In 2018 adventure-loving rower Claire Hughes set a new Atlantic rowing world record in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic challenge, as the only woman in the four-person team, Team Tyne Innovation. Overcoming exhaustion and 40ft waves, the team rowed 2-hours on and 2-hours off for 42 days to break the mixed fours team record by 14 days.
Now, two years later, Claire is preparing for a new row which, if successful, will see her and her expedition teammates claim a world first. Described as ‘the last great first’, the Northwest Passage is a 2000-mile Arctic route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. With extreme Arctic conditions, unpredictable ice and polar bears, only three attempts have been made this century to row it, all of which have been unsuccessful.
To find out more about this incredible expedition (due to begin next year) and how she’s preparing for it, I put some questions to Claire about the demands and dangers of attempting the Northwest Passage row.
You were part of a record-breaking Atlantic row in 2018. How would you describe the experience?
It was many things – challenging, exhausting, exhilarating, an adventure – but the thing that really surprised me was quite how much I enjoyed it.
I spent a lot of time mentally preparing for tough times, such as the incredibly cramped space (six weeks with four people in an 8m x 2m space, 24 hours a day), the blisters, pressure sores, exhaustion, hunger, boredom, 40ft waves, squalls – but what I hadn’t prepared for was how much I enjoyed the simple life. The routine. Being out there with the elements and the sheer beauty of the open ocean. Swimming 1000 miles from shore with 3 miles of water below me. And the amazing bond between the team and all the laughs we shared. It was an adventure of a lifetime and a real test of both physical and mental stamina. I loved it! I’m not sure I will ever touch another pork scratching though.
You’re now preparing to row the ‘last great first’ – the Northwest Passage. What this will involve?
So in a nutshell, I am the sole female on an expedition team of 15 people who aim to be the first to row the infamous Northwest Passage, the 2000-mile Arctic route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Frozen for most of the year, we are planning to row the passage during the Arctic’s brief summer when the ice recedes sufficiently to allow navigation through. Whilst this is ‘summer’, we will still be facing freezing temperatures, high winds, ice and the region’s predators – including polar bears which, coincidentally, can swim considerably faster than we can row!
We will start in North East Canada in the early summer of 2021 and end the crossing in Alaska. Our exact route will depend on access which will be affected by the unpredictable ice flow and the extreme Arctic weather conditions.
You’re rowing in specially designed ice-class vessels. Can you tell us more?
The expedition will consist of 3 ocean rowing boats designed and developed by Ruairi Grimes of Aston Martin and Leven Brown, our expedition leader. The boats are 9m in length, self-righting, insulated, fast and functional. Each boat will have a crew of five with rowing seats for up to three people at any one time.
The ‘Ice Class’ boats are based around a 20mm rigid foam coring and triple skin carbon Kevlar shell which is not only much stronger to take on the ice (and offer greater protection against polar bears) but also insulates much better to keep the crew warm. It’s a brand new boat design so another ‘first’!
What will be some of the dangers of this world-first attempt?
It’s not just the amazing wildlife like polar bears which can pose a potential threat, it’s also the environmental conditions. The route is frozen over for much of the year and the exact route through will be determined by the ice flows that year. The risk posed by icebergs and broken sections of ice sheet hitting and potentially piercing the shell of the boat is significant. We are also at risk of being frozen into the ice. To mitigate this latter risk, the lightweight nature of our boat design is such that, should we need to, we can actually drag the boat across the ice!
The NWP route is much closer to land and that will also make sea conditions in terms of wind and waves much more difficult to work with. There are also dangers of being pushed fast in the wrong direction which, mid-Atlantic, is mostly just frustrating; however, mid-Arctic could leave us perilously close to ice or land and cliffs. Water will be much ‘messier’ so it will be an uncomfortable ride and we are likely to be wet for the majority of the time whilst rowing so will need to be careful to protect against the combination of cold and wet and the risk of hyperthermia or frostbite.
With temperatures down to -10 will it be important to avoid sweating whilst rowing?
Clothing and gear are absolutely critical. I think sweating will be unavoidable so it will be important to choose the right materials and hygiene regimes to minimise the risks. We will need good waterproof clothing, however, we also need to be able to move well in this as we will be rowing, therefore kayaking clothing is likely to be our chosen outwear. Layers will be key to managing fluctuating body and external temperatures. We also need to be prepared for long periods spent on anchor in bad weather or hauling across the ice so lots of versatility will be required.
Avoiding chafing, rashes and pressure sores will be key and the best way of understanding how best to manage this on an individual basis will be through training in our gear as well.
You mentioned that you’re the only woman on the trip, which I know is important to you.
