Damian Browne and Fergus Farrell, lifelong friends and former rugby players, began their attempt to row 3,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Galway together today, June 11.
Damian Browne, former Connacht, and Leinster lock, is no stranger to the agonies and ecstasies offered up on the water. Back in 2018, he rowed solo east to west across the Southern North Atlantic and ultimately arrived on the island of Antigua to a hero’s welcome.
He was set to conquer the highest peaks on all seven continents of the world, but those plans were thwarted by the pandemic.
He is now bidding to become one of a select few to successfully row across the Atlantic Ocean in both directions, however, he will not be alone as he sets out on this expedition.
Fergus Farrell represented Connacht at U18, U19, and U20 levels while he was also capped for the Irish Youths at the U18 level.
In 2018, however, with his playing days behind him, Fergus faced his biggest test, however. An accident in his back garden resulted in him rupturing three spinal discs, one of which leaked onto his spinal cord and almost shredded it entirely.
Having been admitted to the National Rehabilitation Hospital [NRH] Spinal Injury Programme, Fergus was initially left without the use of his legs and feet. The prognosis after surgery in the Mater Hospital’s National Spinal Unit was unkind; he was given a 5% chance of walking if he regained movement within 72 hours of his operation. Even with the hand he was dealt, Fergus remained optimistic.
He said: “Even after the 72 hours, I had no movement but I didn’t give up on myself. In a lot of areas, we’re told things and we accept them and just stay still; if you can challenge those things mentally, you should always do that.”
After 21 days, Fergus regained some movement in his toes and that began an arduous road towards walking unaided once again. In 2019 – the year after his accident - Fergus walked the 206km from his yard in Athenry to the NRH in Dublin, raising vital funds for the hospital in what was named the Toughest Trek Challenge.
Thus, neither party are stranger to reaching beyond their own apparent limits, and this June they will negotiate the unforgiving Atlantic in unison.
A cross-Atlantic trip crystallizes
Damian’s appetite had been whetted ever since his successful crossing from east to west, and he initially had his brother Andrew in mind as a partner for the corresponding journey before Andrew’s wife fell pregnant.
He told of his thirst for further adventures following his successful arrival in Antigua.
“In 2018, I rode the Southern North Atlantic, east to west. That was incredibly challenging, but from the challenge came great rewards.
“While I was coming to the end of that, I felt like I had the space mentally to start thinking about what I might do next, and one of the options that kept coming up for me was another ocean row.
“Building up to that crossing and during that crossing, I knew that it was possible to row across the North Atlantic.
“It was much less done [west to east] but it had been done so I started doing a little bit of research on that.
“A few people had finished in Ireland - very few - I think it's only been done 70-odd times and the success rate is 34% - so only a small number of those boats actually got to the other side but a few of them had finished in Ireland.
“So, the cogs kind of came together and I said that would be something I would do at some stage.”
As the finer details of the planned trip began to crystallize, Fergus was in a strong position to put his name in the hat once Damian’s brother Andrew was ruled out of the running. Strong not only because of his own knack of overcoming huge obstacles, but also owing to the pair’s long-term friendship.
He said: “We’ve known each other since we were 11 or 12 years of age but we didn’t become friends until we were 18 or 19 and started playing rugby with each other rather than against each other.
“Damian had hoped his brother would be able to do it [the Atlantic row] with him.
“I did the Athenry to NRH challenge and through that, I discovered that this is what really helps me to continue on a better path and what keeps me focused and challenged.
“Damo had mentioned the Atlantic row a long time ago and I just said I’d be very interested in doing it with him. Andrew had to step out after his wife fell pregnant so ultimately Damo came to myself after I’d given him the offer of doing it.”
Benefits above risks
Rowing as a means of getting from one side of the Atlantic to the other would be appealing to scarcely few, but Fergus saw the benefits above all else.
“Having something like this in front of me keeps me focused and keeps me mentally and physically strong. When I don’t have anything in the head, I kind of lose focus and lose track.”
The prospect of danger at sea is something very real, and the Atlantic Ocean does not operate on a ‘give respect, get respect’ type of quid pro quo. However, Fergus and Damian are equipped with a good background on the causes of unsuccessful ocean rows and possess an awareness of where things could go wrong.
Damian explained: “There’s a 34% success rate. Ocean rowing is at its most dangerous when you’re close to land because when you’re in the middle of the ocean, the percentages of what you can hit are drastically reduced.
“An ocean rowing boat is highly susceptible to wind. Any time you’re near the coastline and the wind gets up, that boat really isn’t within your control. So that’s actually the biggest factor in ocean rows going wrong; when they go wrong, more often than not they go wrong near the start and near land.
He also outlined that fatalities are – thankfully – a rarity on such trips.
