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Cold Wind, Huge Swells, Blisters, Exhaustion, Elation...The Toughest Celtic Challenge Ever

16th May 2012
Cold Wind, Huge Swells, Blisters, Exhaustion, Elation...The Toughest Celtic Challenge Ever

#COASTAL ROWING – During the May bank holiday weekend (4th-6th May), 12 men and women of St Michael's Rowing Club, Dun Laoghaire, participated in the biennial rowing race across the Irish Sea known as 'the Celtic Challenge'. It turned out to be what is widely regarded as the toughest crossing in the race's 19 year history, with just 12 of the 23 teams entered crossing the finish line unaided. St. Michael's finished 12th in the longest time ever taken for the 150km course – 27hrs, 18 mins, 21 seconds. The relay race is billed as the longest 'true' rowing race in the world and is listed as such in the Guinness Book of Records.

The run up to the event was challenging in itself with the team working tirelessly to secure a replacement support boat due to damage to the mast of the yacht that had already been confirmed. With just two days to departure, all the pieces of the puzzle were in place.

Pushing Hard with the Rib Keeping a Watchful Eye

Pushing hard with a safey RIB keeping a watchful eye

Due to poor weather conditions, the race was postponed a number of times and eventually set off from Arklow, Co. Wicklow on Saturday 5th May at 4pm. Very soon after the start, the team from Bray Rowing Club who were rowing the only other traditional east coast skiff in the race had pulled out due to damage to their support boat, meaning that St. Michael's were the only wooden boat left in the race.

Over the Line in Aberystwyth

Over the line in Aberystwyth

The format of the race is a relay. Each team has 3 crews of 4 rowers that rotate their time on the oar, resting and refuelling on an accompanying support boat. Generally 'one hour on, two hours off' is the rule of thumb, but conditions, strategies, injuries, and sickness may dictate otherwise. The first 6 hours were the toughest and most challenging physically, as the northeast wind and swells created extremely challenging conditions for the participating rowers. The start was choppy and the Arklow Bank lived up to its reputation of being an extremely tough obstacle, but St. Michaels' quarter-ton clinker built skiff was well suited to the conditions. The solid wood oars used are three times heavier than carbon fibre equivalents used by all other teams, requiring strength and a particular technique even in normal conditions.

Exhausted Bit Delighted

Exhausted but delighted

As the sun set, the crew knuckled down to what would be a tough, night-time row with changes of crew every hour. Their support yacht, the Helcia and the crew of the rib, the Wizard worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of the teams during the changeovers, both crewed by quite remarkable and extreme professionals, who gave freely of their time to the cause and to whom the club is eternally grateful. Working in two to three metre swells made rowing tough, and required 100% concentration and complete focus.

As the sun rose, it was clear the race was going to be a long one. Extreme conditions overnight meant teams hadn't travelled the distance they expected and knew they had to dig deep and work very closely as a unit to ensure spirits were kept high. As the changeovers continued and the hours flew by, the crew could see land, and somewhere in the distance was Aberystwyth. At this point, news of the night's retirements began to filter through on the VHF radio, with tales of other teams forced to pull out or turn back due to reasons including mechanical failure of support boats, sea sickness, damaged boats, lost rudders, and so on.

The final changeover was made at around 6.30pm on Sunday, and the pier could be clearly seen with cheering voices being carried on the wind. On the slip after the finish, the organisers and other crews were clearly impressed with the 30-year old 'Eileen' and her brave crew. At the awards ceremony the following day, St. Michael's became the first Irish team to be awarded the prestigious 'Spirit of the Celtic Challenge' trophy, which is given to the team which displays the greatest amount of endeavour when completing the course. This was a very proud moment for all the team as well as their friends, family, and all their clubmates back home in Dun Laoghaire.

First time Celtic Challenger was Wales born Gareth Whittington, now living in Dun Laoghaire told us, "I was told you never know what to expect as each Celtic Challenge is different because of the changing weather conditions, but I cannot and will not ever forget the way we pulled together as a team to ensure we got to Aberystwyth, an remarkable achievement".

Camaraderie between the Welsh and Irish clubs and teams involved is huge, but the team's thoughts that weekend were with the teams that did not make it, particularly their fellow Irish teams from Bray Rowing Club, Team Marie Keating, Ferrycarrig Rowing Club, and Airport Police and Fire Service Rowing Club. Congratulations are also due to the other Irish teams who crossed the finish line, Courtown, Foyle, and Arklow Rowing Clubs, the latter two of which won their respective categories.

Spirit of The Celtic Challenge Award

Spirit of the Celtic Challenge Award

St. Michael's participated in the Celtic Challenge to actively seek sponsorship, in a drive to raise funds towards new clubhouse facilities in Dun Laoghaire Harbour. Currently, the club lacks space to store their three wooden boats, space for indoor training, and is without changing facilities for the men, women and children who row for the club. It is hoped that the money raised can be put towards achieving this long-standing goal and keep the club's traditions and the tradition of the Celtic Challenge alive.

St. Michaels 2012 CC Crew

St. Michael's 2012 Celtic Challenge crew

Published in Coastal Rowing Team

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