The Story so far
I know that some of you will have read my other three posts about the lads and of course some of won't have read them and that's no problem. I'll include the links to them below just in case anybody wants to read them first, but I know how precious people's time is and this post is just one of many that you will be trying to read within a likely short window, so with that in mind, I'll quickly paraphrase what happened in the lead up to week 3 and continue from there afterwards.
This series brings you tales of exploration and woe from two Irishmen who embarked on one of the hardest challenges imaginable. Damien Browne and Fergus Farrell who are fellow Galwaymen set out to row across the Atlantic ocean from New York to Galway on Ireland's West coast unsupported, which means that there is no safety boat alongside them for emergencies, it's just them their oars and the roaring waves.
The lads set out to make history and aim to be the first crew to successfully row from New York to Galway, unsupported. Following some last minute scrambling to locate a Sat phone, and loading up some last provisions, including jelly babies and chocolate bars (seriously) they final set sail, well now, as there are no sails! They set off from New York on June 13th on their 6.2 metre rowing boat called Cushlamachree, next stop Galway and the "Bonfires of Aran" as Damian often says.
The two guys know each other from playing rugby in Galway and both represented Ireland at Junior level and have remained friends ever since. Damien had a very successful rugby career, having played for Connacht, Northampton Saints and Leinster over the years. When his career ended, Damian had to find new challenges to fill his days and find them he did. Everest basecamp and other mountaineering expeditions, ultra marathons, oh and he rowed an ocean! Yep, this is going to be his second ocean rowed if he gets over the line.
Fergus then had a near death experience a few years ago, which left him over 95% certain to be paralysed and unable to walk again, and after making a miraculous recovery, he too craved challenge and when the lifelong friends met up a few years ago, project Empower and rowing an ocean together while raising money for charities was born. Those charities are Ability West, the Galway Simon Community, Madra animal rescue and the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) foundation, all very worthy recipients. I covered the ups and downs of the first couple of weeks in these posts in case you want to catch up, otherwise let's crack on.
Life after Gussy
And then there was one. You'll know from reading last week's epic, that the bould Gussy is no more on Cushlamachree, he had to be rescued after a medical emergency and was thankfully safely evacuated via Singapore based tanker called Hafnia Shenzhen. It was the last thing that Fergus would have wanted after training so hard for this challenge with Damian, but sometimes these things happen and you just have to get on with it regardless.
Damian too would have to get on with things, what was already a monumental challenge had turned into a monumental challenge squared or maybe even cubed, as where they had two guys rowing almost constantly previously and the boat always inching forward, Damian would now need to row alone, and whenever he stopped to eat or rest or sleep, there was a chance that conditions like wind or currents could push him backwards eating away at precious mileage that he toiled so hard for.
That is what he signed up for though and by his own words Ocean rowing is not easy and never will be, it will push a man or woman to their absolute limits every time. This expedition is most certainly going to push Damian to his absolute limits, but he actually likes having to go those limits as he finds that he learns a lot about himself in these high pressure challenges and when he gets back to day to day life, nothing can overwhelm him in comparison to the Ocean crossing and its many travails.
Going from two rowers to one would take a reset and a complete change in patterns and getting used to being alone in an Ocean rowing boat would take some getting used to as well, but Damian was lucky enough to have experience from his last Ocean row which was a solo mission, so that piece would be easier to come to terms with.
Damian made a conscious decision to take his time in the wake of Gussy's departure and not just rush back in without taking stock, so he sat down and tried to come up with a plan, but he was lucky enough to be in the gulf stream at this time, so the currents beneath the boat were helping him go in the direction in which he needed to go. That was really a blessing, as it meant that he could catch up on some rest and try to mentally reset. He managed to sleep for eight hours the night after Gussy left and that night the currents projected him forward by twenty miles which is next level shit when it comes to Ocean rowing.
The gulf stream really gave him the rest bite he needed to reset and if it were the opposite and he was facing into a storm or high winds it would have been near enough impossible for him to get through these days just after his departure. This was how Damian summed it up himself on Facebook:
"There’s a deep unidentified worry within me about Fergus leaving the expedition. I feel a threat but I’m not exactly sure what that threat is something is telling me “you need time & mental space”, so I decide pretty immediately to give myself 3 to 4 days to reset and “find my feet” as a solo rower for the rest of this epic undertaking."
"Standards will be relaxed for that period."
"With an emotional volcano on the precipice of eruption the last thing I need is to be getting on my own case now over not adhering to the tough standards I normally set myself. It’s a recipe for huge mental agitation so I’m giving myself permission to dial back and rebuild over the next few days; not a 6 strategy I’ve used before but my intuition tells me it’s the right thing to do right now."
"Depressurize what you can."
