Team Sets New Speed Record Rowing the North Atlantic, the K2 of Ocean Rowing
By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photography courtesy of Leven Brown
In 1896, Norwegians George Harbo and Frank Samuelson rowed across
the North Atlantic Ocean in 55 days and 13 hours, setting a speed
record that would stand for 114 years. Last week the record was smashed
by the four-man Artemis North Atlantic Rowing Challenge, skippered by
an unassuming, 37-year-old Scot named Leven Brown (pronounced "Lee-ven" and standing at far right in the photograph).
Brown and his teammates–Irishman Ray Carroll, Englishman Don
Lennox, and Faroe Islander Livar Nysted–rowed from New York to the
British Scilly Isles in 43 days, 21 hours, and 26 minutes. Now back on
dry land, Adventure caught up with Brown to get a run down of the
Why did you choose to take on this record?
Leven Brown: There are two recognized speed records in the Atlantic–the Trade Winds
Route, which goes from the Canary Islands to Trinidad and Tobago, and
the North Atlantic Route (from the U.S. to Britain). Ever since we
broke record for the Trade Winds Route in 2008, we always figured, to be
complete, we really had to go there and back again. Also, the North Atlantic Route was always interesting for busting up boats and busting up people.
It’s the K2 of ocean rowing, the toughest route there is and the one
that has claimed the most boats.
A lot has been made of this record. Can you explain why it is so prestigious?
It’s the psychology of taking on the North Atlantic. This is the same
stretch of ocean made famous by Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm.
Before us, 30 boats had attempted to break the record and there had
been seven deaths. The weather changes so quickly up there, it’s like
mountain climbing. You can be rowing in a glassy, mild ocean, then 12
hours later you are in 40-foot waves and 50-knot wind gusts.
Did you guys ever get into serious trouble?
We capsized a couple of times and lost men overboard twice. The waves in
the North Atlantic seem to be much steeper and much colder than any that
I have encountered. During one storm, we had surfed down the face of a
wave when the crest of another hit the bow of our boat which acted like
a golf club and catapulted Livar 30 feet from the boat. The reason we
were able to measure that with so much confidence was because he was
wearing a safety line that measured exactly 30 feet and it stopped
him. If he hadn’t had that on, he would have been thrown even further.
How did you get into rowing?
I’m only five-foot-nine. I used to say I was 5’10’’ until i stood next to
someone who was 5’10’’. Because of my height, I was always too small
for river rowing, so endurance sports were always my thing.
I grew up on a small farm south of Edinburgh, in a town called Selkirk, and
started off in cross-country running. From there, I moved on to
survival and bush-craft. But I always remember enjoying being on
boats. My earliest recollection is being five or six and paddling a
dinghy around. In fact, there is a picture of me on Facebook at the age
of six in rowboat with my brother.
Dinghy rowing is a little different than rowing across an ocean…
When I was 15, I attended [the famous British sailor/rower] John
Ridgway’s adventure school. When I was there, I heard that Ridgway had
rowed across the North Atlantic in 1966, and it hit me as such a daft thing
to do. I was gobsmacked that someone would try to do such a thing. I
investigated it more and found that the expedition was all military
guys, and I wondered if a normal person, like me, could do it. When I
was 33, I put down my pencil and picked up some oars.
Being a “normal guy,” why do you think you were able to beat the record so convincingly?
Well, the weather was great, but perhaps the secret of going quicker was that
we had a good crew and we had rowed together before. No other crew
that had attempted the feat had rowed an ocean together before. Even
the Norwegians were a new pair. I think that (lack of experience) is
where horror stories come from.
What was the hardest part of the expedition?
You are in constant pain. Your hands get blisters and, because your
backside is constantly wet from sweat and sea water, after three or four
days you get sores from sitting down. All of this starts to bother you
after about a week and keeps building until it hits a crescendo just
before you finish.
It’s also very cramped. In Britain, there is a law regarding how small jail cells are allowed to be. Our cabin was 1/32 the size of the smallest British jail cell. It was barely as big as the front two seats of a car. So we rowed and rested twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, until we hit something, preferably England. Being that close to your fellow man for that long is tough.
How do you occupy your mind?
People are always asking us what we talk about and the fact of the mater is
that we don’t really talk. There’s not much to say: “What did you do
today?” “Well, I rowed a bit.” So aside from talking about what we are going to eat that day, there is very little conversation. Personally, I just empty my mind. You kind of go into a trance-like state in which you don’t feel it necessary to
speak. I’ve often wanted to ask guys like (climber) Conrad Anker what
he thinks about when he’s on the mountain. I would expect it’s the same
It seems like all good endurance athletes are able to achieve the state you mentioned. Do you enjoy it?
I enjoy the simple life you have in the ocean. Apart from your environment, there are very little complications. Don’t get me wrong, I love the complications of dry land. But its lovely to have the contrast. It makes being back on land that much sweeter, makes you
appreciate things far more.
Tell me about the food on board.
When you’re are rowing, you burn 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day. A guy my
size can process about 6,000 calories a day so that immediately put me
at a calorie deficit. We spent about a year training for the expedition
and the last month in New York was all about fattening up. We sampled
some of those massive pizzas and ate a lot of pancake breakfasts —
which I had never had before. People laughed at us because we are
supposedly elite athletes and we were all overweight, but I lost a pound
a day during the the voyage.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
On the boat, we had mostly freeze dried meals like lamb pilaf, chili con carne, and beef shepherd’s pies. We augmented those with dried fruits,
nuts, soups, hot chocolates, flapjacks (a type of British oat bar) and
tea. The Irishman and the Faroese were laughing at us two Brits for
bringing tea, but we thought it was necessary. We all spent a lot of
time fantasizing about our first meal on land. Mine was steak and chips
British people are famously stereotyped for their stoicism and stiff upper lips, do you think that has some truth in it?
I don’t think it is just British people. The crew we had on this voyage
all had that inner toughness. They didn’t complain or whinge, they just
got on with things and got them done. Ray got an ingrown toenail and
didn’t start complaining until it became septic and I had to operate on
it with a Swiss army knife. Even then, when I was done, he didn’t talk
about how much it hurt, just about how much better it felt.
Is this kind of stoicism common among the guys you have rowed with?
think there is a deep, intrinsic optimism that is common to all great
endurance athletes, like mountaineers or rowers. You can’t picture any
other way besides finishing the task at hand. When I got off the boat
in the Scilly islands, One of my cousins said: “Brown, I never thought
you’d do it.”
I responded: “I never thought I couldn’t”
Are people born like this, or can they learn this type of mentality?
often than not, its the way you have been brought up and the
environments you have been in (that teach this mentality). In our last
voyage, we lost the boat and had to evacuate in a force seven gale.
When we were sitting int the sinking boat I saw fear in a couple of
guys’ faces and there was nothing you could do to calm them down. We
weren’t in any real danger, but If you’re not used to that environment,
your imagination plays havoc with your survival instincts. A lot of
folk have said we are crazy and have a death wish. but we know what
nature can be like: we might be crazy but we certainly don’t have a