Rowing for Elephants


Gemma Francis

Date Published

As Africa’s elephants face perhaps the biggest challenge in their history, an intrepid rowing crew is taking on one of the world’s toughest oceans to support them. Thirty-seven attempts have been made to row from Australia to Africa across the Indian Ocean, but none have yet succeeded.

Along their 5,000 mile, world record-breaking journey, the crew have been smashed by giant waves and have faced some of the sea’s biggest and most dangerous creatures. Despite being a man down following a dramatic mid-ocean rescue of a wounded team member they are now little more than 1,000 miles away from the coast of Africa.

On the team being led by experienced ocean row skipper Leven Brown is Jamie Douglas-Hamilton, cousin of the founder of Save the Elephants Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Jamie has been thrown in at the deep end with this, his first ever oceanic expedition.

“I was rowing with Cameron and Heather when a 60 foot wave hit us,” he wrote in a letter sent via satellite after a hurricane swept past their craft. “It took us all clean off our seats, smashing me into the safety lines, semi-capsizing the boat and Heather was washed over board. In that 24 hours I have never been so alert and worked so hard.”

Other waves capsized the boat three times and swamped it hundreds of times. While occasional catches of fish brightened their diet, at one point they feared ending up as someone else’s lunch when they began being followed by a large shark. Later they came in for another close encounter, when they collided with a whale.

“We were cruising along in fairly consistent and calm conditions when we felt an enormous bump to the starboard side of our boat,” wrote rower Tim Spiteri. “Looking around we were gob smacked to see a large body mostly submerged, appear on the port side. It was a Blue Whale!”

If successful this experienced crew, who are rowing a 45ft monohull christened ‘Avalon’, will be the first in history to row across the Southern Indian Ocean from Australia to Africa unsupported. They will have covered over 100 miles a day in unpredictable and sometimes severe conditions. Save the Elephants is following their progress day by day, through Avalon’s blog, and fullsize live tracking map and daily tracking log.

Among the multinational crew raising funds for elephants is Iain Douglas-Hamilton’s cousin Jamie Douglas-Hamilton and Skipper Leven Brown, rowing for elephants, whilst other team members Tim Spiteri, Cameron Bellamy, Shane Usher, Fiann Paul and Heather Rees-Gaunt are raising additional funds for Multiple Sclerosis Research Australia, the Fiann Paul Foundation, Hafal (mental health), and the Ubunye Challenge/Angus Gillis Foundation.

On day 30 of this 60-day perilous voyage, which commenced on June 11, the team sadly lost a crew member, Shane Usher, who suffered burns to his right thigh and hamstring while using the Jet Boil to prepare food. Shane was evacuated, over to bulk carrier ‘NORDIC RIVER’, in a difficult and seriously life-threatening operation for all 7 crew members.

Shane recalls the terrifying moment when Avalon was drifting towards the ships’ hull too quickly: “…we were now approaching the turbines of the ship. There was a flurry of distress calls to move away from us on the radio, lest we be smashed to a million pieces by those massive turbines. It came frightfully close.”

Shane was devastated to leave the mission in the hands of his teammates, bringing the crew down to just 6. With a grueling 2 hours awake rowing and 2 hours asleep schedule, it means that now only two of the crew are rowing while one steers and the others sleep.

Save the Elephants is immensely grateful to Leven, Jamie, and the rest of the crew of the Avalon in supporting such vital causes and in raising global awareness of the poaching crisis, which if not curbed will see the end of one of Africa’s most revered icons.

For those who wish to support Jamie and the team on their extraordinary journey and encourage them to row even harder, please donate generously here.


Rowing for elephants

Avalon leaving Geraldton, Western Australia