Colin O’Brady, Reality TV and Rowing to Antarctica

Last Christmas day, a team of six landed on the Antarctic peninsula after 12 days at sea. They had safely crossed the Drake Passage, the roughest sea on earth, which separates the tip of South America from the coldest continent. Their vessel? A 25-foot rowboat.

Alternating 90-minute shifts, three men rowed while three slept and ate. Their boat, built for ocean rowing, had just enough space for all six on board. Those resting lay shoulder to shoulder in claustrophobia-inducing cabins. Waves, wind and rain lashed the rowers, who tried to maintain clean strokes and a consistent course.

Three rowers manned the oars, while three rested.


The feature-length documentary isn’t out yet, but the media blitz happened almost immediately afterward. Or at least it did for one member of the crew, Colin O’Brady. He first popped up on the Tonight show to announce the project and he conducted post-expedition interviews throughout January while plugging his book about sledding partway across Antarctica the year before.

If you’ve caught any of these media interviews (where he always appears alone), or you’ve watched any of the Discovery Channel’s teasers on YouTube, you would be forgiven for thinking that this was Colin O’Brady’s expedition. The only non-rower on the team, O’Brady dominated coverage of the expedition. But why?

Speed records

A former triathlete, O’Brady set out in 2016 to make a name for himself in professional adventure. He did the Seven Summits and a watered-down version of the Explorers Grand Slam (Seven Summits plus last-degree guided treks to the North and South Poles) faster than others.

Speed records are now a trend, as familiar routes become less about exploration and more about athletics. However, many speed records, especially in the polar regions, are still largely gimmicks. Often, the speedster has merely done a route marginally faster than a handful of previous plodders. (One exception is Christian Eide’s exceptional sprint to the South Pole.)

Speed records in mountaineering are more serious: In 1974, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler reduced the time to climb the North Wall of the Eiger from 18 to 10 hours. In 2015, the late Ueli Steck did the same classic climb in a jaw-dropping two hours and 22 minutes. These accomplishments are not just about VO2 Max, but require advanced climbing skills. Nevertheless, speed records do not lead to worldwide renown, and few except other Seven Summiters paid much attention to O’Brady’s Seven Summit time.

However, O’Brady’s November-December 2018 partial ski crossing of Antarctica succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. It was interpreted by the worldwide media as a landmark in contemporary adventure. It gave him fame, or at least notoriety.

What caused such exceptional attention to what was merely a solid “B” effort? Luck, largely: A year earlier, David Grann of The New Yorker had written a 21,000-word article called The White Darkness, about Briton Henry Worsley’s attempt at a longer but still incomplete traverse of Antarctica. It is unclear what drew Grann to Worsley. Perhaps Worsley was exceptionally articulate. Perhaps he was consumed by the same single-minded obsessiveness as explorer Percy Fawcett, whom Grann covered in his bestselling book, The Lost City of Z.

Victory within his grasp, Worsley died, unnecessarily, of a freak ailment. Although Edgar Allan Poe wrote that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical subject on earth, an explorer’s death is pretty poetical as well. More than once, it has transformed a mediocre figure into a tragic hero.

Two years later, a former chum of Worsley’s, Lou Rudd, decided to do a slightly shorter, easier Antarctic expedition as a tribute to his late partner. O’Brady, keeping his cards tight to his chest, showed up in Antarctica at the last minute with the same route in mind.

Inevitably, their parallel expeditions became a race. Like death, a race ramps up interest, because the public can root for one or the other. Set against the background of Worsley’s death, it recalled the classic Amundsen-Scott race.

David Grann wrote a short followup about Rudd’s endeavour. With The New Yorker lending credibility to Rudd’s adventure, and the last-minute appearance of O’Brady, an American, The New York Times decided to cover both expeditions in depth. The worldwide media picked it up from there. If it was covered in The New York Times and The New Yorker, it had to be important, right?

Although Rudd, who had never been a professional triathlete, gave a good account of himself, O’Brady narrowly won the “race”. He must have been pinching himself at his good fortune: CNN covered his triumph; Good Morning America asked him for wellness tips; Outside magazine put him on its cover. Although the polar world recognized the limitations of this achievement, O’Brady didn’t identify with them and did not particularly care about their approval. He’d stumbled onto something far more important: mainstream recognition.

At first, when objections were raised, he could honestly have claimed ignorance. What did he know about polar travel? He was a near-beginner doing a circumscribed route that Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions, both the outfitter and gatekeeper for all Antarctic adventures, felt comfortable allowing someone with his limited experience to tackle.

No doubt O’Brady had heard of giants like Borge Ousland and Mike Horn, but he wasn’t trying to build on their achievements. Like the gimmicky speed records with which he began, he seemed to prefer plucking low-hanging fruit to using his fitness to crack the few genuine tough nuts remaining in polar travel, such as a true unsupported solo crossing of Antarctica or the Arctic Ocean, or an unsupported solo to the North Pole and back to land.

Forced to defend himself, O’Brady became more aware of the subtleties of polar achievement. He could have put his expedition in the proper context and vowed to tackle an even harder problem next time. Instead, he continued to disingenuously claim that, for example, the difference between his Antarctic trek and Borge Ousland’s longer and incomparably more difficult 1996-7 version, was merely “apples and oranges”. As time went on, his interviews suggested someone comfortable peddling half-truths.