“On this route, a lot of the failures would’ve happened between 0-9 days. There are things that can go wrong and when they do, they’re involved in a rescue attempt. By maritime law, the nearest boat must aid in a rescue attempt.
“It’s very, very rarely a fatal ending – it has happened, but it’s really rare. An ocean rowing boat is a very safe craft; you could cut it in half and both halves would float because it’s all compartmentalized. You’ve got everything on that boat to survive.
“As long as you don’t lose contact with the boat, everything should be fine. That’s the big, big risk out there because if you do [lose contact], the chances are you will not get back unless it’s a very calm day.”
Fergus and Damian will haul themselves across the Atlantic Ocean aboard their 6.2 meter-long ocean rowing boat, Cushlamachree. One end of the boat contains the pair’s sleeping quarters while the other stores food, ropes, and other equipment needed on board. Most of the storage lies underneath the deck level so that the weight lies beneath the gravity line in the event of the boat capsizing.
The world record crossing time is 55 days and 13 hours, a time which the pair are bidding to beat. They have, however, brought along 60 days’ worth of food as a precaution. Needless to say, the culinary inventory will be a maritime smorgasbord, including nutrient-dense dried food Radix, as well as high protein high calorific foods.
“Every opportunity that we get for rest we’ll be eating something because we need that energy. In terms of water, we’ll have a machine which takes as much salt as possible out of the ocean water; it does five liters of water an hour and we’ll be using an awful lot when we’re out there.”
Fergus and Damian aren’t lacking in the line of gadgets and gizmos, either. As well as GPS which will help them plot their way across, their boat has an Automatic Identification System [AIS] which will act as a radar when other boats come into their vicinity. Communications between them and other ships will be transmitted through a very high-frequency radio, Damian says, “because we’re basically invisible to them.”
A special phone will help them to get online to provide updates, but there won’t be any lengthy surfing of the web as the real waves take precedence.
Damian said: “We have a SAT phone, another unit that’s capable of getting us online to send pictures and videos from the ocean.
“We’re pretty well connected and there’s a lot of safety beacons that go off if you fall overboard, SOS and all that. In terms of being tooled up, we have plenty.”
Preparing to chase a world record
And the objective is not only to get across the Atlantic Ocean from the Hudson River and into Galway Bay; Damian and Fergus will chase the horizon as they look to set a new world record for the quickest time across the Atlantic.
Damian explained that the best approach is one where the pair at least go hammer and tongs in pursuit of the world record and see how they fare.
He said: “When you set these things up, the baseline goal is to get across. That in itself is extremely difficult.
“Last time, I had unbelievable intentions around it [the world record] but there was no clear marker, and this time I wanted to set out that stall from the start that every decision would be made around that. The clear marker is that 55 days and 13 hours. It has been attempted 18 times and only six of those boats actually got across while only one boat came anywhere near beating it.
“It gives us great direction every day in terms of training and preparation but also when we’re on the ocean to have those daily targets to hit as individuals and as a team.”
The flippant nature of the elements at sea will have a fair say in how their plans pan out, however.
“It’s totally dependent on weather. If the monster that is the Atlantic Ocean decides that we’re going to have two, three, or four storms then it’s out of our control. If we get the right conditions, we’ll be ready to give it as good a go as anyone can give it.”
Fergus echoed the same sentiment while explaining that the blunt reality is that being at sea for a prolonged period is not a prospect that warms the soul.
“The world record is something that’ll really focus the mind when we’re out there and help us keep fighting day in, day out. I believe if we don’t have the intention to try and break the world record, we’d probably get lazy and it’d take longer.
“At the end of the day, we don’t want to be out at sea too long. I’m not there for the luxury or the enjoyment of it, I’m there to go for that record. Every extra day at sea makes things harder and we only have 60 days’ food – ultimately we’d have to start rationing that if we’re not going for the record.”
From rugby to rowing
Damian’s penchant for ocean rowing stemmed initially from the physical training required for a front-five rugby player. Exposure to watt bikes and rowers led to many coaches and fitness instructors at various clubs pointing out to him that he had both the knack and the raw power for rowing. Following the end of his rugby career, he had a strong foundation from which to turn rowing from a prescribed element of training into a passion.
Both men were heavily involved in rugby in their earlier years. For many sportspeople, the all-consuming and visceral nature of competitive sport can be an essential outlet and once retirement looms, there remains a lot of energy to expend but no arena to expend it in. Both Fergus and Damian agree that rugby became its own grand platform away from regular day-to-day life.
Fergus said: “Any sport where you’re part of a team and that camaraderie and then you step outside of that, I think that can be an unusual place.
“I was lucky when I stepped away, I had a business and employees. I almost classed that as my new team. I was lucky that way.
