We must always remember with gratitude and admiration the first sailors who steered their vessels through storms and mists, and increased our knowledge of the lands of ice in the South.” – Roald Amundsen (1872-1922)
Twenty-eight years ago on March 6, 1988, four U.S. adventurers, led by the 43-year old “badass” Ned Gillette, achieved the impossible. They set a world record by maneuvering a 28-foot long heavy-gauge aluminium, slightly bulbous red rowboat, the Sea Tomato, through the treacherous Drake Passage. They departed from Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and touched land near King George Island at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The amazing 600-mile journey was completed in just 14 days (New York Times, March 7,1988). Ned Gillette was well known for his daring expeditions. He was an accomplished, world-class mountaineer, sailor, photographer, journalist, author, and an Olympic cross-country skier. His three-member crew included 35-year old Mark Eichenberger, an accomplished polar mariner, adventurer and sportsman, Jay Morrison, an engineer, and Fred Trembly.
The hair-raising adventure – which originally was scheduled for early 1987 – had been meticulously planned to the last detail by Gillette. The Sea Tomato was custom-built for Antarctica, the crew was hand-picked by him, and seasoned weather forecaster Bob Rice stood by to radio the crew on the latest forecast. Gillette left nothing to chance.
The Sea Tomato was first launched with much fanfare in early January, 1987 on the shores of Punta Arenas, at the tip of Chile. I had the privilege of meeting Ned Gillette and his chief navigator, Mark Eichenberger, as the research ship I was on – the U.S. – owned Joides Resolution (and its Danish ice support vessel, the Maersk Master) – was docked in the same harbour. Our destination was the Weddell Sea, west of the Antarctic Peninsula.
January 2, 1987 Punta Arenas, Chile: a small but enthusiastic crowd gathered around the Sea Tomato, cheering the crew as the boat arrived on a truck. The bright red Sea Tomato was unloaded, lifted by a crane, then carefully lowered into the ocean. There was excitement in the air as Mark Eichenberger popped the cork and filled the glasses of his crew members with champagne. Ned flashed his boyish smile. Mark winked and raised his glass as I took pictures to commemorate the event. The original 1987 crew members included Jon Turk, an adventurer and explorer who was later named ‘adventurer of the year’ by National Geographic (Jon Turk and Eric Boomer set a world record circumnavigating Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic in their kayak). The fourth and youngest member of the crew was 26-year old Bud Keene, whose snowboarding group would later become the first to snowboard Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America, setting a 1988 world record. Bud became the most successful U.S. Olympic snowboard coach in history. Clearly, the 1987 crew of the Sea Tomato represented some of the greatest adventurers, explorers and sportsmen of their century.
However, in January 1987, the weather was not obliging. The planned route of the Sea Tomato was blocked by unusually heavy pack ice, and the much needed easterly low-pressure winds never materialized. The departure of our own ship, the Resolution was also delayed, and it lingered in the harbour for an extra few days. While waiting for a change in the weather, Ned and I exchanged stories. He had a keen interest in geology, oceanography, landforms, rocks and minerals – and also in the stories of crafty old prospectors outsmarting mining executives. As he waited for the “green light” from their weather forecaster, Ned expressed his concern about the unseasonable weather and worried about missing the “window of opportunity” for their trip. On January 5, my ship the Resolution departed for our own scheduled 2 months long journey. As I later learned, Ned and his crew did miss the window of opportunity in January 1987, but he remained hopeful. “After missing the weather window in January we spent weeks training in the magnificent fjords northeast of Cape Horn. We battled rain and 70 km willows, hoping for a northeast wind on which to depart.” (Ned Gillette: ROWING TO ANTARCTICA. In: Yachting, October, 1991). Unfortunately, the winds remained uncooperative and Ned decided to call it quits, postponing the voyage for another year. But he vowed that they would be back in 1988.
Ned Gillette and Mark Eichenberger returned to Punta Arenas in 1988 and, as promised, completed their journey, making history as the first rowboat to successfully cross the Drake Passage from Cape Horn to Antarctica . (As Jon Turk and Bud Keene could not make it that time, Jay Morrison and Fred Trembly took their places in the successful 1988 record-breaking voyage).
The Sea Tomato was subsequently donated to the Chilean Navy by Ned as a token of appreciation for their logistic help prior to their journey. The boat is on permanent display in the National Maritime Museum in Valparaiso, Chile (Al Museo Marítimo Nacional, Chile).
This article is dedicated to the memory of Ned Gillette, the iconic adventurer who lost his life in 1998 in Karakoram, Northern Kashmir while on an extended journey through Pakistan with his wife, and to the memory of his partner and chief navigator Mark Eichenberger, the well-known and respected polar marine adventurer who was swept out to sea during a storm in 1991.