Expedition misrepresentation – ‘Rant in NP minor’ – Rowing the Arctic

Thursday, September 1, 2011 AT 11:05 AM Comments25 Comments

I’m going to start off with an apology, I’m pleased for the guys onboard for achieving their objective (what that was has unnecessarily become the debate), and because I am actually polite and well mannered and am, for the most part, hugely supportive of other people doing whatever they want to do in the outdoor industry, sorry, if anyone doesn’t want to hear what follows this then stop reading it! If you want to ‘unfriend’ me on Facebook or ‘unfollow’ me on Twitter because this particular truth is not to your taste then PLEASE DO!

For starters, from an outside/inside perspective here’s ‘Modern Corinthian’ Jock Wishart (who I think I met out in La Gomera in 2007 and seemed a nice enough bloke at the time in the bar), the ‘only man to walk to unsupported to a pole and Row an Ocean’ (Hope Fedor Konyukhov doesn’t hear him say that, because I ‘think’ he did that, and some other stuff?!) laying sugary chocolate arse nuggets into the ears of the mass media and the public; (Whilst of course celebrating with a nice Malt Whiskey!…’What brand of whiskey’?!)

“We are sitting in the position of the North Pole, a real true global first and one of the greatest Ocean Rows of all time”

(When asked what message do you come away with in terms of the melting ice cap?) “Well, this is one of the last true polar firsts and certainly one of the greatest Ocean Rows of all time” followed by some subjective insight into climate change….

“This is probably one of the most difficult exercises ever done in the polar region since (Edmund) Hillary took tractors across Antarctica. It’s no light feat and it’s no job for the faint-hearted.”

“We have accomplished a truly great goal first and certainly a goal that will go down in the record books.”

“It was a real true global first and probably one of the greatest ocean rows of all time”

‘And, as he sipped a malt whisky to celebrate, he said: “It is one of the greatest ocean rows of all time.”’

(edit insert 13th Sept 2011) – ‘First to Row to the North Pole’ (Monday 12th Sept skip to 23:55)

The reason I feel strong enough to rant about this in my own tiny personal piece of web space, to less than a few hundred people, is that when certain expeditions like, pour exemple, ‘The Old Potsie Row to the Pole’ are misrepresented, either by the media or by those leading it, they diminish anything which remains genuinely ‘good’ and interesting about the industry which we live and work in, and ultimately from a selfish point of view they affect my lively hood and ability to fund and carry out expeditions for myself and for other people!

There are lots of examples of things that are just plain wrong at the moment in our industry, and it seems to boringly hinge around certain definitions. E.g. The number of people who call themselves ‘Explorers’ these days is laughable! Hardly anyone can call themselves (or rather should be referred to as) an explorer these days, so if you see someone called an explorer on TV you can be forgiven for first assuming they are either a charlatan, or the defrosted corpse of Captain Scott which has been kept in a sort of natural cryostasis! You can only be an explorer if you are going somewhere that we have either never been to before, or, somewhere which has only ever been explored once or twice and you are furthering that exploration in some way, and in addition, if we’re honest, if you’re doing less than one ‘exploration’ a year or even just one in c10 years then you are probably doing something else for your ‘day job’.

But beyond that, what title do we have? Well, it loathes me to say this, because I too have had to serve my apprenticeship, but the only thing we are left with these days is ‘Adventurer’.

After nearly ten years of gaining experience, spending a fortune out of my own back pocket (which I had to earn in a 9-5), learning and doing different things across different genres, training my ass off every week (because If you wanna be the best, and you wanna beat the rest. Oo-ooh! Dedications what you need), running ultra marathons, because aside from the enjoyment, it gives potential sponsors a tangible insight into my physical capabilities, and even being willing to, and then actually losing parts of my own body for my ultimate goal; to finally build up a modicum of credibility and/or respect from my peers for things that I’ve done and am working towards (and even now being a lifetime away from where I want to be i.e. dead(?) happy), and to turn what I love doing into a profession, I’ve started to realise, that I could, if I had wanted, and could have lived with myself and slept at night; simply not bothered, and simply lied?! (Or misrepresented).

