Fiann Paul (Iceland) is a well-known name at Guinness World Records HQ.
Explorer, athlete, artist, public speaker, Jungian Psychoanalyst and multiple record holder, Paul has forever changed the world of ocean rowing.
Over the course of countless expeditions, he has continuously pushed his boundaries to the limit. He has racked up an astonishing number of rowing superlatives, including notable firsts and performance-based achievements, and is the most celebrated rower in the history of Guinness World Records.
Among his amazing feats, he has journeyed across every ocean.
He has crossed all five oceans at different times, becoming the first person to achieve the Ocean Explorers Grand Slam (row on 5 oceans) in 2019:
- the Atlantic, east to west (2011, team of six, on board Sara G)
- the Indian Ocean, east to west (2014, team of seven, on the Avalon)
- the Mid-Pacific, east to west (2016, team of four, on the Danielle)
- the Arctic Ocean Open Waters, south to north (2017, team of five, on the Polar Row)
- the Southern Ocean (2019, team of six, on board Ohana)
And now, Fiann Paul is preparing for a very special expedition: the curtain call that will crown an incredible life of adventuring.
On 12 January 2023, he will embark on the Shackleton Mission, followed by a film crew that will document the feat. It will be his very last challenge before saying goodbye to rowing and beginning a new chapter of his life.
Fiann Paul: who is the record-breaking explorer?
Active in several fields – from exploration to art, and public speaking to psychology – Fiann Paul is something of a modern-day renaissance man.
Officially the person with the most ocean rowing speed records held simultaneously (a total of four), he has set and broken many world records during his expeditions across the globe.
On board the Danielle in 2016, he became the youngest person to row three different oceans at the age of 35 years 325 days old. He also currently holds 14 Guinness World Records firsts: more than anyone else in the GWR annals.
"In a way, it has been effortless as I never aimed to achieve it. I just followed what I believed was my authentic call," he says.
In 2016 Paul also became the first person to simultaneously hold speed records on three oceans.
That incredible record was bettered the very next year: in 2017, Paul became the first person to simultaneously hold speed records on four oceans after completing the fastest recorded row on the Arctic Ocean Open Waters, south to north, accompanied by a team of five aboard the Polar Row.
During the same year, he was part of the first team of five to row the Arctic Ocean Open Waters and achieved several more records along the way, including the first row of the Barents Sea.
The Icelandic explorer was also part of the famous "Impossible Row" mission, which in 2019 completed the first row across the Drake Passage, a hazardous stretch of water between the tip of South America and Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands.
So what has inspired Fiann Paul to push the limits of rowing and embark on superhuman voyages across the sea?
"Self-expression is always the biggest motivation for me, followed by self-gratification," he explains.
"Firsts are like prints on the canvas of the ocean. They will remain there like an artwork that hosted my self-expression even after I am gone."
With this last expedition, Paul is also bidding farewell to a lifetime that has revolved around epic journeys, one that has won him a host of records, accolades and recognitions. That said, he is resolved to stay faithful to himself and his ideals of exploration, truth and happiness.
"I feel though it won’t be authentic anymore if I remain in the field and keep pushing it mechanically without a true drive for it," he admits.
"It is often a challenging moment to admit that at some point in life, your vocation has moved, and to be true to yourself you need to adjust your course."
"But at the same time, I sometimes struggle to find out whether the artist or the explorer is truer to me: not due to the sheer quest for the truth, but because I wonder which one would make me happier.” - Fiann Paul
The Shackleton Mission
For this culminating challenge – named in honour of a historic Antarctic accomplishment by a legendary adventurer – on 12 January 2023, Fiann Paul and his rowing team will embark on an 800-nautical-mile (1481.6 km) voyage.
Led by Paul, the team comprises first Mate Dr Mike Matson (USA), Jamie Douglas Hamilton (UK), Lisa Farthofer (Austria), Stefan Ivanov (Bulgaria), and Brian Krauskopf (USA).
Together, they will cross the turbulent waters of the Southern Ocean and the Scotia Sea in what might easily be the most difficult expedition that this multiple record holder has ever faced.
Greatness inspires greatness, and the team was inspired by an epic journey undertaken by Sir Ernest Shackleton and a handful of his crew, sometimes referred to as the “greatest small boat voyage of all time”.
Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition had embarked from England in August 1914 aboard the Endurance, aiming to complete the first land crossing of Antarctica.
Sadly, in January 1915, the ship became stuck in pack ice. All seemed lost, they were forced to abandon ship and the Endurance eventually succumbed to the unmerciful sea; the wreck still rests at the bottom of Antarctica's Weddell Sea.
But Shackleton led his 27-man crew to Elephant Island, then hand-picked a smaller party to sail a lifeboat to South Georgia – the best part of a thousand miles away – after which he returned to rescue the rest of his crew. Remarkably, not a man was lost.
Complying to the modern requirements of the Antarctic Treaty, today's Shackleton Mission will salute that legendary accomplishment while being accompanied by a supervising vessel.
