SURROUNDED by crashing waves, miles from any sign of civilisation, oarsman Sean McGowan made the one call he wished he would never have to make – to tell his wife goodbye.
Twenty-three days before, Sean had set out on an epic journey to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean but with his boat taking in water after being caught up in the tail end of a storm, his thoughts were only with his wife and four children. Thankfully, both Sean and his boat, Tess, made it out of the storm in one piece to carry on the exhausting journey and return to his family. This Saturday at the Clarecastle Regatta, Sean will recall just some of his amazing adventures from his time at sea.
It is now just over a year since Sean made it to Antigua in the West Indies after 118 days at sea. He said, “I didn’t mark the anniversary, it just takes so much out of you mentally. Ninety per cent of it is just awful; it’s horrific. Eight per cent of it isn’t too bad and two per cent is beautiful. So when you have your one-year anniversary, you’re just glad the thing is done. It really was nasty out there so when the anniversary came up, I just had a shiver up my spine and I said, right that’s it, it’s finished now.”
The 43-year-old from Farranshone in Limerick has been rowing since he was 14. “When I was nine I had asthma, I spent most of my time in hospital from nine to 14. When I was 14 I figured I just had to do something different, I couldn’t just be getting filled full of steroids so I knew I had to do something for myself. I started trying to do some exercise and ended up going to a rowing club. I had to fight for it. I’d been three years out of school and I had to fight to get through school. Everything was a challenge for me,” he said.
However, Sean had yet to face the greatest challenge of his life, rowing solo across the Atlantic. He explained what drove a father of four young children to take on such a task.
“I had heard about Amen and Peter Kavanagh, who became the first Irish man to successfully row across the Atlantic. I thought to myself, that’s something I’d never be able to do. But that began a challenge in my mind and the more I read about the adventure and excitement the more I thought, this sounds fantastic. The more I thought that I couldn’t do it, the more I said to myself, I’m going to do it. That’s the way I go through life really. I suppose the harder the challenge, the more you get out of it and the better you feel after it,” he added.
He had asked some friends to join him on his adventure. Some originally agreed but as Sean said “maybe they got a bit of sense” and so the trip became a solo effort. He started planning seven years ago, discussing his plans with his wife, Lorraine, and their kids.
“I wanted to make sure they were ok with it. Before I went, myself and my wife had a long chat, I was years planning but even at that she found it extremely difficult. I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t have got to the start line unless we had agreed on it and I definitely wouldn’t have got across the ocean unless I was able to talk to her on a satellite phone every now and again. Whatever I did was fine but she was the one at home with the four kids so she’s the one who did all the real work. If there is any hero here, it’s her.”
He speaks candidly about his experiences, recalling the hardships he faced out on the ocean. “The waves were just horrible. On my fifth day at sea I was taken out of the boat by a rogue wave, it pulled me out and capsized the boat, and broke two of my oars. I was taken out of the boat again on the 10th day by another wave. On the 23rd day I was in the back end of a massive storm and took water on the boat, the boat was sinking. I had to phone my wife and say goodbye to her, it was that bad. I lost my mind around the 45th day. I got it back, I think, around the 47th day. I ran out of food on the 83rd and I ate raw fish from then until the 118th day. I ended up with scurvy, damaged tendons on my hands and I went from 14-and-a-half stone down to nine stone,” he said.
However, there was still that two per cent of beauty out there. “There were moments out there where you see things and you know very few Irish people, or people in the world really, have seen. Like one night I was rowing and the sea was flat calm and it phosphoresces as you row, so you can see the v-shape of the boat as you go through the water, punctuated by little plugholes where the oars have gone.
“There were no clouds and you could see the stars. There were shooting stars, you could nearly see galaxies because you could see the red in the sky where the galaxies are. Then, just as my oars hit the water, a jellyfish underneath flashed and it was like fireworks just exploded underneath the boat for a half a mile around. Then it was like a chain reaction and all underneath the water just lit up. It was like a stream of lights all across in a big circle and for the next two hours every time I took a stroke it was like the whole ocean lit up like my own personal fireworks.”
He enthused, “I saw blue whales come up and go underneath the boat and they’re the size of two double-decker buses put together. I had humpback whales, six of them around the boat, pilot whales hitting the boat and sharks. You see so much wildlife out there. The sunsets are just incredible, and moonlight. They are the really nice things.”
After 118 days at sea, Sean landed in Antigua. However, his journey didn’t really end until he was back home with his family. “Because of the Icelandic ash cloud, I ended up flying into Cork instead of Shannon, where I had planned to meet Lorraine and the kids in a room on our own that we had organised. But when I flew into Cork, it was all very public with cameras there, so I didn’t get the time with them that I wanted, which was a pity. But it was when I got home that I was finished,” he said.
Since then, he has been making up for his time away. “The weight is back on and my hands still aren’t right but they are nearly there now.”
After completing the mammoth journey, does he have any plans to repeat the adventure? “I’d definitely not do another ocean. People have been trying to get me to do Everest but I don’t like heights. “No, I’ve done my ocean bit but I’m hoping to do something with cycling but that’s years away.” He still continues to row, coaching children at Shannon Rowing Club in Limerick.Sean, whose grandmother hailed from Clarecastle and who still has cousins there, hopes to bring Tess along to the Clarecastle regatta, which will be held this Saturday.
“She is in Quilty but hopefully I’ll be able to bring her along so people can see her. When people see the boat, it makes it much more tangible. People look at the boat, especially people from Clare who know what the sea is like. They see a small boat like that and they realise what it took to get it across the ocean.”