In December 2019, Colin O’Brady and a five-man crew team successfully rowed a boat across the most dangerous stretch of water in the world. Antarctica’s Drake Passage runs from the southern tip of South America to Antarctica, and is the point where three oceans meet (Pacific, Atlantic and Southern). It features no landmass to slow down currents, resulting in unpredictable and deadly conditions, 50ft swells and swirling whirlpools. Alongside that, there are apocalyptic storms and freezing temperatures, with icebergs to circumnavigate and humpback whales to avoid.
To Colin O’Brady, though, this does not instil fear – it instils excitement. Captained by accomplished ocean rower Fiann Paul, O'Brady was the last man to join the team of six record-holding explorers and athletes alongside Cameron Bellamy, Andrew Towne, Jamie Douglas-Hamilton and John Petersen, and began training for this unprecedented adventure they named the ‘Impossible Row’.
Once at sea, the team rowed in shifts, with three rowers on the oars for 90 minutes then swapping with the other three, for 24 hours a day. They completed the 650-mile row in 12 days reaching land on 25 December 2019, and with it set a number of incredible new records, including the first row across the Drake Passage.
Logistics were a nightmare
Every expedition is complicated to organise, but this one was particularly difficult to pull off. “There’s a lot of red tape with the Antarctica Treaty, which is good as it makes Antarctica amazingly protected, but you can’t just go there and take a random boat,” says O’Brady. “We had to design a custom row boat, build it in the UK then work out how to get it to the start through the Panama Canal. It was basically logistics and funding problems a mile long."
My trainer made me build LEGO and tie knots after putting my feet and hands in ice buckets. He also poured ice water over me while I was on the rowing machine at 3am
Colin had never actually rowed before
If you’re going to take up a new sport, most people ease themselves in gently. Not Colin O’Brady. “I believe that the most important muscle everyone has is the six inches between their ears,” he says. “The ability in our minds to really grow and develop ideas and turn them into reality. One of my biggest curiosities with this project was whether I can take what I’ve learned – the mental perseverance – and apply it to a new discipline and build a proficiency at it in a short period of time.”
He didn’t even step into a rowboat until four months before the start of the challenge. “I started in a one-person sculling rowboat on the river in Portland – I tipped it over a few times, fell in the river as I was really starting from scratch. It was a humbling experience. People often think they’ll never be able to do something as they’ve never tried it, but a growth mindset says you can learn how to do it.”
His training was unconventional
Crucially, O’Brady worked with Mike McCastle, who had also trained him for the Impossible First – his unsupported solo trek across Antarctica. “He’s a badass – he holds the record for doing 5,800 pull-ups in 24 hours,” says O’Brady. “He’s so proficient as a trainer, but also so creative. He made me put my feet and hands in ice buckets, [then] build Lego, tie knots, figure out how to do these things with freezing hands. He also poured ice water over me while I was on the rowing machine at 3AM, which seems crazy, but how do you simulate 40ft swells and icy cold water with sleep deprivation? You can never fully prepare for that, but he did a better job than if I’d just been rowing a boat on calm rivers then jumped into Drake Passage.
Relationships needed to be forged quickly
With six rowers from four different countries, most of whom had never met, it wasn’t easy to train together. “We didn’t sit in the same room together until the end of August when we met for a test row in Scotland,” says O’Brady. “We rowed for a couple of days, which was good for getting to know each other and figuring out the dynamics. We gelled quickly and had candid conversations as a team.
“It was important to talk about communication, air any uncertainties and lean into that trust that we needed to establish so that when we were in the middle of Drake Passage in 40ft swells that we’d had conversations about how we could trust each other. And that served us well in terms of operating as a strong, high-functioning team."
We just had to keep rowing straight into these 20ft waves, as if you turned side-on that’s when you could capsize. We were living stroke by stroke and just trying to ride out the storm.
