How Should We Classify River and Ocean Expeditions?

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, Kalch 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.

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh is a writer and editor for ExplorersWeb.

Martin has been writing about adventure travel and exploration for over five years.

Martin spent most of the last 15 years backpacking the world on a shoestring budget. Whether it was hitchhiking through Syria, getting strangled in Kyrgyzstan, touring Cambodia’s medical facilities with an exceedingly painful giant venomous centipede bite, chewing khat in Ethiopia, or narrowly avoiding various toilet-related accidents in rural China, so far, Martin has just about survived his decision making.

Based in Da Lat, Vietnam, Martin can be found out in the jungle trying to avoid leeches while chasing monkeys.