Issue 5 of The Old Diocesan, feature: Cameron Bellamy (2000B) recently navigated his way, along with 5 other men, through Drake Passage in a rowboat.
Charity can be a great motivator for those looking to break records and perform feats of physical endurance – none more so than Cameron Bellamy, who recently rowed from South America to Antarctica… By Jeremy Ryall (2014F).
You need a certain a mind-set to commit to gruelling endurance challenges – a mind-set that trusts the suffering and enjoys the hardship. Cameron Bellamy (2000B)
is no stranger to this process. In 2014, along with his crew, he completed the fastest recorded Indian Ocean crossing in a rowboat, and he is the only South African to successfully complete the “Oceans Seven” – a marathon swimming challenge consisting of seven open-water channel swims (the swimming equivalent of the Seven Summits). As mentioned in Issue 4, he also swam a mammoth 150km from Barbados to St Lucia in 57 hours – the longest-ever channel swim in history – while raising money for his charity, Ubunye Challenge. More recently, with a team of five like-minded athletes, he navigated Drake Passage, widely considered to be the most dangerous stretch of ocean in the world, in 12 days, covering more than 600 miles amid waves that reached 20 feet. While this has been achieved before, it had never been in a rowboat powered only by human strength. The team was followed by the Discovery Channel, with a short documentary due for release later this year.
“Endurance sports have given me a chance to leverage something I enjoy to give back to others,” says Cameron. “This is why I started the Ubunye Challenge.” Founded in 2011, the charity helps alleviate the formal education challenges among children in the Eastern Cape.
I spoke to Cameron via email, while he was in transit back to his home in San Francisco, to find out why he’s so eager to suffer for charity and how he deals with it. You started rowing at 13. What drew you to the sport?
I grew up in a sailing family, but I never really took to it. I’d get frustrated at having to rely on the wind to move. My brother rowed for Bishops, and did well, so when I got to the school, I decided to give it a go. I fell in love with it immediately. Being on the water, moving in sync with your crewmates, and the heavy endurance aspect all appealed to me. What was your first endurance challenge – and why did you do it?
After university, I lived and worked in China for three years. Then I decided to quit my job and cycle to India, solo. The 6,000km took four months; an amazing trip filled with adventure. Having given up rowing to move to China, I wanted a physical challenge – and I wanted to get out into the world. The cycling gave me a chance to see beautiful scenery and meet new people. Tell us about your record-breaking Indian Ocean crossing in 2014.
We had a system of two hours on, two hours off for the duration. As you can imagine, the endurance aspect is extreme. The first week was super-tiring and uncomfortable – but after 20 days or so, the body adjusts, so it started to feel normal. The storms in the first three weeks were huge: we encountered three low-pressure storms, one of which was hurricane-strength, with waves reaching 40 feet. We almost collided with an oil tanker, had an encounter with a pirate ship and hit a blue whale. When we got into the tropics, we were able to maintain a more consistent pace. You’re a water and ocean lover. Why do you think you only started endurance swimming at 29?
Rowing was my big love growing up, but once I started the Ubunye Challenge I wanted to try other sports to raise money. I decided to swim the English Channel – that’s when I “learnt” to swim. It took eight months of training to tackle the English Channel successfully. How do you prepare for these swims?
I set a programme based on trying to swim the distance I’m training for – to do it every week. The Oceans Seven swims are generally 21 miles, which means about 12 hours a week. But Barbados to St Lucia is 95 miles, which means about 55 hours a week. That’s tough! What unexpected challenges have you faced?
Tying to manage work, charity and swimming is difficult, especially as I fund all my swims and rows myself. But when you love something and you really push yourself, everything seems to work out in the end. Tell us about your diet – before, during and after an event.
It’s quite simple: I eat as much as possible when I’m training. It helps to think of my body as a furnace; everything I eat gets burnt and used for energy. While swimming, I stick to a diet that I’ve designed over the past eight years: carbohydrate drinks, nut butters, energy gels, bananas, etc. Which is more difficult: rowing or swimming?
Rowing is definitely more dangerous, but I’d say it’s more difficult to be successful at swimming. During a swim, you know you only have one chance to make the crossing, and you can’t get any help. During a row, you generally have crewmates who can “pull you along” if need be. Once you’re out in the ocean, the rate of success is high. Essentially, they’re both mental exercises, and I think that’s why I’ve excelled at both. What’s the most hazardous situation you’ve found yourself in?
I was stung by four box jellyfish at 1am while doing a 24-hour training swim in Barbados. I was 100m offshore. Luckily, I had a kayaker with me, who helped me get to shore. If I hadn’t – I usually don’t – I don’t think I would have made it back… What do you do when you’re not preparing for a challenge?
I’m a businessman, and run a cyber-security company. I met my business partner while swimming the Strait of Gibraltar. It was so random – doing the swim together, then discussing work/business afterwards. Six months later, we were business partners in San Francisco. I’m quite “hands-off”, which allows for flexibility when it comes to training and travel. But when I’m not training, I work quite hard. What stopped you from swimming around Barbados on your first attempt? How do you deal with failure?
I didn’t have the best preparation. We waited almost a month to get a good weather window. About two-thirds of the way around the island, I felt I had nothing else to give. However, I knew that with a bit more training and a bit more weather luck, I could
make it. I had a great swim the second time around. My way of dealing with failure is not getting attached to any particular goal – so if I succeed, I don’t get too carried away; and if I fail, I don’t get too down about it. This mind-set helps me stay present; to enjoy every moment of training and the actual events. How do you handle the physical and mental pain?
I overcome the pain by processing it. Once you’ve processed mental or physical pain properly, it’s easy to push it away and forget about it. What made you start doing events for charity?
After cycling across Asia, I wanted to keep doing endurance challenges – but for a cause. In 2011, when I was in London, I managed to convince some other South Africans and Zimbabweans to join me. I think everyone, especially those who grow up privileged, should give back in some way, in whatever capacity they can. Using endurance sports, which I’m good at, has given me a chance to leverage something I enjoy to give back. What’s your end goal with the Ubunye Challenge?
I think our vision statement sums it up: that no child in South Africa should be without access to education – especially early childhood development. Why education – and why the Eastern Cape?
There is a big issue in the Eastern Cape – kids don’t have access to early childhood development. Their first day of formal education is at the age of 5 or 6, but they’re not exposed to essential learning when their minds are developing the fastest (up until the age of 5). We want to change this. Where we work, about 100km north of Grahamstown, there were no formal early childhood development classes as recently as nine years ago. Now there are 16 sites teaching 400 kids every day. What’s next?
I’m planning a big swim in August this year. If my training goes well – and depending on which swim I choose – it could be the longest unassisted swim in history. Click here for Issue 5 of The Old Diocesan