Ocean Rower, Sean McGowan spent over one hundred days at sea alone, crossing the Atlantic in a small boat. In doing so, this Limerick man raised much-needed funds to support an African charity. Words such as determination, bravery and achievement don’t even come close to describing the mammoth task for which Sean prepared for seven years and which he has since described as a life-changing experience.
Leaving Ireland and his young family behind on 19 November 2009, 42-year old Sean first flew to England where he underwent training in navigation and life survival skills. Just a fortnight later, feeling physically and mentally well prepared, he headed off to LeGomera in the Canary Islands to the start line of the Woodvale Ocean Race. After waiting out many a storm, Sean and his boat ‘Tess’ left on 4 January, 2010 at 1pm.
Exactly 118 days, 1 hour, 14 minutes and 59 seconds later and after rowing alone across 5000 km, Sean finally reached his goal and stepped onto Antigua. In doing so, Sean became the first Irish person to row solo across an ocean unsupported. He now recalls of his epic voyage “90% was horrific, 8% not too bad and 2% of incredible beauty and wonderment… What made it worth while was that it was so difficult.”
On just his third day at sea, Sean ran into the first storm where he met 40ft waves. On day five, he was taken out of the boat by a monster rogue wave which snapped two oars, broke his gate and left him struggling for the remainder of the race. He recalls “From the fifth day, I wanted to give up. I was scared, alone and in seas that I could never imagine existed. I was actually at sea during the worst weather to hit an ocean rowing event since records began and what made matter worse was the realisation that my estimate of completing the race in seventy days was now impossible. I just needed to finish whatever the time.” From that moment on, Sean put his head down and just thought about getting through the next hour. He now says “I didn’t row for 118 days, I did one hour at a time.” On day ten, Sean was again taken out of the boat and ran into a storm on day thirteen which pounded him for over seven days.
Sean continues “My worst day was day twenty-one where I struggled through the night and day to keep Tess afloat and myself alive. Having to phone my wife and say what I was sure was my farewell was the toughest call I’ve had to make. Luckily, I made it through the day and made a break for it on day twenty two where I got reasonable weather for another month. I suffered physically with the expected discomfort of blistering compounded by frequent water shortages, my hands were damaged to an extent where I had to strap them to the oars in order to keep going. I ran out of food on day eighty and for the remaining thirty eight days, I ate raw fish resulting in my weight going from 97Kg to 59Kg. I had two close calls with ships missing me by twenty four feet at 4am one morning. I ended up with scurvy and tendon damage to both hands and a leg which will never heal fully.”
A proud Limerick man, Sean reveals “I had an Irish flag on the boat, my Shannon oars to row, but Limerick was in my heart.” At a Mayoral Reception held in Sean’s honour after his return to Limerick, the Mayor of Limerick city, Kevin Kiely,a fellow Farranshone man noted that more people have stepped on the moon than rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Sean was also bestowed with Honorary Life Membership at Shannon Rowing Club, named Limerick Person of the Month in May 2010 and also the ‘Get Out There – Adventurer of the Year’.
In his drafting of a forthcoming book to recount his experience, Sean writes “I had a dream to row an Ocean, that’s what I wanted to do.” The other aim of his adventure was to support The Soweto Connection – a Limerick based charity set up to assist development in South Africa. Sean says “”We have raised over €20,000 from schools, a lot of individuals and one or two businesses and I think that is fantastic in the kind of climate that we are in. That money is going to build at least one compound in the township and allow the Mums to come in and do a bit of work, earn a bit of money and their kids will get fed. They are the Mums that can’t work as they have AIDS. It’s going to bring a huge benefit to those people and more importantly, it goes in once and no more money will be required after that.”
After being reunited with his wife Lorraine and four children aged from 10 to 15, Sean says he has treasured and enjoyed every moment with his family saying “My journey didn’t end until I got to Cork Airport and I could finally get home to see my family”. He also reveals that the text messages of support that Lorraine typed out and send to his satellite phone were a source of huge encouragement to him while at sea.
Off the water, Sean is a qualified Engineer who graduated with Honours from UL in 2009 with a Corporate MBA. He has worked in multinationals in various senior management roles, latterly running a $2b operation covering Europe Middle East and Africa. His recent work involved taking departments that were struggling and turning them around in a short period to not only survive but strive with a solid structure and future. Sean has now set up his own company and continues to tells his story to help encourage groups at all levels to not only continue to perform but to excel.
As for the next adventure, Sean adds that he will return to the water at some point but for now, “I’ll stick to running or maybe a bit on the bike!”