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Rowing with the Wind

Rowing with the Wind

Mar 2015

By Roy Watts

On 11 August, a team of six rowers reached the Seychelles after setting out from the port of Geraldton in Australia on 11 June – 57 days earlier. In doing so, they set two world records: At 6 720 kilometres, it was the greatest distance covered by any team in the Indian Ocean and it was also the fastest crossing in a rowing boat. One of the crew members was Cameron Bellamy – a Capetonian and Bishops Old Boy. This is his story.

What does it take to row two hours on and two hours off for 57 days? Interviewing Cameron Bellamy was a fascinating experience, which brought home the kind of determination necessary in an epic adventure such as this. 

His story starts in his final year at Diocesan College (Bishops) when he won the Rower of the Year award. At Rhodes University, he was chosen for the South African under-23 team, and a year later rowed for South African Universities at the world championships. After achieving a BCom honours degree, he furthered his academic career with a master’s degree from The University of Queensland in Brisbane. He rowed for this institution as well.

Bellamy’s adventurous wanderlust took root at the end of a three-year period of working in Beijing. He decided to embark on a 7 200km bike ride from there to Kanyakumari on the southern tip of India. He set out on a specially equipped bicycle fitted with a rack and side panniers housing sleeping bags, a tent, cooking equipment, blankets, pillow and a mattress. 

He was conversationally fluent in the Chinese language and describes himself as a gregarious loner. This sociability meant that he only spent half of his time sleeping and cooking in forests or open fields. For the rest, he was offered a bed and meals by well-wishers along the way.

During his long ride, he started thinking about a concept where a group of like-minded adventurers may channel their energies into fund-raising exploits for charity. Four months later, he pedalled into Kanyakumari – having spent his budget, which was the equivalent of R50 per day.

The bicycle ride from Beijing to India was Bellamy’s Chinese swan song, and his next job was in Britain where he set up the Ubunye Challenge in 2011. Three separate ventures were planned. The first was to cycle 1 349km from Land’s End to John O’Groats in northernmost Scotland. This was to be followed by a solo swim across the English Channel, and finally an Atlantic crossing from the Canary Islands to Barbados in a six-man rowing boat. 

The beneficiaries were to be the Ubunye Foundation (formerly the Angus Gillis Foundation), a project that would instal containers fully kitted out as classrooms in the Eastern Cape; and Vimba, an outfit dedicated to fostering the development and education of underprivileged children in Zimbabwe. 

Preparing for the Land’s End/John O’Groats ride was easy enough, as it consisted of cycling in a nearby gym at lunch times. The really tough one was training for the Channel swim, scheduled for the end of June – two months after the bike ride. This involved early-morning lengths in the gym pool and two open-air swims a week in Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake at 8 degrees Celsius in mid-winter. From April onward, Bellamy attended weekend training courses run by the English Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CS and PF) at the Port of Dover, with occasional sessions at Bournemouth.

The Land’s End charity ride was split into two groups of five using country roads and was a lot of fun. The same could not be said of the Channel swim, however. Bellamy was the only one of the ‘Challengers’ to make it. Accompanied by supporters in a boat provided by the CS and PF, he got to the English shore in 16 hours 30 minutes. He was not one of the recognised competitive swimmers at school, so this says a lot about his determination and staying power. 

The final Atlantic challenge ran into trouble when he failed to find sponsors for the Atlantic rowing event. He then approached Scotsman Leven Brown, who had a 45-foot (13.5-metre) eight-man rowing boat and had already completed four successful Atlantic crossings. Long story short: he decided to join Brown’s team in a rowing venture from Australia’s west coast to Durban. This, then, was how he found himself – the only Ubunye Challenger – in the Ozzie port of Geraldton, setting out with a crew of six men and one woman for the ambitious crossing to Africa.

The going was tough in the first two weeks. There was much seasickness caused by the extremely rough conditions created by three low-pressure systems – the last of which was on the tail end of a hurricane. Adjusting to sleep deprivation was another difficulty as they embarked on the two hours on/two hours off rowing routine. With the on/off sleeping sessions seldom lasting for more than 90 minutes, there was a continual degree of tiredness for the duration of the trip. Conditions did improve, however, once they reached the tropics.

Twenty-four days out, they experienced their first major mishap when the autopilot packed up. It became evident that it could not be fixed out at sea and thus the crew now had to steer manually for the duration of the trip. 

For meals, the crew depended mainly of freeze-dried food that was prepared by pouring boiling water into the sachet containers. This led to the next setback, when two huge waves hit the boat four days later: Shane Usher was preparing a meal and boiling water splashed onto his leg, creating serious blisters. Despite ointment and bandaging, the wounds continued to deteriorate – and after four days, it became necessary to embark on a casualty evacuation. Global Rescue was contacted and a tanker was diverted to arrive a scant five hours later. 

The first attempt to winch him on board in a basket nearly ended in disaster, as their limited steering capacity proved to be too erratic when the tanker was nearly blown onto their boat. An oar was broken in fending it off. In the end, a lifeboat was lowered to complete the transfer.  

The loss of Shane meant that for the remaining 25 days, they could only have two oarsmen at a time – with one person steering!

While fairly far out, it was decided to switch the destination to the Seychelles. Storms and unseasonal winds had blown them too far north to make Durban safely and, due to current unrest in Kenya and Somalia, this was the only viable option. 

The Seychelles also has a pirate problem, and as they neared their destination, a 12m wooden skiff approached and radioed the demand that they stop. It was manned by a group of swarthy looking individuals claiming they were fishermen – but there was nary a rod in sight. Brown decided to brazen it out and they carried on rowing. When asked what they were up to, he replied that they were on a Royal Navy exercise, waiting to be refuelled. That did the trick and the suspicious boat scooted off. 

The interlude with the suspected pirates was the final drama in their marathon journey and they continued on to a welcome at the harbour in Victoria – the capital city of Mahe. 

When Cameron Bellamy set out from Geraldton, he weighed 105 kilogrammes. On arriving back in Cape Town in high spirits after his arduous crossing, he weighed 87kg, his hands were calloused – and the Ubunye Foundation was R798 660 better off.

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer