How Should We Classify River and Ocean Expeditions?

Photo: Ocean Rowing Society

High-altitude mountaineers argue about what is a summit, polar explorers about what is unsupported. But river and ocean expeditions may be the most controversial of all.

In March, polar guide Eric Philips and other senior members of the polar community launched the Polar Expeditions Classification Scheme (PECS). In response to exaggerated or erroneous claims, PECS is designed to standardize definition and language use in polar adventure. 

However, as our articles on exploration hoaxes have shown, it’s not only the polar regions that see deception, exaggeration, or definition confusion. So what other adventure disciplines could do with modern classification systems? This article will examine river and ocean expeditions: paddling, rowing, even trekking, in the case of rivers.

Before we begin, it’s important to note that ExplorersWeb has some history with what I’ll call “adventure refereeing.” Two ownership groups ago, we launched AdventureStats, an attempt to create a database and ruleset for everything from mountaineering to ocean rowing. While an admirable goal, the project never took off and, seemingly, did not collect enough stakeholders from each discipline to protect against allegations of favoritism. This article does not seek to establish a set of rules, but rather to explore existing definitions, disputes, and barriers to classification schemes for rivers and oceans.

Ocean Expeditions: Getting Better

Of the two broad disciplines, ocean expeditions are more common. Ocean rowing and related disciplines have another major advantage over river expeditions: There is a long-established racing scene. Racing requires clear definitions and classification systems and naturally lends itself to detailed record keeping. The Ocean Rowing Society International (ORSi) has been adjudicating human-powered open-water expeditions since 1983. However, vessel classifications are still relatively new.

Charlie Pitcher’s boat. Photo: ORSi

In 2010, Charlie Pitcher entered the Woodvale Trans-Atlantic rowing race in a very different boat. His boat had no aft cabin and an oversized bow cabin that could catch the wind. Outpacing pairs and trios, he promptly won the event. Ocean rowing record holder Fiann Paul compares it to “putting a Formula 1 car into a Formula 3 race.”

Sarah Outen in a Classic Class Boat.

Pitcher’s success forced the sport to make changes. Newly designed Open Class boats were simply too efficient to compete with Classic Class boats, “especially on Trade Winds routes, where human propulsion is far from the exclusive contribution,” explains Paul.

With the introduction of sliding riggers that significantly outperformed standard sliding seat boats, a similar situation had occurred in Olympic rowing. A sliding rigger keeps the rower’s seated position fixed, which streamlines the propulsion and aqua-dynamics of the boat by eliminating changes in the boat’s water profile caused by a rower sliding toward either end of the boat. Ultimately, the Olympic Rowing Federation (FISA) prohibited its use.

ORSi took a different route and introduced a two-tier classification, with Open and Classic Class speed records. As with the Colin O’Brady polar fiasco, this can confuse those outside the sport and is the subject of debate within the community. Can you have an overall speed record if the boat classification makes such a massive difference? When does a cabin stop being just a cabin and classify as a sail?

ORSi has been busy updating its records to place each expedition in the proper context. Recently, they launched a brand new database covering the major modes of human-powered ocean exploration, including kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and hydrocycles. The database is a massive step forward, with over 1,000 expeditions and an integrated map showing start and endpoints.

The next step will be a set of clear definitions for boat classes, circumnavigations, crossings, and anything else that can be used to compare one expedition to another. The updated database has helped to crystallize many of these terms, but they will still need to be debated and finalized.

Downstream, the mighty Amazon River is unmistakable. But where exactly does it begin? Photo: Wigi Photography/Shutterstock

River Expeditions: Still a Wild West

In comparison, river expedition record-keeping remains the Wild West, and the frontier of controversy has been the Amazon. The source of the Amazon problem is just that, the source. The river’s source has frustrated adventurers, geographers, and hydrologists for at least 70 years. At first, the challenge came from the impenetrability of the Amazon and the many tributaries that run out of the Andes. Now, the difficulty is defining the term “river’s source.”

