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Dublin: 17 °C Wednesday 20 June, 2018
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Damian Browne on the capsizes, calm, blood and tears of his epic solo row across the Atlantic

We caught up with the former Connacht and Leinster lock as he rested up in Antigua after an incredible 4,800km solo row versus rough seas.

THE DAY HAD been already challenging enough.

Christmas had just passed and Damian Browne’s morning began with a bang; his head against the wall of his cabin and ‘that familiar warm trickle’ of blood he felt so often on a rugby field.

Later a curious, but unpredictable, adolescent whale would come to call, circling his craft to set nerves jangling.

Browne is out here in the middle of the Atlantic because he wanted a test. Though he could have happily waited a while more for this hurdle came to meet him.

The foot steering on his boat, Darien, had failed and Browne was standing on deck attempting to find a temporary solution. Half turned, from the corner of his eye, he saw it coming.

The wind tore at its peak, turning the water white and breaking it high and early. The wave came crashing down and put Browne into a cold salty spin cycle.

He was tethered, he hastens to add, so theoretically couldn’t have gone too far from the boat. But instinct told him it was best not to chance it. Amid the chaos of the open ocean, Browne’s mind had a clear single task. He clamped his hand onto a handle and was swept under.

“The boat was in the wrong place at the wrong time and  I was in the wrong place on the boat at the wrong time,” he tells The42 now that he’s securely back on dry land.

“I had the presence to grab the handles on the cabin hatch, so I just grabbed one of them and around we went.”

Damian Browne, Devin Toner, Kevin McLaughlin, Mike Ross and Sean Cronin Browne, left, prepares to pack down in a pack of internationals for Leinster in 2011. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Some rugby players go straight into coaching when they retire. Others put their hands up for regular media work or press play on a career path paused since completing college. Damian Browne has refused to let his body off that lightly. He is determined to endure.

The imprints of Browne’s rugby career are all over the replies to his absorbing social media posts since beginning an epic solo row across the Atlantic in aid of Medecins Sans Frontiers, Madra and The Roots Foundation school in Rwanda.

There, below the line, offering encouragement are former team-mates from his time in Connacht and Leinster, Brive and Oyonnax. From John Muldoon to Sean O’Brien, Jordi Murphy to Scott Spedding. They respected the work in his past career, these feats are making jaws drop.

Since retiring from rugby, Browne has put his body to the most severe of tests, first in the sapping Marathon des Sables in 2016. And now this: 63 days rowing from La Gomera in the Canaries to Antigua. A trip of 4,800 kilometers to place an ocean’s worth of scrutiny on his physical ability, of course, but also the resilience of his mind.

The deep bass of Browne’s Galway accent comes down the line from the quiet lobby of his Antigua hotel. He has had time to catch up on sleep and calories now, but as he looks back, the 37-year-old expresses some regret around both his preparation and approach to the voyage.

In some respects he was not prepared to go to contingency plans, he placed too much faith in his boat and her equipment to stand firm against all that was coming. However, when it came to his own mental state he had the toolbox fully stocked, sharpened and ready to patch up any slight fraying at the seams.

“It’s kind of the reason I put myself into these things: I want to be tested mentally as well as physically and see what I’m capable of,” says the former second row forward.

The answer to that still hasn’t necessarily found a limit thanks to constant solidifying maintenance from Browne, working almost as hard to keep his mind on course as his boat.

“I’ve learned as I’ve went and evolved a bit. I have some processes that I rely on, like when you get into a negative thought process: re-setting.

“I use a mantra or a statement that cuts the negative process. It would be quite a blunt thing you’d say to yourself. Then you’d have some positive statements to say to yourself over and over again to get the mind back into a positive mindset.

“That’s the trick really — staying positive in the really mundane times, the hard times.”

Positivity is easier said than done when your body aches, the equipment is giving up and there’s nothing but grey waves on the horizon for thousands of kilometers ahead. So Browne made sure to devote time and effort to generating positivity rather than sitting back behind his oars and hoping that it found him.

