We started training for this race across the Irish Sea from Arklow to Aberystwyth in February, rowing several times a week, often racing the two Porthmadog boats against each other. We also did night rows to give ourselves this experience and practiced swapping crews between our RIB and the celtic longboats. I found the training very hard, dreading the occasions when I had to go out again (although I was fine when I was actually rowing) and became very tired and lethargic. I attributed this to my age and became increasingly concerned that I might not have the stamina to be a full member of the crew.
The race was run on 30th April starting at 1400 hours, (1600 for the men’s crews). We started in choppy waters and experienced a couple of squalls in the first few hours. Thereafter the weather improved but the sea continued choppy for about half of the race and the swells were with us throughout the race.
The start was delayed for almost quarter of an hour to accommodate a boat that had arrived in Arklow late. Sue, Saz, Edw and Rob had been chosen to start as their designated cox, Tina, had the most experience. Our course was SSW as we had to row S of the cardinal buoy at the southern end of the Arklow bank. Some crews started off fast and we seemed to be near the back of the fleet by the time the flotilla opened up. However our tactics were to row steadily at the start so as to preserve our energy for the long row ahead.
The first crew change took place about 75 minutes after the start. Because of the sea state it was difficult to do the transfer from our support fishing boat, Celtic Prince. The port side of the rib and the starboard side of Celtic Prince rolled in opposite directions making it difficult to keep them together. This technique had been what we used in the calm waters during our practice but it had to be abandoned for future transfers. The transfer of our crews to Beyond Mahalah was done by nosing the rib to the stern of the yacht, securing the two craft and then assisting the exhausted rowers in or out of the rib. That technique was used on subsequent transfers to CP. However on this occasion, Bill, Mark and Elaine managed to get on the rib which then collected Nicola, the cox of our second crew, from BM. The transfer to Fleetwing went smoothly; Saz (the stroke) joined us on the rib first, then Tina swapped from cox of the first crew to stroke of the second. Then it was one out of Fleetwing and one in until the changeover was complete.
Rowing conditions were far from ideal with the sea state as a wave might suddenly drop leaving the oar in the air or conversely might lift making it difficult to get the oar out of the water at the end of the stroke and take it back for the next stroke. Rowing is about rhythm and such conditions make it difficult to get into one.
The third crew of Shakes, Steve Pass, Maxine and Saz (cox) joined Nicola (stroke) during the second changeover. This routine continued throughout the race although Mark, Elaine, Rob, Sue and Shakes took over as cox sometimes to give the regular coxes a longer than 45 minute break.
There were moments of bliss when we had relaxed and the sea state has become less troublesome. The evening sky was beautiful and Fleetwing seemed to race through the swells to the efforts of our perfectly rhythmical rowing. Unfortunately, though, some of us suffered with sea sickness, dampening their appreciation. As the sun began to set it became clear that we were amongst the leaders of the boats that started at 1400 hours. In fact we thought we were lying second but it was likely that we were third. As we were rowing we could see a flotilla showing their red, green and white lights spread out on the horizon behind us. Very uplifting!
Later in the darkness the lights of the men’s crews’ boats appeared as they caught us up and overtook us.
Different people were affected in different ways but I (Bill) found myself getting very cold as soon as I stopped rowing and so exhausted that it was too much of an effort to do the simplest things. Mind you even the simplest things are not easy in the dark on the slippery wet deck of a boat bobbing about on a choppy sea, looking for belongings that could be in one of several bags that were scattered, seeming randomly about. After the second rest I had managed to organise myself a slatted bench about 18” wide on the open deck to sleep on. To keep warm (or at least to try) I climbed, several times in my damp rowing gear, into a sleeping bag liner which was inside my sleeping bag and inside a polythene survival bag. Waking me up for my next turn rowing became harder and harder and on the last occasion Geoff was quite worried because he thought I’d died.
On BM some of the rowers didn’t feel free enough of sea sickness to venture into the cabin and so had little sleep.
We had one major drama, which involved the rib crew of Simon and Geoff, who aside from this error were magnificent. The helmsman of CP went astern to cast them off. Unbeknown to any of them during his absence from the helm the boat had changed course. The rib set off for BM in completely the wrong direction, surprised at how far away it was and only then discovering they had come without their satnav. Eventually they asked for the assistance of another support boat, Lucky Tart, who radioed BM for their position. Meanwhile the third crew had to row an extra half an hour without knowing when they were going to be relieved. The whole incident lasted about 45 minutes with frantic radio messages flying between the 3 boats. Poor Simon and Geoff were then named as Satnav and GPS or worse, the Chuckle brothers.
Some of us had worried that the 6 hours we were going to have to row would be too challenging and that we would let the rest of the crew down – I certainly was very concerned about this. Its not possible to row with 100% concentration all the time. Sometimes, briefly, one feels exhausted and not able to row with full power. A mood change, sometimes induced by encouragement from the cox or from one of the support boats, sometimes just self generated, quickly reverses this negative feeling and one feels capable of really powering the boat along. Only for the last 10 minutes or so of the last two sessions did I feel personally unable to pull to my full capacity. I think that feeling was experienced by many of us and our speed through the water did drop towards the end of the race.
When dawn came Wales could be just about distinguished through the murky conditions. We could see we were catching up a boat, which turned out to be the winning ladies crew, Arklow ladies. We made a determined effort to catch them and they kept swapping crew to use their strongest rowers. We could probably have beaten them if we’d put our strongest 4 men for the final sprint but we didn’t think that would have looked good and we’d already decided that team 3 would row across the finish line so each team had rowed, as nearly as feasible for the same amount of time.
Overall we finished 8th, 2nd in our class. However a mixed crew that was allowed to start with the men did the crossing in a shorter time than us, demoting us to third out of a field of 9 mixed crews. Not bad for a team including two pensioners, possibly the oldest man, Bill at 66, and the oldest woman, Maxine, 60. We all felt really pleased to have made it. Everyone in the crew had pulled their weight, with no-one, however bad they were feeling, failing to do their best and take their turn. No cross words had been exchanged. The effort we had all put in training to get fit and organising the changeovers meant apart from the one drama everything went to plan, even though conditions were much more challenging than anything we had experienced during our practice.
So we rowed the 86.2 nautical miles in 18 hours 49 minutes at an average speed of 4.6 knots, taking approximately 33, 870 strokes and burning about 7,600 calories each (equivalent to 76 weight watchers points!).
See Mark’s pictures