A map showing the major tributaries at the head of the Amazon. Photo: Area, Volume 46, March 2014

The two most common definitions can give you very different sources. There is the perennial definition, which cites the source as the most distant, continually running point from the river’s mouth. Then there is the ephemeral definition, which is simply the furthest point from which water could flow. The river’s length ranges between 6,510km and 7,088km, depending on the source and the season.

Until well into the 19th century, based largely on the river’s volume, the Marañón tributary was usually considered the source of the Amazon. In the latter half of the 19th century, the focus gradually shifted to the longer Ucayali river. By the 1950s, aerial photography allowed researchers to take a fresh look at the problem. Once again the consensus shifted, this time toward a collection of small streams at the headwaters of the Apurimac River.

Apurimac River near Cuzco, Peru. Is this the source of the Amazon, or is there another feeder river beyond it? Photo: Daniel Prudek/Shutterstock

In 1984-85, Piotr Chmielinski and Joe Kane became the first to travel the length of the river under human power, starting from what Chmielinski regarded (and still regards) as the river’s true source on Mount Mismi, at the headwaters of the Apurimac.

Chmielinski has been hooked on the Amazon ever since. Journalist Jeff Moag christened him the Godfather of Amazon paddling and he has had a hand in many major expeditions, from National Geographic trips to find the river’s source, to advisory roles for those looking to trek or paddle the river’s length. Chmielinski’s influence is far-reaching, but in the small river expedition community, not everyone agrees with his assertion that the source of the Amazon has been settled.

In 2012, kayaker James “Rocky” Contos used computer modeling to propose a new source. He believed that the meandering Mantaro River might add an extra 70km to the Amazon’s length. A series of expeditions followed, with Chmielinski prominently involved, but these did not result in a consensus. For Chmielinksi, the “source of the Amazon remains unchanged, [it is] the Apurimac river flowing from Lake Ticlla Cocha.”

Meanwhile, Contos concludes that the source is located at the start of the Mantaro River, beginning from the Cordillera Rumi Cruz. Their different conclusions are based on a fundamental difference: what defines a source. Contos’s source is ephemeral, it runs dry part of the year due to dams on the river, while Chmielinski’s is constant.

A close-up of the Mantaro and Apurimac rivers. Photo: Area, Volume 46, March 2014

Kayaker West Hansen argues that, just like defining the elevation of a mountain, you need to agree on a universal set of criteria. Rivers have no set definition worldwide and this makes comparisons almost impossible. He argues that Chmielinski’s definition, that you need continually flowing water, would change nearly every major river in the world: “The Rio Grande has a long stretch where it doesn’t flow, does this break the river into two? What about frozen rivers like the Volga?”

Using the same reasoning, he disagrees with Chmielinski that human interference (dams and man-made lakes), should influence what is considered a river’s source. He argues that practically every major river in the world is dammed, and thus the continually flowing definition would result in short, broken “rivers” that are subject to change with each new hydroelectric construction. Ultimately, West agrees with Contos, that despite the dam and seasonal changes, the Mantaro is the source of the Amazon.

West proposes that Contos’s definition of the most distant source, “the most distant upstream point in the drainage along the natural course of the river or its tributaries from which a drop of rain will make its way to the river’s mouth,” would be universally applicable to other rivers.

Contos’s final report, in which he determined the most distant source at the head of a feeder stream into Lago Punrun on the Mantaro, came too late for West’s kayak expedition down the Amazon in 2012. West is therefore extremely careful to claim only the “farthest paddled journey down the Amazon River”, acknowledging that someone who makes a run from Contos’s source (approximately another seven kilometres beyond West’s starting point) could claim to have completed the Amazon from its most distant source.

Other River Problems

Whichever side of the debate you land on, defining a river’s source is just the first problem to overcome if you were designing a PECS-like set of rules for river expeditions. Chmielinski says that a precise endpoint at the mouth of the Amazon is also tricky to locate because the river is so wide and dotted with islands. Seasonal changes can massively change a river’s length and difficulty too. Flooding removes meandering sections, and stronger flow creates areas of whitewater that may require large sections to be portaged.