“In the morning when I wake up I’d just do five minutes of affirmations, saying stuff like: ‘simply nothing will stop you rowing across the Atlantic.’ And, ‘you’re unbreakable, you’re unstoppable, you’re indestructible’.

“It might sound a bit corny, but it’s incredibly powerful in the medium term. I find if you do it well coming into an event, then it can work very, very well.

“Another one would be, when your mind is a bit out of control: coming back to the things you can control and focus on them. For me, out there, it would have been things like my position in the seat, my effort, my self talk. So I’d concentrate on those things.”

Browne constantly speaks of being present throughout his task. It can be easy to write off the language of mindfulness as something wishy-washy, replaceable by ‘just getting on with it’. But getting on with it is exactly what it allowed Browne to do: next job, control the controllables. Indeed, that approach can prove a life-saver in moments like his capsize, when being present meant focusing on nothing but the strength of his grip to keep hold of the cabin handle while the boat spun through the wave.

“I was able to dial all my mental capacities into my grip. I was, like, ‘just squeeze your grip as hard as you can as you go round’.

Then I was incredibly calm under the water. I was: ‘okay you’ve thought about this, visualised this, the boat will self-right. You will come around eventually. Just stay as calm as possible and go with it. You don’t have to do anything. You will come around.’ And eventually it did - I say ‘eventually’, it might have been only six or seven seconds.”

Eternity when you’re underwater against your own volition.

“I never felt any pull. I’m a big believer in you can only control what you can control. I did my bit, and even if I hadn’t grabbed the handle I probably would have been okay, but y’know…”

Best not to leave these things to chance.

******

‘THE FINGERS ARE the real problem.’

After five days back among people, out of the boat and on terra firma, Browne has overcome baby giraffe syndrome and regained his land legs, he quickly adapts to a sense that his bedroom is moving each morning and the loss of the tranquility of the open ocean is more than welcome.

Yet his knuckles won’t let him forget what they’ve been through. For 63 days they gripped hard against the handle thrust against them, and pulled, pulled, pulled.

They were firm as he tore through stroke after stroke, wave after wave, hour after hour day after day until Antigua was just a simple step away.

But now they’re solid.

“The joints are basically frozen into place, the knuckle, it’s taken a while for them to begin to loosen out and it’ll be a while to go yet by the feel of it.

“Even while I was rowing, it was very similar, but you had no choice but to grab the oars and get on with it. After five or 10 minutes the blood flow would loosen them out. But now you don’t have that, so grabbing knives, forks and doorknobs, you feel a little bit useless because you can’t open anything.”

The advice given to Browne is that normality is just around the corner for his fingers. And thankfully, the same goes for the rest of him. After 63 days of solitary confinement and hard labour, he would be forgiven if his people skills were a little dulled by his experience.

The fact that it was the most familiar figures of his brother Andrew (also a professional rugby player with Connacht) sister Gillian and parents Joe and Mary who were there to offer emotional embraces on his arrival can only have helped the transition back into a social life.

“I remember the first night in particular, I came in around mid-afternoon, I went out for dinner that night with my family friends.

It was just a contentment to be around people and have them talking. I could have sat there and not said a word, of course that didn’t happen, but I would have been very happy sitting there and have people talk around me.

“The fact that there was pizza and steak there didn’t go down badly either after eating out of a bag for 63 days.”

The bags weren’t all bad.

Browne bought a little from many sources, adding a little variety to days and weeks that easily blended into one. He needed every ounce of nutrients from his expedition rations, rehydrated to edible state by the addition of boiling water.

Over the course of his epic row 28 kilogrammes were lost from Browne’s 6′ 5″ frame. Heading west after a long taper as a sturdy 130 kilo lock, Browne arrived on the other side at 102 kilos and – bar the full unkempt beard – resembled a fighter in need of a hearty meal after sweating for the week before weigh-in.

