Meet the man attempting to become the first Irish person to row 2,100 miles across the Pacific Ocean

Philip Cavanagh is hoping to raise €100,000 as part of the challenge, which will involve roughly four weeks of continuous rowing.

Philip Cavanagh says he had no interest in rowing up until a few years ago.
Philip Cavanagh says he had no interest in rowing up until a few years ago.
Image: Philip Cavanagh

WHEN MOST PEOPLE enjoy a book, they might recommend it to a friend or reserve a special place for it in their memory, yet Philip Cavanagh’s experience of Little Lady, One Man, Big Ocean was altogether more extraordinary. In fact, it was life changing.

Before he read the book, he says he had no interest in rowing whatsoever. Fast forward a few years later and he is set to try to become the first Irishman to attempt, with three crewmates, to row 2,100 miles across the Pacific Ocean in a world record time. In addition, Cavanagh and his crewmates are also hoping to raise €100,000 for charity ahead of this unenviable task.

Given that the duration of the event is roughly 40 days and he’ll have to fight potential pitfalls including torrential weather, possible hurricanes, shark attacks, sleep deprivation and seasickness, my first question is simple: what on Earth possessed him to undertake this challenge?

In response, Cavanagh recalls how he received the aforementioned book — about Paul Gleeson, another Irishman who successfully rowed across the Atlantic Ocean in 2005 — as a seemingly innocuous Christmas present. However it didn’t take long for him to become obsessed with its subject matter.

“The seed was implanted,” he tells “I was hooked on rowing ocean after that. It grew over the next couple of years. It started with going on eBay and buying a rake of ocean-rowing books. I became kind of a land expert if you will, and I made the decision then to not only commit to row the ocean, but aim to win it as well.”

Yet despite his enthusiasm, the process from thereon in was still less than straightforward.

“The only problem I had at that stage is that I didn’t have a crew, I didn’t have any money and I never rowed before,” he explains. “I found out about the first Pacific Race the following year, which was last year, and when I talked to an ocean-rowing friend of mine — Aodhán Kelly is his name — I asked him what it was like and he said ‘the Pacific is a different kettle of fish altogether’ and that kind of sold it to me more than any brochure ever could. And ever since then, I was hooked on it.

“I had no interest with the rowing up until a few years ago.  I came from an athletics background. The majority of people who do these races — I don’t know if naivety is the key, but they tend to not be experts.”

His next step was selecting teammates to accompany him on this arduous journey and perhaps somewhat surprisingly given how daunting it sounds, he was spoiled for choice when it came to selecting crewmates.

YouTube credit: Paul Gleeson

(Paul Gleeson rowed across the Atlantic in 2005)

An ad request that he persuaded an “adventurer similar to Bear Grylls” — Alastair Humphreys — to promote, prompted over 350 responses within a week.

“Eventually I Skyped whoever I narrowed it down to. One of the members of the crew party came over to Dublin. We went out and had about eight pints in Temple Bar. And then the next day, we were rowing an ocean together. Like any Irishman’s decision, it involved a few drinks,” he laughs.

“Then we went over to the UK and met the other guys. When I was doing the selection process, the main thing was to be able to get on with them. If they’d never rowed before, they could have learned to row — it can be worked on. You can get fitter over the eight months [before the race starts]. So it was all about making sure four people gel, given the amount of time you’re going to spend together.

“The lads are all English, so my main thing over the course of the race is to make sure they don’t do as many miles as I do and I’m sure it’s vice versa. It’s a good rivalry to have.”

Given that Cavanagh was a relative latecomer to the sport, it’s hardly a surprise that the initial familiarisation process was quite painstaking.

“The first time I went out was in a boat that ‘couldn’t capsize,’ and I was about two inches from capsizing it, so I thought ‘Jesus, this isn’t for me at all’. But with a bit of perseverance, it does get a lot easier, and the ocean-rowing boats are a lot more stable than the four rowing boats would be. They’re made not to capsize, and people are generally shocked when they see the size of the boat. They’re expecting a massive cruiseliner, but they’re quite small. They’re only designed and built from carbon fibre. So they’d withstand any bad conditions.”

Naturally, he is now considerably more confident and adept in a boat and despite the fact that the race won’t get underway until June 2014, his training is already at an intensive stage.

“I’m training seven times a week,” he says. “Ideally it would be 10 or 11 sessions a week, but with a nine-to-five job and a girlfriend, it’s difficult to juggle everything at the moment. It would be a mixture of weights, cardio, running, rowing on the machine — the key would be getting out on the water itself, so the currach at the moment is going up and down the Liffey in the evenings and then down the Irish Sea at the weekends.”

And while this challenge sounds quite spectacular, there are plenty of less-than-glamorous elements to it as well.

“Our toilet system is a bucket-and-chuck-it system for those that don’t know,” he says. “There’s not really a private area that you can go to. That’s something one of the lads is looking forward to least.”

Yet, although this may sound extremely unsavoury, toilet etiquette is probably the least of their concerns.

“Ideally, what will happen on the boat is that two people will always be rowing and two people will always be sleeping or tying a knot. It’ll be a minimum of four weeks so you’ll be spending the four weeks with three other pretty smelly men in a really small cabin.