One of our problems is, anyone can ‘call’ themselves an ‘adventurer’ (and sadly some even choose ‘Explorer’ without genuine fact) because the scope for adventure is so wide (And that is actually a great thing). An adventure can be anything from going for a nice walk in beautiful weather to a place in the countryside that you haven’t been to before. Or it can be rowing an ocean or climbing Mount Everest, and that sliding scale extends all the way to having unprotected sex at a ‘strip club’ in Botswana!

I think there has to then be a distinction between ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’, and in realising that fact, we as ‘professionals’ should conduct ourselves, in everything relating to our expeditions in a ‘professional’ manner. So that means, if you have a genuine product, sell it and sell the shit out it. But if you shovel shit, please don’t sell it cheaply to the uninformed consumer as Shinola! Particularly when the uniformed consumer happens to be the mass media! (And yes granted my perspective is slightly altered on what is shit and what is Shinola! – and I’m certain not saying the ‘row to the pole’ was shit I’m saying a lot of what was shovelled to the media was!).

For me personally there are certain rules or definitions I like to use to define my personal ‘adventures’ and those I design and facilitate for other companies, like;

• There should be a definitive, none-contrived or arbitrary start and finish point.
• The true goal or real reason for the expedition should be honestly and openly portrayed. If you’re raising money for charity, great, but be careful not to say you are ‘doing it for charity’ or ‘to highlight climate change’, unless you have no other reason to do it, other than that stated.
• Be 100% clear about what it is you are actually doing.
• A personal choice now is that it needs to be an ‘expedition’ in a pure sense i.e. unsupported, as much as possible away from civilisation, off road etc. (NB: This is my personal choice now and it certainly does not detract from the great work of Al Humphreys on the microadventure, which gives people the realisation of the essence of adventure, which is a great message!). So as a side note from my rant a note to myself, I may be looking for a new working title in order to make a distinction, and before anyone says it; I’ve already considered ‘Arrogant, self important prick’ but I don’t think it will get me nearly as many girls as being ‘an adventurer’ does!) [citation needed].
• And maybe most important, when it’s done, have some f*cking humility man! Even if you had just somehow magically managed to combine “One of the last great polar firsts” and “One of the greatest Ocean Rows of all time” – Of which, many will say this was neither!…Don’t sit there and say it! (But you did on the BBC News, when you hadn’t even!) – Titles like this should not be bestowed upon oneself or one’s own achievements but should be a matter of debate and conjecture for everyone!

So to the example of the much reported ‘Old Potsie Row to the Pole’:

A great idea and an interesting project, yes. Unfortunately, for me (but who cares what I think) and a few more important people, who may bite their tongue, certain aspects of its portrayal in the national media were really annoying! Which would be fine, I live with being constantly annoyed, but the ramifications of portrayals of expeditions such as this are not good for our industry and I think we should all be careful about the way we present the things we do, because unless we are all aiming for ‘mediocrity and banality’ as a matter of course or worse to ‘become famous by simply over serving our corporate overlords/sponsors’, when we finally get to where we want to be, doing things ‘from our hearts, that really f*cking ROCK!’, no one will care or understand the difference between those and, ‘Vanilla Ice’. (I’m going to explain this homonym ‘Vanilla Ice’ reference because it’s too good to miss, listen up, I think there is a certain amount of ‘corporate pleasuring’ as per the Bill Hicks Vanilla Ice link, that has resulted in the misrepresentation of this expedition in the mass media and the expedition itself out there on the ‘Ice’, when looked at in a little more detail, is a little bit more ‘Vanilla’, i.e. ordinary, than you may be lead to believe!)

