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Irresistible chance to stick one's oar in
[November 26, 2005]

Irresistible chance to stick one's oar in

(The Irish Times)ROWING/Atlantic Challenge: Liam Gorman talks to two Irish rowers who will begin an incredible challenge tomorrow: to row across the Atlantic Ocean. Are they mad?

Gearoid Towey and Ciaran Lewis take to the water tomorrow facing into a month and a half of rehydrated food, blisters, sleep deprivation and the edginess of forced cohabitation in a dangerous environment. And they talk about the stars.

"The experience is going to be completely novel," says Lewis, the older, quieter one. "What you're going to see."

What will you see? asks the interviewer, thinking of lots of water.

"Stars. Sunsets, sunrise," he ventures.

Gags carries the tune: ". . . a world without artificial light. Marine life, whales, dolphins, flying fish."

Lewis choruses: "Yeah!"

They seem an odd couple sometimes, these two. Lewis, the 34-year-old quiet-spoken barrister from Dalkey whose successes in a boat have generally been at domestic level; Towey the intense Corkman, virtually a full-time rower who at 28 has a World Championship gold medal but seems driven to test his wiry frame to the limit.

Lewis says Towey is "hugely enthusiastic" about the race: "I wouldn't have thought of it myself."

Towey came up with the idea, and chose Lewis from a group of possibles who were "dead keen on the idea".

The fact Lewis was single and could take time off from his job was a big factor for Towey, but his read on the personal dynamics is surprising.

"I think one of the things was that I didn't know Ciaran as well as I knew a lot of other people. I don't think this is the kind of thing you could do with someone you've known for years and is your best mate, because you know everything about them before you go out."

So it will be a voyage of discovery?

"We know a lot about each other already because we both spent so long together (but) the time we'll be out there could be a bit more interesting, because we're only getting to know each other."

It was also crucial that each rated the other as a tough competitor.

"At the end of the day we're competing in something," says Towey. "No matter how many differences you might have it doesn't take away from the end goal."

Lewis adds: "When he asked me to do it I had to think 'Are there that many people I would actually do it with?' And the answer is no.

"There are some people I've rowed with, that I get on very well with, that I wouldn't contemplate doing this with," says the man who has won seven national titles in the prestige senior eight and Henley Royal Regatta in the quadruple scull.

Even when they are asked what they have in common, they return to shared competitiveness.

"We have a similar sense of humour, which is very important," says Towey. "And the other thing is that I know for a fact that he's not going to stop and he knows that I'm not either."

Many observers would see a sense of humour as a flimsy defence against the stress of the situation, but Towey disagrees. "People go 'Ye'll definitely hate each other in the end' and we just think 'It doesn't have to be that way'. You can actually have good fun with this. Obviously the first few days will be tough because you have to get used to the environment, but after that you just reach a level where you can function normally and actually start to enjoy it."

They will both row for the first day to get away from land, then settle into a pattern of each rowing for two hours while the other sleeps, although they may "play around with it". Some competitors say they haven't slept at all in the first week.

"The sleep cycle is 90 minutes," Towey asserts. "So we'll have that sleep cycle 12 times a day. Well, in theory. We'll need to sleep six and a half, seven hours a day. But it's just a matter of our bodies getting used to the cycle."

Apart from their MP3 players they have no plans to soften the tough routine, eschewing the possibility of taking any alcohol or books because it would make the boat heavier.

"You're not going out there to recreate your life here," says Lewis.

Towey shoots down any suggestion that this sounds like a long training session: "This is going to be different, because our senses are going to be up all the time. We're going to be doing jobs. We're going to be rowing, we're going to be cooking, sleeping. From what I've been told by others who did it the days just fly by."

Put like this the undertaking seems almost humdrum, but taking on the ocean in a rowing boat is surely a hugely dangerous undertaking? Towey points out that no one has died since this race started in the mid-1990s, and both talk of the security afforded by their Global Positioning System (GPS) and satellite phone.

"Your biggest danger is falling out of the boat and not getting back into it. But with the GPS, if you stay with the boat people should be able to pinpoint where you are," says Lewis.

So the other guy will raise the alarm? Towey cuts in. "If you fall out at night-time you're gone - because the other guy's going to be asleep." Consciousness of safety is vital.