This secondary boat will serve as a base for researchers, as well as a platform for the film crew that will shoot and document the expedition.
For this last journey on the trail of Shackleton's voyage, Paul and his crew will travel on a boat called Mrs Chippy.
The name was chosen in memory of the eponymous cat owned by the carpenter on the Endurance – Harry “Chippy” McNish – who set out with her owner on Shackleton’s expedition.
Controversially, McNish had been overlooked when other members of the crew were awarded the Polar Medal – an accolade assigned for outstanding achievements in the field of polar research. Paul hopes that his forthcoming adventure may redress that oversight.
"If we manage to contribute to the posthumous awarding of the Polar Medal to Harry ‘Chippy’ McNish, it would be a significant advancement to the story of Shackleton’s expedition," he says.
“It would be an honour to play a role, however small, in the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. At the very least, we hope to chip in a bit… pun intended."
"This is officially my last expedition, so I am a bit sentimental about it," Paul admits.
"I think this is what makes the biggest difference to me. It is like permanently deactivating a certain part of myself that I identify with and that I have built myself around to a far degree."
It’s not an easy moment for the explorer, who admitted shedding a tear thinking about the end of this final journey.
The challenges of the expedition
Paul foresees that the 18-day row might be the most difficult journey he has embarked on. And that’s saying something, considering that his 2017 game-changing expedition across the feared Drake Passage was named "The Impossible Row"!
He explains that three aspects in particular make the Scotia Sea a more difficult prospect than the feared Drake Passage:
- Around 50% of the Scotia Sea is on the continental shelf, compared to just 20% for the Drake Passage. This makes the waves higher and shorter. And the danger is not restricted to the waves' height alone, as it is the proportion of height to length that creates the risk of capsizing.
- The route is about 50% longer than the Drake Passage.
- The entire route is within the Antarctic Convergence, the marine belt encircling Antarctica. There, in a natural border that varies seasonally in latitude, the ice-cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer waters of the sub-Antarctic. Paul's entire voyage will be within this unique zone, as opposed to only 50% for the Drake Passage. The challenging weather of the Antarctic Convergence also plays a major role, of course, with constant humidity being a psychologically draining factor.
"The most difficult part of the expedition is making your way to the start line," Paul reveals. "Especially when the leader’s perspective is concerned."
"There is no other human-powered expedition that requires more logistical challenges than open-water polar rowing. It is significantly more difficult than showing up at the start line of a mountaineering expedition, for example."
He goes on to explain that there are regulations that his team must follow, specified by the Antarctic Treaty and IAATO (the authorities that regulate the marine traffic on the Antarctic Ocean). Such guidelines require the crew to also charter a supervising vessel to be able to depart.
"This is a majority of the expedition cost and, paradoxically, it has nothing to do with the actual rowing," he explains.
Several permits were required for the expedition, forcing the crew to navigate paperwork before the ocean – and deal with bureaucracy that has been made more complicated by COVID-19 restrictions. All of which poses an additional challenge even before the mission itself begins.
"Mike Matson, my first mate who has been in the project from the beginning, deserves some credits for this work too."
Then, he counts off even more dangers that may threaten the expedition.
For a start, the equipment might fail without warning – a very common occurrence – adding an unknown risk factor. There is no guarantee everything will behave as it should, when it should.
What’s more, the crew will be at the mercy of water and ice stretching as far as the eye can see. Any unexpected release of pack ice can bring with it serious dangers.
"Pack ice is discharged by the icebergs randomly," Paul clarifies, "and you never know when and where the ocean may be filled with floating ice. If this happens in low swell and good weather, the phenomenon is very visually entertaining. But being among these pieces of ice on a high swell could be compared to being inside a pinball game that you can’t tilt. And, in that case, even if the ball is made of steel…"
And of course, the crew will have to contend with the risk of unexpected injuries.
The expedition is entirely human-powered, and rowing in such extreme conditions requires a concerted effort by the whole team. Everyone must contribute.
“It is not that difficult to take care of your share of human power that propels the boat. But it may become unpredictably difficult to have to unexpectedly compensate for somebody’s lack of capacity to perform. It hurts, and health bills come later. Our joints have their limits.”
With this expedition, Fiann Paul aims to end his ocean-rowing career with a beautiful homage to the original Shackleton expedition, and to right a historical wrong regarding “Chippy” McNish's overlooked importance during the original mission.
But it's also a chance for the record holder to speak to viewers’ hearts via the documentary.
"I hope the film may encourage the audience to seek a true self-expression in life," he says.
"I think this has been the most important message of the way I lived, and it is something that art has taught me."
"True self-expression is the essence of truest art. It doesn’t care what is expected and it doesn’t care to please or displease anyone, it just strives for the authenticity of expression. This truthfulness may be rewarded one day, but it as well may not. It won’t sacrifice authenticity, though."
We wish the crew of the Mrs Chippy the best of luck and celebrate Paul’s many records as he challenges the ocean one last time.