Karlis Bardelis: First Person to Row from South America to Asia

Karlis Bardelis arrives in Malaysia. Photo: Bored of Borders

At the end of June, Karlis Bardelis, 34, became the first person to row from South America to Asia. The Latvian left La Punta, Peru in July, 2018 and reached Pontian, Malaysia, one year and 11 months later — 715 days, to be precise.

He stopped at seven islands and contended with sharks, gales and some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. In all, he rowed over 26,000km. The mammoth solo row is just one leg of his plan to circumnavigate the entire world using only human power. His challenge is now on pause due to the travel restrictions currently in place.

ExplorersWeb spoke to him about his record-breaking row and his ongoing circumnavigation.

Why did you pick this specific route from Lima to Malaysia?

In the beginning, the plan was actually to row to Australia, but then I thought, what am going to do then? Likely, I would need to row to Asia. I’ve had to keep costs to a minimum so I thought it was more efficient to row straight to Asia. Then it turned out that no one had rowed that route before, which made the story more exciting. There have been quite a few rows from North America or South America to Australia or to Papua New Guinea, but not further. I never really considered why. I was a little naive: I looked on the map and thought; “Oh it’s blue, there’s water there, so I can row there.” Some of it was very difficult.

Bardelis’ route from Peru to Malaysia. Image: Karlis Bardelis

This row was just one leg of your world circumnavigation. What other legs have you done so far?

The circumnavigation started in Namibia in 2016. A friend and I rowed across the South Atlantic Ocean to Brazil. I then restarted from the same place in 2018 with another friend (actually, my girlfriend) on a tandem bicycle. It took 102 days to pedal the 5,400km to Lima. When we got to Lima, my girlfriend realized that she didn’t want this to be her life, and she wanted to go back home to study. So in 2018, I started the solo row from Lima. It was emotional, because she was supposed to be doing it with me. At the same time, I just wanted to let go of everything and start that journey.

I plan to restart again in Malaysia, but right now with the COVID situation, it’s difficult to plan precisely what I will do. I don’t know whether I’m going to cycle through Asia or Africa, or if I’m going to row across the Indian Ocean. I’m open to all options at the moment. But the circumnavigation will finish in Namibia.

Have you always been adventurous? Is it something that runs in your family?

We were always active, but I wouldn’t say that we were crazy adventurous. When I was a kid, my parents would take us out in the wild, in forests and on some rivers, and that kind of showed me the way in my early years. When I was 16 years old, my parents started taking us to the Alps for skiing and snowboarding, and I asked my mum why they were spending so much on this. Her reply was, “I believe that when you grow up, you will have friends who enjoy mountains and you will go skiing or snowboarding together.”

Of course, my mother didn’t think that it would take me this far in adventure, but that is where it all started. After snowboarding, I began climbing mountains, in the Alps, in Russia, in Norway. Step by step, I got more and more into this adventure world. I also read books about it, and thought about how I could do it full time.

The circumnavigaion so far, beginning from Namibia in 2016. Image: Karlis Bardelis

Was there any particular book or person who inspired you to make adventure your full-time job?

In 2010, I went to an event that the British Mountaineering Council organized in the Scottish mountains, and I met Nick Bullock. He gave a presentation and I was so struck by his story. Later that year, when his book, Echoes: One Climber’s Hard Road to Freedom, came out, I deliberately read it really, really slowly, because I already knew what decision I was going to make by the end of this book: That I would quit my stable job, where I had been for six years, at a recycling company — the biggest in the Baltic States — and I would try to find my way as a full-time adventurer.

That was seven years ago. I am still alive, I have something to eat, I am not living under the bridge, I have so many adventures already in the bag and I’m looking forward to doing more and more. Of course, it wasn’t easy in terms of finances, but somehow I have managed.

Now that you’ve raised the matter, everyone wants to know: How do you finance expeditions like this, and be a full-time adventurer?

My approach to the fundraising is first, to approach companies and ask for the products and services they provide or sell. It’s much easier to get than asking for money. Next, I never ask for lots of money. I don’t have one or two sponsors, I have maybe 40 companies who have contributed. Sometimes it might just be 500 euros.

This also means that I don’t have such a responsibility to one or two companies. I am still promoting them but they are not pushing me to do big media things. With each project, it’s getting easier to raise the funds, because I now have a track record with expeditions.