"There's nothing good in Fergus leaving this expedition but in a way his timing couldn’t have been better as the Gulf Stream is carrying Cushlamachree & I, far and fast today as the sun bakes down on us. If I’d been fighting for mileage today it would have undoubtedly broken me."
He has a great understanding of what he can and can't, should and shouldn't do and from listening to him, he almost always makes the right decision at the right time. I suppose on an unsupported crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, you need to have those instincts and wits about you.
Wildlife on the Atlantic
I wonder to myself sometimes if I would ever take on something like this? I quickly come to the conclusion that there is not a single chance. Row to the Aran islands just off Galway, yes, row to England, perhaps? Row around the Irish coast, I'd actually love to, but row across the Atlantic ocean, potentially full on rowing for 12 hours a day for up to and maybe more than 100 days? Ahhhhh, no, no thank you very much, I value my sanity!
The absolute slog of rowing that much every day would put me off, but there are certain things that would be class, like jumping into the middle of the Atlantic for a quick swim and a wash, that would be unreal or then there is the wildlife which Damian talks about at various points along his own journey, to see some amazing mammals up close and personal in their natural habitat would be amazing I'd imagine.
It didn't take long for the lads to have their first encounters either. On day three, they saw a group of Sea turtles bombing along beside the boat, which was a view to behold for the two lads, then there were many viewing of groups of porpoises, pods of dolphins and even Whales. That last one would be pinnacle for me, I am lucky enough to have seen Whales before in Fraser Island in Australia and I will always remember that view, but to see them swim near the boat and breach and blow water out of their blowhole must be a sight to behold forever.
There were plenty of friends in the sky that accompanied the boat too, even a thousand miles out to sea, Damian encountered birds and there was a number black birds that were always close by and eventually a couple of them took refuge on the boat and initially Damian tried to get them back in the air, but soon realised that they were taking a little rest. I'm sure flying across the Atlantic is up there with rowing across it in terms of difficulty levels. Here is one of those birds.
Damian nicknamed her Lass and she was his little pet on the boat for a while, until she eventually got back to flying the Atlantic, nice for him to have a companion for a little while, as I can only imagine how lonely an endeavor like this one would be.
If wildlife is one of the highlights of rowing an Ocean, then storms is probably the exact flipside of the coin. It's hard enough rowing into high winds or currents, but when the storms come along, there is literally no other choice than to deploy the Parra anchor I talked about in part 1 and hope that it does it's job. Even if it does do it's job, you will lose mileage in two ways. Firstly, no matter how well deployed and how good the Parra anchor is, you are going to lose a little bit of ground, not tens or hundreds of miles that you would lose without it, but valuable mileage nonetheless. Added to that is the rowing that you cannot do during the storm, you literally have to just wait it out and try and catch up on some much needed sleep.
That's not going to be all that easy though in a massive storm where the boat is being tossed about and you are in danger of getting capsized, which happened numerous times to Damian on this crossing so far.
He was lucky enough to have the Gulf stream help in the few days after Gussy left, but Days 21 to 25 were stormy and very very difficult to get through, but get through them he did. Storms are not the only enemy however, there are currents as well, and these currents seriously hindered his progress between days 26 and 30. Here are Damian's thoughts on day 27, when the currents are pushing him to his limits:
"I wake to see I’ve lost only one mile overnight; I’m delighted with that. In comparison to the way Cushla was tracking backwards yesterday when I stopped rowing, this is a huge win."
"I pick up the oars buoyed by the energy elicited through yesterday’s fight. I’m determined & happy to be here. Although the seas are calm; one of those days where the swell rolls lazily along, the going is slow from the start."
"After 90 mins I take my first break and see what I didn’t hope to see. ‘Cushla’ going West (backwards). I instantly start to regret not going further South last night."
"I don’t waste too much time and get back rowing to protect my mileage. Another 90 mins brings little progress. I touch base with New Ocean Wave for some tactical advice. He gives me a new waypoint."
"For the next two hours I put the head down and work hard on the bearing. It’s a tough grind into the elements but it should get me clear of this demoralizing adverse current. My honest efforts over those 120 minute brought me the grand total of 0.6NM in forward progression."
"Exhausted I hop into the cabin to rest for 15 minutes and lose 0.3NM of that progress. My the time I’m on the oars again, roughly 30 mins from putting them down, I’ve gone backwards 0.8NM."
"Heart breaking stuff."
Another tough break for Damian was that during the storms, he lost his working jetboil which he uses to heat his meals. They have a second one, but it stopped working in the first few days. He had a go at fixing it, but that was unsuccessful meaning that from day 25 (approx.) onwards he is looking at cold meals only.
Want to know more?
Join me again next week for part 5, as Damian and Cushlamachree reach the halfway mark of the Atlantic crossing.
Also, if you can't wait for that, follow the big man at any of these places. I have been listening to his pod casts the whole way along which have been brilliant and very motivational. I would highly recommend them to you all.