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On the 1st March 2017 I will finally, weather permitting, set off to row the Atlantic Ocean. Now I know what some of you will be thinking - ...

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Boat Prep, Delays but we're getting there.

Almost in Portugal a week already and time is flying by. Although we were meant to be departing tomorrow and are now not, the truth is we've had loads to do already and probably would have struggled to leave tomorrow even if conditions had been favourable. So what exactly do we mean by boat prep? Well, it's basically getting the boat ready to depart. That includes everything from cleaning the boat to loading it full of all the food we'll need for the crossing, to testing equipement, fitting new pieces of equipement, fitting sponsor logos on the outside etc etc. Ours is possibly the most high tech boat ever to cross the Atlantic ocean. We have constant email and text communications via satellite phone (of which we have two), we have 2 independent ship identification systems on board (AIS), 3 different emergency satellite beacons (EPIRB/PLBs), 3 personal AIS beacons as well as all the traditional safety equipement such as life jackets, throwing lines, Liferaft etc. Simply put, we couldn't have more safety with us on board. Fitting the new systems and testing them all has taken up a large part of the last week - that and shopping for food, snacks, treats etc.

Today we finally completed the last of the wiring and put the boat in the water. It was a huge psychological milestone and felt great to be out on the water, allbeit briefly. We rowed across to the local marina where the boat will stay until we depart. Before then we'll do water trials (testing all the systems on the water, most importantly the watermaker) and plenty of training. Having not exercised in nearly 10 days we are all itching to get moving again so tomorrow will be great. And then focus turns to the weather forecast. No single factor has lead to more highs and lows in the past week than the weather forecast. It's been favourable, unfavourable, dreadful, ok and everywhere in between. The long and the short of it is there's a storm due across the coast on the 2nd to 4th of March which at the moment is forecast to clear by the afternoon of the 5th. If the forecast holds (it probably won't!) we'll depart on the 6th March. We won't really know for sure until 1-2 days before when the forecast becomes more reliable. If we do depart then it won't have been much of a delay at all and we'll be off. But it's equally possible it changes again so we'll really have to wait and see.

So in summary - lots done already, lots still to do, 6th March looks like our current departure window but we'll have to wait and watch before we know for sure.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Oscar Acceptance Speech

OK so I haven't won the Oscar yet....or been nominated....of even made the film really. But I do know that without the help of a number of people, that I could never even have tried to cross this Ocean. There are many things beyond our control that could prevent us succeeding - equipement failure, extreme weather conditions, serious illness, injury, etc. I don't like to dwell on such factors as these are beyond our control for now, but there is no doubt there are many things that could happen to prevent us achieving our aim of crossing. But the truth is, irrespective of the success or failure of this project, there are people I need to thank who have allowed me to get to the start line and at least attempt this feat, which I really do appreciate. This may not be the most interesting blog entry I will ever write but is one I feel I should. So in no particular order, here goes....

Helen - suppose she deserves a mention so may as well get it over with. The strain (emotional, physical, logistical etc) that this project puts directly on Helen means she had a veto on it from day 1. Most rational people might think twice about letting their partner set off to sea for 50 days simply to fulfil a somewhat strange ambition, and for a couple of years she did. Then, about 18 months ago, she gave the green light. Now I should perhaps be a little suspicious as to why she'd be so keen for me to head off on such a crazy expedition but maybe that's a topic for a whole other blog entry! But it takes a strong and very brave person to stand behind their partner on such a risky journey when the far easier thing would be to say no. And although I may take much of plaudits if we do manage the crossing, it will be far more worrying, lonely and scary for Helen sitting at home wondering about how we are doing, than it will be for me being out there and doing it. Although I'm sure Gin will help soften the blow, I do understand her sacrifices and do appreciate them. She has been as strong and as supportive as a rock throughout, and I have no doubt she will continue to be so all the way until we arrive French Guiana.

Standing behind and supporting Helen in the background, far from the limelight as usual, are her parents - Stan and Judy. No (wo)man is an island and Helen will depend heavily on support from them during the next 2 months. They will arrive in Cannes at the start of April and will stay until Helen and I return from French Guiana - anything from 3 to 6 weeks later. This is a huge commitment of time and energy, required simply because I chose to row an Ocean. It's a great example of the wide ranging implications such a project has on a wide range of people around me. But I know Helen, and I, appreciate their help.

