The distant glow of two lamp posts morphed into one as dawn welcomed our early adrenaline fuelled efforts. What started out as a guiding light, had soon become two and then back to one as the incandescent glows of the two pier street lights firstly touched and then blended as we rowed away from the sleeping island.
I wish I could say I started looking more towards Ireland for an adventure since the world locked down due to COVID -19 and hence why I decided to row a currach from the Aran Islands to Galway City, but that wasn’t the case. This little adventure was thought up to try and garner some publicity and support for a huge project of mine, Project EMPOWER.
Project EMPOWER is a big part of what I see as my legacy, and something I have been dreaming about doing since I finished my solo Atlantic row in February 2018. Here is the official spiel: A project to encapsulate two men’s journeys to prepare for, partake in and persevere through one of the world’s most extreme challenges, rowing 5000kms unsupported across the unforgiving North Atlantic Ocean from New York to Galway, sharing the depths of their internal and external journeys with brutal honesty and the pure intention of duty to others so they can expand themselves in their life journeys.
This traditional voyage was to symbolised what will be the last, triumphant leg of Project EMPOWER in the summer of 2022, while promoting and respecting the seafaring heritage of the West of Ireland coastal communities.
It didn’t start well! I am always anxious before endeavours like this as there’s so much unknown ahead and hence much that can go wrong. I recognise this worry as part of being out of my comfort zone and have wired positive associations with the feeling, reframing it quite easily, (if aware of it). However that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the emotion and my strategy to deal with it is to take two short windows (the evening before and morning of the event) to visualise the journey and possible/probable challenges that could/will appear based on all the information and experience I have at that time. This helps ready the mind and unveil some of the unknowns to the front of my awareness, preparing me to make better decisions if something happens. Apart from possible disasters like the currach being turned over or one of us falling out of it, my biggest concern was the launch on the beach in the surf and the wind strength forecast for late morning in the tidal funnel between Black Head and Inis Óirr. I was right to be worried about the former.
‘Measure twice, cut once’. A cool and gentle early morning breeze welcomed us at the currach on An Trá. In these moments its ultra important to be patient and prepare everything well and correct, even though the impulse is to get into the battle as soon as possible. This mindset can save a lot of heartache later, so after about 30 minutes of readying the boat and gear, plus watching what the surf was doing, we had a plan and were ready to start.
‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’ That was certainly the case for Gussy and I as my mistake in who would enter the currach first and last gave the waves time to catch hold of the front of the boat and turn it slightly sideways. Next, unfortunately for us, one of the biggest waves we’d seen all morning crashed into the slightly exposed side of the boat and threw the boat fully sideways on and vulnerably back into that area of beach and break, nearly turning us over and throwing us both out of the boat. We were a sitting duck and Gussy had lost his shoe in the maelstrom! After a panicked and futile attempt to row out of the situation it was clear the longer the boat spent in that position the more chance another wave was going to complete the job it’s friend hadn’t. We needed to start again, but this time with a different sequence of entry, so after dragging the currach out of the surf and straightening her up, Gussy got in first and readied his oars to row as I, in waist deep water, held the back of the boat straight into the incoming waves, waiting for an opportunity to jump in. Soon it presented itself and with a shout of “ROW, ROW, ROW” to Gussy we were away… finally.
We started in ideal conditions with North Easterlies blowing us away from the island and wave direction aligned, making the rowing smooth and our ability to stay in sync much easier as steering was not such a worry. As almost a compliment to the peaceful state of the conditions and ourselves we were treated to the most spectacular sunrise over the Burren.
Not long after the sun had broke the horizon of the Clare Hills it was becoming clear to me that our plan to head to the inside of Black Head was not going to happen as the currents and winds started to pushed us North to Galway. Although the shortest distance to land was Co. Clare and getting ‘inside’ Black Head as early as possible was the goal to give us some shelter from the winds pushing up the coast that were forecast to strengthen to 15kt+ after 10/11am, we decided to go with the elements and let the boat be pushed North rather than fight it for a few hours. Probably a battle we couldn’t win anyway and one that would be draining and stressful.
After 3 hours of rowing we had strong visibility of land and could recognise we were already past Inverin from a combination of Google Maps and local knowledge. For the next couple of hours we counted Aer Arann flights hopping from Mainland to Islands and back, trying to guess which one our photographer Emilija was on in her dash back to Galway City and to get onto our support boat leaving from The Docks later that afternoon, skippered by Ronan.
The noise of a little 7 seater plane is surprisingly loud and disturbing from a currach on the bay and as they busily shuttled passengers back and forth, we battled worsening conditions now along the Co.Galway Coastline.