Seasickness was a given
As a non-rower, getting his ‘sea legs’ was something Colin struggled with. “The cabin I slept in had all the navigation equipment in it. I felt fine when I was rowing, but when I was inside the tiny cabin, barely able to lay down, being jostled around and having to stare at the little screens, I felt queasy, and on the second day I threw up on the deck – luckily I got outside rather than in the little space I had to sleep. Everyone experienced similar nausea over the first couple of days, though, as you’re thrown around so much, but we all adapted.”
He was not prepared for the storms
“The first time I saw the waves going up to 10ft, then 20ft, my eyes were wide open and I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is serious.’” says O’Brady. “There’s footage of our boat fully disappearing behind the waves, to give you an idea of the size of some of those swells. The only thing you can do is to sit it out. I remember John, who had never been on an expedition before, shouting, ‘Colin, how are you doing man?!’ And I was like, ‘This is crazy!’ and he yelled, ‘How do we make this stop?’ and I said, ‘I think we’ve just gotta keep on rowing!’
“We just had to keep rowing straight into these 20ft waves, as if you turned side-on that’s when you could capsize. We were living stroke by stroke and just trying to ride out the storm.”
The longest he slept for in one go was one hour
There were three people rowing constantly to prevent the boat from capsizing. They worked in shifts, alternating every 90 minutes, which created some odd sleep patterns. "It was less-than-ideal conditions – there was no time or space to change into dry clothes, so you remained wet and cold in your boots and jacket. It wasn’t often I got even an hour’s sleep. On average, I was getting 30 minutes here or there, so I was pretty sleep-deprived by the end. It resulted in a bizarre and altered mindset."
In the Antarctic peninsula the water came to life – penguins were leaping off icebergs a few feet from the boat, humpback whales breached within 10ft of us
Humpbacks were in close vicinity
Drake Passage is renowned for its abundance of wildlife, and O’Brady agrees that it was extraordinary. “In the middle of the sea there were orcas and albatrosses, but as we got closer to the Antarctic peninsula the water came to life – penguins were leaping off icebergs a few feet from the boat, humpback whales breached within 10ft of us. It crossed my mind that the boat was at risk. I definitely thought, ‘If that whale whacks its tail near us, it wouldn’t even notice.’ It makes you feel very small but also in awe of nature.”
The landing resulted in unexpected effects
“When we finished, we jumped on to shore and we all fell over immediately as we were land sick – our bodies had adjusted to being on the rough sea,” he says. “The video of us looks like six drunk guys trying to celebrate with each other. Even when I was on my own bed back in my hotel in South America I still felt like I was swaying for a few days before I finally found my equilibrium on ground again.”
I believe that the most important muscle everyone has is the six inches between their ears,” he says. "The ability in our minds to really grow and develop ideas and turn them into reality.
He’s always working on his next adventure
Although he could not give any specific clues as to what’s next, he did say he was dreaming up various things. “One thing I can share is that this spring I’ll be returning to climb Mt Everest, but with my wife Jenna. She’s been wildly supportive of me achieving my athletic goals and dreams, so it’s fun to have set that goal for her. We’re going to climb the north side from Tibet. Last time I climbed the south side, so it will be fun to do a different route. Then I’m sure there will be other ‘impossible’ adventures on the horizon.”
He hopes his stories will inspire others
“Going on Jimmy Fallon was an interesting experience, very humbling,” he says. “People have their own desires to interview me. One of the desires for me was to write The Impossible First and share an honest take of where Jen and I started – the ups and downs of our personal life, and my family and past. Hopefully, it will spread a ripple effect of positivity into the world.
"I was so inspired as a 7-year-old kid watching Pablo Morales in the 100m butterfly in the 1992 Olympics that it changed the trajectory of my life. I’m hoping that sharing my story is going to have a similar impact – that someone will read the book and think, ‘I’ve had a goal in my mind but not started it, and now I’m actually going to start it. I’m gonna run my first 5k, start my own business…’ Whatever it is, take action in their own life. That’s my hope."