Arctic Mission

Pen Hadow: the power of prioritising

Words by Pen Hadow

Photo: Tegid Cartwright

If your plans deliberately put you and your team outside the realms of normal human experience, then the success of your mission is probably going to benefit from…some exceptionally clear objectives, each prioritised in relation to the other.

A few days back just before we entered the North Pole’s international waters, we hooked up our two yachts to an ice floe, rafted them together, and the expedition team assembled around Snow Dragon’s saloon table for supper. We had reached a watershed moment of the voyage, our real work was about to begin earnest – science.

We had pushed hard to cover this much ground this fast. People were weary with the relentless drive through all sea-states, weathers and seasickness, but it was time to switch to different mission objectives.

There was a possibility that the time needed for stationary-based research work, as well as the photography and documentary filming, might conflict with our other goal – to sail as far north as it is safe to go. 

I thought it might be best to invite every team member to say what they felt about any general operational/productivity lessons to be learned from the voyage so far, an assessment of the time needed to meet their objective together with any other necessary resources, and how they assessed the value of their work in the context of Arctic mission’s overall aim – to catalyse protection of the wildlife and ecosystem.

The most important thing, however, was to give firm guidance on what the new priorities were, namely our scientific research comes first, our maximum northward progress second, and the photography and filming was non-conflicting as it was for the most part simply covering the former activities (with any exclusive extra time being so little as to be manageable). But what would this all mean in practice?

For me it was key that everyone felt as though they had as much time as needed to present their thoughts. Following a point made strongly by Nick that ‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure,’ Tim worked out that he’d like to request a minimum of 37 hours be dedicated exclusively to science. By ‘exclusively’, Tim meant the yachts would need to be stationary. Given an average cruising speed of 4mph, that would ‘cost’ about 148 miles of sailing distance north/south.

Erik spoke for the four skippers when he pointed out that we had 22 days before needing to cross back into US territorial waters to reach Nome on schedule. Therefore we would likely need to wait for some of that time for the ice to continue melting, moving about, and receding north or otherwise we’d arrive to far north too soon and be forced to stop anyway.

Everyone agreed that our major research locations would benefit from being as far north as possible because the amount of published science available to the international scientific community, rapidly faded away with every degree of latitude north. And it was noted that the longer and further we were heading north, the more people would hear about the science and the issues it was investigating.

And so to the best news of the voyage for our Lead Research Scientist, Tim Gordon, and Wildlife Observer and Research Assistant, Heather Bauscher. We would increase the time available exclusively to science from 37 hours to 60 hours, which produced the biggest smiles of the fortnight! They would be able to have their proposed one-off, 24-hour, non-stop research station, allowing them to record any day-night variations in the underwater soundscape and differences in animal, plant, and microbial activity.  This would add another layer of understanding to their entire research programme. Their excitement knew few bounds.

It had turned out that the conceived symbiosis of adventure and science to facilitate public engagement with the North Pole’s wildlife was real, alive and happening. No conflict existed between the two objectives. Indeed, they had perfectly fused together. If we weren’t operating dry-boats, I think celebratory drinks might have appeared.

In closing the meeting, I raised the need for us all to switch on mentally to full polar bear alert, and all the safety procedures and equipment that this entailed. We had just seen our first sea ice. From now on, we could find ourselves in a highly dangerous situation with almost zero notice. I got a whiff of a sense of, Oh really, Pen? I think that sort of thing’s some way off, don’t you? Just because we’ve seen a few chunks and floes, doesn’t mean there’s a bear about in 98% ice-free water!… Within 24 hours, we saw the FOUR polar bears on ONE ice floe!  I confess even I was astonished!

Pen Hadow is Arctic Mission’s expedition leader. 

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Arctic Ocean and portrait images by kind permission of Martin Hartley:

Yacht and wildlife images by kind permission of Erik de Jong:

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