Karlis Bardelis rows in his boat, Linda. Photo Bored of Borders

How much does it take to fund an expedition, such as the row from Peru to Malaysia?

I don’t know precisely because on top of contributions, I put all of my own savings into the expeditions. I don’t count how much that is. I know that the biggest cost so far has been about 15,000 euros, which was to put the boat on the sea container in Brazil and ship it to Peru. Which was insane, such a huge amount of money.

I try to do everything as cheaply as possible. For example, anyone who knows the price of ocean-rowing boats and sees my boat will recognize that it is the oldest and the cheapest model possible. It is a plywood boat built in 2007, and it had already done three North Atlantic crossings before I bought it. But you know, whether you have an old-style wooden boat or a new carbon fibre one, you do the same job, by rowing. The same for the satellite communication: Other ocean rowers are able to send videos or talk to their families. I have prepaid card, the least expensive possible. I can just exchange the odd text message.

What about safety equipment? What was your plan if something went wrong?

Besides the satellite phone, I had a device which tracked my course across the ocean every four hours. That was mainly for my mother to follow. The security and safety equipment met the level required by the Coast Guard in Peru: life raft, flares, smoke signal and of course the AIS — the automatic identification system, which sends signals to other boats, so that they are able to see my location.

I also had a radio so that I could talk with the surrounding ships. Sometimes they passed really, really close, so the radio was crucial. The Malacca and Singapore Straits are a busy highway of tankers and big container ships. After I went through them, one the world’s most experienced ocean rowers, Erden Eruç, [an ExWeb ambassador] even commented on my page, “You took the boat where…I would never go.”

Rowing through those big shipping lanes must have been scary.

The staff that work on the big tanker and container ships are skilled professionals. They follow their instruments, check their radars, listen on the radio and can speak English. I didn’t have any trouble with them; they were always friendly and let pass, because they know that non-motorized transport has the right of way in marine traffic.

Sometimes, of course, that communication had to be done really quickly and efficiently. But there were some very different situations with smaller ships. Near Kiribati, there was a tuna fishing vessel, and even though I told them to keep their distance many, many times, they still came closer. They could hear me on the radio, so I assured them that I was fine and had all the equipment and medicine I needed for survival, because sometimes the captains just want to be sure that you are safe. But they were just curious to see me as close as possible. They didn’t realize how big and dangerous their boat was to me. They were only one to two metres away when they passed. It was just mind-blowing!

Another time, in the Indonesian archipelago, some of the local vessels transporting coal didn’t switch on their AIS or their radio. And even those that did switch it on were not able to speak English. I had to try and speak to them in Indonesian. There were some crazy encounters.

Karlis Bardelis. Photo: Bored of Borders

When did you learn to speak Indonesian?

When I was waiting for the monsoon season to change, last November, I was stopped in Sangihe Island, in North Indonesia. I was still hoping to reach Vietnam last year and be home by Christmas. I was kind of disappointed, because I had put such high expectations on that, but the weather changed: Half the year, the wind blows from the east, and the other half the year, it blows from the west. I was in the middle of those seasons, so I had to wait. I stopped on November 5 and restarted on February 29. In those four months, I learned the basic words regarding food and travel. They were such friendly people, by the time I left the island I had a family there, I had friends there.

You had a few other stops on your row. Were they all planned?

I had planned my route, of course, but since I’ve been home, I’ve tried to count the changes that I made in those two years — it was something like 20 in all. In all, I stopped on eight islands.

The first part of the row was the longest: 140 days from Lima to French Polynesia. I didn’t see many ships during that part, so if someone wants to be in a quiet place, I recommend that! But yes, eight islands: French Polynesia, then Tuvalu, which is like a piece of spaghetti thrown it into the ocean. (To be honest, I have no idea how I managed to catch that island; it was a real challenge.) After that, I stopped in Nendö (Salomon Islands), Mandang (Papua New Guniea), Morotai (Indonesia), Sangihe (Indonesia) and Kawasari (Sulawesi, Indonesia).

I stopped either because of the weather or to resupply. I had to take into account typhoon or cyclone seasons, and of course, monsoon season: As a solo rower, when I sleep, I fix my rudder and just drift during the night. If there is a headwind, it would it would blow me backwards. Of course, there were some points when I drifted back 100km.

