Sixty-three days, six hours and 25 minutes. That is how long Galway man Damian Browne (37) spent alone at sea as he completed the 4800 km Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge rowing race. 

Damian Browne
Damian Browne finishing the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. Image: Ted Martin

His story from the boat perfectly encapsulates the grit and determination of extreme challenges like these. The highs, the lows, the struggles, the joy and the mental strength it takes to row across an entire ocean alone. To this day more people have summited Everest and been into space than have successfully rowed the Atlantic Ocean. And after reading this, you will understand why.

The former professional rugby player went from having zero rowing experience to rowing 12 hours a day for almost 64 days. They say get comfortable being uncomfortable and that is exactly what Damian did. Day one could have been his downfall.

“The headwinds were pushing me back towards the islands. I’d make up the ground and then get blown back. I saw the same point on the GPS three times in the course of nine hours.”

“Everything that could go wrong went wrong. It started well. I passed four boats in the first six hours. I felt good and then bang, all the calluses on my hands started to blister. My heels started to blister. I had severe cramps in my whole lower body. I was getting seasick every few minutes. I couldn’t eat. The headwinds were pushing me back towards the islands.

I’d make up the ground and then get blown back. I saw the same point on the GPS three times in the course of nine hours. “It was a battle. I was fighting constantly with the ocean, the elements and myself.

Damian Browne
Damian sets off to sea. Image: Ben Duffy

The Atlantic is just a monster, you feel vulnerable at all times. She’s relentless. The minute you think you have a foothold, that foothold gets knocked from under you. You get knocked down and you have to pick yourself back up again and again. I said afterwards, it’s never a fight you are going to win but you might survive it.”

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Day 14 was another killer for Damian. He wanted it to be tough and he got his wish. “I capsized twice in the same day. I woke up at 7 am by getting thrown into the side of my cabin during a capsize. Obviously, that’s not the way anyone wants to get woken up!

I smashed my face off a wall and split it open in three places. All of my stuff got thrown on top of me. There’s a little hole in the bottom of the boat for the water maker, so there was water coming in from there. It was pandemonium. I was just trying to process what was happening, how I woke up, trying to stop the bleeding and find out where the water was coming from and stop it.

“When I came out on deck after the capsize, it was full to the brim of water. The life raft was just hanging on. The chain from the ground anchor was basically all in the water. While I was trying to sort all of that, a whale swam around the boat! I just heard the noise of the blowhole and then I saw the dorsal fin. It was the most incredible experience ever. I was like, ‘how is this even happening?’ About six hours later, I capsized a second time.”

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Damian Browne Rowing
Damian celebrates with family and friends after crossing the finish line. Image: Ted Martin

His life did not get any easier after that. On day 17, the steering broke. “That’s when it became really, really hard. You have to steer with the oars and that’s the cruellest way you can cross an ocean. I still had 2,000 nautical miles to go.” That long at sea will change a person’s body quite drastically. “I lost four and a half stone.

“I couldn’t sit down for more than ten minutes without being in agony. It was like rowing on sand paper.”

The worst thing was the sores. I had loads of pressure and salt sores on my backside. I couldn’t sit down for more than 10 minutes without being in agony. It was like rowing on sandpaper. I became very good friends with talcum powder!” So, you’re probably reading this and thinking, this sounds like pure misery. And to some extent, you would be right. However, there were moments of bliss out there.

“We had a few calm days when it was baking hot and the water was so blue. It’s just amazing to be able to experience that. Or you climb out of the cabin and there is 180 degrees of stars. It’s just unbelievable. Then five minute later you think, ‘crap, I have to row again.’ “I’d nearly go as far as to say the bad stuff was actually the highlights because of the way I dealt with them. I wanted it to be hard. I would have hated to get to the end thinking it was a bit easy and I definitely didn’t. I’m even considering doing another one!”

By Orla Ó Muirí

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