Not many people can start telling a story with “While rowing across the Strait of Gibraltar…” or “After crossing 3,000 kilometers of roadless wilderness in Siberia…” Canadians Julie Wafaei and Colin Angus, however, can.
Presently somewhere between Guatemala and the United States, riding north on a pair of bicycles, the couple is pushing toward their home in Vancouver, on the final leg of a journey that has spanned the globe. As a team, Wafaei and Angus are attempting to circle the earth entirely on their own steam.
While Angus, 34, may be toward the rear of a long line of adventurers who have circumnavigated the planet since Ferdinand Magellan’s pioneering voyage in 1522, upon his arrival in Vancouver he will be the first to do the trip completely human-powered: on foot, bike, skis and in a rowboat.
Wafaei, 31, is not far behind, having accompanied Angus from Vancouver to Alaska, and meeting back up with him in Moscow, where they traversed Europe and then the Atlantic Ocean. Arriving on the shores of Costa Rica, in the Caribbean port city of Limón, in February, she became the first woman ever to row across the Atlantic Ocean, a feat that took her and Angus five months and immeasurable courage.
Regardless of who covered what terrain, the two are a team with a goal.
“One of the things we hope to do with this expedition is encourage people to use non-motorized or low-emissions transportation,” Wafaei told The Tico Times. “We figure if people see our expedition – that we can go around the world by human power –maybe they can go to work or school on their own steam.”
Over a hurried dinner at the Caribbean bus terminal in San José, in the midst of frantic preparations for their ride north, Wafaei and Angus told The Tico Times about their journey so far and their plans for the future, including a wedding.
“I guess I call myself an adventurerwriter,” Angus said, explaining that his thirst for adventure began with a childhood dream of getting a sailboat. At 19, he got his boat and set off across the Pacific Ocean, becoming the youngest Canadian to sail the Pacific.
The expedition, dawdling between islands and adventures, took five years.
“It was sort of like being a gypsy at the helm of a 27-foot sailboat,” Angus said.
He followed that by rounding up a couple of buddies and rafting the length of the Amazon River, after which he wrote a book –“Amazon Extreme,” published in 2000 – and thus began a career.
Next, the Canadian adventurer repeated the feat on the YeniseyRiver, beginning in Mongolia, passing through Siberia and finishing in the Arctic Circle. The fifth-longest river in the world, it had never before been rafted in its entirety, and Angus’ 5,500-kilometer trip included 300 kilometers of uninterrupted whitewater, he said. Again, he wrote a book, this one entitled “Lost in Mongolia,” published in 2002.
“Those were exciting journeys, but you can’t compare them to this,” Angus said.
“The difficulty of going around the planet entirely by human power – land and oceans – is just incredible. This is the ultimate.”
Wafaei, a molecular biologist, doesn’t boast the same caliber of thrill-seeking history, but didn’t balk at the idea of this adventure.
In June 2004, she set off with Angus – her fiancé – and the third member of the team, Tim Harvey, on bicycle from Vancouver toward Alaska. Wafaei made it as far as Alaska before having to turn back for work, while Harvey and Angus continued to Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, and canoed 1,500 kilometers of the Yukon River. They then switched to a customized, ocean-going rowboat, which they rowed down the remaining 1,600 kilometers of the Yukon and then 800 kilometers across the Bering Sea to Siberia.
“It’s a treacherous part of the ocean, rough at all times of the year,” Angus said, adding that it had never been crossed in a rowboat before. With that new record behind them, Harvey and Angus set off in October across northwestern Siberia, hiking 650 kilometers through roadless, mountainous terrain –with the assistance of a support vehicle that carried supplies for the blizzard-blown adventurers – and then traveled another 2,300 kilometers, biking on frozen rivers and skiing, before reaching the first highway.
“The Road of Bones – that was the first highway we got to in eastern Siberia,” Angus said. “It’s also called theKalama Highway
They say that one person died for every meter of road constructed because it was created with gulag labor back in Soviet times.”
The dead workers were buried in the road, Wafaei added, hence the name The Road of Bones.
Wafaei met back up with the team in July 2005, in Moscow, and she and Angus continued on bike 5,500 kilometers across Europe, passing through Russia, the Ukraine, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France and Spain, arriving at the Atlantic Ocean on the Portuguese coast.