Some specific things about the representation of the ‘Old Potsie Row to the Pole’ that have been a hotbed for cringingly quiet debate in our Adventure community. Well, balls out, here they are;

• Starting with the obvious, and to try give the benefit of doubt as much as possible here, it was poorly represented by some of the media, but ‘maybe’ there’s no smoke without fire; (Let’s be honest, the media will have been fed a press release at some point stating certain things and those things were compounded in live interviews on national and international TV and radio programmes by Jock Wishart).
o Fact: It was not to the assumed and nonchalantly implied ‘default’ North Pole (i.e the Geographic North Pole – which, if you were wondering, means it was not to the ‘top of the world’), nor was it even to where the compasses point, the Magnetic North Pole, yes those two poles are actually different! Ha! Who knew!? It was to where compasses used to point to in 1996! A couple of hundred miles away from where it now is I believe. (Crew member and adventurer Mark Beaumont has done an excellent job of trying to make this clear, which is burden he does not deserve).

• Question: How can someone be an ‘Explorer’ by going somewhere that has long since been explored and, to the extent that the whole real reason for the expedition was to reach somewhere that was documented as the Magnetic North Pole way back in 1996? Is that what we call ‘exploration’?! How sad for us all…Shall we just accept the true ‘age of exploration’ is over and happily move on to bigger more challenging things!? I think some people and areas of the media are ‘holding on too tight and should turn in their wings, before we all crash and burn’!

• Self proclaiming on live TV that what you’ve done is one of “the last great polar firsts” and “will go down in history as one of the greatest Ocean Rows of all time” not only is inaccurate on a number of levels but is also reminiscent of being at school when an unpopular kid would join a new class and give himself a cool new nickname like ‘The Dude’, or ‘Big nuts’….”Hi, my name’s Eugene, but people call me, erm, Big Nuts”…(Not to mention, even if that was the case, how arrogant would you have to be to give yourself that much of a pat on the back?!).

o The fact is this is not one of ‘the last great polar firsts’, it is an interesting project, but there are a number of ongoing projects for a number of great polar firsts, such as Reaching the North Pole of inaccessibility, An on foot unsupported return journey to the South Pole, one particularly close to my heart, a full 1800 mile traverse of Antarctica and I’ve even heard of a South Pole in winter expedition! In reality, yes it’s the first time a rowing boat has gone to the 1996 magnetic pole, which, granted is kind of cool! But it was from an arbitrary distance away, and if certain other people in the community had been that way inclined they could have flown a boat out to within 100 or even 50 miles away, or rowed to another arbitrary point on the map and got there in a couple of days and saved everyone from the bravado.
o Nor was it one of the ‘Greatest Ocean Rows in history’, it lasted just over 3 weeks, covered just c450 miles and, here’s the kicker, it’s not even open Ocean! There were camps on land? And sections man-hauled? (It was in a modified Ocean Rowing boat, whose designs maybe have a questionable origin, but it was not even AN Ocean Row! Ocean Rowing is the sport of rowing across Oceans) if anything this was a coastal row)

• If this was truly done to show climate change, why on ‘God’s green earth’ accept a sponsorship from a Whiskey company? If the whole honest goal was to highlight climate change, which, I maybe wrong but I thought was said on BBC news, why not use that platform to work in partnership with and promote a ‘solar power company’ or something alike? There certainly seemed to be more of a subjective rather than an entirely scientific approach to recording this when asked about it on BBC news?

• And one last small point but, it wasn’t even rowed the whole way, it was man-hauled too? Which ‘kind of’ nullifies the climate change argument because this arbitrary point could have been reached by rowing AND man hauling anytime! For reference and example of conduct, Rune Gjeldnes and Cecile Skogg made it clear this summer they were kayaking and man-hauling to the North Pole.

The reason these misrepresentations are so detrimental to our community, aside from the fact we collectively get a reputation for being dishonest spenders of other people money for our own personal pleasure and advancement of notoriety; the more the public and the mass media believe has already been done in the Adventure/Exploration community (let’s be honest almost everything has been unless it is genuinely difficult), the less likely companies are to be interested in sponsoring genuine projects that attempt the properly hard core remaining ‘firsts’ that genuinely prove or advance something. What happens in 20 years time when we’ve all got perma-sun tans, climate change actually turns out to be real based on real data and someone wants to row to the geographic pole – hasn’t that already been done? Or what about when someone wants to get sponsorship for a Geographic North Pole traverse – can’t you take a boat up there these days? Or even, anyone wants to row across a whole open Ocean, and that effort is belittled by a row/man haul within an archipelago because that, was supposedly “one of the greatest ‘ocean rows’ of all time”!?…..F*CK! is my Ocean row, or any other Ocean Rowers row which actually crossed an Ocean, not as ‘great’ as Jocks paddle?! (Well, I know it and they f*cking are, and in the context of Ocean Rowing, are more so!)

