Scottish rower tell of encounter with blue whale

Picture:  Johnny Douglas-Hamilton
Picture: Johnny Douglas-Hamilton
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IT was the dream voyage of a lifetime, but it almost came to grief – on the back of a whale.

Afloat for two months as they crossed the Indian Ocean, the five men and one woman crew of a record-breaking rowing expedition saw one crew member evacuated, were capsized three times and lost a communications mast.

Picture: submitted

Picture: submitted

The crew of the Avalon were led by Leven Brown, 41, a former Edinburgh stockbroker from the Borders who was lured away by the call of the sea in 2005. He set up Ocean Row Events, organising expeditions for good causes. To date he and friends including Edinburgh resident Jamie Douglas-Hamilton, have raised more than £1m for causes such as Save the Elephants, MS Australia, and the South African children’s education charity Ubunye.

The range of Leven’s charitable interests is wide, as is the diversity of the crew: apart from the two Scots, Iceland, South Africa, Wales and Australia are represented.

But all that expertise couldn’t prepare them for an encounter with the largest mammal on earth – a 40-tonne blue whale.

“We saw it having a look at us after the initial enormous shockwave,” said Mr Brown from the Seychelles last night.

“We wondered if it might be annoyed, as a large chunk of flesh had been sliced off its back by our keel. But we needn’t have worried, because the animal let us alone. We now think it was trying to scrape off parasites or barnacles.”

But that wasn’t the most scary adventure. The boat endured far worse from several storms which knocked it over, and the most serious mishap saw a crew member seriously scalded by boiling water. His injuries were so bad he had to be evacuated half-way across the Indian Ocean.

Combined with the loss of the self-steering gear, this meant the loss of a rower at all times, as one crew member had to transfer to steering duties. Despite this, the team managed a world record time of 57 days for their voyage from Geraldton in western Australia to the Seychelles, and even recorded the longest ever team-row at 4200 miles.

Edinburgh oarsman Mr Douglas-Hamilton said: “I cannot begin to describe the immense sense of achievement we all feel having completed this epic adventure. I am happy to highlight the cause of Save the Elephants since these wonderful creatures are under great threat from illegal killing for ivory and desperately need help.”

Mr Douglas-Hamilton can feel doubly proud as he is following in the explorer footsteps of his grandfather Douglas, Duke of Hamilton, who also achieved a world record in 1933 as the first man to fly over Mount Everest.

Next on Leven Brown’s to-do list is a rest, followed by another lengthy challenge on the ocean. “There are only 20,000 elephants left in the world, and the gene pool is narrowing. I’m driven by the need to make a difference,” he says.