"We're harnessed in in times of really rough weather. We're going to be very tough on ourselves in terms of security and safety. We have to be."

"The other thing we worry about is the hardship," Lewis contributes. "There's going to be savage hardship. There's no way around it." He laughs.

Towey takes it up. "That's the main worry, I think. In my mind anyway. Can you hack it? You'll always be testing yourself - in your mind. Can I really hack it."

What about the ever-present worry about physical ailments? Towey's ascetic streak appears again: "Everything will become relative. If you get a bad blister on your hand your life will be hell for two or three days. You come out the other side of that, suddenly your life is much more pleasant."

With such seasoned and successful competitors you don't doubt adrenalin and bloody-mindedness will come into play in a crisis. But what about those low moments when the misery of the undertaking just does not seem worth it? Where does motivation come from then?

"There's a few things we've been talking about," says Towey. "Just not coming back - we want to get across. I don't fancy the prospect of coming back to Ireland having not done it.

"The other thing is - from a personal point of view as much as anything else - is not letting the other guy down. Obviously you don't want to do that. It's a fundamental rowing thing anyway.

"And then there's all the people who helped us out. You saw the amount of people who were at (their going away) party - everyone wishing us well."

That party was not just a feel-good occasion. It also raised money for the Irish Cancer Society "because so many people are affected" and the Merchant's Quay Project, which helps homeless people and addicts. In all, Towey and Lewis hope to raise 250,000.

"The homeless situation in Dublin is just cat," says Towey. "It could happen to one of us some day, y'know what I mean? They deal with 4,000 different people every year.

"Everyone is happy as Larry, but there could come a day - all those homeless people had happy lives at one stage as well. Suddenly they found themselves homeless for one reason or another."

Gags Towey is like that. There is a sort of fire in him that you don't get with most people once they leave their teenage years; once they settle. Perhaps if the Olympics in Sydney or Athens had gone as well as they might have - in neither did he make the final - he would be different. Maybe not. In any case he is a driven man, one who has tested himself in adventure races and marathons, and raised a lot of money for charity while charting the limits of his endurance.

NOW HE IS dedicated to crossing the Atlantic in a rowing boat, something that has niggled at him for quite a while.

"I saw the race advertised a few years ago, and I knew a few people doing it and it caught my imagination straight away. Then, purely by chance, I moved to England in September 1997 - and I was looking for a place to live. I ended up living in the room of a guy (Duncan Nicholl) who was doing the race at the time. Even then I was thinking, it must be awesome to be out there.

"It stayed on the back burner for a while - for two or three years. I thought about it for a while after Sydney. Then I went and visited the Ocean Rowing Society in London, to find out about it. It was always there on the back burner."

While he fights shy of making predictions as to whether they have a real chance of winning, Towey was determined to team up with a proven oarsman.

"I reckon that the race is going to come down to who can actually row as opposed to anything else. If you look at races in the past, nearly all of them have been won by rowers," he says.

This mutual respect of proven competitors should also eliminate a possible point of tension.

"If I went out to sea, or Ciaran went out to sea with someone who couldn't row as well as we can, that could become a source of frustration, because if you're looking at the log and you're doing more miles than him and you know the reason why, then that's going to be tense. So if two people are fairly well matched then that's a lot easier."

Lewis did not jump at the chance immediately. "I had to think about it for a while," he says. He did some research.

"In the end it was just irresistible, to be honest. Even though there were a lot of thing to consider, it was a chance I would probably never get again. It was a great opportunity. Gags was in the boat. It was going to be interesting to find sponsorship - and there were the logistics of putting it together."

With a behind-the-scenes team headed up by former oarsman Donal Hanrahan, they landed sponsors, including big names Digicel and Red Bull.

Preparation has not always gone smoothly, and Lewis says one incident, where they had to abandon one of their big challenges, actually boosted his confidence - it showed they could face a crisis and reach an agreed decision.

Taking on the Atlantic Ocean should provide a few more testing moments.

"I have to tell you, I'm shitting it. I'm also very excited about it," the Dubliner says. "It's a mixture of fear and excitement. Fear about doing it. Looking forward to it.

"I wake up every morning thinking - in 13 days, 12 days I'll be out there."

Now they are on the eve of doing it.

Time to see what the stars hold.

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