So has anything been learned here or are these things we already knew? Yes it’s a rant! But the only important thing is to draw attention to the fact that misrepresentation of expedition’s goals and outcomes, although easily done, is detrimental to ourselves, our community, our own projects and reputations going forward and we should all be more careful/honest from now on.

PS. I’m running across Iceland soon, it’s going to be ‘The greatest ever run across a continent in history’

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25 Responses to “Expedition misrepresentation – ‘Rant in NP minor’ – Rowing the Arctic”

  1. Marvellous rant!
    Absolutely brilliant.

    Well done too for exonerating Mark Beaumont in this: I spoke to him before he went and these were his exact concerns. I think he has done everything right.

    But how dare you call your run across Iceland the ‘The greatest ever run across a continent in history’? I did that last year and my trip was definitely the greatest ever world first solo unsupported crossing of Iceland. (Except that we weren’t the first nor were we solo etc etc)


  2. Bloody marvellous, I sat down to do something (work type stuff 9-5 sort) but thought I’d check out twitter facebook etc first. I came across this ‘rant’ and got so caught up in the thing that I have completely forgotten why I’m sitting here in the first place. Great bit of writing, and I think, a fair rant, well done Sir!
    Now, as there are parts of my garden that have not seen a human in years, let alone a lawn mower, if I manage to hack my way through and find a boundary fence, or even a neighbour, could I then call myself an explorer of sorts?
    Love the Roy Castle quote too – enter trumpet solo (unassisted, naturally)
    …as I still can’t think why I sat here in the first place, I’m going to do lunch, anyone care to join me?

  3. Finally, some honesty! Great post/rant Ben, although it has led me to slowly inch away from claiming to have just executed the greatest Stand Up Paddle journey in history. Because of course these things can only be claimed as great if you’ve had the time and energy to dress both as Elvis and a catty hooker.

  4. Tom Evans says:

    Awesome rant! It’s great to see someone commenting on it intelligently – the comments on the news paper sites were just plain stupid from people who probably had no clue anyway.

    It’s a shame someone like Mark Beaumont, with his fantastic (and well earned) reputation had to be involved and perhaps tarnished.

    I just did the greatest solo poo in history, now to write the book. (No doubt Mr Wishart will be writing one…)

  5. Fearghal says:

    Great constructive rant!

    Well worth the 10mins it stole “real work” too.
    Just watched an interview on CNN, and was uncomfortable by the comparison with Shakleton’s bare bones row in the James Caird; http://www.youtube.com/watchv=BmhXeuLubwE&feature=related
    Glad to see someone voicing this.

    As an aside, I think you’re being a little harsh on the exploration moniker. Can’t exploration be cultural too? Lines may be drawn on maps, but their meaning and significance changes through time so just because someone’s been there doesn’t necessarily mean that we know a place. Marco Polo explored China 500 years ago, but there’s still useful knowledge to be generated from adventures/cultural explorations there today.

  6. Edward Morgan says:

    Very very funny. Although sadly it raises some serious issues about the future of Arctic expeditions.

    I was away on a BSES expedition at the time and so missed the media frenzy, but I totally get Ben’s concerns.

  7. Mark Kalch says:

    Holy f**k Ben! So stoked someone had the balls to write this! Faaarken brilliant mate! Hats off to you sir.

    Also agree with Fearghal that exploration can still take place in environments already mapped etc. but I know what you mean.

    Well done again! I hope this is seen and heard outside our little insular “professional” world.

  8. Sarah Outen says:

    The row should have just been called ‘The Jock Wishart Show’ I reckon. I winced reading those comments and many on the website/FB page which all relate to it being Jock’s dream la la la. The square jawed arrogance is not what expeditions should be about.