The week before Vs. 55 days of rowing the Atlantic!

A post shared by Damian Browne (@auld_stock) on

The calories expended would have been considerably lower were it not for the technical challenges, however. In the case of the lost oar, he blames himself for skipping necessary stages, seeking a shortcut to keep a protective collar from riding up his oar handle.

After days of loosening the screws to bring the collar back down, one day he had a hammer and so the problem became a nail… until rough seas shook him from the cabin into action and he discovered that the problem was an oar again. As in, he was missing one.

She’s such a monster, the Atlantic. You have to be incredibly on the ball with your checklist of things that have to be done.”

“I felt sorry for myself for a few minutes and then berated myself for not being on the ball with that.

“Thankfully, you have to bring two sets of oars, but the problem was, and the reason I was really pissed off at the time, was that I had never used the second set.

“They were a different make than the first set. So the oars I’d trained with and done my first 10 days with were gone. It took a bit of getting used to, heavier, and I just felt this is slowing me down even more.”

You might think that losing an oar would be the biggest problem a rower would face on a trip like this. Far from it: being reduced to using those oars as a means of steering as well as propulsion was the real issue.

“I was foot-steering – there’s a rod that goes down from your foot-plate and there’s a weld there. Somehow the weld broke and when you’re in the middle of the Atlantic, you’re a long way from a welder. It’s not something you carry.

“It was a huge moment in the crossing, because I was already doing it the rawest way – I had no auto-helm (to control direction), which 95% of the boats had – so I was down to the most crude form of getting across, which is steering with the oars. And when you’re steering with the oars you almost need to have one oar in the water at all times, so it doesn’t give you much chance to get a lot of speed up.

“It’s incredibly draining to steer with the oars, you need a lot of upper body strength, because you’re leveraging off one side all the time. You’ve got tonnes of water on the blade of the oar at all times and you’re rowing on the other side. So you need good core stability and strong arms, especially in heavy seas and big conditions.

At night you’d be absolutely sapped mentally and physically from the day.”

As a result, sleeping sound was never much of an issue. But without the direction of the auto-helm, it was tough to convince the boat to remain facing west through the night.

“When you wake up during the night and look at what speed you’re doing or what direction you’re going.

“Sometimes you’d leave the boat on a certain bearing, 270 degrees or whatever and you wake up at 220 and you’re kind of going: ‘will I just pop on the oars and get it back to 270 let her go that direction?’ I was at the mercy of the winds, but invariably they’d keep you going west.”

Ordinarily, Browne would get about six hours sleep in a night. A bit of charge in the battery and he was up long before dawn to get moving again. He remained on Spanish time for a sense of consistency, though moving towards the Americas meant the shape of the day became quite disconnected from his clock.

-
So the routine would look something like this:  6 or 7am, wake up, untie everything he had to lock down the night before and row until sunrise and breakfast.

Lunch, an hour’s rest and (if there was no maintenance required) possibly a power nap would follow another two-hour stint on the oars. Then a further two hours took him to the hottest part of the day, time to duck back in the cabin to avoid the harshest sunlight.

Then it was back to work until sunset. If the night was well moonlit and clear, he wouldn’t even stop there.

“Just try to maximise the daylight, because when you steer with the oars, you need to see where the blade is in the water and you need to see what’s coming at you so you can read the waves. When there’s no moonlight, it’s really really hard.

“You can get the oars slammed into your quads or one in the ribs and it’s really, really sore and you’re not really going very far. So when conditions weren’t so bad and you could row at night, I’d take an hour off and be back rowing from 10pm until 2am.”

That’s when all was going to plan. The closer he got to the finish line, the more enticing, and necessary a bit of overtime became.

“My routine kind of evolved into 12 hours rowing a day. The most I did was 19 – I was trying to fight north after being pushed south 60 odd miles by the wind.