“There were things you would miss massively; I probably used rugby as a good way of venting my anger. I definitely found myself being a little more volatile after rugby in a day-to-day situation because I didn’t have that place to do it on a pitch or a training ground.”
For Damian, the void was considerable and the escapades on the water have certainly helped in supplementing his life with competition and chaos in the absence of rugby.
“It's a big hole to fill. I had plans in place post-rugby, and even with them being purposeful, I had to accept it’s a hole that will probably never be filled.
“Because of the primal nature of the sport, there’s almost a savage warrior that comes out when you’re on the pitch. That doesn’t get any access or airing in daily life - it’s not welcome - but on a rugby pitch it is.
“When you’ve touched that side of you, unless you get into something like MMA, that probably can never be truly expressed once again and that’s a hard pill to swallow.
“These adventures really help to alleviate any angst over the loss of a warrior sport like rugby.”
The countdown is on
Both are working to a strict timeline now as the departure date draws ever closer. The main focus in these latter stages is directed more towards ensuring everything is packed onto the boat, which will itself be shipped to New York before Fergus and Damian convene in the Big Apple ahead of setting off.
Damian noted that the toughest physical work has been taken care of in the last 12 months and that the focus will now shift more towards the mental preparation.
“We’ve got through the really hard stuff physically. We’ve done the really hard stuff and now it’s just about sharpening that and peaking that before shifting to the mental and technical side.”
For both, visualization is a priceless part of the mental approach.
Fergus said: “For me, visualization is big. Having key things along the way to focus on keeps me on the right path mentally.
“The long-term goal is to row into Galway Bay but I’ve parked that for now because there’s a lot to do between here and there.
“The next thing is meeting up in New York so I’m visualizing what happens there; getting that boat out onto the Hudson River.
“Visualisation is huge for me, to continue to focus on the different aspects of the challenge. When I do that, I almost get goosebumps.”
Damian’s views on visualization run concurrent and he explained that painting a colorful picture in his mind and repeatedly seeing the steps that need to be taken for a certain task essentially makes that a lived experience and something that is of second nature when it comes to doing it in reality.
Additionally, he has a strong belief in a ‘body first’ method whereby psychology is trained through physiology.
He said: “The mind always works the same way; when it’s put into a state of fragility it will react the same way so if you’re able to recreate that fragility, that window of exposure to your weakened self, and then work through it with some psychological organizations then it doesn’t matter what happens when.
“If you get punched in the face by Mike Tyson, you’re going to be able to deal with it because you’ve gone through that and you’ve practiced that process, that mental organization again and again. We use our training to put ourselves into those positions.
“We create training sessions where we want out and we’re pressurised; that means your mind is going to be put into those places and you can practice those processes.”
As well as the body first method and visualization, affirmations are used as a cast-iron method of positive reinforcement.
Damian continued: “[Affirmations] are a way to almost rewire your subconscious by saying certain mantras or sentences to yourself.
“It’s a three-step process; a concise choice of positive words, clear visualisation around that concise choice, and a correspondent feeling.
“You’re trying to build an emotional defiance of strength and power into that and connect with that.
“You build the emotion you want into that affirmation. I’m saying to myself: 'Nothing will stop me rowing the Atlantic.'”
For Fergus, the ‘why’ behind daring trips like this was not always apparent – but now he is fully on board, so to speak, as he looks to mark off another hugely significant challenge.
“When Damo did his first ocean row challenge, without a shadow of a doubt I’d have said 'What the hell is he doing that for?' Totally crazy, I don’t understand it, whatever else.
“Roll on four years and I’m doing it and I now buy into why he’s doing it. You do these things because circumstances in life change. You learn from your past and try and make yourself better going forward.”
He also explained that completing a challenge like this would hopefully act as a bold and undeniable example to his children that anything is possible.
“I want to set an example for my kids and for others. We can talk and talk and talk – but there’s no better word than action.
“I’m doing it to show that you should never give up on yourself. Setting challenges helps you keep focused and mentally strong.
“I want to leave something there for my kids that they hopefully take on board and develop more, and hopefully that becomes part of their character. Never give up, keep fighting, and know that there’s nothing they can’t do if they apply themselves correctly.”
Individually, Fergus and Damian have summitted the mountains, walked the winding roads, and crashed the seas with some incredible feats of mental resilience and physical fortitude to their names already.
This June, however, with a world record in their sights, they are in the same boat.
Damian Browne and Fergus Farrell's journey will kick off this June as part of Project Empower. You can stay updated on their progress by following the Project Empower Instagram and Project Empower Facebook pages.
*Mark Donlon is a freelance journalist based in Dublin, Ireland. You can view more of Mark’s work here.
Updated in June 2022.