Russian rows from New Zealand to Cape Horn in 150 days

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Text and phtoos by Ignacio Palma
Translation by Brent Harlow
 
Puerto Williams – More than 150 days passed since Fedor Konyukhov left New Zealand. On December 6, 2018, he started across the Southern Ocean, alone in his boat, rowing until he eventually reached the waters of Cape Horn. And on a Saturday afternoon, on a calm Beagle Channel and under a resplendent sun, he was close to touching land again as he navigated toward Puerto Williams, a city located on Navarino Island, Chile.
 
With the blazing flag of his country, Russia, Konyukhov emerged from the boat’s deck, raised his right hand, and beamed as he saluted those of us looking on from the Muelle Naval Guardián Brito.
 
His orange boat, “Akros,” was being towed by the yacht “Australis,” a small vessel which has accompanied it ever since it entered national waters at the end of April last year. The circumnavigation of the cape located on the island of Hornos could not be completed due to poor weather conditions.
 
Nevertheless, on May 9 of last year, Fedor rowed through Drake’s Passage to the waters near the Diego Ramírez Islands, some 100 kilometers southeast of Cape Horn. There, finding himself at the exact longitude of the always coveted southern point (specifically, at 68.68 West), he decided to consider his feat accomplished.
 
With headwinds exceeding 80 kilometers per hour, the crew of the “Australis” pulled off a difficult maneuver with an inflatable boat suspended by a chord, in order to get Fedor onto the yacht and, after that, tow “Akros."
 
From the same zone of Diego Ramírez, the vessel was escorted by the General Service Patrol (PSG) of the Chilean Navy to “Isaza,” where Fedor completed his adventure of 7,200 kilometers, navigated alone using only a row boat, and began his voyage back to land through the interior seas of Chile, with one stop in Puerto Toro before stopping in Puerto Williams.
 
 
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Chile is a beautiful country”
“I can smell the land, the grass, the trees, because in the ocean, there are no smells!” this man joyfully exclaimed once in Puerto Williams. His face, which does not appear to be so weathered by the salt waters, is hidden between his long beard and his hair. Cropping out of both are some gray hairs that reflect a half century of multiple expeditions in his 67 years of life.
 
His sky-blue eyes like the glacial seas look as if they still retained the days and nights of silence in the middle of the ocean. Also the sun, the moon, the rain and the wind that would pursue him from all directions; the waves crashing against his boat until they came into his cubicle; the far-off and infinite horizon, sometimes flat, other times undulating too much for the human mind. And the whales, dolphins, and albatross which he contemplated on so many occasions, with emotion and in solitude.
 
But the storms are not forgotten either. He only had 50 days of relatively good weather conditions, and 100 with storms that included waves of up to 10 meters and wind gusts of 100 kilometers per hour. The boat overturned on him four times (in which he lost some of his solar panels, which were vital for the operation of his water desalinization machine). He lived through moments of cold and wet. But even so, he persevered and reached the goal.
 
At his disembarkation in Puerto Williams, Fedor communicated primarily in Russian— a language that I do not speak—, but the kindness, happiness, and satisfaction in his tone of voice can be made out by anyone, anywhere in the world. He smiled with humility after every account he gives, and his son Oscar— captain of the “Australis”— translated into English.
 
“Chile is a beautiful country, with very friendly people, with great hospitality and natural beauty. I have many friends here. Now, even more,” this thin man cheerfully said, in front of the Chilean and Russian cameras, after being received by the commander of the Distrito Naval Beagle and maritime governor of Port Williams, Captain César Miranda.
 
His opinion is reliable and based on experience. Years ago, and on three separate occasions, he went to the capital of the Antarctic Chilean Province, and five times he circumnavigated Cape Hope by yacht. Furthermore, between 2013 and 2014, he rowed alone across the Southern Pacific between Concón, Chile, and Brisbane, Australia. And in 2016, he broke the world record for flight around the world in a hot-air balloon, completing the trip in only 11 days. On that trip, which he took alone and without stops, he flew over Santiago and communicated via radio with the control tower, sighting Concón from afar.
 
This is just to mention his links with Chile, among his countless trips around the world. Among them, highlights include being the first Russian to reach the “Seven Peaks”— conquering the tallest mountain of each continent, including Everest on two occasions. He has explored the extremes of the South Pole and the North Pole three times; the Pole of Inaccessibility of the Arctic Ocean; crossed the Atlantic Ocean 15 times, fourteen times by yacht and once by row boat; and circumnavigated the globe by yacht via Cape Hope 4 times.
 