“I was very conscious that I was only 5 or 600 miles from Antigua, getting a lot of calls from the duty officers saying I had to get north.

“I did 19 hours. And the following day I did 13 before I crashed, I was exhausted.”

IMG_5458

It’s been a hectic year and a half for Browne. Aside from the treacherous 63 days of the Talisker Atlantic Challenge, there was a host of ancillary work that was required behind it.

His strained muscles and blister-coated hands tell the tale of the row, but the fundraising efforts around took a toll too. The rest of the Browne family has jetted back to Galway, but Damian will continue his hard-earned recuperation in the Caribbean for a few more weeks.

“Although it sounds a bit strange, I need some space and time,” he says, not realising how much sense he’s making. The first bit of decluttering he did after lasting the distance was to bid a business-like goodbye to the craft that carried him.

“I kissed goodbye to it on Sunday, happily,” Browne says, hinting that the kiss was more Michael on Fredo Corleone than a genuinely tender farewell.

“It was kind of a gentle shove away from the dock. They asked me if I wanted to row it out 200 metres, I said ‘no…’

“It was quite a strained relationship. It got me across the Atlantic safe and sound and I’m very, very thankful for that, but we had our issues.”

Perhaps the issues with Darien made her a helpful lightning rod for Browne to channel his frustration through. In any case, they brought about the impressive flexes from his mental strength and left him with a life lesson, writ large, underlined and in bold.

“The biggest issue I had on the row was that, in heavy seas, I couldn’t get the boat to turn with the wind and with the wave, so it was always ‘beam-on’, side on, into waves. So I was always getting smashed.

“It was really hard to get the boat into that position: if the wind was over 20 knots I found that I had two or three degrees of leeway, then the wind would catch the cabin and push me back down into that beam-on position under the wave. It would take me two or three minutes of really hard work – leveraging on one side, rowing on the other – when you get  to the top of the waves you’d be panting.

“There were a few times when I was sitting down and it happened (being pushed back from atop the wave) four or five times in a row after only being up there for 10 or 12 seconds at a time.

“You’d just feel like crying.”

Yet he kept going, hard against the elements, telling himself: ”keep trying to get up there, because that’s the fastest way of getting across.”

The one thing I came back to time and again was just to keep going, never give up — there were times the little devil on my left shoulder would say: ‘just crawl in there. What’s the difference between 51 more days or 52? Or 63 days and 64. Just rest up.’.Just to keep going, keep grinding even when times are at their lowest and never give up. That was the one thing I kept coming back to time and again: keep churning away whatever the circumstances.”

“To do the hard thing and not just feeling sorry for yourself, to keep churning away and trying to get into that position. Going forward, even if it’s only inching forward, as long as you’re going forward and keeping it positive you’ll get where you want to go in the end.

“I kept saying that to myself. Fight from beginning to end. It was never one I was going to win, but I might survive.

“I ended up surviving.”

Solo Irish rower Damian Browne at the finish line of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge CREDIT TED MARTIN 3_preview Source: Ted Martin

Having proved himself through such hellish conditions, the achievement feels sweet to Browne as he knocks back cool beer by a tame calm swimming pool. For most, a few lengths of that might be enough of a challenge to consider for the foreseeable future. Yet the longer you hear Browne speak about regrets and what he learned from the trip, the stronger the impression that a follow-up is already on the cards.

He is an endurance athlete now, or an adventurer. Whatever profession he might choose for himself, scores of others will call him an inspiration.

“I wouldn’t say no to another ocean row. I wouldn’t do the same route, because I’ve done it, and I wouldn’t do it solo. I’d like to do it in a team, share the experience with some people. Definitely not ruling it out, I’ve thought about what I could do or what route I could do.

“It won’t be anytime soon though. I’m not that sick.”

Related>> Browne on his hard slog on day one:

The Donegal man making big waves in the world of professional surfing

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Sean Farrell

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