Dubai rowers to brave Arctic to highlight plastics pollution

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At an indoor pool in Dubai, three rowers battle artificial rain and simulated waves as they train for an Arctic voyage intended to highlight the perils of marine pollution.

Their quest will take the team from one extreme to the next.

Home base is the United Arab Emirates, notorious for its sweltering heat, especially in summer.

And their destination is one of the world’s coldest regions -- although because of climate change it is warming three times faster than the global average.

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For leader Toby Gregory, it is a chance to sound the alarm about the scourge of plastic waste in the world’s oceans, a mission he took on after a 2023 Atlantic Ocean rowing trip during which he saw “a lot more plastic than I ever imagined.”

The United Nations says plastics account for 85 percent of all marine trash.

Last year Gregory founded The Plastic Pledge, which tries to educate students about plastic disposal.

“We want to inspire one million students, not just in the UAE but around the world, to do things differently,” Gregory, a media adviser for UAE royal families, told AFP.

“Do you just put your trash outside and hope it goes to recycling? Well, can you do something and be more proactive?”

He added: “The greatest threat to our planet is that everyone believes that somebody else will save it.

‘Arctic Challenge’

The “Arctic Challenge” will see 46-year-old Gregory, his fellow Briton Andrew Savill, 39, and 30-year-old Irishwoman Orlagh Dempsey embark late this month on a 1,500-kilometre voyage.

They will set off from the city Tromso in northern Norway and head for Longyearbyen, capital of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

They plan to row for roughly three weeks aboard an eight-metre (26-foot) boat flying the UAE flag, and with no sail or engine.

By leaving in summer, a time of non-stop sunshine in the polar region, they can use solar panels to maximum effect to power navigation and communications equipment.

Undertaken in partnership with the UN Environment Program Clean Seas initiative, theirs is set to be a milestone mission, with the group becoming the first three-person team to row the Arctic Ocean and Dempsey the first woman to do so.

Training in Dubai, where the summer heat has driven them indoors, forced them to get creative.

During a recent session at Dynamic Advanced Training, a centre that focuses on aviation, they tried to board a vessel in choppy waves as artificial rain, thunder and lightning produced storm-like conditions.

But with temperatures in Dubai these days topping 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), Arctic weather has become “very hard to replicate”, Savill said.

Once at sea in the Arctic, the mercury is expected to hover between zero and 10 degrees Celsius, Savill said, so to prepare they hope to take advantage of whatever climate-controlled spaces they can find.

One option is Ski Dubai, an indoor resort where temperatures drop to minus 2 degrees Celsius (28.4 degrees Fahrenheit).

“Hopefully we can get in there and do a little bit of training for a few hours. Just to give us the real kind of cold temperature,” Savill said.

Dempsey is counting on her chilly Irish upbringing to see her through.

“I had the first 20 years of my life in cold conditions,” she said with a laugh.

“I think it’s just something that mentally and physically we’ll adapt to when we get there, and I don’t think it’s going to be a problem for any of us.”

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