Eyed by a whale: all part of a dramatic year for Irish rowing

A clutch of medals, and Damian Browne’s dramatic Atlantic Challenge encounter

Irish man Damian Browne has had dramatic times in the Atlantic Challenge rowing race. He suffered a cut, bruising and a serious skin abrasion beside his right eye in a capsize.

"My face woke me up this morning getting smashed off the side of the cabin," he reported on his Facebook page. The former professional rugby player said the damage was "only superficial". "There was quite a bit of blood, but it stopped lively enough."

When he checked out the boat he was happy no serious damage had been done, but he soon had company. A whale swam by, circled the boat repeatedly and made eye contact. “It was one of the most insane experiences I’ve ever had!”

Really tough 24hrs, some terrible weather, 2 capsizes and a split eye. But weather seems to have settled and fingers crossed seems to be over the worst of it

Posted by Damian Browne on Wednesday, December 27, 2017

He capsized a second time soon afterwards. He stayed calm because, he says, he had visualised the situation beforehand. Since then it has calmed down and he reports himself “bloodied but unbowed”.

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Browne is 20th, while Irish boat Relentless is fourth of the 11 fours taking part and fifth overall. Just one place further back is Home to Portrush, which covered 83 nautical miles (154km) to 4pm on Thursday, Irish time.

A terrific year

The Olympic version of the sport is having its own, less startling dramas. The departure of Sean Casey, an Olympian in 2008 and one of the coaches who has brought through talent at heavyweight level this year, upset the athletes. The high-performance director, Antonio Maurogiovanni, wanted a new coach and has exercised his right to make the change. But if Ireland is to continue to prosper, the trend towards giving Irish coaches experience at the highest level has to continue.

The year 2017 was another terrific one for the sport. The highlights were there for all to see: two World Championship gold medals and two other finalists. There were encouraging successes below this level: a women’s heavyweight crew eighth in the world, two medals at World Under-23 Championships, one at the European Junior Championships, and a set of good results at the Coupe de la Jeunesse, the European junior tournament.

The year had taken up the baton from 2016, with Olympic glory and a new group of ambitious coaches, and run with it.

The sport is blessed to have talent such as Paul O’Donovan (an Olympic medallist and twice a world champion at 23), Gary O’Donovan, Sanita Puspure, Shane O’Driscoll and Mark O’Donovan. And it has new recruits coming in each year.

And rowing is remarkably well-placed to take advantage of demographic factors. An ESRI report released in October projects the Republic of Ireland will have a population of about 5½ million by 2030. Rowing is an all-island sport, so assuming that Northern Ireland maintains or increases its population of 1.9 million there will be well over seven million to draw from in little over a decade.

The Skibbereen way

This presents a huge opportunity for a growing sport that is noncontact and healthy and has strong college associations on an island with one of the biggest transitions to third-level of any in the world. (The OECD report Education at a Glance in September, ranks the Republic of Ireland as one of only seven of its 46 countries where more than 50 per cent of 25-34-year-olds have studied at third level.)

But if Irish rowing is to grow with this trend, it has to be managed right. Skibbereen is the most successful club in the country and the home of the O’Donovans and O’Driscoll and World Championship finalist Denise Walsh. This year the club was honoured by the President. In so many ways it shows what can be done.

But ask Dominic Casey, the heart of the club and the Ireland lightweight coach, how it all happened and he makes a point that Irish rowing might take note of. "You're always learning," he says. It is about doing the right thing again and again and again. Skibbereen prospered because they knew this and were prepared to persist.

“It took 20 years,” Casey said.