Great Explorers: Gino Watkins

The annals of polar exploration are filled with luminaries who perished too young. Shackleton: dead at 47. Scott: 43. Amundsen: 55.

Though these men passed on far too early, they had enough behind them to leave a lasting impression on the Golden Age of Polar Exploration. Gino Watkins, on the other hand, was barely out of his teens when he vanished off the coast of Greenland in 1932.

Still, Watkins left his mark.

In a career spanning just five years, the young Brit led a 14-man survey expedition to Greenland in support of a future air route from England to Canada, completed a 1,100km open-boat journey around the island’s southern coast, won the prestigious Royal Geographical Society’s (RGS) Founder’s Medal, and may have been the first British person to learn to roll a kayak.

All this before the age of 26.

 a young man in a black and white photo

Gino Watkins in an undated, uncredited photograph. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


In telling his tale, we marvel at how a thin young child developed into a first-class explorer once mountains entered the mix.

A love affair begins at Chamonix

Henry George “Gino” Watkins entered the world on Jan. 29, 1907. Dartmouth College’s Encyclopedia Arctica lists him as a “fair, lightly built, delicate child” who “showed little aptitude for or interest in athletics of any sort, except shooting.”

As you may know, lightly built children who show little interest in team sports sometimes grow up to be climbers, especially if you take them to Chamonix at the impressionable age of 16. That’s exactly what happened to Watkins (who was already going by Gino, an affectation he retained until his death).

Early exposure to mountaineering in the heart of the Alps is like fitting a key into the lock of a certain type of mind. It kindled Gino’s passion for adventure. After returning to England, the delicate lad spent his subsequent free time climbing in the Lake District. He even notched a 40-climb season in Switzerland that gained him membership in Britain’s prestigious Alpine Club.

Watkins began his higher education at Cambridge with the intention of earning an engineering degree. But fate had other things in store. After attending a guest lecture by geologist and early Antarctic explorer Raymond Priestley, Watkins knew that polar adventures were in his future.

He only had to find a way to make it happen.

two black and white portraits of men

Raymond Priestley (left) and J.M. Wordie (right), two explorers who influenced Gino Watkins early on. Priestley photo: Tewkesbury Museum. Wordie photo: Scott Polar Research Institute.


Self-improvement program

Priestley introduced Watkins to J. M. Wordie, a fellow geologist and veteran of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition. The young man must have impressed Wordie, because the experienced Scot agreed to make a place for Watkins on his upcoming 1927 East Greenland expedition.

Determined to prove his mettle, Watkins spent the next 18 months on a Teddy Rooseveltian program of self-improvement. He trained relentlessly, learned to pilot small aircraft, picked up skiing, read polar literature non-stop, and otherwise developed the jack-of-all-trades skill set needed by the polar explorers of the day.

It wasn’t to be. Wordie’s expedition became delayed indefinitely. But with the kind of cheerful, undaunted perseverance few but 19-year-olds can muster, Watkins proposed to the Royal Geographical Society a scientific expedition — which he would lead — to Edge Island, a Norwegian island in the  Svalbard archipelago. The RGS agreed and partially funded the expedition.

Immediately, Watkins organizing the trip with characteristic zeal.

Sea ice with Edgeøya (Edge Island) rising in the background.

Sea ice with Edgeøya (Edge Island) in the background. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Only five days of decent weather occurred during the month-long expedition. Still, the team — comprising eight men in the primary scientific group, all of whom were older than Watkins — collected enough geological, glaciological, botanical, and ornithological data to warrant publication in a leading journal of the time.

The expedition’s success allowed Watkins to secure RGS funding for future expeditions, one of which would cement his name in the record books of polar exploration.

Labrador and beyond

At the time, much of the Canadian peninsula of Labrador remained unmapped, something the RGS and Watkins were jointly hoping to correct. The plan was to explore good portions of the region’s complicated waterways and lakes using canoes.

