On 9 May 2019, Russian citizen Fedor Konyukhov crossed the longitude of the Chilean Diego Ramirez Islands and became the first person in history to complete a solo voyage on a row boat across the Southern Ocean, from New Zealand to the Drake Passage in the “roaring forties” and “furious fifties” latitudes.
Starting from the New Zealand port of Dunedin on 6 December 2018, Fedor Konyukhov crossed the Southern Ocean and reached the Drake Passage in 154 days, covering a distance of 11,525 kilometres or 6,400 nautical miles.
On this expedition, Fedor Konyukhov set several world records that must be verified by the Ocean Rowing Society International in England and later also presented for registration in the Guinness Book of Records. Some of the records can already be announced: he was the oldest solo rower at 67 years old, he reached the Southernmost point on a rowing boat: 56’40 southern latitude, he spent the largest number of days in the Southern Ocean – 154 days in total (the previous record of 59 days belonged to a French rower); he covered the longest distance ever rowed in the “roaring forties” and “furious fifties” latitudes – 11,525 kilometres, he is the first and only person who was able to cross the Pacific Ocean in a rowboat in both directions (from east to west and from west to east).
Fedor Konyukhov has turned a new page in the history of successful passages across the Southern Ocean. Prior to Fedor’s successful crossing, there were five attempts with different starting points: Tasmania, New Zealand and even the Falkland Islands, all of which failed. Fedor was the first human to reach the finish line.
Meeting Fedor in the Drake Passage.
The final stage, the approach to the islands of Diego Ramirez, required a well-coordinated work of the rower and the meeting team. It was a critical moment that could decide the outcome of the entire project. Often, it is near the coast that emergency situations and even tragic events occur.
The coast team had been planning the meeting in the Drake Passage for several weeks and, based on the weather forecast, decided to leave the port of Ushuaia on 7 May aboard the expeditionary yacht “Australis” and sail towards Cape Horn. During that day, the yacht crossed the Drake Passage and reached the Southernmost Diego Ramirez Islands, located at 56’30 South latitude. This group of islands is the official boundary separating the South Pacific Ocean from the Drake Passage, as well as international from Chilean waters to the East. Sailors call these islands the harbingers of Cape Horn or the gateway to the Drake Passage.
According to our plan, Fedor Konyukhov should approach the islands from the south, with the aim of crossing this longitude before dark. The crossing of the finish line took place on 9 May 9 15:45 local time (+3 hours UTC) and marked the end of the historical oceanic crossing. The South Pacific was left astern.
The yacht “Australis” sailed ahead to cut across the rowboat’s course. The meeting took place 9 miles southeast of Diego Ramirez islands. We located the rowboat “AKROS” with the help of the AIS signal on the chart-plotter screen, then we noticed white smoke from a flare.
After establishing visual contact and exchanging greetings, we began working on taking the rowboat into tow. We literally had a 3-hour window of weather that would allow us to do so. On the third attempt, we managed to take Fedor’s boat into tow, deciding to tow it towards the leeward side of the Diego Ramirez islands in order to transfer Fedor via an inflatable boat to the “Australis” yacht. It was not possible to take Fedor aboard the steel yacht with a displacement of 50 tons from his rowboat immediately upon taking him in a tow. The high ocean swell did not permit this manoeuvre to be executed safely. We could shatter the rowboat, which is made of composite materials.
It took four hours of towing the rowboat “AKROS” with Fedor inside at a speed of 3 knots against the waves and the wind. Fedor kept in touch with us via radio. The blows of the waves were such that we were worried about his safety. Under normal conditions, the rowboat goes with the waves and wind, here we had to tow it against the waves and into a headwind with Konyukhov inside.
We approached the Diego Ramirez Islands at nine o’clock in the evening. It is late autumn in the Southern hemisphere, so it gets dark early. The wind intensified and became Northerly, meaning the bay no longer shielded us from the wind (the largest island –Bartolomeo Island could only shield us from Westerly wind), but we had no other option but to try to transfer Fedor in these conditions. According to the weather forecast, the conditions were set to deteriorate. In a couple of hours, a Northerly gale force wind of 45-50 knots would hit the Drake Passage. We tossed a rubber boat called the “Zodiac” into the water and moved towards the rowboat “AKROS”, holding the towing line by hand. Fedor was already waiting for us on the deck, holding a waterproof bag. There were documents in it, a video camera and diaries that Fedor Konyukhov kept in the ocean.
