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Rowing across the Atlantic: ‘The first capsize came quickly… the cabin was breached by water’

Back on dry land after 112 days and 4,450 nautical miles, Damian Browne talks about the epic physical and mental ordeal of rowing alone from New York to Galway

Damian Browne navigated all kinds of volatile weather fronts crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a small boat. But even he couldn’t avoid getting drenched in one of Galway city’s infamous rain bursts on a quick dash up Quay Street for a morning coffee. He greets me in shorts and a grey hoodie dampened by October rainfall. Thousands followed his progress on social media since leaving New York on June 10th to row home to Galway.

Browne is a tall man and 112 days spent either rowing or resting have left him a bit wobbly on his feet. He and his family have been guests of the Harbour Hotel for a few days. When he woke up on Wednesday morning, the room swayed as he sat on the side of the bed. “I had to grab hold of things on the way to the bathroom,” he laughs.

When he first caught sight of himself in a mirror, he was a little shocked by the weight loss: he has lost around 30kg (4.7 stone). His hands can hurt when not in the claw-grip of oar-holding. “All the tendons and ligaments shorten,” he explains. Sitting down is a bit uncomfortable, too, because of lingering sea sores. The producer of a forthcoming documentary has asked him to stick with the wild beard for a little while more. “I can’t stand it,” he confesses. “I can’t wait to get rid of it.”

At a reception on Tuesday night, he told MacDara Hosty, his friend and one of the coordinators behind the Transatlantic project, how it feels to be back on land. “As I said: I am conscious. I know where I am in time and space. But my body has no structure. It is like I am a jellyfish.”

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Over the course of 90 minutes, Browne talks through what has been a relentlessly intense life experience. He seems reflective, sated, happy and a little dazed by the rush of life and voices after three months of sublime aloneness. There are requests – for the Late Late Show, for photographs, for his time – and he is obliging and easy-going about it all. But it will take some time for the soul to catch up.

This is the second time he has rowed across the Atlantic. In 2017, he was part of a structured race. This was different because for most of the crossing, he was alone. When he speaks to anyone about an experience few humans can ever know – the sensation of being out there, at night, in the vastness of a great ocean – they all want to know the same thing. What does it feel like? And it was a question he batted away all summer long.

“Those moments are rare and fleeting, when you get a sense of the enormity of the space you are in. I don’t know if it is just me, that I’m conditioned to be job-focused or task-focused. My head is constantly on a swivel looking around and taking things in. But it’s more that you are reading the situation for threats, if you like, even the shapes of waves or movements of swells, because all of these can become threats. That’s the state I am in 95 per cent of the time. And then you look around and see the 365-degree view. And you realise that that is not going to change for a long time.”

The past four months have been nothing like he had imagined. What started out as a two-man attempt, along with his friend Fergus Farrell, was transformed into a solo effort just 13 days in when Fergus became ill. It was a serious upset.

Shouting match

Farrell had overcome a serious spinal injury in 2018 through the kind of stubborn perseverance and toughness that made him an ideal partner for Browne. One night on a practice row in Galway Bay, the pair came across a fishing trawler. The equipment on their boat, Cushlamachree, was not fully wired so they just had a small beacon, like a torch. The fishermen were curious and then quickly became angry. A shouting match, typical of exchanges between Galway islanders and mainlanders down the years, ensued in the wind.

“They could hardly hear us,” laughs Browne.

“So it was: ‘What are ye doing?’ ‘We are training!’ ‘Where’s your radio?’ ‘We just got the boat!’ ‘Turn around and go home. Now!’ ‘No! We are f**king training to row the Atlantic!’ ‘Go back to shore.’, ‘F**k off!’ So yeah, I think people thought we were two eejits who had this wild idea who weren’t putting any planning or prep into it.”

‘The first capsize came quickly. What dented my confidence was that the cabin was breached by water. That is a huge threat, because if the GPS system gets fried, that is game over’

The point was, they were soldered together and didn’t care what the outside world thought. Then, just like that, Farrell was gone. And 10 days into his solo voyage, Browne encountered a sustained summer storm which capsized – or flipped – the boat three times. That frightening drama is caught in jumpy video footage and although his voice remains calm in the podcast he broadcast afterwards, it is one of the few times he ever uses the word “scared”.

“That was a harrowing night. The longest hours of my life. I get a bit emotional thinking about it now. So, the forecast was gusting to 49 knots. I put out the para-anchor. The first capsize came quickly. What dented my confidence was that the cabin was breached by water. That is a huge threat, because if the GPS system gets fried, that is game over.

“What I thought I had done, but hadn’t, is that there is a vent on the big main cabin hatch that you have to lock. And I had turned it the wrong way. That is where the water was coming in. It all made me feel that this could go wrong. Because you are on a thing that you are not meant to get capsized in. I had gone three times with another 15 hours of the storm left. Mentally, I was fried. It is not the act of getting capsized. It is the anticipation. And I was just waiting in the cabin for 15 hours for the fourth time, which never came, thankfully.”

He nods when asked how big the waves were then.

“I was afraid to look, like.”

Pure exhilaration

One hundred and twelve days covering 4,450 nautical miles with oars. He saw sharks (“just two or three”), sperm whales (”they’d come up for a look”), and felt the pure exhilaration of a school of dolphins, in a line spanning maybe 500 metres, shooting past him. That day gave him a lift because often, the reality of completing an epic journey involves a brutal, numbing, grinding away against the infinite span of water.