Crossing the Atlantic
In Portugal, another rowboat was waiting for the couple, a 24-foot craft named Ondine that had already proved its strength in two Atlantic Ocean rowing contests.
Angus and Wafaei originally planned on rowing from Lisbon to the U.S. state of Florida – a trip expected to take 100 days and timed to avoid the hurricane season. They departed on Sept. 22, 2005, and soon realized the weather was not going to be what they expected.
“We actually had three tropical storms and two hurricanes come really close to us,” Wafaei said. “The first one that hit us was Hurricane Vince, and the eye of the hurricane came within 95 miles of us. And Vince formed in an area where there have never been hurricanes before. It was the farthest east- and north-forming hurricane ever, and actually ended up going into Spain.”
“It was just our luck we were right there,” Angus said, grinning.
The record-breaking hurricane season forced the Canadian couple to alter their plans. They aimed farther south, changing their destination to Limón, Costa Rica. By the time they arrived, the trip had spanned 145 days.
For five months,Wafaei and Angus rowed across the sea, encountering storms and ocean swells that could easily have engulfed their boat. On multiple occasions, the two adventurers readily confessed, they wondered if they would ever see land again.
“When there’s a storm coming and you’re in a rowboat, you can’t do anything,”Wafaei said. “You can’t row faster.”
“When the waves broke, the whole wall of water would come down on the boat like an explosion of dynamite and start rocking you forward,”Angus recalled.“Then you’d be sliding down the face just like on a surfboard.”
The couple fought with the rudder to keep the boat pointed straight at all times, fearing that if it were hit sideways, it would flip, they said.
Their boat, which included an enclosed, padded bunk – about six feet long and “the width of a St. Bernard doghouse” – was technically self-righting, a feature neither seafarer wished to test. Nor did they have to; the journey was made without ever capsizing, Angus said.
The couple was outfitted with an Iridium satellite phone, allowing them to keep in touch with friends and family and receive weather reports, and a visual-display GPS tracker, which allowed them to plot their course and keep track of their exact location.
A digital video camera and still camera helped them immortalize moments along the way and film the adventure for a documentary they will be compiling after the trip is over, and an iPod supplied tunes by U2, AC/DC, Johnny Cash and others until it died four months into the trip.
These and other gadgets were powered by solar panels mounted to the top of the boat.
The panels also powered the most vital of the machines – the desalinator that turned salty seawater into potable drinking water.
To cross the Atlantic Ocean, Wafaei and Angus rowed 16-20 hours a day, switching off for two-hour shifts, each rowing eight to 10 hours. At night, they would drift, hoping not to wake up too far off course.
To fuel their push through the waves, the two were eating approximately 5,000 calories a day, between a hot breakfast and dinner cooked on a single-burner alcohol stove and a cold lunch of leftovers. When all their freeze-dried food got caught up in customs in Lisbon, the couple had to re-supply five months of provisions from a supermarket, complemented with protein from canned tuna, beans or fish caught along the way.
“We caught 31 dorado,” Angus said. “We had an advantage because they would follow the boat, so when we wanted one, we’d just throw the lure over and pull the fish up for dinner.”
In February, after harrowing storms, some technical malfunctions and nearly being plowed over by a freighter that passed within arm’s reach of the boat in the Strait of Gibraltar, the couple sighted land.
“Even before seeing the land, we could smell it,” recalled Wafaei. “It smelled like freshly turned earth.”
But the battle was far from over. To arrive at shore, the Canadians had to battle outgoing currents for three days.
“The current was so bad that if we stopped for even an hour, we’d lose all the progress we’d made in 12-15 hours,” Angus said. “We couldn’t stop rowing for three days. We had to double-row for 12 hours – that meant each of us was rowing 18 hours a day.”
At points, Angus recalled, both would be rowing full force, while the boat continued to slip slowly backwards.
Despite all the challenges, on Feb. 24 the pair arrived, dehydrated and exhausted, on the shores of Costa Rica to a small gathering of locals, Costa Rican media and a Discovery Channel television crew.
“We feel very close to home now,” Angus said, at the bus station in San José, minutes before returning to Limón to prepare for the rest of the trip north.
As for their post-adventure plans, the two have charted a wedding in the spring of 2007. And the honeymoon?
Angus replied: “We’re going to go on a cruise in the Caribbean and scoff at the ocean – look at it and curse, ‘Ha, try and get us now!’”