For example, kayaker Mark Kalch, who aims to paddle the longest river on each continent, had to portage the entire 60km of the Acobamba abyss section of the Apurimac, as he deemed it too dangerous to paddle. To his credit, Culch was transparent about the detour, but might a formal set of rules have disqualified him from claiming to have “paddled the Amazon”?

Trekking the length of a river, you encounter similar problems. Sticking exactly to a river’s banks is (perhaps) impossible, but how closely would you need to stick to a river’s twists and turns for it to qualify as following the river from source to sea? Both instances would likely require a degree of flexibility; rules might define a reasonable detour or portage distance.

The terms “unsupported” and “solo” would also be very difficult to define. Chmielinski believes that to go solo and unassisted from source to sea using the polar definitions — carrying all your supplies and not interacting with other humans — is impossible. West agrees, pointing to Mike Horn’s claim of a solo, unassisted descent of the Amazon as an example. It’s an incredible expedition, but chunks of it were filmed for a documentary, and the journey requires constant interaction with those living along the river, for food and information.

Mike Horn on the Amazon, 1997. Photo: Mike Horn

West believes the onus should fall on the person making a specific claim. If you are claiming an unsupported journey, you need to demonstrate why it qualifies. This might involve proving that you have not used a support team. For example, you carry the food and supplies, although you could mail resupplies to yourself along the route. Alternatively, you might argue that you can go buy supplies but can’t have someone deliver them to you. Instead, you must hike to and from the river to resupply yourself.

So far, most river expeditions have not concerned themselves with speed. But future claimants of speed records would require categorizing means of travel too. As in ocean rowing, the type of craft you use makes a huge difference.

Dubious Claims

The difficulty in setting definitions and continued debate around the Amazon’s source has led to some dubious claims. In 2015, Polish adventurer Marcin Gienieczko briefly claimed a major Guinness World Record: the longest solo paddling journey. But Gienieczko hired a guide, Sanchez Rivera, and even chartered a motorboat to speed through around 50km of whitewater that looked too difficult to paddle. For other sections of the journey, they were escorted by the Peruvian navy.

A guide and a heavily armed support boat is not what most people imagine when they see the word “solo”, but Guinness nevertheless certified the journey, based on the fact he was the only one paddling. Unfortunately, as Jeff Moag points out in his excellent exposé, this wasn’t true either. In a sworn statement, Sanchez Rivera claims that he helped paddle for long stretches “because he [Gienieczko] was tired and ordered me to do so as his guide.”

In 2007, Martin Strel, a Slovenian long-distance swimmer, claimed to have swum 5,268km down the Amazon in 66 days. Again, his achievement was recognized by Guinness, but did they do any due diligence? The numbers look fishy. His figures would require Olympic-level speed for over two months while swimming 10 or more hours per day. For reference, most Amazon kayak expeditions take around three months to complete. Strel’s feat would be superhuman.

Martin Strel on the Amazon. Photo: Martin Strel

Clearly, some guidelines and adjudication for river and ocean expeditions would be useful. PECS is not perfect but it convincingly lays out a well-researched set of rules and definitions for polar travel. Could the same be done for rivers and oceans? There are certainly major hurdles to be cleared. Eric Philips sees similar problems to those the PECS team faced, but also some major differences, particularly with river expeditions: “One advantage we had is that, aside from small shifts in the grounding lines of ice shelves, the polar regions are geographically pretty solidly defined.”

The Ocean Rowing Society has taken a big step towards a similar set of rules by compiling a comprehensive database of ocean expeditions. They have already set their sights on the next challenge, compiling a set of new guidelines. Fiann Paul explained that the foundations have been laid, but difficulties remain: “The biggest problem with guidelines is with preceding cases. It is difficult to change a rule applied [universally] for many years, but sometimes it is the only way to keep things working.”

For the paddling community, it feels like the debate is still stuck at the source.

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About the Author

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh is a freelance writer and wildlife photographer based in Da Lat, Vietnam.

A history graduate from the University of Nottingham, Martin's career arc is something of a smörgåsbord. A largely unsuccessful basketball coach in Zimbabwe and the Indian Himalaya, a reluctant business lobbyist in London, and an interior design project manager in Saigon.