Equally, in their own way, my parents are an integral part of the support team I am lucky enough to have around me. From their assistance in funding the row, to their commitment of time in March in Cannes to help Helen, they have backed me throughout. Although they probably think I'm crazy/selfish/mentally unstable to be attempting such a trip, they haven't (so far) tried to talk me out of going and that support is much appreciated. Hopefully logistics will allow them to come to French Guiana too to see my arrival - they would very much deserve to be part of the celebrations.  

One final individual mention goes to Elin Haf Davies. A quite remarkable lady (though don't tell her I said that - she'll be unbearable!) who herself has crossed both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans by rowing boat. When the whole world shouted "DON'T", she was the lone voice saying "Do it!". Her unrelenting encouragement and practical support has been invaluable and much of the reason I've got as far as I have in this project. She's a true adventurer in actions and spirit and her enthusiasm for adventure is simply infectious.

And then of course there is the wider group of friends who in their own typical style have kept me entertained and grounded throughout - from planning who gets what of my belongings when I don't make it back, to reminding me of my past failed sporting projects (sub 3 hour marathon - I'm coming for you when I get back). And of course the photos of encouragement along the way (see picture of my boat below). Love you all guys!

There's no doubt a venture such as this is fundamentally a selfish venture. This is my dream that I have imposed on others. Others will have to give their time and effort in order for me to do this, not to mention the emotional burden it imposes on everyone. But I do believe our boys will only benefit from growing up thinking things like this are "normal" and I look forward to seeing what adventures they persue in the future. It certainly is one of the benefits of the "fallout" I'm causing. That and there are worse midlife crises I could be having so it could be worse!

Sunday, 19 February 2017


A popular question over the last few days is "how are preparations going?". It's a good question and not a straightforward answer. There are multiple levels of preparations required for such a venture. The most obvious is physical preparations, or simply put, training. For the last couple of months I've been rowing 3 or 4 times a week on the water at our local club. It's only the Med so the conditions are nothing like the Atlantic but I do believe the improvement in technique and the hardening of hands will serve me well next month. On top of that I've been doing weights, circuits and of course rowing on the Concept 2 to bring the training to 7-9 sessions per week. It's probably not as much as I would have ideally liked but renovating our lastest acqusition in Cannes has been a priority and so much of my time has been spent there since early December. In some ways though training in the evening after a hard day of physical work on the site is good preparation for the Atlantic. At least I hope it is!

The second aspect is mental preparation - getting your head around the challenge ahead. I don't think you can ever really consider youself 100% mentally ready for such a challenge given the unknowns and unpredictable nature of the journey. Sailing the Pacific Ocean in 2012 has given me a big head start as I've seen a big Ocean in heavy weather conditions. It's not a nice place to be at times but it should be manageable given all the safety kit and experience at sea we have on board. Working in a watch pattern (2 hours on, 2 hours off) is also something I experienced whilst sailing and a routine I actually quite enjoy. You never have longer than 2 hours to go until your next rest and a 90 minutes (1 sleep cycle) sleep can be surprisingly refreshing leaving you time to get dressed, eat etc. So I have a good feel for the routine already. The pain of sore hands, bum, muscles, salt sores is an unknown but one I am at least aware of in advance and I hope prepared for. The boredom and repetitive nature of the days and landscape I am somewhat ready for and believe that rowing in a team of 4 will make things so much easier - hours and hours can be spent chatting away endlessly about random topics without access to google to simply answer the questions and can be surprisingly fun! I have met 2 of my teammates but don't know them well so getting to know my crew and sharing past experiences should give many many hours of entertainment to pass the time.

There's obviously a lot more to it than that but I have now been preparing for this for nearly a full year and in that time have grown comfortable with the task ahead and all it entails. I haven't been able to think much about life after arrival in French Guiana, focussing instead on everything we will need to do between now and then. For now I remain surprisingly calm about what lies ahead - hopefully this will continue for another couple of months!

The final aspect of preparations is the "admin" - my least favourite part of the whole thing! There is an enormous amount of logistics involved with rowing across an ocean and although Ralph, our Skipper, has taken care of most of the boat-related logistics, there remains a lot for us to sort out too. From getting the right personal kit to packing it all correctly, to having the right vaccines for arrival in French Guiana - there is so much to do. On top of all related to the row itself I'm trying to do as much work as possible to ease the burden on Helen while I'm away - basically trying to anticipate and do in advance as much of the next 2 months work as possible before I go. And everytime you think you're on top of it, you remember a whole load more stuff you need to organise before you go! The good thing about this part of the preparation is that the minute I step on to that flight to Portugal on Wednesday afternoon, my ability to do any more admin is pretty much done, so that will feel like a weight off my shoulders. Unless of course I realise I've forgotten my passport!

