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French adventurer takes on Northwest Passage via rowboat

Laurel Andrews
Son Nelson Hedrich snaps a photo of himself and father Charles in Wales on July 1, 2013, with the specialized rowboat that Charles hopes will take him across the Northwest Passage.
Courtesy Charles Hedrich
French adventurer Charles Hedrich sets off from Wales on July 1, 2013 in an attempt to cross the Northwest Passage via rowboat.
Courtesy Charles Hedrich
Son Nelson Hedrich and father Charles in his specialized rowboat, where they slept for 12 days waiting for the weather to clear in Wales.
Courtesy Charles Hedrich
French adventurer Charles Hedrich sets off from Wales on July 1, 2013 in an attempt to cross the Northwest Passage via rowboat.
Courtesy Charles Hedrich

After waiting 12 days for the weather to clear in the Northwest Alaska village of Wales, French adventurer Charles Hedrich set off on a rainy Monday morning in an attempt to cross the Northwest Passage, an infamous ice-laden journey across the top of Alaska and Canada. Hedrich claims that if successful, he will be the first to complete the voyage via rowboat.

Hedrich, 55, joins a long line of European explorers who gravitate to the Arctic in search of adventure. Some complete their voyages; others don't.

Originally from Lyon, France, Hedrich's adventures include a two-month solo voyage across Antarctica and a 2007 row across the Atlantic trade wind route from Dakhar, Senegal, to Brazil in 36 days and 6 hours, the fastest ever by rowboat, according to the Ocean Rowing Society. Such efforts have garnered the Northwest Passage attempt abundant media coverage from French news outlets and multiple sponsors of his organization Respectons La Terre (Respect the Earth).

But things are off to a choppy start.

Poor weather stalled the send-off nearly two weeks, while Hedrich and his son Nelson slept in the rowboat on a Wales beach, waiting for the weather to clear, Nelson said on Tuesday.

First stop: Point Hope

Now that he has left Wales, the first stop is Point Hope, partway across the Chukchi Sea. Hedrich had planned on arriving in three or four days, but strong northern winds have made for a slow start to the journey, and he hadn't rowed far from shore by Tuesday afternoon, Nelson said. After Point Hope, Hedrich will head for Barrow, on Alaska's North Slope, before passing into the Beaufort Sea that stretches from Alaska's northeast coast to Canada. 

The Northwest Passage runs along the top of Alaska and Canada through multiple routes that are covered in ice most of the year. During summer months, sea ice recedes enough to allow ships to navigate the passage, which was originally sought out as a hoped-for route connecting the European Atlantic and Asian Pacific.

There are seven possible routes through the Northwest Passage, but Hedrich isn’t sure yet which one he’ll take. It depends on how the sea ice recedes, and it’s something he’ll figure out along the way, his wife Patricia wrote via email.

The Ocean Rowing Society is monitoring his progress, relying on messages sent via Hedrich’s wife that contain his GPS coordinates and a timestamp, said director Tatiana Rezvaya-Crutchlow. “We must have proof” of his position in order for his numbers to go on the Ocean Rowing Society’s website. The society also monitors rowing statistics for the Guinness Book of World Records.

The journey is “risky of course … but it’s a challenge,” Rezvaya-Crutchlow said. “We’re just wishing him good luck.”

Nelson, 23, said he is not afraid for his father’s safety. “He knows what he can do and cannot do.” At this point, having watched his father cross the Atlantic and scale mountains, “I’m getting used to it.”

Nelson has always been into sports, specifically skiing and dirt-bike racing, but this is his first expedition following alongside his father, albeit on shore and available mostly in case of an emergency.

Stocked with lots of beef jerky

Nelson will be checking in with his dad twice a day, at noon and 9 p.m. If Hedrich gets stuck in the ice, Nelson will come to his aid. But he’s “not sure exactly” how he’ll get to the sea ice where his father is, whether by plane or snowmachine. They’ll “see when it occurs.”

Hedrich has enough food to last two weeks, mostly “a lot of beef jerky” and some dried food, Nelson said. He’ll be stopping at coastal villages along the way to stock up on supplies, but will continue sleeping in the boat even when he’s on shore.

Henrich’s row boat was specially made by Parisian Mathieu Bonier, who attempted to row the Northwest Passage two years ago, but only made it halfway. The boat is equipped with solar panels that generate electricity for a satellite phone, GPS auto pilot and electronic reader, Nelson said.

The journey needs to be completed by September, before sea ice closes off the route. Otherwise "it's dead," Hedrich said in a press release.

Northwest Passage crossings

The first crossing of the Northwest Passage occurred in 1853, and as of 2012, a total of 185 crossings have been made, according to data compiled by Robert Headland at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge in England.

The journey is becoming more accessible as sea ice recedes and opens up the route for longer periods during the summer. That's meant an increase in crossings. From 1903 to 2000, the passage was crossed 75 times. Between 2000 and 2011, there were 85 transits across the passage.

The Northwest Passage includes more than just a route across Canada. “Under the strictest definition, the strict geography of the Northwest Passage is that you have to go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean,” Brigham told Alaska Dispatch in 2012. That means the journey must include the Bering Strait, as Hedrich has.

Hedrich says that if successful, he will be the first to complete the journey via row boat. The Ocean Rowing Society agrees.

Claims of “firsts” across the Northwest Passage are difficult to verify. In 2012 a sailboat successfully crossed the passage, and adventurer David Scott Cowper claimed to have made the first solo journey across the treacherous McClure Strait in 150 years. But with no entity monitoring traffic through the passage, it's hard to say for certain.

Right now, Hedrich's goal is to reach Point Inlet in Canada, but that may change. “You never really know,” Nelson said. “He might row farther.”

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com

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