    Some great points in there Ben. Likewise, very uncomfortable with Jock’s description of it being ‘equal to the first crossing of the Atlantic.’ Not a patch on the historic rows, from where I am sitting – all very different.

    Kudos to the guys for achieving their goal and to Mark for his transparency and explanations nonetheless. It’s just a shame about the rest of it.

    Laters, I have some pedalling to do.

  9. Pete Webb says:

    I’m so glad you decided to write this rant. So many of us sit here, think it and do nothing. It was relief to read it and thanks for writing it.

  10. Clark Carter says:

    Love the rant. I’ve been wincing at this expedition since reading one of Jock’s press releases a few years ago. I tend to ignore this sort of obvious arrogance. It’s such a shame it affects the rest of us when we try to sell our adventures to prospective sponsors. Either way I think it’s a fantastic expedition. I take my hat off to all the blokes on board. It’s a shame Jock’s bull#hit takes the shine off the adventure. It’s warming to know Mark was conciously trying to explain the REAL facts.

  11. Jake Flamingo says:

    Hi. Some good points. Even though you’re hot under the coller it still reads that you’re being as fair as you can. Can i make one point? Rowing The Arctic was an alternative title set up by the BBC who were always worried by the Row To The Pole title. Most of your problems seem to be with RTTP and not with Mark’s BBC programme. Perhaps worth reflecting in the article title? Jake

    • ben says:

      Thanks Jake. The title is as it is because ‘Rowing the Arctic’ was misrepresented as something else. The ‘Rant in NP minor’ is a reference to an anti-establishment/anti-corporate-pleasuring comedy album ‘Rant in E minor’ by Bill Hicks, hence the references, and also because it is ‘a rant’ and the 1996 Magnetic NP is a ‘minor’ NP.

  12. Gowan Clews says:

    There are people I follow on Twitter, not because I agree with everything they say, but they say things that sometimes challenge my views. I may not modify my views as a result, but like hearing different viewpoints.

    I’ve added you to my Twitter Serpie list.

    The media and PR people constantly big up events, so much so that even comparatively minor achievements appear similar to the first moon walk. And there are so very many knockout competitions on TV; X Factor, various cook offs, etc etc. What happened to variety shows where you could watch acts that had honed their skills over many years, and the viewer could just sit back and marvel and enjoy?

    Great rant, thanks.

  13. Roger Harris says:

    In a similar vein, well-known herpetologist Bill Lamar wrote a guest post for our organization’s blog lamenting the decline of “proper” nature programs in favor of the macho depictions of “Man vs. Nature” in which muscular heroes battle with giant snakes or fish. http://savingspecies.org/2011/the-real-danger-of-reality-tv-wild-animal-shows/

    • ben says:

      Hi Roger, I’m certainly not a zoologist and know very little about tv, other than that I have one and watch too much sometimes, but if this is a reference to “Man vs Wild”, I agree, it’s easy to get drawn into because it’s so well put together for tv, but I, unsurprisingly, am not a fan either.

  14. Jon says:

    “You can only be an explorer if you are going somewhere that we have either never been to before, or, somewhere which has only ever been explored once or twice and you are furthering that exploration in some way… Shall we just accept the true ‘age of exploration’ is over and happily move on to bigger more challenging things!?”

    Erm, no. There’s plenty of “real exploration” still to be done in the deep ocean – e.g. http://www.thesearethevoyages.net – but it’s scientific exploration, using technology rather than requiring feats of human endurance. But, by your definition, there are still folks who can honestly wear the badge of “explorers” these days 🙂

    • ben says:

      True, a bit different though, but in keeping with ‘my definition’ (which counts for nothing) which does refer to a time of human endurance.

  15. Rivka Arieli says:

    THANK YOU for your rant!! I wish millions could/would read it. SOOOOOoooooo tired of self-congratulating/self-hyping/truth-bending-or-breaking/balloons of hot air.

    And THANK YOU for your exactness of expression and use of language. It is extremely refreshing.

  16. Andy Welch says:

    I second Fearghal’s comment

  17. James Bowthorpe says:

    well said.

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