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The Waterford kayaker who shattered the record for circumnavigation of Ireland

Mick O’Meara battled crippling back pain, the freezing cold and the isolated wilderness to achieve his goal.

Image: Mick O'Meara

IF HIS RECORD is broken and Mick O’Meara never pulls another stroke in his boat again he’ll always be able to say he once paddled around Ireland in the fastest ever time – unsupported.

The 49 year-old Waterford man’s story is an inspirational one; a man who battled crippling back pain just so he could fulfil his passion before setting the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the country in a boat.

Throughout his interview with The42 he uses the word ‘paddle’ to describe his journey but that would suggest it was fun, a jaunt. It was anything but.

O’Meara has had a lifelong love-affair with the Irish coast and competing in boats – he’s won the Liffey descent seven times and was on the first Irish team to kayak around the frigid environs of Iceland. He also holds the record for the fastest Irish Sea crossing.

But his recent accomplishment is his most incredible yet when you consider the previous record was set by two Englishmen who brought preparation and planning to new extremes.

But then O’Meara went along and smashed their record by two days.

Here’s the story of his 23 days at sea…

MOM2 Source: Mick O'Meara

“I wasn’t in a rush to do it but it was always a personal challenge,” he said of his desire to always paddle around Ireland.

“I did it 25 years ago with a few friends in 33 days but I never saw it as something I wanted to do in record time.

“The record thing came into it when two English lads, Jeff Allen and Harry Whelan, came and did it in 2011 and the word ‘record‘ was being bandied around.

“Their record stood for a long time but I never went out to set a record.

“They made a hullabaloo, took it seriously and with military style training and precision, made it in 25 days.

“Over the years my back was at me and I was getting down about it. I was visiting chiropractors but I took it seriously and I got it sorted.

“All the while, my three kids growing up; 10 years that took.”

So, with the kids less of a burden and his back issues somewhat cleared up, he started thinking he could take this challenge on, despite being 50 this year and despite the total distance being a whopping 1,200 kilometres.

“I started training seriously before Christmas, went to pilates a lot and got my back in order.

“Training was going okay. I was going to do it with some others but people couldn’t get time off work so I said ‘shit I’m gonna do it myself’.

“I’m starting a PhD in September so I knew the time was now.”

O’Meara set off from Garrarus Beach in Waterford on 11 June. With him he had his Rockpool Taron kayak, his tent, stove, wet weather clothes, food to last him the first seven days, maps, GPS and his mobile phone to arrange for rations to be dropped at pre-determined places along the coast.

“I didn’t look for sponsorship or anything; I just took off on June 11th and went for it.

“I had a schedule but the first thing you need is the skill and the fitness to survive the course. I have that.

“But the weather can mess you up; the weather decides when and how far you go. You’re not bigger than the weather.

“I set myself a schedule of 75 kilometres a day. The weather was shit but okay to get out; there were rough seas but I was able to do it.

“I was locked in Donegal in Ballycastle for two days but they were the only days I was stuck.”

O’Meara recalls almost abandoning the trip altogether around the halfway point however, as he was lashed for 10 days straight.

“There was lots of wind and rain; I think it rained 10 days straight. There was mist and fog and I think the temperature was only around 10 or 12 degrees, it really was bad.

“I came close to calling the boys and just coming home. It was like weather from the end of October.”

It was a lonely existence travelling by himself and his day-to-day life went something like the following:

“Wake up as early as 3am, take down the tent, pack the gear, put on the clothes, the wet gear was a pain in the arse because you’re fighting the cold the minute you put your clothes on and after that I just stayed on the water all day.

“In the evening I’d cook, maybe write a blog and get some sleep. That was it.”

Food, by the way was of the very simple variety. No honey to glaze on porridge or gravy to spice up dinner.

“Muesli for breakfast, pasta and couscous for dinner. Snacks would be bars of chocolate and Nutri-grains. I was on me tod so I could only carry around seven days’ food at a time in the kayak.

“I picked up food packs then along the way.”

The weather rarely improved and his morale often took a hit too, not least when he wondered what it was all for when he got into difficulty up around the Aran Islands. Thoughts of his family at home entered his head regularly.

“That was extremely rough, especially when you’re on your own. But then again, that’s what made it exciting.

“I came around Malin Head and I thought I’d have an easier time but there were only southerly winds, which made it a really tough section.

“I came off the water some days in a terrible condition.

“Freezing cold, in pain, exhausted. Some days I had to ask myself why I was doing it and could I even continue.

“There were frightening times,” he said “but exciting ones too. Ireland has an incredible coastline. It’s a fantastic journey to complete on your own but mentally it’s very tough.”

MOM3 Source: Mick O'Meara

Coming down the east coast, O’Meara still had work to do but when he phoned his wife to tell her he’d be home on Friday at 7pm (three days away) he made it his mission to stick to that promise.

“Towards the end I was getting tired,” he reflected, “you get drained mentally on your own; you’re responsible for everything so when I got home it was the greatest feeling of satisfaction you could imagine.

“160 people were there on the beach with balloons and everything and it was just lovely to be home.

“My back had been bad and the weather had been cat but it was just fantastic too; no one can accuse me of setting a record in good conditions because it was anything but handy.”

The record, he said, is something he’s immensely proud of, but in the same breath he believes it’s a very doable challenge.

“It could be done faster if the wind had fecked off, but it could have been much slower as well.

“I was in a heap with emotion after it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“I had high moments and low moments, so low you’d cry a bit, on your own, but you get that when your knackered.

“I just said to myself, ‘you’re 50 this year and you’ll be 60 in 10 years. You can’t have regrets, I can’t do this for too long more.

“People wake up at 60 and say ‘I should have done this or that’ and I never want that.

“This is doable for anyone, it’s an achievement I set out to do and it’s something I hope will inspire other paddlers to try to push themselves to do too.”

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Brian Canty

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