 
 
 
The faith of Fedor
But what has driven this ex-marine to carry out more than 40 expeditions that are unlike any others in history, making world records along the way? When he invites a colleague and me to his boat, I come to understand little by little.
 
While he dries his boat with a sponge, Fedor explains and his son translates instantaneously. “I do it to encourage people to travel, and to promote friendship between countries. For example, I have now arrived to Chile in a Russian boat, and I met the Chilean people. I have a support crew from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and England. The boat was made in England; the trip began in New Zealand. It is like a global corporation,” he explains.
 
“All countries are welcome. We are friends and we do fantastic endeavors together. That is how human beings ought to cooperate. I do these endeavors not only for Russia, but for all human beings, for all people, to inspire new generations,” he adds.
 
But like the uncharted ocean abysses over which he has rowed, all of his adventures have something more profound in them. As much as he enjoys surpassing human limits, he affirms emphatically and without reservation, “Only with the help of God can you cross the Antarctic Ocean in this boat.”
 
His words are not simply nonsense. In his boat two crucifixes of Jesus can be seen. One is installed over the door to his cabin. When he rows, his eyes see that religious object, closer to him than all of the horizon. The other one is at the opposite extreme, or to his back while he is navigating. Both have been with him for the entire journey, through calm waters and through storms, in these southern seas. “The boat should be well-prepared, you should have experience, but nothing would have been possible without the help of God,” he contends.
 
Suddenly, he takes out a book of prayers that he recited daily in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. Today, he makes no exception when it comes to dedicating time to his faith. He takes out the marine’s beret that has come with him on all of his adventures since 1997, crosses himself twice, and reads a prayer in Russian with a calm voice. He ends with an amen, a universal word understood in many languages.
 
His conviction in faith has been as strong or stronger than all of the expeditions he has done in his life. In 2010 he was ordained a priest by the Russian Orthodox Church, an office which has led to his performing liturgies at the Saint Nicholas of Myra church in Moscow. Only a few meters from the temple, he keeps his art studio where he creates orthodox Christian paintings, and also depicts the landscapes and fauna from his expeditions. He has put up various expositions in Russian museums, and he has also published 17 books with his stories. 
 
On different occasions, he has declared that he dreams of a parish for adventurers, as he would like to serve those souls in search of something more in their extreme activities. He has been unequivocal in declaring that this “something more” is God. In one of his navigations to Cape Horn, he donated a cross to the Stella Maris chapel, located next to the Alcaldía de Mar on the island of the same name.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Dream big
The sun sets and Fedor continues tidying up his nine-meter boat. He and his team are planning to eat at some restaurant in the southern-most city in the world. It will be his first time doing so after so much time spent eating his meals on the undulating sea. Before we say goodbye, he kindly gives us a packet of the dehydrated food that he ate so many times over the course of his expedition. He takes his leave after giving us a fraternal hug.
 
According to the itinerary, Fedor will leave Puerto Williams and he will continue on to Ushuaia, Argentina, alongside his crew in the “Australis” and thus conclude the first leg of this journey. The second is already plotted: with the same row boat, he plans to navigate from Puerto Williams eastward through the southern seas, once again, until he reaches his destination in Port Leeuwin, Australia.
 
The third and final leg will be the navigation, by row boat, which he plans to take from said Australian locale to Dunedin, the city in New Zealand where it all began. In this way, if he is able to complete the 27,000 total kilometers of passage, he will become the first person to travel around the world in a row boat in the Antarctic Ocean. “We will definitely see each other again in another couple of years,” he assures the inhabitants of Puerto Williams, and then gives them a smile. But beyond the statistics, he has declared that his principle objective is not to get that world record. “I just like being in my row boat, navigating the Antarctic Ocean,” he says.
 
And the adventures do not end. While the boat is being repaired in England, this man— born in Kiev, Ukraine (which then belonged to the Soviet Union) and raised in Saint Petersburg, Russia— plans to realize another milestone in his career: he will fly a hot-air balloon from the Australian desert into the stratosphere, which is to say, to a height of 25 kilometers.
 
“Dream big,” says his son Oscar. In this way, he sums up a great part of his father’s soul.
 
 
 

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