He has been fortunate enough to see some of the world. Highlights include tracking tigers on foot in Nepal, white-water rafting the Nile, bumbling his way from London to Istanbul on a bicycle, feeding wild hyenas with his face in Ethiopia, and accidentally interviewing Hezbollah in Lebanon.

His areas of expertise include adventure travel, hiking, wildlife, and half-forgotten early 2000s indie-rock bands.

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West Hansen
22 days ago

Well written, Martin. Thanks for the coverage. I’m open to any group, organizations or individuals who want to cooperate to develop a set of universal definitions for the source of all rivers and the mouth of all rivers and for the definitions for river expeditions involving paddling or rowing. Please feel free to contact me.

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damiengildea
Editor
22 days ago

Very interesting thanks Martin – and well-written, with good context, to convey these arcane and complex issues.

A 60km portage in a paddling record seems ridiculous!

In that vein, what’s next? OK, how about people who claim to have skied a mountain when they rappelled significant sections, or only skied off the top then walked and/or rappelled much of the rest?

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West Hansen
22 days ago
Reply to  damiengildea

There are several more who have claimed to paddle, row, swim, etc… the entire Amazon that did not come close to doing so – even admitting to starting at towns over 1000 miles from the source. Some of these people, like Helen Skelton and Mark de Rond/Anton Wright, sought and received a good bit of acclaim from the media and the Royal Geographic Society, as well as the farcicle Guinness folks for their dubious claims.

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damiengildea
Editor
22 days ago
Reply to  West Hansen

Skelton has form in Antarctica too. Was considered bit of a joke. Kick to kerb…

Guinness has vowed to improve scrutiny and recording of polar records, so hopefully this revision will spread over to ocean and river records.

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Ash Routen
Editor
22 days ago
Reply to  damiengildea

I hadn’t realised that Helen Skelton laid claim to being a serious adventurer. She’s just a well known TV presenter in the UK. Assumed the SP trip was just a stunt for telly. Has no profile as an adventurer here.

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West Hansen
21 days ago
Reply to  Ash Routen

She made a claim with Guinness for 1) farthest distance paddled by a woman in 24 hours. It was 75 miles, which a lot of women racers I know refer to as “a training run”. Many 100 mile races they finish in 15 hours. The records were public and well-known. I brought this to the attention of Helen and Guinness at the time and was rebuffed. 2) She made the claim of being the first woman to paddle the Amazon River, after beginning in Pucallpa – a bit over 1000 miles from any of the sources, then finishing several hundred… Read more »

Mark K.
Mark K.
22 days ago
Reply to  damiengildea

G’day Damien, thanks for your polite input mate. Cannot recall any record Nath and I claimed on our little paddle holiday*. *Definitely what all these mountain, polar, ocean, desert and river escapades are. Jaunts by rich whiteys. Nothing more. A record would be first, highest, fastest, furtherest etc no? Definitely we didn’t do that. Source to sea of the Amazon? Yeh I will still claim it. We portaged the Acombamba Abyss with input from Piotr. It made sense from a stay alive perspective for our small team. Unlike many of all the other source to seas of the Amazon (eg.… Read more »

Mark K.
Mark K.
22 days ago
Reply to  Mark K.

NB. My “mountains easy” was in reference to your American Alpine Journal 8000-er article mate. 😁

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damiengildea
Editor
22 days ago
Reply to  Mark K.

Hi Mark, apologies, my bad – not claiming a ‘record’, but making a claim.

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West Hansen
22 days ago
Reply to  damiengildea

That said, I do believe Mark and company hold the long distance rowing record for the Amazon, though this too needs to be quantified and described. Mark et al did a good job describing their Amazon expedition without laying claims, which is what everyone should do before we have a set of criteria such as mountaineers and polar explorers have done. To go full O’Brady is what we all should strive to avoid.

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Mark K.
Mark K.
22 days ago
Reply to  damiengildea

No worries, cheers mate. So just to clarify, our “claim” of an Amazon River source to sea descent is ridiculous? 🤔

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West Hansen
21 days ago
Reply to  Mark K.

