An earlier headline misstated the number of days Damian Browne rowed without a partner. This article has been corrected.
The feat is all the more notable because Browne cannot swim — and he doesn’t plan to learn anytime soon.
After training sessions in New York’s Hudson River in which he dodged ferries and passed the Statue of Liberty, Browne, 42, left Chelsea Piers in Manhattan in June, traveling almost 3,000 miles to his home in Galway, western Ireland, across the Atlantic Ocean.
“You really have to know what you’re doing, mentally, while you’re out there,” he told The Washington Post on his return to land and a hero’s welcome.
“It feels great to be back,” he said. “It’s nice to be alive.”
He had set off with his rowing partner, Fergus Farrell, who in his own personal feat relearned to walk after suffering a catastrophic injury. The two men aimed to smash the world record for the fastest unsupported row across the Atlantic, successfully completed only about a dozen times, according to his team. But on Day 13, Farrell fell ill and had to be medically evacuated, leaving Browne alone with a daunting task ahead.
The expedition then turned from a world record attempt to a grueling test of personal endurance, pushing Browne to his limit, he said.
“Physically, it’s incredibly arduous. It’s just a relentless task, the workload everyday was absolutely enormous,” he said. “There were moments of loneliness and moments of euphoria — it’s an emotional roller coaster.”
He had good training as a former professional European rugby player, but since retiring, he has shifted his focus to extreme expeditions and says he does it for the mental agility as much as the physical challenge.
“My whole outlook around extreme adventures and dealing with the stressful state they elicit is to stay as neutral as possible,” he explains. “It’s about controlling your mind and true self-awareness.”
A tricky feat when battling giant waves, freezing temperatures and hours of intense, solitary rowing.
While in his 6.2 meter bespoke rowing boat, affectionately named “Cushlamachree” (“sweetheart” in Irish), Browne lived on 10,000 calories a day of rehydrated rations, had a small desalination unit onboard allowing him to drink clean water and slept a few hours each night in a tiny two meter cabin he called his “sanctuary,” where he also stowed his GPS and radio gear.
But the main focus was the sea — rowing long and hard for more than 11 tough hours a day.
One particularly worrying moment came on Day 24, he said, when the moon was covered by clouds, plunging him into total blackness and leaving him barely able to make out the end of his oar. A major storm hit about 800 miles off the New York coast and capsized his boat three times.
“That was scary,” he recalls, adding that the storm raged for some 19 hours. “Those hours were the longest of my life” he said, waiting in dread and anticipation for the next time he’d be hurled into the sea.
“You can’t win against the Atlantic … but you can survive it,” he said, calling the sea an “overwhelming opponent.”
Again, he found solace in mental strength.
“I find concentrating on the task at hand helped,” he told The Post. “You can’t be stressed or anxious … just be present.”
Reunited with his partner and 13-month-old baby in Ireland, Browne told The Post he was looking forward to spending time with his family and enjoying the luxuries of a bed, toilet and good food.
But his finish did not go exactly to plan.
Just as he prepared to enter Galway docks, he was washed onto rocks and had to be rescued by emergency personnel, who helped him finally crawl onto dry land Tuesday — after 2,686 hours at sea and over 3,450 nautical miles rowed.
His epic journey, which took 3½ years to plan, is also raising funds for a variety of charities, supporting health, homelessness and rescue dogs. The take so far totals about $70,000. He is also coaching others on building self-discipline and pushing themselves in their own lives and challenges.
“We want to give other people the opportunity to take on oceans,” he said.
He has run ultramarathons in the Sahara desert, rowed from San Sebastian, Spain, to Antigua in the Caribbean and climbed Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. More recently, he tried to scale Mount Everest before getting the coronavirus meant he missed out on reaching the summit. Next year, he plans to lead a mountain climb in Kyrgyzstan.
What does his family think of his adventurous streak? They “take it in their stride,” he said with a laugh. His mother, who has a fear of the sea, was less pleased with this particular challenge, he added. “She was very happy both times when I eventually set foot on land.”
For now, Browne is relieved to be on terra firma and looking forward to downtime and recovery, with no plans to do this again “any time soon.”
“It takes a lot, but I am pretty proud of this one,” he added.