The extent of Watkins’ previous experience as a canoeist is unknown, but he likely picked up some paddling skills from both First Nations people and the experienced Canadian trapper/scouts who served as guides.

The expedition tested the then-21-year-old’s skills as a leader. One of the scouts, Robert Michelin, injured his foot with an axe while chopping firewood. It forced Watkins to temporarily halt exploration of the “unknown river” they were paddling and reverse the 20-day canoe journey the group had just completed.


After overwintering in the community of Northwest River, Michelin’s foot healed, and the canoe journey recommenced. During the next year, Watkins’ team also used dogsleds and manhauling to conduct their surveys — battling squishy and seemingly endless marshes, biting cold, low rations, and dense vegetation.

It was during one of these interminable sledging excursions that the idea for the British Arctic Air Route Expedition took root in Watkins’ young but increasingly experienced mind.

A path to glory

By this time, fellow explorers and financiers both agreed. Watkins asked for and received £12,000 for his expedition from a variety of sources. The upcoming journey would take him to south Greenland and, he hoped, fame.
The British Arctic Air Route Expedition comprised two aircraft capable of using either skis or floats, two motorboats, dogs, sleds, tents, a reasonable 6,000 calories of sledging rations per day, and 14 men with an average age of 25. The mission was to survey the east coast and central ice plateau of Greenland in order to establish the crucial air route between England and Canada.
Making use of its highly varied travel methods, the expedition had great success surveying the coastline and interior via sea, air, and land. One member of the party, Augustine Courtauld, almost froze while overwintering at an advanced outpost after poor weather turned his proposed three-month stay into a 150-day ordeal. But as far as we know, that’s as close as anyone came to dying on the expedition.

Epic boat journey

And that safety record extends to the adventurous feather in Watkins’ cap — a 1,100km open water journey around the southeast tip of Greenland.
The four-man sub-expedition, captained by Watkins, was conducted in a light-and-fast style and mostly relied on kayaking and hunting skills learned from local Inuits for its success. Watkins proved as competent at this  as he had in all the other skills he picked up in his brief career.
Unfortunately, as we’ll see, seal hunting from a kayak is dangerous, even for those well-versed in its perils.
A map of southern Greenland, with the red line indicating the rough route of Gino Watkins' four-man, 1,000km open-boat journey

On the above map of southern Greenland, the red line indicates the route of Gino Watkins’ four-man, 1,100km open-boat journey. Image: Google Earth, ExplorersWeb

The British Arctic Air Route Expedition concluded in the fall of 1931 to rousing acclaim. Watkins and other expedition leaders were awarded the RGS’s prestigious Founder’s Medal, while every expedition member received the United Kingdom’s Polar Medal, the first time it had been doled out in nearly 60 years.

Tragedy on the ice

The always-restless Watkins next turned his attention to a proposed crossing of Antarctica. But a worldwide depression was in full swing, making fundraising for such an ambitious expedition virtually impossible.

Instead, Watkins ventured to the Arctic once again with the small East Greenland Expedition to continue the survey work begun with the British Arctic Air Route Expedition.

On August 20, Watkins set out alone in his kayak on a hunting trip. When he didn’t return, two other expedition members went out in a motorboat to find him.

Instead, they discovered his capsized kayak bobbing in the ocean and a pair of soaking-wet pants resting on an ice floe. The best guess is that Watkins’ kayak capsized, and he removed his pants to facilitate his swim to shore. His body was never recovered.

Today, Watkins is remembered for his youth, exuberance, and willingness to use cutting-edge methods to facilitate his surveys. Paddler Magazine speculates that he might be the first British person to have adopted the kayak roll. His expeditions, though few in number, were successful from both scientific and safety perspectives. Greenland’s highest mountain range now bears his name, and both the RGS and Scott Polar Research Institute now award memorial grants in his honor.

His death stands as a huge loss for 20th-century exploration. Who knows what achievements the young man might have wracked up in his thirties, forties, or beyond?

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).