tallest mountain on each continent plus trips to both poles.) You likely know O’Brady as the first human to solo trek 932 miles across Antarctica unsupported in 2018, in what was known as “The Impossible First.

impossible row crew
The Impossible Row crew, left to right: Colin O’Brady, Andrew Towne, Captain Fiann Paul, Jamie Douglas-Hamilton, John Petersen and Cameron Bellamy. Photo courtesy Discovery. Discovery

While most of us would never want to see that frozen continent again, O’Brady decided to revisit it in December. This time, however, it was a team venture. Rounding up a bunch of similarly insane trip-mates, the crew of six rowed from the southern tip of South America to Antarctica, powering a 25-foot custom vessel continuously around the clock as they rotated between rowing shifts and rest in a tiny cabin. The crew — captained by Fiann Paul, a decorated world record-holder in his own right, having rowed all five of Earth’s oceans — completed the harrowing 600-mile journey across the Drake Passage in 12 days. The unsupported world’s first, crossing the passage entirely by human power, was a fiercely demanding voyage that combined physical and mental strength (as well as the ability to get along with five other dudes sitting in your lap for almost two weeks).

Here are five lessons Brady learned from The Impossible Row:

I’d never rowed before. I only started rowing in August and the Impossible Row was in mid-December. I went out in a single skull with the guidance of a rowing coach in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. He taught me the basic mechanics. I fell out of the rowboat a couple of times. (laughs)

One of the curiosities after coming off my crossing of Antarctica was the ability to grow to whatever we want to be. I think it’s a willingness to put myself into a beginner’s mind, to say, ‘Yeah, I may hold these world records, but it’s kind of fun to start at the very beginning with something and try to acquire the skill as fast as possible.’

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When you’re in the Atlantic or Pacific, you have dominant trade winds and currents. But with the Drake Passage, all bets are off. There’s no way to know what direction the wind and swell are going to come from, what’s going to kick up where, when and how quickly it will change. There were a couple of times we thought we were hitting our flow, and within a matter of hours, the wind is completely against us with 40-foot swells smashing over the boat.

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The Drake Passage. Photo courtesy Discovery. Discovery

We would row in 90-minute shifts. A couple of times the storms were so bad that we couldn’t row. We’d have to smash into these cabins, literally on top of each other. When teams are firing on all cylinders, it’s incredible. But we’ve all experienced in school, sports or careers, when a team is not on the same page, it falls apart really quickly.

We finally arrived in Antarctica after two weeks, so excited to jump onto dry land. And we all basically fell right onto the ground. We’re stumbling around like we all just drank 20 beers. It’s one thing to be seasick but our bodies had adjusted to being on the rowboat. So the six of us are celebrating, all tripping over our own feet.

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Cruising into Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Discovery. courtesy of Discovery

On my solo crossing, there was no wildlife at all. But in the Drake Passage, particularly when you get close to the Antarctic Peninsula, the wildlife is just thriving. You’re seeing penguins and albatross just a few feet from the boat and that’s awesome. But let me tell you that when a humpback whale breaches 10 feet away from your rowboat that’s only 29 feet long, it’s also pretty terrifying. I was constantly in awe of the wildlife, but also just felt so small.

Check out Brady’s book to learn more about The Impossible First, as well as 29029, Brady’s U.S. event-challenge series designed to inspire endurance athletes to climb the equivalent elevation of Mount Everest.

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