I think it is hugely important that a woman is a part of the first crew to make it through. I am fortunate to have done some fantastic challenges and travel adventures but I am also a pretty average person – I like cake and beer and gin, I work 9-5ish in a predominantly based office job, I enjoy food far too much. I think it is very easy to feel a bit intimidated by some of the incredible role models out there and assume that a total lifestyle overhaul is needed.
I’m keen to prove that doesn’t need to be the case and encourage everyone, particularly women, to overcome perceived barriers and make their own adventures happen in whatever form they desire. It’s brilliant to see so many inspirational women out there spreading the word and continually raising the bar. I want to do my bit to encourage even more folk! I think being able to communicate a raw and real account of my experiences will be a really great way of doing that.
How are you physically preparing for the row?
I am really focusing on endurance, core and strength training. I did a lot of cycling over the summer and set myself a challenge in August to cycle coast to coast in a day – 222km and 3,500m climbing. I completed this in 12 hours 50 minutes which I was happy with on my gravel bike.
My next endurance test will be in the early spring when I plan to do the 3 peaks of Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis, cycling between each one. Again, a great test of mental strength as well as physical endurance so it feels like a fitting milestone in my build-up to the NWP.
I have also been open water swimming over the summer. I now intend to continue this through autumn and winter to build up some resilience swimming in cold water. The aim is to progress to some longer skins swims in the North Sea. This will help my circulation as well, as cold feet and hands are a concern for me on the NWP.
How will your schedule compare to your Atlantic row?
We have yet to discuss the exact rowing shift patterns but one thing for sure is that there will be a longer rest period for each crew member at points. Whilst this might sound less gruelling than the Atlantic, remembering the conditions we will be facing is important. Not only will there be a team rowing on deck, but there also needs to be a constant lookout for dangers including icebergs and polar bears whilst the other two crew rest! Obviously, we need our lookouts to be well-rested and completely alert rather than sleep-deprived and potentially delirious. The much colder air and water temperatures will also be more punishing on our bodies and, again, adequate rest will be key.
Can you share a bit about the environmental element of the trip?
A sad reality is that this expedition is only becoming possible to even attempt due to climate change and the increasing and alarming ice melt we are seeing each year. The expedition will be an opportunity to witness this in person, engage with the local indigenous people and understand the impacts first hand. We will adopt an unbiased approach to documenting the facts about the Arctic environment and climate which we encounter and will be feeding this information into our documentary about our crossing. All power requirements onboard our boats will be delivered via 100% renewable energy.
Success will have a bittersweet meaning – obviously to complete the mission and be the first to succeed would be hugely exciting; however, this will certainly be tempered by a sadness as to the diminishing unique Arctic environment which has made the passage possible.
What are your must-have items of kit for training?
Comfort is absolutely key. Training for an ocean row involves a lot of long, repetitive endurance work, be that on a static indoor rower or hours on the bike, walking up mountains, swimming or running. Working out what fits your own body type, minimising chafe and blisters, is all practice, practice, practice for the expedition.
I love my Sweaty Betty leggings and Shock Absorber Run bras – my two absolute training staples which have never let me down. Bum padding is also key for rowing distance and at present, I use a layered foam camping mat cut to shape so it moulds to your bum shape. As pressure changes, it gives the ability to cut further to ease the pressure. There are lots of options out there though and I intend to do further trials to find the best solution for me over the coming months!
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
Not personally, but as the sole female on the crew, I would be delighted to speak with anyone about sponsorship opportunities to help ensure that there is a woman in the first expedition to successfully row the NWP! Huge strides have been made in increasing numbers of women embracing their sense of adventure and getting involved. I’m keen to help maintain that momentum and inspire other women to say yes to their inner adventurer!
What about general fundraising?
We are also seeking boats and/or full expedition sponsorship so lots of very exciting opportunities for people/companies to be a part of making history with our world-first expedition and the resulting publicity which comes out of it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made fundraising harder than ever, so as a team we have had to think creatively about different approaches and have launched a delicious craft gin, Northwest Passage Expedition gin, proceeds of which will be going towards funding our expedition. Distilled in Orkney by Orkney Distillery (as a homage to Orcadian explorer John Rae, who finally found a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific), water is taken from the same source that Cook and Franklin used to stock their ships, and botanicals used to flavour it are found on the shores of Hudson Bay and the Orkney Islands – a fitting fundraiser for our expedition and a rather beautiful bottle!
You can follow Claire’s training and preparation via her social media: www.instagram.com/ordinarygirladventure.
To read more about the Northwest Passage expedition visit www.nwp2021.com.