So in summary, I'd give myself 8/10 for physical prep, 9/10 for mental prep and about 7/10 for admin. But the reality is I won't know at all how well my prep has gone until we start rowing - and then of course it will be too late!

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Counting Calories

Although the concept of calories began in the mid 1800s, they first came into the public conscience in the 1960s as part of the whole “Weight Watchers” movement. It was a simple concept - food is fuel and gives a certain amount of energy when consumed. This energy is either used by your body to function or stored by your body in the form of fat. If you eat more than you use you’ll get fatter and if you eat less than you use you’ll lose fat. It was a fairly simple idea and suddenly the back of every food packet was a series of numbers with first in the list “Kcal” or calories. It was suggested a man should consume around 2500 calories a day and a woman around 2000. Although this were fairly arbitrary numbers, they soon became taken for gospel and it was suddenly time to measure, calculate and count every piece of food and drink that entered your mouth. The concept was popular and calorie counting as a weight loss tool became very popular.

Calories or course still exist today but as a dietary method have been replaced by far more trendy ones such as Atkins, Caveman, 5/2 etc not to mention the move towards Gluten-free, Vegan, Dairy-free (the list goes on and on). But let’s go back to the poor, now nearly forgotten calorie. It’s estimated that an average man’s body will consume around 1400 calories a day even doing “nothing”. That is just to fuel your basic body operations with the brain accounting for the vast majority of these. An hour’s moderate rowing will account for about 500 calories. So on the race, given we’ll be rowing for 12 hours a day, we’ll consume around 7400 calories if we row for 12 hours and do nothing else for the other 12. Sadly we’ll be doing things like boat maintenance, preparing food, eating, ablutions etc. So conservatively, we’ll be using around 8000 Kcals per day. Given the average man consumes around 2500 Kcals per day, that would be quite a deficit to run. Luckily, ocean rowers are not “average” men in any meaning of the word. Notably, in how many calories we consume per day. During the race we’ll be looking at around 7000 calories per day, largely through freeze dried food and high calorie snacks such as nuts and chocolate. And despite this ferocious amount of food intake we’ll still probably lose between 10kg and 15kg in weight per man during the Atlantic crossing. So rather than risk losing important skeletal muscle through near starvation, we have to try to gain as much weight as possible before race start. Although we aim to gain as much of this as possible through muscle gain, ultimately, fat will do if needed. And how do we gain so much weight? By eating. A lot. The problem being, the increased training in preparation for the race consumes a significant portion of these extra calories. So the game of cat and mouse continues. I’m now 82kg having gained around 8kg in 6 months. In truth I put that on in about 6 weeks but since then the increased levels of training have clearly offset any further gains. It’s just one of many challenges we face between now and French Guiana.  

Rowing Mount Everest

A popular question I get asked a lot when I tell people I’m going to row the Atlantic is “Why?”. It’s a good question but the answer is not so straightforward. You often hear slightly clichéed answers like “because it’s there” or “for the challenge” but these are merely sound bites that don’t really tell the full, or in fact any of the story. My answer starts when I took up rowing at University in Dublin in 1995. Although I had always been very active before that, it was the first “serious” training I ever undertook. With up to 9 training sessions a week it often felt more like work than play but it was the most rewarding experience of my life to date. Character building doesn’t start to describe it - I gained 15kg in my first 9 months training jumping from a somewhat light 65kg to a fairly significant 80kg. The gain was pure muscle - in fact probably more than 15kg of muscle given the loss of body fat along the way. Every week we did three 90mins cardio circuits followed by a 30mins run; two on the water sessions each lasting about 4 hours; 1 heavy weights session; 1 hill sprint session. And that was just early in the season. Before the Irish Championships we were at 9 sessions a week. But the physical transformation was just the tip of the iceberg. The mental toughness we learnt sometimes verged on brainwashing - a coach repeatedly shouting at you that you don’t feel pain, that your mind controls your body and that you will not accept pain. It was remarkable. But it made us mentally strong. Very strong. It enabled us to block out the demands our muscles made to stop and literally dragged us through the pain barrier time and time again. Such are the demands of competitive rowing.