Not for me.

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Mark Kalch
Mark Kalch
19 days ago
Reply to  West Hansen

Thanks West. Means a lot. As you probably know this whole scene I have long removed myself from or perhaps just now grumble from the sidelines. The Amazon still captures me, hence popping up here. I am unlikely to get deeply involved with standards etc on source to sea river descents going forth. I just paddle. It is not really records, a sport or competition for me. Too slow. 🙂 For those who remain interested, then application of standards, as in polar or mountain, helps keep the unfavourable folk out. Awesome! Something I spent a decade striving for in one… Read more »

West Hansen
19 days ago
Reply to  Mark Kalch

I agree, Mark. Source, mouth, route, support, non-support, craft and portages ONLY comes into the question when comparisons are made – either between rivers/routes or between efforts/teams. Same as with mountain-climbing or some other endeavor where a claim is set aside as somehow unique from other similar claims. As I mentioned before, the source of the Amazon is not important – unless a comparison is made with another river or comparisons are made between expeditions. Then, it is very, very important to use the same criteria/variables.

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Piotr Chmielinski
Piotr Chmielinski
19 days ago
Reply to  Mark K.

Mark, you did it – nobody will take this from you. Only small raft and no support from kayaks – that is almost impossible – but you DID IT!!. I know it was very difficult on the white water sections and not easy on the flat water either. Rest of us used fast sea kayaks and you did in the raft only ALL THE WAY. You had to have patience to complete. Congratulations to you and Nathan Welch and additionally to Colin Angus, Scott Brothwick and Ben Kozel who did the Amazon using only rafts.

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West Hansen
21 days ago
Reply to  damiengildea

Other well-known Amazon River source-to-sea paddlers portaged 60 miles and still adhere to the claim that they paddled the entire Amazon River, so there’s a precedent set before Mark’s portage. My point in mentioning this is to bolster the point of this article: there is no consensus or universally applicable standards for “source”, “route” and “mouth”. There are some standards in river racing with regards to valid portages, but these may not adhere to expeditions.

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Piotr Chmielinski
Piotr Chmielinski
22 days ago

Martin, excellent article! Good discussion and probably only the beginning of establishing some definitions that majority can agree on in the future. It would be useful to clarify a location of the source, length, and the end of the Amazon River as well as of other rivers. However, I know, it is not easy and it will be discussed for a long time. The main issue related to establishing the source of the Amazon is to understand the effect of the uniqueness of the Tablachaca Dam on the Mantaro River. This is not a “normal dam” where the river spills… Read more »

West Hansen
22 days ago

1) The pythom.com content was provided by one person, which calls into question the subjectivity of the content. If input was provided by anyone other than that one person, please list those people. At the time, I was told by the administrator that a group of experienced river explorers came up with the criteria, but they refused to provide the names. Knowing most long distance river explorers personally, I was unable to find anyone involved, other than Piotr. 2) Also, with regards to Jane Lee’s Nat Geo article: she only interviewed Piotr and his friend, Mr. Valdes, though Rocky Contos… Read more »

Louis-Philippe Loncke
22 days ago

Guys, register to the newsletter of http://www.Expedb.com
For each expedition describes there will be a comment section where to describe the details that often cannot be added to articles or media. The idea is that everyone who reads can make his judgement of what is the “hardest” or “first”. With clear details, we (adventurers, explorers, media, journalists, teachers, teenagers) all can understand.
PS: no idea when the private BETA will lauch. I hope end May or June. Many setbacks and lack of funds due to Covid and no work gigs to fund it.

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West Hansen
22 days ago

There are plenty of forums where we can post opinions and comments. What is lacking is a consensus and objective set of definitions for rivers. How is expedb any different than Facebook or this current thread?

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Tom
Tom
22 days ago

I think Strel was so fast, because he swam with fins. And with river current, of course.

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West Hansen
21 days ago
Reply to  Tom

Oftentimes he swam as fast as some of us veteran ultra-marathon kayak racers paddling with the current, using wing blades in one of the fastest sea kayaks in production. Very impressive.

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