Hong Konger Mark Agnew is attempting to etch his name in record books by crossing the Northwest Passage on rowing power alone. Dangers abound in the unpredictable artic, where he and his crewmates will have to contend with unstable weather, shifting ice packs, the pernicious cold and – perhaps the scariest sounding animal you’ve ever heard of – a new species of hybrid bear called the “pizzly” or “grolar” bear. The once unthinkable journey, now made possible by the stunning effects of climate change, is set for the summer of 2021 during a brief window from July to September when the ice pack recedes enough for 3 manmade paddle boats to dash through before the ice reclaims the route.
Still stinging from his failed attempt to cross the Atlantic last year, Mark is particularly motivated to make this challenge a success. To do so he will need to channel all the mental and physical tools he has developed, along with a bit of luck.
In this WELL, WHO? profile, we share Mark’s inspiring story. Learn about how Mark got into adventuring, how he used mental discipline to bounce back from disappointment, and the exciting upcoming quest to conquer the what is dubbed by many to be “the last first” available to explorers on earth today.
Originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, Mark lead an active childhood. Whether it was kayaking, canyoning, or hiking, he was often outside with his family. Both his parents were avid travellers and encouraged Mark to seek new experiences in the world.
Even though Mark was proud of his father’s success, he knew little of the details given his dad’s reticent nature.
Other than the occasional brag to his friends, his dad’s exploring career wasn’t always something Mark looked to emulate. More interesting than exploring was his first passion, Rugby.
His parents were supportive of his choice to pursue sport or any activities available to a youngster in Scotland, as long as he strove to be exceptional. Traditional “safe” notions of success and stability were unworthy of adulation. Instead, pursuing one’s interests regardless of what others think, and with passion and dedication, was what was worth striving for.
His mother’s words sum up well the attitude in the Agnew household. Responding to Mark’s comments on a friend’s success graduating from law school and securing a job in a high-end law firm, his mom retorted “That’s great Mark, but what is he going to tell his grandkids?”
Yearning for an adventure
Mark continued to play rugby throughout his schooling and upon high school graduation set off to continue playing rugby at University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After “the time of his life on and off the pitch,” Mark graduated school and looked for an opportunity for a broader adventure.
That opportunity came in the form of an offer from a rugby club to play semi-professionally in Hong Kong. He agreed. The team flew him over and set him up in a simple apartment. To supplement his income, he got a job working for a magazine covering the uninspiring world of corporate compliance. It didn’t take long for Mark to feel stifled by the drudgery of a desk job.
That’s when the urge to do something epic and inspiring flashed inside of him. Auditing work wasn’t something he felt his grandkids would want to hear about…
So, Mark promptly decided to put his desk job on hold (and with it his career in Rugby) and set his sights on a challenge he knew would give him a story or two… rowing across the Atlantic Ocean.
While the trip’s abrupt ending was disappointing, the short time he spent on the boat was exhilarating.
Two years later, after a long process getting ready to attempt the crossing again, Mark sat in a rowboat in Spain, 3000 miles of open ocean away from the trip’s destination, Antigua. This time he was joined by a woman who only months before was a stranger. Lizzie, a schoolteacher from England, was connected to Mark when her original crew pulled out of the trip for personal reasons. After a few training sessions together, the two were ready to prove their doubters wrong.
Unfortunately, the trip would end in disappointment. Shortly after embarking the boat’s battery started to malfunction, resulting in the chance the GPS system would not work properly during the voyage. Continuing without a working GPS was too risky. Just days into the trip a rescue was organized. Mark had to deal with the reality that his dream would-be put-on hold, yet again.
The pain of having to call it quits was a crushing blow to Mark’s psyche. All the hard work and money spent on getting back to start line was for naught. Making things worse, embarrassment and frustration set-in. First, for letting down his supporters. Second, for feeling upset with himself at his decision to quit. To this day, the experience still stings.
Finding the next challenge
Many might have called adventuring quits after two harrowing experiences. Mark, however, dug deep to find the mental discipline necessary to push through his post-journey depression and find his next challenge.
He considered a third attempt of the Atlantic but ended up not able to muster the mental energy.
That’s when a new and exciting adventure presented itself. Through friends, he heard about an adventurer attempting to kayak the entire length of the Yukon river in North America. Mark reached out and ended up securing a place in the ambitious endeavour.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) COVID-19 got in the way. Unable to commence in the summer as planned due to travel restrictions and other logistical issues, Mark would have to wait again to attempt something epic.
Fortunately for Mark, he won’t have to wait too long.
Northwest Passage attempt Summer 2021
Mark’s next adventure is his most ambitious yet. No one in history has ever rowed the entirety of the northwest passage. For most of human history the route has been frozen for nearly the entire year, permitting too little time to make a human powered crossing. In recent years, however, climate change has dramatically altered the artic environment. Now the ice recedes for months at a time, creating a unique window for making the crossing.
The challenge has attracted several highly accomplished explorers to the trip. The group will set off in three state-of-the-art rowboats. Each boat will have 4-6 people. In order to make steady progress, the crew will take shifts to make sure someone is always rowing when the weather and current allows.
The route being open longer doesn’t necessarily make the journey less dangerous. While the thawing temperatures should keep the pack ice away, the weather in today’s artic is less predictable. A scary (somewhat apocalyptic) reminder of the havoc climate change has had on the region is its changing biodiversity. Polar bears, unable to hunt seals from the ice pack, have ventured far south into grizzly bear habitat. Both species are becoming hungrier and more desperate to survive. Recently, there have been discoveries of polar and grizzly offspring roaming the region hungry for food (human or otherwise).
The Artic is melting at a dizzying pace. But the water it is still cold enough to render you dead within a matter of minutes should you fall in. Getting blown off course, moreover, could mean being crushed into a cliff or stuck in ice.
Well aware of the dangers posed by the trip, Mark and his companions are still eager to make history. The most prominent risk of failure is not reaching the start line to begin with. From equipment and logistics, to raising enough money and organizing how it will be filmed, there is an immense amount of details that have yet to be ironed out.
Gin for a purpose
To assist with the fundraising effort, the crew has come up with a unique idea…selling gin. “NW Passage Expedition Gin” is soon to be retailed online. It is distilled using botanicals from the Orkney islands, a northern region of Scotland known throughout history as the launching point for NW passage expeditions. Even cooler, the water used to make it is from the same well famed explorer Captain James Cook drank from in the late 1700s. Later in the 1840s John Franklin stocked his boats with the wells’ water before disappearing into the Artic abyss.
Many scientific institutions have volunteered to sponsor portions of the trip. Here, the NW passage trip provides an opportunity to learn more about the local environment, its future, and with it, the future of the world.
How to channel an explorer’s mindset
2021 holds a lot in store for Mark. In addition to the unprecedented voyage through the NW Passage, he will also embark on another, more permanent, journey…marriage. His fiancé Sophie is also a stand-out athlete in Hong Kong and is very supportive of Mark’s adventure. An accomplished trail runner, she often smokes Mark during training. Early into their marriage she will have to endure Mark’s absence from home and gather the emotional strength to not be consumed by worry.
Mark’s excitement for the future wasn’t always there. In the depths of mental anguish after his second failed Atlantic attempt, he thought negatively about himself and his prospects. Everything he had cared about, Rugby, exploring, at one-point a career, were painful reminders of how he had fallen short.
It was then that Mark made a deliberate choice to shift his mindset. “I’m not just going to wallow. I’m going to try to get better,” he told himself. In order to do so, Mark focused on two simple questions:
- What am I doing?
- Do I want to give up?
His answers: “I am going to be different” and “of course I don’t want to give up” gave him newfound hope. Rather than repeating the same story in his mind and going through the emotions that accompanied them, he focused on what he could control, his actions.
Mark forced himself to call up friends and figure out what his next challenge should be. By putting himself out there again and shifting to a more positive attitude, he was able to connect with the explorer rowing the Yukon and later the crew rowing the NW passage.
Mark’s mental pyramid
The most valuable advice Mark can offer to people facing challenges (let’s be honest, we all are), is that success starts with activity first, over anything.
How to stay connected and track Mark’s progress
WELL, Magazine Asia will be supporting Mark’s expedition and providing updates as the journey approaches. We most certainly will be buying some of his “NW Passage Gin” and you should too.
“NW Passage Expedition Gin” it is now available online: https://nwpexpeditiongin.com/?aff=4
Beyond buying booze, you can also support the effort by inviting Mark to speak at your upcoming company event. For enquiries contact email@example.com.
For updates on Mark’s journey keep your eyes peeled to his column on adventure sports in the SCMP:
For updates on the NWP team’s preparations follow their on Instagram @nwp2021
Before you go...
Here are a few quickfire questions and answers to help you get to know Mark even better. We asked Mark to say the first thing that came to mind when we said the following words:
John Franklin- Eating his boots
Colin Obrady- Controversy
Atlantic- Short comings
Exploration- Means whatever it means to you
Hong Kong- Home (I have 2 homes)
Trail running- Catharsis
Polar Bears- Pizzly bears
Written exclusively for WELL, Magazine Asia by Jackson Kelleher