Shane Ryan: Shark attacks and gruelling shifts on a Covid-free Atlantic mission
Limerick rower with six per cent eyesight defied the odds as the world locked down
Shane Ryan on board during his trip across the Atlantic. Photograph: Facebook
It was all going fine until the shark bit the rudder. Shane Ryan was rowing late at night on April 8th, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. Take out your globe and trace a line.
From the Cape Verde islands off the west coast of Africa to French Guyana in South America. He and his four crewmates were out there in the blue, 35 days into their voyage, with just under 1,000 nautical miles to go.
Bump. Crunch. Problem.
“He didn’t come above water, it was all under water,” Ryan says now. “I was rowing at the time. In GAA terms, he Basically gave us a good shoulder. A good shunt. The vibration came all the way back to me - I was rowing three-quarters of the way back. I actually thought the incident happened underneath where I was but it was up at the other end. That’s the force he had.
“I suppose he just thought it was a bit of food for him and he came up and had a taste of our rudder and broke it on us. He left some teeth marks in the rudder and broke the shaft that goes up into the boat. As he was going away from us then, the other person rowing the boat with me spotted that he was a shark. It was only after that that we knew what had happened.”
So yeah, things had been going fine. Okay, sort of fine. There had been a hurdle or two to overcome, it’s true. The plan had been to row directly from Portimao in southern Portugal to French Guyana. But the ocean had its way with them.
A week into the trip, they had to pull into the Canary Islands to fix an electrical fault - the solar-powered batteries they had on board were failing to charge. So they stopped in Lanzarote to get it sorted. They lost time but they gained a cooked meal and a hot shower. No biggie.
They had met for the first time three days before setting off. The skipper was Ralph, a Dutch guy who does several of these crossings every year. Then Livar from the Faroe Islands, Predrag from Serbia, Darragh from Cork and Shane from Limerick. No time to train together, no time to get to know one another. All of that would be done at sea.
A week later, their satellite communication system started to go on the fritz so they had to switch to the back-up. Soon after that, the machine that converted sea water into drinking water gave up as well, hence the stop in Cape Verde.
Upon which, they were introduced to the world as it suddenly was, as opposed to the one they’d left behind. “We couldn’t physically go on land because of the lockdown,” Ryan says. “The marina police wouldn’t leave us onto land.”
Ah yes, the lockdown. Unlike pretty much everyone else on the planet, Ryan and his crewmates had been living a life blissfully untouched by the coronavirus up to then. Ryan left Ireland the day before the first case was announced. When he and his crewmates departed from Portimao in the Algarve on March 4th, Portugal had just four confirmed cases and wouldn’t record a death from the virus for nearly another fortnight.
They had heard of Covid-19, sure. But it was a Chinese thing and an Italian thing at that stage. The WHO wouldn’t declare a pandemic for another week. It was starting to bubble up in Spain around then but you would have had to go looking for it to find out about it. And they had an ocean to row.
So here they were, a few weeks later, bobbing in a dock in Cape Verde and being told they couldn’t come ashore because the world had stopped. They ended up having to stay for a day and a half, negotiating with the local authorities to get a supply of drinking water to see them the rest of the trip. In the end, they managed to finagle 400 litres to bring on board before setting off again.
They rowed in shifts. Two hours on, two hours off. Day after day, night after night. The longest sleep anyone had at sea was 90 minutes, which of course isn’t really sleep at all. Predrag went to wake Shane up for his shift one time and clod-hopped into the twilight of the brain.
Predrag: “Shane, ten minutes.”
Shane: “Ten minutes to what?”
Predrag: “Ten minutes to rowing?”
Shane: “Rowing to where?”
But they endured, all the same. Shane, most of all. Rowing the ocean is no picnic for anyone but it was a particular and specific challenge for him. By now, we probably should have mentioned that Shane Ryan is almost completely blind. Another hurdle.
He has somewhere close to six per cent of his sight left. In amongst the hiccups, the electrical problems, the water hustling, the coronavirus, the global lockdown and all the rest of it, he was attempting to become the first blind athlete in the world to row the Atlantic.
Ryan grew up in Ballybricken, Co Limerick. He was born with Bardet-Biedel Syndrome, a rare condition that caused his vision to deteriorate from his early teens onwards. Up to around 15, he played football and hurling with Ballybricken-Bohermore and rugby with Bruff. His diminishing sight meant the hurling went first, the rugby soon after. He was able to keep the football up until minor but eventually it had to go too.
