Scots adventurer returns after Antarctic row

SCOTTISH rower Jamie Douglas-Hamilton has returned home after breaking eight world records in the Antarctic, despite bad weather scuppering his hopes of reaching South Georgia.

Douglas-Hamilton was part of a six-strong crew that set out from Northern Antarctica’s King George Island on 11 January, aiming to recreate Sir Ernest Shackleton’s escape to South Georgia after the loss of his ship, Endurance.

This year’s row honoured Harry McNish, the Scottish carpenter on Shackleton’s ill-fated voyage, who made their wooden lifeboat seaworthy enough to reach safety in South Georgia.

Douglas-Hamilton and his team – who rowed without a sail – reached the South Orkney Islands before calling off their expedition.

“We rowed in 90-minute shifts eight times per day in huge seas, burning [more than] 10,000 calories per day,” he explained.

“The waves were enormous and was like looking up at fast moving walls of water the size of warehouses – we came so close to fully capsizing many times in the freezing water.

“We all suffered from sea sickness to some degree and one member had chronic sea sickness to the point he couldn’t hold any food or liquid down and was evacuated to the supervising vessel following us before getting hypothermia.

“The strong westerly and north-westerly winds made getting far enough north to reach South Georgia less and less likely and if we had continued, we would have had less than 50% chance of getting there.

“This became all the more clear with one rower down and several others developing frost bite – the temperature was averaging one degree but with the wind chill and 100% humidity we were borderline hypothermic.”

Douglas-Hamilton – who underwent open heart surgery at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh just five months before the expedition – added: “These rowing boats are designed for the warm weather of mid Atlantic crossings and the cabins were like cold, humid fridges with everything being soaking wet.

“Our legs would sometimes shake uncontrollably and then this moved to our torso and came close to hypothermia.

“Despite only lasting six days, this row was tough – tougher than previous rows across the Drake Passage and Indian Ocean – and I returned home with frostnip [the stage before frost bite] in my fingers and feet, which is a very painful condition that takes months to fully recover from.

“Despite all the suffering there were beautiful moments being followed by penguins, whales, orcas, and seeing enormous ice burgs the size of towns, and rowing past islands that look like the top of Himalayan peaks and the beautiful colours of the Iceland these are memories I will treasure forever.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to row as far to reach South Georgia as we had initially planned, but we are delighted to have reached the South Orkney Islands achieving eight world records and have so much new respect for Harry McNish who made a small wooden lifeboat seaworthy in the world’s stormiest seas with the most limited of tools, nails and wood.

“He was the true hero of the Shackleton expedition who was the reason they all survived – I hope the story of the injustice is known and I will be campaigning for Harry McNish to be awarded the polar medal posthumously.”

Read more stories on Scottish Field’s outdoors pages.

Plus, don’t miss Guy Grieve’s column in the March issue of Scottish Field magazine.