Confirmation of the decision to GO was finally made by the Celtic Challenge committee on Friday at 10am. Until that time, we weren’t sure whether there was a sufficient ‘time-window’ of acceptable weather and there was every chance that the event might be cancelled for the second year in a row. In spite of the weather uncertainty, the team had already committed to being in Arklow having flown and also driven over both our Celtic Longboat, The Lord Beefington and our support rib – which was later code-named “Asian Harvest” (after an epic meal at the aforementioned Chinese restaurant late on Thursday night).
There was a quiet calm at the noon safety briefing, which seemed to highlight the butterflies and nerves that many of us were doubtless experiencing; once the officials announced that the aim was to start at 1pm i.e. straightaway ! everything became very real. Shortly afterwards, we were underway.
The excitement soon turned to practicalities and to ensuring that the support boat, BOD and it’s crew (Derek & Mick) got up to speed as quickly as possible. All the prior arrangements regarding the support boat had been conducted over the telephone and on email, so we hadn’t ever met these two gentlemen in person before; nor did we really have much idea of what the support boat would be like, so there was a pressing need for us to quickly adapt to one another and to manage the situation logistics, in particular the changeovers from BOD to Asian Harvest and vice-versa. This was really rather dicey at the best of times and when the conditions were choppy and the night was upon us, it became ever more treacherous. Mercifully, we didn’t lose anyone overboard, although these changeovers were not without incident and collectively we made a number of rookie errors, which further heightened the jeopardy of our situation.
It’s difficult to convey quite what & how everyone was feeling, however I think it’s safe to say that we each had our own very personal experience of The Celtic Challenge. For me, the penny dropped several hours into the race. Whilst the rowing itself is physically demanding, the Celtic Challenge isn’t so much about the physical aspect – I found the Lord Beefington was actually the best place to be, where you were quickly warm from the exertion & the effect of sea sickness didn’t prolong. It was far more a mental test of resolve, where routine discipline and preparation are key to keeping the team functioning as efficiently as possible.
And of course, it’s all about people dynamics.
Thankfully, given the two years worth of regular training and practise, most of the logistical dynamics within the team were predictable and because the whole team behaved to type, it made everything more manageable.
For me, the real challenge was the need to adapt to the constantly shifting weather & sea conditions; weather forecasting led us to believe that we would experience a choppy start, followed by a calmer middle section and a rough finish. However, the sea can literally go from choppy to calm, to large swells, to choppy again all in quick time. At least, that’s when you have the benefit of daylight to see what’s actually happening around you. The wind changed constantly and the tides meant that the actual course we charted saw us pointing away from Aberystwyth for much of the time, in anticipation that the tide would drift us towards our destination.
Whilst it rained, it didn’t rain for very long, which I found hugely helpful as I wrestled against sea sickness. In spite of taking sea-sickness tablets, I found that I soon became nauseous unless I was either on the rib or up on deck – so the absence of rain meant that I could wrap up warm and sit out on the deck in between shifts.
I wasn’t actually sick, although that wasn’t the case for Sharon and in particular Ben and Ian who suffered from repeated vomiting, bravely soldiering on regardless. I shan’t ever forget the time when Ben, who was rowing directly in front of me, paused to vomit repeatedly over the side of the Beefington, before rowing on. Ian who was coxing during that same session followed suit a few minutes later. It must have been horrific for them both, because we still had another 15 hours or so ahead of us; and it was dreadful to witness because none of us were able to help in any way. For me the Beefington was where I wanted to be when I was feeling sea sick, so for Ben and Ian things were unlikely to get any better.
One frightening incident occurred in the pitch black at about 2:30am when the Beefington crashed headlong into the side of BOD. Frankly, we were lucky not to capsize the Beefington on impact, or damage either boat. Matt (who was in the bow seat at the front of the boat, just behind me) came out of his foot-holds and suffered a knock to both his elbow and shoulder on impact, which made it difficult for him to continue much further beyond. Back on BOD, Tom volunteered to do Matt’s next coxing shift, which temporarily helped fill a gap, but later when Sharon also took a knock to her head during a changeover, the reality of sea sickness combined with injuries, the unrelenting cold, wet and fatigue within the team, plus the increasing fear that we were pushing our luck (not least by BOD’s skipper) meant that sooner or later our good options would likely expire.
To further compound the situation, because of the wind and tide, we were only moving at 1 nautical mile per hour, which was in stark contrast to the 4-6 nautical miles per hour that we had been consistently averaging until then. The battery on the Beefington radio transmitter had recently gone flat (so there was no longer any way for the Beefington to communicate with BOD or the rib) & the Asian Harvest radio was only able to receive and not transmit (it had been working when we first set off).
And the weather was turning sour.
These last few factors tipped the scales and made the decision for the crew to retire back onto BOD and ‘be safe’ an obvious one.
We eventually arrived in Aberystwyth at 10am on Saturday morning, after having retired from the Celtic Challenge shortly after 5am, more than two thirds of the way across, after 16 hours of rowing. We had been making excellent progress until that time and were one of the lead boats.
As ‘Big Rob’ one of the Team Margot Rowers put it, after we arrived at Aberystwyth: “I regret not finishing the Celtic Challenge, but I don’t regret the decision to retire.”
Of the 13 boats that started the Celtic Challenge, only 4 rowed past the finish line. I confess that I personally found it quite helpful to hear Melvin, an eleven-time veteran of the Celtic Challenge declare: “this was the roughest of them all”.
It was wonderful to have such a warm welcome as we arrived, towing the Lord Beefington into Aberystwyth harbour, and to later read all your messages of support on social media.
Whilst our rowing didn’t gain us any prizes this year, we were delighted to learn that Team Margot had once again won The President’s Cup, an award presented to the team that raises the most money for charity.
At the time of writing, we have raised a total of £12,289.74 for charity this year; this includes £4,123.74 for Team Margot Foundation and £8,166.00 for DKMS UK, which is an phenomenal effort by all involved. And these monies are in addition to the >£32,000 we raised last year (when adverse weather conditions prohibited us from actually starting the race!) – so almost £45,000 has been raised in total by the team, since we embarked upon this challenge. THANK YOU so much to all our fabulous fundraisers and donors for your hugely generous contributions.
Jimmy Tyrrell, one of the co-founders of The Celtic Challenge telephoned me yesterday to say that Team Margot are quite unique in the way that we have embraced the event, not only because we are doing it for a superb cause but because of the spirit in which each and every one of our team embraced everyone across their community, both young and old.
It was lovely to receive such a glowing reference, not least because it was completely unnecessary for him to have said it. It’s heartwarming to know that we have friends both sides of the Irish Sea in Arklow and Aberystwyth.
Both Vicki & I feel enormously proud of the whole affair and I think that this sentiment is universally shared; for my own part, it has been a real honour & privilege to row as one of the team and now, 48 hours after arriving at Aberystwyth I have a nagging feeling that it may not be the last time.
Bravo ! and well done again everyone and thank you all so much again for your support. x
Together, saving lives
Here’s an excellent short video made by Neil, one of the Team Margot Rowers – enjoy !