The expectation sitting down to watch Man vs Ocean (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 9.35pm) is that it will be a feel-good story in which the human spirit overcomes impossible odds. But Tomek Ciezki’s gripping documentary about Galway friends Fergus Farrell and Damian Browne, and their attempt to traverse the Atlantic in a rowboat is far darker. I’m not sure it’s feel-good at all. If anything, it might be more feel-bad.
That’s because Farrell and Browne are never quite alone on that boat as they cross the 5,000km between New York and Galway. They have each gone through difficult times and carry their traumas with them. This is a rowboat weighed down with a lot of baggage.
There is no Hollywood ending. Days into the journey, Farrell, who has had issues with his mental health, suffers an emotional breakdown – followed by a physical one. He is finally airlifted to safety.
With Farrell gone, the dream of setting a world record for two men crossing the Atlantic is over. Still, as best he can, Browne, a former rugby pro, sticks with the plan. Much like the sun in Beckett’s Murphy, he rows on having no alternative.
There are choppy waters back on dry land, too. It’s been a tough road back for Farrell, who was temporarily paralysed in an accident in 2018 and who had struggled with depression.
Before the airlift, his family worried about his wellbeing out on the ocean. As does Browne’s partner Rozelle, who is drawn to his “fiercely independent” spirit yet is conflicted over the length of time he will be separated from her and their daughter.
With Farrell out of the picture, Browne pushes himself on through lonely days, howling gales and mishap after mishap. The boat almost capsizes, and the heater goes overboard, forcing him to subsist on cold food. And then, with Ireland in sight, a gale blows the vessel off course and crashing against the shoreline. He doesn’t get to row in triumph into Galway. Another dream is crushed.
He later patches the boat up and makes it to Galway, where he is applauded by friends and family – including a tentative-looking Farrell. Together, they have raised €80,000 for charity – an upbeat conclusion of sorts. But Ciezki’s unflinching film shows that, where human beings are involved, there is no such thing as a happy ending – and that tales of courage, comradeship and endeavour are never as straightforward as they say on the tin.
Man vs Ocean is available on RTÉ Player