“You are tracking along and doing your job, but you are hovering in this stressed, frustrated, pressurised place. You are not in the depths of despair, far from it, but you are below neutral. And you have this moment with these dolphins, and it just elevates you.”

There were times, too, when Browne felt an irrational resentment at the fact that Farrell had to swap the boat for hospital. They were just over 500 miles out when he took ill. A passing tanker took him on board. The captain was adamant that Browne should come on board as well.

“The captain was a Sikh. And he was pleading with me. They were all just so nice. We can take your boat! And just take care of you! And I was shouting up, no, I’m grand, I’m staying. I think they thought we didn’t know what we were doing.”

Instead, they showered him with gifts – bailing buckets, fizzy drinks, snacks, hot meals and reluctantly left him to the Atlantic. Browne was so concerned that his boat would become damaged in the wash of the tanker that he and Farrell scarcely had time to say good luck before he was alone. The friends would not see each other until Tuesday morning last, when Farrell was waiting in the big crowd on a squally morning on the docks in Galway.

“It was nice. Not what I expected. Because at the time I had a lot of animosity towards Gussie [Farrell]. Especially when I was going backwards. But then when I saw him and he looked great. And there was a huge wash of forgiveness. When I got texts from Gussie on the boat, I had hardly even replied some days. One-word replies. Bless him! And hearing him speak, then. He put so much into it and had to come to terms with what happened. And seeing him brought it all back.”

He has completed the Marathon des Sables and five of the seven summits. He accepts there is an unusual calling at work in this compulsion to place himself in the extreme edges of nature

The entire idea began with Browne, Farrell and Hosty putting in €750 each for a deposit on the boat that became the Cushlamachree. It was hand-built by Justin Atkin in Devon and cost €85,000. The expedition cost some €200,000. They raised it through crowdfunding and loyal local sponsorship and kept encountering unexpected kindnesses. In New York, for instance, a Mayo man named Dave McCormack saw a short film made by Lorcan Hynes called The Row and promptly covered their entire hotel bill. Then he organised a function in the Brass Monkey restaurant, raising €30,000.

Browne has poured his savings from his 15-year career playing rugby with Connacht, Leinster and in France. “There has really been nothing coming in,” he says of the idea of a steady income. Even before he retired, his eye was drawn to the possibilities and challenges of extreme adventuring. He has completed the Marathon des Sables and five of the seven summits. He accepts there is an unusual calling at work in this compulsion to place himself in the extreme edges of nature.

Healing dysfunctions

“I was always drawn to the wilder part of the world,” he says in explanation.

“I think it goes back to certain childhood stuff and trying to heal certain dysfunctions and trying to work against and build myself up against certain insecurities by exposing myself to them. And I just… end up in these wild places because the way I’ve found an avenue to self-heal is through extreme adventures.”

For the record, he cannot swim a stroke. That didn’t faze him. After all, if you become untethered from your boat or if it is wrecked in a storm and you are 1,500 miles from land, to where are you going to swim? The opportunity to be rescued has never been greater. But there are risks.

“If something happened and I was not tethered to the boat and didn’t have time to activate any beacon… then, yeah, there is nobody coming for you.”

He knows that that knowledge is tougher for his loved ones than for himself. Because Browne knew what he was doing, that danger rarely felt imminent. But it was never more than two or three foolish or poor decisions away.

‘When we were on the rocks, every time she ground against them my heart just broke. Because that is not the way it was meant to end. She took such a hiding and kept going and going’

His arrival, in the black early hours of Tuesday morning, into a turbulent Galway Bay felt like a cruel joke played by the fates. In his mind, Galway Bay – fabled in song, the boys of the NYPD choir, all of that – represented a cradle. Instead, he hit rocks near Furbo. The noise of the fibreglass grating on rock pained him, because his connection to the boat had become profoundly personal: it was like Tom Hanks and the volleyball in the film Castaway.

“Wilson, yeah. A real rich attachment. Because she was just such a valiant steed and got me through so much. She took such a beating some days and not a bother on her. Cushlamachree, the best way I can put it is that when we were on the rocks, every time she ground against them my heart just broke. Because that is not the way it was meant to end. She took such a hiding and kept going and going. And we have that in common a little bit.”

He feared the boat was ruined. But the Olivers, the fishing family, came along in a trawler and got the vessel floating again. They refused to take a penny for their efforts. After his official homecoming on Tuesday morning, Browne got to sail Cushlamachree into the docks late that afternoon, when just close friends and family were left. It was the perfect conclusion.

Torrent of emotions

Browne is 42 years old. Elodie, his daughter with Rozelle, is 18 months old.

“And I have been absent for six of those, two on Everest and four on the ocean. It’s ridiculous, like.”

He’s a bit battered, understandably, by the torrent of emotions flowing this week. The family is looking forward to quiet weeks in Galway before returning to Australia, where Rozelle works as a lawyer. He has plans to build a business around the burgeoning interest in adventure-experiences. Right now, he vows, there is no next summit in the mind’s eye.

“You know, there is nothing. Be a dad. Be a partner. A son, brother, friend. Just… I have asked a lot of people close to me for a number of years now. Just peel back. It has taken a lot for this to happen.”

And then, a glimmer.

“Now, there is one idea that I think about. But it would be a 10-year thing before I go near it, if I ever do. I would say… it is an amalgamation of ocean rowing and polar exploration that has never been done before. And that I think is achievable. I will probably never do it. Will I? I don’t know.”