Joining the row

Within weeks of returning from Antarctica, O’Brady had the opportunity to join this upcoming row across the Drake Passage. Icelandic ocean-rower Fiann Paul was the actual leader and the captain of the boat. Hugely experienced and possessing numerous rowing world records, he had been planning the expedition since at least September 2017. This was when he started to discuss the project with his friend Andrew Towne, a mountaineer and former Yale rower.

Gradually, Paul recruited a team, found the rowboat and figured out the minimum security requirements demanded by the host country of Chile. After Towne, Cameron Bellamy and Jamie Douglas-Hamilton were obvious choices, since both had previously rowed 57 days with Paul across the Indian Ocean from Australia to the Seychelles. John Petersen, the former captain of the Yale rowing team, was likewise a solid pick.

But they lacked adequate funds for this expensive adventure, and they faced the prospect of each chipping in thousands of dollars of their own money to bring it off. One of the crew knew O’Brady and suggested that he might be able to find corporate support quickly. In April 2019, O’Brady joined Fiann Paul’s crew, duly bringing funding, the Discovery Channel and lots of attention.

The route across Drake Passage.


By December, the team was ready to go. The expedition had been renamed the Impossible Row — controversially, O’Brady had also marketed his Antarctic ski as an impossible feat. Meanwhile, the Discovery Channel crew followed in the mandatory support vessel that Chile had insisted upon.

The crossing began on December 13. Almost immediately, complications arose. A fierce northeasterly wind threatened to send them west of their intended course. Then the search for a missing Chilean military plane closed 400 square kilometres of ocean ahead of them. They had to detour around the proscribed area until the search moved on and they were able to correct course toward Antarctica.

The days wore on, and the insane 90-minute shifts and lack of sleep began to take its toll. Exhausted physically and consumed mentally by the demands of the crossing, they fought huge swells and deployed their sea anchor five times when the headwinds proved insurmountable. A sea anchor holds the boat in position until the winds pass. Five drops is a lot for a 1,000km row –- short by ocean crossing standards. It demonstrates a key difference between the Drake Passage and an ocean like the Atlantic. In the Atlantic, trade winds ensure you always drift in the right direction, whether you row or not.

Battling swells in the Drake Passage.


On day 12, they landed their boat on the Antarctic Peninsula. It was a significant accomplishment. Although the weather had cooperated, the team also had to cover enough distance to stay ahead of the weather systems rolling through the Drake Passage. There was no letting up. Theirs was the first fully human-powered row of the Passage. Ned Gillette’s 1988 version included a small sail which they deployed along the coast of South America, so their landmark crossing was wind-assisted.

On dry land in Antarctica.


The row also marked an Ocean Explorers Grand Slam for Paul: He became the first person to row across all five oceans. However, his achievement, and that of Towne, Bellamy, Douglas-Hamilton and Petersen, was ignored in the media blitz that followed. O’Brady may have brought the spotlight with him, but it seems that it stretched only one man wide.

Approaching the Antarctic Peninsula.


It is fair to ask what O’Brady contributed to this expedition, outside of the patently false “Impossible” title and financial/media clout. Did he deserve the lion’s share of the attention? Did he even pull his weight as a rower? Unfortunately, those involved can’t share much, since they signed non-disclosure agreements. But from the trailers alone, it doesn’t look good for O’Brady: Missed strokes and “action” shots of him falling off his seat do nothing to suggest that this non-rower made the “impossible row” possible.

About three months after the Antarctic row, writer Aaron Teasdale published a devastating exposé of O’Brady in National Geographic. Partly, the article recapitulated for a large audience the problem with O’Brady’s claims about his Antarctic ski expedition, originally reported by ExplorersWeb here and here.

Teasdale had covered the trek online for Nat Geo. At first, he touted it as a great success. But as he learned more about its controversial aspects, he felt that he had been duped and wanted to right the record. His deep dive unearthed many disturbing aspects of O’Brady’s character, especially his persistent half-truths and his shabby treatment of his guide and fellow clients on a past training trip, at a time when the little-known athlete did not expect his behaviour to be closely scrutinized in future by the likes of National Geographic.

One can almost sympathize with O’Brady when the article came out. He was a new celebrity, suddenly living a much bigger life — interviewed by Jimmy Fallon and mega-podcaster Joe Rogan, getting $50,000 for a keynote address. He responded as many of us would, dissecting the article and claiming that it was rife with half-truths and inaccuracies. He sent a letter to National Geographic demanding a retraction, which went nowhere.

Meanwhile, he quietly changed his Twitter profile from “First to cross Antarctica solo, unsupported, unassisted” to “Crossed Antarctica Alone.”

Still, in interviews he continued to offer misleading explanations. He knew, at least, his audience: What did it matter if the small polar community raised seemingly subtle objections, when the larger public didn’t seem to care? Even The New Yorker, arguably the cause of all this, did a later article on the controversy in which the clearly puzzled writer wondered whether all this wasn’t just splitting hairs.

It isn’t, any more than the difference between O’Brady and someone like Ousland is just apples and oranges.