We took Fedor into the inflatable boat and returned to the yacht with the help of an outboard motor. It gives you an incredible feeling when at night, at 56 degrees South latitude, in stormy weather, you manoeuvre in an inflatable rubber boat with an outboard motor.
By 22:47, Fedor was on board the expedition yacht “Australis”. Mission accomplished.
Emotions are running very high. He had spent 154 days in the Southern Ocean, and a couple of minutes ago he was still in a frozen, in a damp boat amidst five-meter waves. And suddenly Fedor was aboard an expeditionary yacht surrounded by friends and family.
Everyone knew that we had a window of just a few hours for the meeting, towing and transfer and we succeeded!
Fedor meanwhile went down into his cabin on the yacht and we looked at him as at a person from another planet. None of us, including him, could believe that we had managed to wrest him from the powerful arms of the harsh Southern Ocean. The cruel Drake Passage slammed the gate shut, but Fedor was safely aboard.
We began a long journey through the Drake Passage in the direction of Ushuaia against gale force winds. We had a constant watch at the stern of the yacht to monitor the rowboat and check the towing lines. Fedor told us incredible stories of survival in the Southern Ocean and the whole crew on board, Russians, Australians and New Zealanders listened to these stories for hours on end. I am sure everyone who was on board the yacht will forever remember this night in the Drake Passage with Fedor on board.
It took us two days to get to Puerto Williams, a Chilean naval base located on the western side of the Beagle Channel, as we had to break through the oncoming storm. When we berthed at the base wharf, we were met by the whole base command, as well as by Chilean journalists. The arrival of the row boat ‘AKROS’ in Chile was duly registered, with its captain visiting the port and the customs, at the end of all procedures Fedor received a stamp in his passport – he arrived in Chile on 11 May 2019.
It grew dark as the customs formalities were took place. The team decided to spend the night in Puerto Williams (Chile) and make the final passage to the port of Ushuaia (Argentina) on the morning of May the 12th.
As a result, it took us three days to get from the Diego Ramirez group of islands, through the Drake Passage to the Beagle Channel and on to Ushuaia, our final destination, from where the “AKROS” rowboat will be sent to England to the Rannoch Adventure shipyard for service.
Fedor and our team arrived in Ushuaia in excellent and calm weather conditions, to a warm welcome organised by the Russian community, the honorary consul of Russia – Yuri Andruschak, the director of the Afasyn-Roxanna Diaz yacht club and by the city authorities. The owner of the shipyard Rannoch Adventure – Charlie Pitcher personally travelled from England to Ushuaia to greet Fedor and the rowboat “AKROS”, which his team spent a whole year building and equipping. Charlie Pitcher is known in the world of ocean rowers because in 2013 he set the record for a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean aboard a rowboat in just 35 days, beating the previous record belonging to Fedor Konyukhov (46 days). Therefore, he and Fedor are good and old friends.
Special words of gratitude are in order for the captain of our yacht – Ben Wallis, an Australian, and his first mate Katy Lucas. They could not wait for Fedor’s arrival and, referring to other projects and repairs, left the port of Ushuaia early. The “Australis” team, who completed their season in early April, stayed in the port for a month and waited for Fedor to arrive in order to go to the Southern Ocean to meet and tow him safely to harbor. Many thanks to the crew – only a specially prepared yacht like the “Australis” is capable of coping with this difficult task in such risky conditions.
Fedor Konyukhov will rest in Ushuaia for several days, while we wait for a container to take his boat to England. In the near future he will share his impressions about the final stage and in general about the entire expedition which he has just completed.
On behalf of the project organising committee, we thank everyone who watched, worried, prayed and helped our team in achieving the project. We’ve done it!
12 May 2019.
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