In a post-pandemic world where sustainability is on everyone’s mind, Mike Horn shows us nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it
Isolation, social distancing… terms we’ve become intimately familiar with now have been part of Mike Horn’s lexicon for almost 25 years. The South Africa-born Swiss adventurer is renowned for pitting himself against the most challenging of endeavours (often alone), be it swimming the Amazon River or climbing 8,000+ metres of the Makalu and Gasherbrum 1 and 2 peaks sans supplementary oxygen. And all this with sustainability at its heart (bringing attention to melting ice caps and deforestation). It may be far-fetched to draw parallels between what Horn has been doing and what we dealt with during the pandemic, but 2020 did bring sustainability into sharp focus. “I think the pandemic has given us time to take a step back and think about where we are headed,” Horn says. “We can make big changes in the 30,000-32,000 days that we live. All seven billion people on the planet have to decide that we want our world to change.” Edited excerpts from an interview.
After navigating the Earth 27 times, and journeying to the North and South Poles, you must feel restless attending a Zoom call?
(Laughs) It’s beautiful outside. The seasons are changing in Switzerland; we are moving away from snow to flowers. I’ve been sitting in front of this computer for the last three hours and that’s a long time for me to sit in one place.
Panerai Submersible EcoPangaea Tourbillon GMT 50mm Mike Horn edition | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
How involved is Panerai in giving shape to your vision of exploration?
Let me tell you a story. When I sailed to the Philippines, I had to change the axe of my radar. The piece of metal had taken me 27 times around the world, helped me cross Antarctica, the North Pole, sail to the Amazon, to the Sundarbans… and I thought, ‘Let’s make a watch out of it’. I gave the problem to Panerai [with whom he’s been associated since 2001], saying, ‘You make amazing timepieces but the metal has no story to tell. This piece has planted five million trees, cleaned beaches, taken plastic out of the ocean. It has taken me on explorations and has always brought me back alive.” Jean-Marc Pontroue [CEO] loved the idea. That’s how the five-piece Submersible EcoPangaea Tourbillon GMT 50mm Mike Horn edition was born. That also started the move towards building a watch that is 100% recycled.
Panerai launched the 30-piece Submersible eLAB-ID this week, made of 98.6% recycled material.
They spent a lot of time researching the metals, how to source and recycle them. They now want to share this knowledge with the rest of the industry and that will lead to big changes in how the industry functions. That, I think, is visionary.
At the Dakar car rally | Photo Credit: @mikehornexplorer
At last month’s Monaco Ocean Week, you spoke about hydrogen as the energy for the future.
Hydrogen moves the planets, so it can help us conserve ours. Carbon emission is our problem. Why not look at what we have all around us? Last year, when I participated in the Dakar car rally, I was criticised because, after crossing the North Pole [where I brought attention to the melting ice caps], I jumped into a diesel-powered car and drove across the desert. But I was there to see how we could change rally vehicles [Horn’s project, Gen-Z, aims to enter a competitive hydrogen-powered car in the 2023 rally]. When I first launched the research programme, everybody said it’s impossible. Then I approached the CEA [French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission] last year and, three months later, they came up with a solution. Now we are building 300 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cells that can generate 400 horse power. I think this is the future of mobility.
Mike Horn | Photo Credit: Getty Images
Is aiming for carbon neutrality in the transport sector by 2050 a realistic target?
I think we need to invest now. We know that electric isn’t the solution; there is not enough lithium. Hydrogen was wrongly communicated as a dangerous substance to travel with; now it has been proven to be safe. It is the power source that can give us the distance we need. The new raid rally vehicle we are developing can give us 600 km from 30 kg of hydrogen and that is as much a combustion engine would do. Now the infrastructure should follow.
How did you get interested in high latitude sailing?
It is the feeling of going somewhere that nobody else has been! In 2019, my custom-made boat, Pangaea [which uses a combination of solar and hydrogen fuel cell power], became the first to get to the highest point in the polar ocean. The tough part of high latitude sailing is that you are never sure of coming back alive. We need to have all the information to make decisions, so as to ensure the safety of the vessel and the lives of the crew.
Horn’s custom-made boat, Pangaea | Photo Credit: @mikehornexplorer
Last year, you sailed to Greenland and Svalbard.
It was the first time we went back to the polar region after the pandemic broke. The purpose was to research the impact of lockdown on the lives of whales [as they were not being hunted during the pandemic]. We recorded whale songs and had the opportunity to decode many patterns related to their behaviour and to compare them [before and after Covid-19].
You are no stranger to Indian cricket.
I was with coach Gary Kirsten in the World Cup 2011 campaign. Sachin, Dhoni, Virat are all amazing personalities that I had the privilege of working with. [As a motivational coach] I wanted to contribute something that could make a difference. I wanted the boys to engage, to trust each other. The moment you release pressure is when you start to play with confidence and freedom.
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