In the summer of 2007, Castleconnell Boat Club put out a call through Vision Sports Ireland and the NCBI, advertising an open day for people who were visually impaired. Ryan was 18 years old, big and broad and hearty. He had tried a bit of blind soccer but wasn’t gone on it. Some tandem cycling too. But nothing grabbed him like rowing did, right from the first dip.
“Initially it was all about learning a new sport,” he says. “Rowing is actually as very skilful sport as well. It isn’t just about brute force. You have training boats called trimmies that they put you out in first. It’s basically like being out in a bath. They’re very wide and very safe and you learn the skills that way. The training built up and built up and I was coming from a low base. I did a lot of indoor rowing competitions as well and did quite well.”
Well, quite. Less than two years after taking up the sport, he was part of the Irish crew that won a bronze medal at the World Cup regatta in Munich. In 2012, he was part of the only Irish crew to ever row at the Paralympics. It meant he had gone from never having sat in a boat to competing at the pinnacle of the sport in the space of five years.
In that light, maybe the kind of dude we’re talking about here becomes a little clearer. Year by year, as the dark encroached a little more, the world available to him kept shrinking. In December 2018, he started researching how he might row across the ocean. Ask him why and he replies that if he’d left it any later, his sight might be gone too bad to do it at all. Though it isn’t exactly the question, it’s plenty good as an answer.
He gave himself a full year to train for it. He started getting out of bed in the middle of the night to do two hours on the rowing machine before going back to sleep, just to get his body into the rhythm. He did his own mental training too, spending his rowing sessions telling himself that this was how hard it was going to be. And to keep going.
“The big thing when we got out to sea was the amount of concentration. I had to concentrate pretty hard because I only have six per cent sight left. I had to concentrate on knowing where the water was, if there was a wave coming, I’d be told that it was going to come in over the boat. We had that understanding between ourselves, that I kind of needed things to be told to me.
“But I don’t see the eyesight as a disadvantage. I more see it as an advantage in that all my other senses are more heightened. Once I go around a place once or twice, it’s all in my memory, where things are. The cabin I was sleeping in, I just had to step out of it and sit in the seat.”
Which is where he was on Day 35 when the shark bit the rudder. For a couple of days after it, they were reasonably hopeful that Jaws hadn’t done any major harm. By Day 38 though, it became clear that the rudder was fatally damaged. They were 1,000 miles from dry land and no good way of steering towards it.
“What we did in the end was put up a makeshift sail. We strapped a sleeping bag to a set of oars and put it up and just let the wind and the current bring us the rest of the way. It brought us the last 900 miles. Thankfully. We steered the boat with a set of oars. We weren’t rowing from that point onwards. We were just sailing really.
“It’s something you never do. It’s kind of frowned upon if you’re supposed to be rowing the ocean. But it was our last resort, we were kind of in survival mode at that stage. Our food started to run out, the water started to run out. For the last three weeks, I was on manual water duty, working to generate drinking water out of sea water.
“For the last couple of days we were down to 1,500 calories a day. We reduced down slowly. I think we were generally around 3,500 to 4,000 calories per day before the shark attack. So then we gradually reduced it down to 1,500. We went back up to 2,000 then for the last few days because we knew we had enough to get us to land.”
He lost 20 kilos along the way. Three stone in old money. It took them 53 days but they eventually found their way to Cayenne, French Guyana. They had to radio ahead to get a support boat to come out and bring them the last bit of the way but they got there in the end.
The world had changed while they were out on the ocean but at least there was one significant upside. They had effectively been on a 53-day quarantine all of their own out there. It meant they could head home as soon as they liked.
“I had the sea legs when I got back onto dry land. You go to walk and you feel drunk almost, wobbling all over the place. If you stood on one leg, you’d fall over. That lasted for about a week. When I got back to Limerick, I stayed in my parents house for two weeks.
“I’m back on the rowing machine. Back to normal life, whatever that is now. I have a couple of ideas for the next thing to do but I need to go research them first before I say anything. It won’t be as mad as going rowing the ocean, I know that.”
Shane Ryan is raising money for Vision Sports Ireland and the NCBI. To help, visit: www.gofundme.com/f/atlantic-rowing-challenge-2020.