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Kayaker in Antarctica

By: Paul Deegan

You are 32 years old, four foot 10 inches tall, and you have a 50 inch chest. Your bones are so brittle that you cannot stand unaided. Your previous trekking, skiing, dog-sledding and kayaking expeditions have taken you to the Himalaya, the Middle East and the Rockies, during which you have broken some 130 bones. And now you want to kayak off the coast of the world's most remote continent, Antarctica.

Meet Glenn Shaw. Glenn is no ordinary adventurer. According to the medical authorities, Glenn should not be able to do the activities he participates in, although his doctors concede that the muscle that he has built around his fragile skeleton is now what holds him together. They admit that without adventure in his life, Glenn would literally fall apart.

I first met Glenn at the Royal Geographical Society in the autumn of 1999, when I slumped down beside him during lunch at the annual expedition planners' symposium, called 'Explore'. We talked about adventure, and of Glenn's lifetime ambitions; a return to the mountain that a few years before had almost killed him (a little peak in Nepal called Everest) and a desire to kayak in both Arctic and Antarctic waters.

On land, Glenn is like a fish out of water. Despite his unflagging determination to overcome any terrain put before him, either in his customised red Land Rover or in his titanium wheelchair (dubbed 'The Snowmobile'), it is on water where Glenn's so-called disability simply melts away. Once in his kayak, Glenn is the equal of other paddlers: Poseidon personified.

I hate water. A shower is torment enough; a bath much more than I can bear. The prospect of kayaking appalled me. But I was mesmerised by Glenn's obvious determination to achieve his apparently unreachable dreams. I had the contacts, Glenn had the objective, and a deal was done. He'd raise the cash, and I'd get him to Antarctica.

My job was simple. A personal introduction led me to the door of mountaineer Greg Mortimer, the first Australian to climb Everest and K2, and a besotted Antarctican. Greg now runs what is regarded by the cognoscenti as one of the most environmentally-sensitive and forward-thinking commercial Antarctic operations. As the first company to offer kayaking opportunities in Antarctic waters, I made his organisation my initial port of call. Greg was excited by Glenn's plans, and offered him the use of his ship, the Polar Pioneer, as a support vessel.

Meanwhile, Glenn was busy with his fundraising schemes. Backed by an impressive CV and the support of a senior figure in the expedition world, Glenn applied to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for one of their Fellowships. The Trust's distinguished panel - including Sir Roger Bannister - decided that Glenn's personal ambition, combined with his desire to use the expedition as a vehicle to demonstrate that disability is no boundary to achievement, agreed to underwrite the bulk of the expedition. They also agreed to cover the costs of one person to accompany Glenn on the boat, and were tickled by the prospect of someone involved with the media joining Glenn in order to bring the work of the Trust to a wider audience. Antarctica had for 15 years been at the top of my wish list of places to visit and now Glenn offered to help me fulfil my own ambition: two dreams for the price of one.

But what about a paddle partner? Without the resources to fund a third person out of the UK, Greg Mortimer came to our rescue. On board at the same time as us would be American Bob Powell, who had represented his country at three World Kayaking Championships. Bob has extensive Antarctic experience, including an attempt to kayak around the island of South Georgia. (The mountaineering equivalent might be climbing K2 in winter in a tutu with both legs tied together.) Bob and 'Big G' (as the American immediately christened Glenn) immediately hit it off, and so it was decided: Glenn would work with me on board the Polar Pioneer, and link up with Bob in a twin-cockpit kayak in the Southern Ocean.

As the ship left the sanctuary of the island of Tierra del Fuego, and ripped through the notorious waters that divide Antarctica from the rest of the world, Greg's Australian guides, the Russian crew, and 50 other clients all bunkered down in their cabins and tried to sleep off the sea-sickness induced by the 30 foot high waves. Blessed with the constitution of RoboCop, Glenn suffered not so much as a second of nausea during the entire voyage. But he was confined to quarters for a very different reason, as the rolling ship dramatically increased the chance of a broken bone. A single injury would spell the end of Glenn's Antarctic expedition. Big G accepted his cabin-bound fate stoically, and three days later emerged from his cocoon and onto the stern of the Polar Pioneer to inspect his kayak as the vessel approached the South Shetland Islands.

Just getting Glenn into the kayak was not going to be easy. The normal procedure was for lifejacket-clad kayakers to clamber over the side of the ship and into their waiting steeds. Clearly this wouldn't work for Glenn, and so he pulled himself into the bowels of a Zodiac inflatable dinghy whilst it was on the deck of the Polar Pioneer, before being winched over the side and directly into the Southern Ocean. But how to get from the rubber-ribbed Zodiac to the kayak whilst a three foot swell threatened to upset proceedings?

Some weeks earlier, Glenn and I had devised and practised a technique to deal with just this scenario. With two people holding the kayak and Zodiac together at the prow and stern, my task was to support Glenn as he flopped then plopped into the kayak. It was important to hold Big G only by the reinforced straps on his life-preserver. If I had held onto his arms, and if the swell had suddenly jerked him away from me, I could have ended up detaching his limbs from their sockets like an over-used Action Man doll.

However, for this first kayak excursion, Bob Powell and Expedition Leader Kieran Lawton decided to seal launch Glenn from the rocky shoreline of the South Shetlands. So in miserable conditions, reminiscent of a blustery day in Aberdeen, we set off in the Zodiac for our first contact with Antarctica. A seal launch from the shoreline is water off a duck's back for Glenn, and an hour later, Bob and Big G pushed off from the South Shetlands to join three other kayakers (including the ship's doctor) in the bay. I was left, if not quite holding the baby, then clutching Glenn's now-empty wheelchair: a redundant metallic chrysalis now that it's occcupant had sprouted water wings and flown away on the ocean of his dreams.

Glenn went on to complete five kayaking excursions during his expedition, including a circumnavigation of Enterprise Island. He also made a Zodiac landing on the Antarctic mainland at Portal Point. Big G returned to the UK without breaking a single bone. You can access archive satellite reports of Glenn's expedition at

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