FILE - Sea ice breaks apart as the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica traverses the Northwest Passage through the Victoria Strait…
FILE - Sea ice breaks apart at the Northwest Passage, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, July 21, 2017.

JOHANNESBURG - Two South African medics are swapping their medical gear for oars as they train for a risky 4,000-kilometer (2,500-mile) journey by rowboat through the Arctic Northwest Passage.

If the 14-member team finishes the trip — across the north of Canada to Alaska — they will make history, as all attempts to row the icy waters have failed. 

"Nobody conquers a passage there," said Leven Brown, the expedition leader. "The ocean allows you to pass. And there is a very important distinction there. We will be lucky to get through the Northwest Passage, to row from Pond Inlet at the top right-hand corner of Canada, to the top left-hand corner of Alaska, a place called Point Barrow."  

In decades past, travel through the icy, Arctic waters was only possible by large ships. 

Physical, mental toll   

Reduced summer ice will allow the team to row the passage, but the journey — planned for next year — will still be a physical and mental challenge.   

The South African team member, Daniel Lobjoilt, says such a long, confined journey will likely take a toll. 

"We are going to be out there, in the elements, by ourselves, essentially, and I think after a certain period of time of repetitive rowing, on and off for, you know, weeks on end. Pressure on my mind might be the biggest challenge I have to overcome. So, my fear is ... is that encounter that I have to have with myself," Lobjoilt said.  

Gathering data

Along the journey, Brown says the team will use scientific tools to gather data for climate change and wildlife studies.    

"We hope to be the first modern-day expedition through the Northwest Passage, and to highlight, you know, what is happening with the environment and the climate. This is the sort of expedition that wouldn't be, wouldn't be possible, you know, 50 years ago," he said.  

Despite the history of failed attempts to row the passage, South African medic Dr. Daniel Kritzinger says the team is hoping to finish the trip within two months, before the winter ice returns.    

"There has been a previous attempt in 2013, also trying to row the Northwest Passage, but they were unsuccessful as the ice caught on them," he said. "So hopefully the ice will stay back enough for us to finish, and to be the first to row the Northwest Passage." 

The team is planning another expedition to help them prepare.    

In June, they will row from England's Newcastle to Orkney, a much smaller distance than the length of the Arctic Northwest Passage.