Did you have a general pattern for rowing and sleeping?

On average, I rowed for 12 to 13 hours a day. Approaching islands, I rowed longer. I guess the longest stretch was around 40 hours without sleep. I had no choice because otherwise I would have missed the little spaghetti island (Tuvalu), and the next one might have been a month away. So there, I rowed for many, many hours and had to enter the lagoon off Tuvalo. When I approached the entrance, the tide was going out, and the water and the current was pushing me backwards, but I squeezed all the energy I still had in me and managed to get inside. There, I was still being pushed out, but I managed to grab a buoy put there for local fishermen and tied myself to it. Honestly, when I got hold of that buoy, it was like I was holding my loved ones.

Was that the hardest part of your row?

I would say, and think other ocean rowers would agree, that approaching any island is a difficult task. There is really limited maneuvering, because the tides are either pushing you or pulling you. Rowing along the Sulawesi coast, for example, was really challenging because the tides and currents were against me all the time. I had to anchor every evening, and sometimes in the morning, the anchor got stuck and I had to dive in to get it. Once, it was 10m down, and the rope was tangled around coral. I had some problems afterwards with my ears.

Another hard section was when I got close to Malaysia. There were strong tides and a 37- or 38-knot wind. So much force pushing the boat! I anchored overnight, but during the night, the tide changed, so its direction was now the same as the wind. The waves were rocking the boat all over the place.

Then after three hours, my anchor alarm sounded, and I started to drift uncontrollably. I pulled up the rope, but the anchor wasn’t there, just the metal pole. The anchor part that held the boat to the bottom had broken off. I was in shock, that the currents had been strong enough to break a metal anchor.

I needed to figure out something quickly, because otherwise the wind would push me onto the rocks. I had my old water maker, which weight about 13 kilos, and I tied it on the end of my rope, ready to throw it overboard if necessary. Luckily, at that point the wind dropped, and the tides started to change. After that, I used my spare batteries as an anchor for two weeks. You need to solve problems all the time.

The makeshift anchor. Photo: Bored or Borders

You also an issue with sharks once. What happened there?

My boat doesn’t have an engine, and I think that’s why they were not afraid to come near me. One day, near Papua New Guinea, they came really close to the boat and even swam into it. The kick from their tails was shockingly strong. It felt like they were trying to somehow flip the boat. They were quite aggressive. In that moment, I reached a new level of being scared. I thought to myself: I only have six millimetres of marine plywood separating me from those sharks. The sharks, the night when the anchor broke and the tuna fishing vessel coming so close were definitely my three scariest moments.

How did you cope with all that, totally on your own?

I guess when you don’t have anyone with you, you don’t have anyone to blame. The only one who is responsible is you. If you are with someone, your partner can freak out or lose their temper or something, and you need to cope with their problems. But on your own there are only your problems, your mind.

In general, I’m quite positive, all the people who take part in these kind of endeavors say that it’s 80 per cent mental and only 20 per cent physical. So if you already have that 80 per cent in the bag, you are quite lucky. I still had my low moments and stressful times, but I’m also always asking myself the question, “How does this help?” And of course, it doesn’t help to be stressed or angry with yourself, so I tried not to spend too much time in those low moments or those angry situations.

You’ve been away from your family and friends for over two years. is it surreal being back at home?

To be honest, it’s like I was watching one movie, and now I’m watching a completely different movie. It’s like I’ve suddenly switched channels because to fly from Malaysia back to Latvia took me about 30 hours. It’s too fast to adapt. If I had come back gradually by bicycle or horse or something, I guess then I could have connected those two movies together more smoothly. But I was in the boat, and then the next day I was on the airplane, and now I’m in my mother’s garden enjoying the beautiful, sunny summer here in Latvia, and my mother is doing her best to fatten me up!

Photo: Bored of Borders

You can follow Karlis Bardelis’s circumnavigation and other adventures on his website.

About the Author

Rebecca McPhee

Aspiring sports and travel journalist based in the UK.

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1 Comment on "Karlis Bardelis: First Person to Row from South America to Asia"

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Dave @ Accidental FIRE
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Wow, ballsy adventure. This is legit.