“Onboard, we’ll have dry-packed food. It won’t be five-course meals or anything. It’ll be ration packs that we eat. We have a water-maker on board. From time to time, we’ll have a secondary one, which is basically just a hand-pumped one, so it takes about an hour to make 20 litres. It’s quite a manual process — you’re just pumping water. And the race itself is from California to Hawaii. It’s just one race — we don’t stop moving for the 4-6 weeks.”

image(British rower Jim Shekhdar with his daughters, Sarah and Anna, and wife Jane — in 2001, the 54-year-old rowed his way in to the record books after completing the 274-day journey from Peru to Brisbane, Australia to become the first person to row across the Pacific Ocean unaided – Sean Dempsey/PA Archive/Press Association Images)

One of the biggest challenges for the crew will be coping with the array of weather conditions they’re likely to encounter.

“It’ll be incredibly warm during the day in the cabin,” he says. “So one of the biggest challenges we will have is trying to sleep. So you’ll be fairly knackered after your shift trying to sleep in the warm conditions. At night time then, they can have pretty bad storms. You might even get caught in a hurricane. They’ll even have cases on the VHF where you have to be on alert for shark attacks. There’s a couple of different factors.”

And having to cope with such pressure will undoubtedly result in several tense moments, however Cavanagh explains that the crew are determined to handle such circumstances in as positive a manner as possible.

“I’ve said to the other lads, we’ve only really three rules on board — with the tight space that we have, there’s no negativity on the boat because you can’t go anywhere if you have a fight with somebody. The second rule is don’t be late for your shift. It’s important that you’re not two or three minutes late where those 60 seconds on the boat are golden — that’s all you have. Then the third rule is do not miss your shift. You find you get to the point where your bartering — you get to the point where you say ‘I’ll give you this if you do five minutes.’”

Moreover, while Cavanagh may still be relatively inexperienced as a rower, he is hardly under-prepared for the challenge.

“We do a lot of safety courses in the lead up to the race, so we’ve got mandatory courses like a VHF Sat Nav courses, safety courses, self-riding for the boat. In terms of safety courses,  there isn’t much riding that you can do. The worst case is that you just batten down the hatches. You have a sea anchor, which is just like a parachute. It expands and fills with water. We throw that out overboard and wait for it. That’s where you literally can’t row and you row backwards when two people are rowing. You call it a day and put the anchor out and just wait for it to pass. But there isn’t too much preparation you can do for something like a hurricane.”

YouTube credit: Discovery TV

Surprisingly, given the magnitude of the task in which 30 teams from around the world will compete, he is relatively calm about what lies ahead. And even more interestingly, there is at least one challenge he would baulk at.

“The solo entrants — people say I’m mad to do it in the first place — but I think they’re the mad ones, going 18 hours a day, sleeping for six, and getting back up and doing it again.

“The only scary part for me is that I’m not scared. I probably should be. Or maybe I will be on the start line. Or maybe after three or four dark nights on your own when you start thinking something’s gone wrong here. There could potentially be sharks, but main factor for me is the weather conditions being really bad and turning the boat over. You could have a freak wave out of nowhere that might knock you off the boat.

“Also, the really tight spaces — it’s more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge. It’s about how you deal with getting back up after two hours sleep and doing it again. You don’t have to be the fittest person in the world to compete and that’s one of the things that I want to show Irish people.  I don’t want people to think that I’m this superman who’s done a million challenges. I’ve done marathons and the likes, but this is my first big challenge. And I just want to show people that it’s a mental challenge. If you think you have it, then you probably do.”

His family and friends, on the other hand, are not quite so assured about the prospect of him being away for a couple of weeks.

“I think they still think I’m mad to be honest. They’re very supportive but they’re also very apprehensive. I’d say there’d be a few tears on the start line — put it that way. To be honest, a lot of people don’t understand the extent of it. ‘My girlfriend said sure you’re not rowing the whole Pacific, you’re only doing half of it. ‘You can’t please everybody. But it’s a mixed reaction overall.”

Yet such arduous challenges are not exactly unique to Cavanagh, as someone who spent their youth competing in a series of track and cross-country events.

“One of the reasons I wanted to do this as well. I’d been running up for two or three years at a decent level. And as any runner will know at any level, it’s all about pushing yourself as far as your body will let you. That’s essentially what the challenge is — your body and your mind. It’s just a case of pushing to the limits.”

Moreover, as the only Irish participant, achieving this goal would be particularly unique and significant from Cavanagh’s perspective.

“There’s never been an Irish team to ever row the Pacific and no Irish person has attempted it before. There’s only 18 people who’ve ever crossed it in fact. It shows the enormity of the challenge that lies ahead for us. There’d be a lot of New Zealand crews and UK crews as well, so we’re up against the best in the world. But we reckon we’ll definitely be able to put it up to them on the day.

“The current world record is 64 days. That was back in 1997 and it was by a solo participant as well. So we reckon we’d smash that in half. Other crews will obviously go under it as well. But our aim is to be the first crew over the line and to ideally get under the 30 days. But we really don’t know. No four has ever done it before. We don’t know how long it’s going to take. You could be lucky or unlucky with the conditions that you’re in.”

The €100,000 that the crew are hoping to raise will be divided among three charites — Cancer Research UK, Dogs in Distress and Aware, with the latter being particularly close to Cavanagh’s heart.

“I know people close to me who’ve suffered from depression, so it’s a fairly important charity. And I know what we wanted to try to do was target charities, who were not necessarily struggling financially but where 30 grand would make a massive difference to them, as opposed to someone else where they might get two or three million a year in sponsorship already.”

There is such a restriction on weight that the crew won’t even be affording themselves the small luxury of alcohol on board, hence Cavanagh is planning on having “a Chinese and a few bottles of beer” as his last meal before setting out to sea.

And when he finishes? “I’ll get off the boat and sit down, have a bottle of beer and a cigar and think why the f*ck did I sign up to this,” he laughs. “Whose idea was that?”

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