A southerly wind, an incoming tide and a wave directions hitting the boat side on all configured to make the next portion of the voyage particularly tense as we found ourselves a little too close to land for comfort. On two occasions, first at Padraicins in Furbo and secondly at The Connemara Coast hotel we had to point the currach upwind and into the tidal current and row hard to round some rocks jutting out from the coast and in the process welcoming a lot of water over the sides. Soon with an uncomfortable amount of water on board and no bucket to bail with, I took the only reasonable option I could see and started to empty the currach of it’s unwanted weight with my trainer!
My partner Gussy was very impressive in his work through these tough moments. Nearly two years ago to the day, Gussy suffered a freak workplace accident that left him paralysed with no feeling below his belly button. 6 weeks after emergency surgery in the Spinal Injuries Unit of The Mater Hospital in Dublin and being given a 5% chance to ever walk again by his surgeon he unexpectedly felt a twinge in his big toe back in University College Hospital Galway and never looked back, slowly regaining sensation and feeling into his lower limbs over many months, then his mobility and relearning how to walk. All his belief, work and perseverance accumulating in him walking 206kms across the country from Athenry, when the accident happened, to The NRH in Dun Laoghaire, who had played such a vital role in this rehabilitation.
We’ve been friends since we were in our teens and had the odd adventure before around the world together but this was different. Not since our days playing rugby in Galwegians RFC and Connacht under age teams have we had to fight through something together and much has changed for us both since those innocent days 20 years ago, so I was unsure how he’d cope with the demands of rowing for 9 hours straight. However, I needn’t have, as he worked hard and consistently on the oars in a very stoic manner with hardly a word of verbal communication but plenty of positive non-verbal exchanges.
We continued to count down the Co. Galway landmarks and fight the Northerly conditions after that; Barna, a high walled mansion we had both admired from terra firma, Silver Stand, Gentian Hill, Blackrock and then keep a straight line to Mutton Island, letting Salthill and it’s well known landmarks fade away.
This is a deceptively long stretch of rowing that plays tricks on your mind, with expectations to the contrary, frustrations mounted as necks craned over righthand shoulders regularly. It’s like the island that never arrives. Most of this is psychological as we get into finish line fever or outcome focus and forget about concentrating on the process and staying present, however it is a bit of a journey to round the island and manmade peninsula as I learned training for my first Atlantic crossing on Galway Bay. Gussy, who I’m sure will admit himself, became a little agitated throughout this slog but kept grinding as we eventually did reach and round the island to make our way into the mouth of Galway Bay where the river meets the sea.
With Mutton Island finally behind us, I lined the stern up to the Galway Harbour Company knowing there was a slip there someplace with our name on it. At this point we had two support boats guiding us in as Ronan, his son and Emilija were joined by Fury. I couldn’t help but let my mind wander to this moment in 2022 when will be so so close to completing this extraordinary project after the battle of a lifetime crossing the ferocious North Atlantic. This stirred some deep emotions and reinforced the power and impact Project EMPOWER holds.
‘HEAD FOR THE FISHERMEN’, Ronan roared in response to my question of where exactly the slip was located. I craned my neck for the 10,000th time that day and spotted the small congregation of markerel fishermen scattered along rocks and the colourful manmade wall giving me a great target to aim the back of the currach at. As we approached at speed, Gussy and I stuck our left oars down hard into the water and torquing off that side rowed fast and furiously with our righthand oars to swing the boat into the suddenly appearing slipway. A tricky manoeuvre to finish a gruelling journey in choppy conditions where the river meets the sea. Then a little chaos to bookend this fantastic little adventure.
After the swift entry, a new surprise! There was no one there and we had expected at least a few people including MacDara, the Project Empower manager. When I didn’t see him or anyone I knew I’d have to jump out just before we hit ground and try to pull the boat up the slip a little bit with its momentum. This was a one shot thing as once the boat ground to a halt I was not moving it because it was now fairly full of water from the breaking waves and my decision to row rather than bail over the last couple of hours.
As I jumped out I saw MacDara now running down the slip and reaching the boat as I pulled it up, he grabbed the nose with one hand and said he had it but I knew one big wave could take her back out, down the slipway and out to sea. As I tried to move our bags and belongings from the boat, Gussy decided to get up but lost his balance and fell out of the boat and into the water chopping against the front of the currach. As I lifted him out his stubborn nature refused my help, falling a second time and then again a third, before I lost my patience and roared at him out of frustration and fear this could all go wrong after our hard work and endeavour. Finally he accepted my aid and we got him out of the breaking chop in the enclosed slip and away from the water. I now continued hastily to unload our gear and the rubbish we had accumulated, when one of the fisherman ran down the slip to help after hearing the commotion. Between the 3 of us we were able to turn the boat on its side and pour out all the sea water we had taken onboard, then drag the boat to the safety of the upper slip.
When I finally could breathe out a sign of relief. 8 hours and 45 mins after leaving An Trá on Inis Óirr we were back on solid ground. A fantastic day and adventure in our own backyard. Imagine what it could be like in July/August 2022?
All photography by Emilija Jefremova. Instagram @emjcamera