Investment Manager Tim Levy To Tackle The Northwest Passage

May 13 2010 | 9:11am ET

By Mary Campbell, Senior Reporter  

Ah, summer – a time for lazing on sunny beaches, napping in hammocks, catching up on your reading, camping in the woods, or, that perennial favorite, boarding a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) and plying a 2,100-mile passage through the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean.

Okay, admittedly, that last item is not everyone’s idea of how to spend your summer, but it’s how Tim Levy, CEO of Future Capital Partners (FCP) plans to spend his. Levy, serving as both helmsman and navigator, will join a five-man expedition led by adventurer Bear Grylls to complete an east-west crossing of the Northwest Passage – that holy grail for Arctic explorers –  raising money for charity and drawing attention to the effects of global warming in the process. (Also on board will be medical officer and helmsman Dave Pierce, marine engineer Ben Jones, and navigator David Segel).

Tim Levy, Bear Grylls and Dave SegalTim Levy, Bear Grylls and Dave SegalIt’s not as much of a stretch as it may sound: environmental concerns inform much of Levy’s daily work. Future Capital Partners is one of the UK’s leading alternative investment boutiques, and renewable energy – particularly bioethanol – one of its specialties.

But how do you go from investing in bioethanol to sailing the Northwest Passage? For Levy, it all started with dinner.

“Like-Minded Guys”

“I met Bear Grylls about two and a half years ago,” says Levy. “We met at a dinner and we were sitting next to each other and clearly we had a very similar mentality, which was… we wanted to challenge the status quo, and do things that other people were afraid of doing or perhaps didn’t want to take the risk of doing – he, obviously, in the world of adventuring and me in the world of finance. We found that we were like-minded guys.”

During the meal, Levy told Grylls about a project he was working on – a bioethanol plant to convert feed wheat into ethanol and animal feed. Where another dinner companion might have wondered if ethanol could run his car, Grylls immediately asked if it could run the equipment for an Antarctic expedition. (This is what comes of sitting next to a professional adventurer.)

Levy told Grylls he felt the bioethanol would work “fantastically” and so their first cooperative initiative was formed: Future Capital Partners sponsored Grylls on a trip to Antarctica during which he ran a variety of equipment on bioethanol.

The trip was a success and Levy and Grylls began looking for another project. That’s when Grylls suggested the Northwest Passage.

Sea Route to the Orient

Roald Amundsen's boat, GjoaRoald Amundsen's boat, GjoaExplorers for centuries sought a sea route across the Canadian Arctic to the trading nations of Asia – some, like the members of the 1845 Franklin expedition, died in the attempt – but the first successful crossing was not recorded until 1903-1906, by the Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen.

Regular shipping throughout the year had always proved impossible due to pack ice. But global warming has reduced the pack ice and made the waters more navigable – navigable enough, Grylls suggested, for a rigid inflatable boat. Besides the sheer adventure (they would become the first people to do the crossing in a RIB) the trip could serve another purpose:

“We would cast a spotlight on the fact that global warming is creating the opportunity to do this, and at the same time,” says Levy, “[send] a message that people in finance – such as me – are able to support projects that will help, in the longer run, to reverse the effects of climate change.”

The trip would also raise money for the Global Angels children’s charity.

“So, I thought it was a great idea,” said Levy, “And then Grylls said, ‘I’d really like you to come on it.’”

Although he’s always been physically active, Levy had never done any extreme adventuring. But Grylls’ suggestion appealed: “I thought that it was good for someone like me, who’s been in finance his entire life, and therefore always in a comfort zone of knowing what I’m doing, to go into an environment where I wouldn’t know what I was doing and wouldn’t be in my comfort zone. And where I would be challenged constantly. And where I could see the world from a different perspective… So I was all up for it.”

Mod Cons

The century since Amundsen’s successful traversing of the Northwest Passage has not just seen the melting of the ice pack, it’s also seen significant advances in all things nautical – including extreme weather equipment and food supplies.

Training DayTraining day on the RIBWhereas Amundsen traversed the Northwest Passage in a 77-foot, 48-ton former herring vessel with a 13hp motor, the Bear Grylls team will travel in an 11-meter (36-foot) Zodiac Hurricane Mach II with three 350hp engines. There is one similarity between the vessels: Amundsen’s had no ice-breaking capabilities – neither does the RIB. For Amundsen, that meant spending two winters trapped in ice. “We rely on avoiding ice,” says Levy.

Amundsen and his crew (they were five in all, including a cook) resolved to live off the resources of the land and sea during their journey. “Fortunately,” says Levy with a laugh, “we’re in the days where it’s possible to get very sustaining and nutritious dried food supplies which you can rehydrate.”  The team will bring along “high-calorie, broad vitamin-based food – enough to take us through plus extra contingency. We will not be relying on what nature is able to provide.” Levy says he will not be eating whale blubber or rotten fish, but will encourage Grylls to try both.

The greatest contrast between the two expeditions has to be the time line: Amundsen took three years to complete his crossing (much of that spent trapped in ice). Levy and company are scheduled to leave Pond Inlet, at the top of Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, on August 15 (ice permitting) and arrive in Tuktoyaktuk, in the Inuvik region of the Northwest Territories, around August 29, with three stops along the way.

Arctic summer means it will be light most of the day, with air temperatures around 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (37-39 Fahrenheit) and water temperatures just above freezing. Levy says they expect to travel at an average speed of 20 miles per hour and to sail about seven hours per day, although they also intend to make the best of good conditions, so daily progress could vary.

Although their vessel has been customized to some extent to allow for Arctic conditions (it has a shock-absorbing console and seating) and the men will wear dry suits, the five will be quite exposed to the elements and “the vagaries of wind, rain, snow and ice,” says Levy. The key, he says, is avoiding getting wet. “Clearly, you do not want to get wet when the ocean is that cold and you’ve got the wind chill factor on top of that. One of the big problems of traveling on RIBs is that you constantly get spray, particularly if the ocean is choppy. So we’ve designed…a curtain, I suppose you’d call it, that goes all around the central console where we’re sitting to protect us against the spray as much as possible.”

The team did a day of sea survival, capsize and rough weather training in late April at the Royal National Lifeboat Association station in Poole, followed by a six-hour voyage to Jersey in the RIB. Describing it in his online journal, Grylls wrote: “It was certainly a long trip, demanding constant concentration as well as communication with John our expedition manager in order to keep the team all in the loop to our location and our progress. We all felt pretty battered by the time we got home but there is nothing like a little fear and focus to bind you together!”

Grylls also noted that the conditions, although rough that day, could “well be the normal weather” they’ll encounter in the Arctic Circle.

The experience did nothing to dampen Levy’s enthusiasm for the trip which, he says, should coincide with the closing of financing for FCP’s wheat-to-bioethanol plant – the subject of the conversation that started this whole adventure.

But what do his business associates and family members think of his plan?

“Well, they pretty much think it’s crazy,” says Levy, laughing. “But actually, I think quite a lot of people would like to be in my shoes.”


For More on the expedition, visit the team's Northwest Passage Web Site 

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