I did a little over a year of rowing at that level and then decided it was simply too time consuming and decided to enjoy the rest of my University experience. In the 20 years that followed I used a rowing machine for fitness purposes, occasionally challenging myself with marathon distance rows just to see if the mental strength was still there - it was. I recently sat in a rowing boat for the first time since University, having just joined my local rowing club in preparation for the Atlantic. It was like I’d never been away - the clunk of the oars as everyone feathers their blades in unison, the familiar burning in the legs of lactic acid, the inevitable hand pain as blister form and tear on the oar handles. It was like I’d never been away. So rowing was a sport I loved. It was formative - physically and even more so mentally - and represented the biggest challenge I had ever undertaken.

At University I had heard of Ocean Rowers but quickly wrote that off as either a myth or fool’s errand. Rowing 5km on the erg was hard, really hard, how on earth could someone row 5000km? When Cracknell and Fogle famously completed the challenge in 2006 I followed it closely. Having read the book and watched the television program, it became clear that this was ultimate test of mental strength. How do you get back on the oars for yet another 2 hours rowing when you are exhausted and in pain? You do it because your mind is still strong and tells your body to do it. This was the challenge for me. I don’t like altitude or sheer drops, so mountain climbing has never been my thing. So rowing the Atlantic is my Mount Everest. It’s the ultimate benchmark for mental strength and that is why I want to row the Atlantic Ocean.

Monday, 13 February 2017


On the 1st March 2017 I will finally, weather permitting, set off to row the Atlantic Ocean. Now I know what some of you will be thinking - "Didn't Niall do something like this before?". The answer is "No, but Yes". In 2012 I sailed across the Pacific Ocean as part of Clipper Round the World yacht race. In a crew of 15 we sailed from China to San Francisco on board a 68 foot racing yacht. We covered around 10,000km in total in 29 days. We sailed in 4hrs on/4hrs off shifts day and night through whatever conditions Mother Nature threw at us. It was long, it was hard but it was incredibly fun.

But this time, in a 25ft rowing boat, 4 of us will attempt to row nearly 6,000km from Portugal to French Guiana in a 2hrs on/2hrs off watch pattern day and night. It will take us around 50 days. Sounds similar? Maybe. But it's a bit like the difference between driving 1000 miles and running 1000 miles. If you've ever rowed on a rowing machine before - try doing an hour non stop. If you've never rowed on a rowing machine before, try it just once for 10 minutes. That's what we'll be doing every 2 hours for 2 hours, for 50 days. We'll row through storms, at night, in the searing heat, in the freezing cold, when exhausted, when in pain, whatever. As one of the current world record (50 days, 10 hours) crew said - "You can give up as many times as you want as long as you keep on rowing". It's going to be hard.

The adventure for me started around this time last year when I tried to form a 4 man team to enter the Talisker Atlantic Challenge in December 2017. It was hard to find good people, but we managed. It was even harder to find sponsorship, financing etc. In Nov 2016 we finally abandoned our attempt to form a crew. 2 days later I saw a post on an Ocean Rowing site advertising a seat on a row departing in March 2017. I contacted the expedition leader - Ralph Tiujn and signed up the next day. Ralph is a remarkable character and one of the most experienced ocean rowers in history having covered over 500 days at sea in rowing boats. We are joined by Clement Mas - a young Frenchman with a huge amount of solo cycling experience, and Colin Blears - a fellow Clipper sailor and ultra runner. I like the crew we have formed and believe, weather permitting, we have the potential to break the current Mainland to Mainland Atlantic record of 50 days and 10 hours. It will certainly be our target.

We'll depart Portugal around the 1st March heading south west towards the Canaries - from there we'll turn right (technical terms!) and head straight for French Guiana, just north of Brazil. Leaving Portugal we'll face the coldest and perhaps least predictable weather/seas of our crossing. Once we clear the Canaries it will be warm and we should enjoy the East-West trade winds behind us all the way across.

You'll be able to follow our progress in 2 places - Helen will be updating this Blog every few days with summaries of communications from the boat. There'll also be a live tracker which updates twice daily on the expedition website:

I hope you enjoy following the adventure. I'm sure your warm words of encouragement before and during the row will keep me going throughout - oh wait, I've just remembered my friends don't do "warm" or "encouraging" - oh well!