From skulls to sculling: Brain surgeon and friend row down the entire Danube


AN EDINBURGH brain surgeon has completed a 2,000-mile charity rowing journey – becoming the first to row the entire length of the Danube across Europe.

Teaming up with a friend, 32-year-old Mark Hughes traveled through or past 10 countries in the journey, lasting almost a month.

Taking shifts of rowing one hour each in their boat, Edinburgh neurosurgeon Mark and Jonathan Cowie, 31, needed to cover at least 100km a day just to stay on target for reaching the Black Sea.

Mark, left, is a brain surgeon at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary
Mark, left, is a brain surgeon at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary


The pair say they are now likely to smash their target of raising £10,000 for two small charities Cardiac Risk in the Young and Friends of Navajeevana, which helps disabled people in Sri Lanka respectively.

The ambitious bid saw them set off from Ulmo in Germany on 10 June to reach Constanta in Romania on 6 July – rowing, sleeping and eating on the boat.

Mark and Jonathan, an accountant with RBS in London who is originally from Dumfries, are thought to have been the first ever to attempt the feat.

The pair dodged busy shipping lanes and were caught in a lightning storm during their journey in the seven-meter-long Fight & Spirit, nicknamed the “Whisky Boat” after its sponsors Ardbeg.

Their start was delayed by the worst flooding the Danube had seen in hundreds of years, meaning they had to stay in Ulmo for an extra week before setting off.

But the local rowing club have welcomed them with traditional Bavarian hospitality: beers, drinking games and a stay in a Bavarian castle.

To keep their spirits and strength up on the water, the boat was stocked with 150 porridge bars, 50 packets of super-noodles, 10 litres of sun cream, and an all-important warming dram of whisky, helpfully provided by their main sponsor, Ardbeg.

After setting off on 10 June, they were stopped by river police in Hungary a week later, who warned them it was not safe to continue due to the flooding.

After the river was re-opened they pressed on, but later hit a lightning storm in Serbia.



Mark, who is based at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, wrote on a blog for the expedition on June 23, saying: “After leaving Red Star RC [In Belgrade], we planned to do another late night rowing session.

“However, a massive and spectacular lighting storm forced a change if plan. Oars being great conductors of electricity, we bolted for the shore and found a place to tie up.

“Thunder was deafening and caused boat to vibrate.”

Writing on the blog earlier this month, Mark announced the pair had completed the journey: “We’ve made it to Constanta – intact.

“When the proceeds from selling the boat come through and are added in, we look likely to exceed the £10,000 fundraising target (but there’s still time to donate).”

He added later: “Jonathan and I are extremely excited to have completed our adventure to row down the Danube.

“It has been the ultimate journey and we very much appreciate the support from the ultimate Islay malt whisky, Ardbeg.”

The two friends, who between them have over 20 years’ rowing experience, competed against each other as teenagers for Scotland and Wales.

They became friends at Edinburgh University where they were both active members of the EUBC rowing club.