In December 2018, I realised I really missed being out on the water. Although it was probably a year or so since we had spoken, I called Eamonn Kavanagh and asked him would it be ok if I came down rowing again in the New Year. “No bother” said Eamonn adding that I was always welcome to come down and train.
I was back out on the water in January and a few months later I floated an idea by Eamonn - which was to put a crew together to row across the Irish Sea. Eamonn was open to the idea and didn’t dismiss it. Ever the optimist, I took this to be a very good start. I had also mentioned this idea to a good friend of mine Gerry Hussey. Between Gerry, some of his clients and a few friends, we had about 8 people who were interested in doing the crossing. One small snag, with the exception of myself, none had ever rowed before and in my case, I was out of practice. However, the seed had been planted and with that, a new adventure had begun.
The plan was to do the crossing in “Invermore”, the beautiful Cornish pilot gig built by Peter Kavanagh. Our team would require 12 to 14 people so the 8 of us with limited rowing experience would be blended in with 4 to 6 people from the club who were more experienced rowers and together we would attempt a crossing. However, in order to potentially make the crossing in the gig, we needed to first of all learn how to row and secondly become sufficiently competent handling the gig to get the benefit of using this boat. We expected the 60-mile crossing to take us anywhere from 15 to 24 hours.
We started to go down to Arklow to train with the club under the patient guidance of Eamonn, Peter, Vanessa and other members of the club who welcomed us with open arms. As most people reading this will know, Eamonn and Peter Kavanagh were the first Irish people to ever row across the Atlantic Ocean in 1997. I was lucky enough to be trained and mentored by them before I crossed the Atlantic in 2006. These are 2 men I consider to be some of the finest and the toughest people I know.
Over the course of our 10 weeks of training, Eamonn was happy that we had reached a sufficient level of competence to do the crossing. Our challenge now was getting a weather window and the right support boat to attempt the crossing. We practiced our crew changes at night in Peter’s boat Selchie. However, with a crew of 14, that would mean 7 people on Selchie at any one time. While doable, it would be better if we could use a larger support boat. We managed to line up a bigger support boat, practiced crew changes on that and we were ready to go.
It was looking like our weather window would be sometime between Aug 14 and 16 but that window closed as the weather changed. It then looked like August 19 to 21 would be our potential time to go, but again that window didn’t materialise. Eamonn then advised us that Aug 24 to 25 would be another potential window and in all likelihood our last chance this summer to do this. As the larger support boat was no longer available, it meant we would be using Selchie. We were extremely lucky that Peter was so generous to let us use his boat. I know most of us felt that while things might be a bit cramped, it was in some way very appropriate that Selchie and the man who built her would be with us on the crossing.
The weather forecast indicated that crossing from Fishguard to Arklow would be the way to go. Easterly winds were due to die off around 4pm on Saturday (Aug 24) and remain very calm until Sunday evening. The forecast held up and with so the plan was that Eamonn and I would bring Selchie across on Friday with the inflatable and then the rest of the crew would follow over on Saturday morning on the ferry with the gig. The sea was quite choppy on Friday and so Eamonn and I could not tow the inflatable with us – this would have to go with the gig on the ferry. Eamonn told me he wasn’t sure if we would be able to make it across and that we might have to turn back. At this stage all we could was try so we left Arklow at 2.30pm on Friday afternoon not knowing if we would be able to make it across.
After a few hours of choppy seas, things calmed down and although they turned choppy on us again as we approached Fishguard, we finally made it in by about 7.30am on Saturday morning. Eamonn and I didn’t sleep on the 17-hour crossing, taking it in turns to man the tiller for an hour at a time. We got something to eat, picked up a few supplies and when the rest of the crew arrived at 2pm, we departed Fishguard at 4pm in the gig – finally we were off!
The wind had picked up as we left Fishguard (I would guess force 3 or 4) but it calmed down after a few hours and although a small swell remained for a bit, conditions soon calmed further and we were making good progress. As night fell, we were treated to an incredible sky, dolphins, a little phosphorescence and a small shot of rum to mark reaching the halfway mark. Eamonn told me a few weeks before we left that the gig had never been rowed across the Irish Sea so getting the chance to be part of the first crew to do this as well as doing it with Eamonn and Peter was very special for all of us. By morning we had the Arklow bank in sight and once we rounded the south cardinal buoy, we began to work our way in towards Arklow. We had a strong tide against us and I remember after one shift of what seemed like good hard rowing, we had only covered 1 mile. We were only 9 miles out but at this rate, it was looking like it could take us a while. The tide eased and we made good progress over the last few hours. Rowing into Arklow and seeing friends, family and lots of people from the club there to welcome us in at at 1:10 pm was absolutely fantastic. I know I didn’t expect it and it was hugely appreciated by all the crew!
I don’t need to tell anyone reading this how incredible Eamonn and Peter are. These next words will probably embarrass them, but they are without a doubt two of the most incredible people I have ever met. I don’t know if they realise the impact they have had on our crew. The crossing we just did was an experience of a lifetime for all of us and it would not have happened without Eamonn and Peter. For me what they do goes far beyond the oar. Although I don’t live in Arklow, it’s not hard to see what a positive influence the rowing club is on the local community and young people in particular. The warmth of the club spirit radiates through everyone involved and the pride and care people take with launching and retrieving the boats is brilliant to see. There’s great honesty, humility and fun in everything people do and so much of this stems from Eamonn and Peter.
Here’s to the continued success of a great club that I am proud to be a member of……
Congratulations to those that took park in the crossing: Paul Gleeson, Eamonn Kavanagh, Peter Kavanagh, Gerry Hussey, Tomás O Driscoll, David Kennedy, Aodhan Hobbs, Conor Keane, Linda Davis, Frances Roche, Rob O Connell, Vanessa Ormande, Georgina Farrell, Terry O’Hagan.