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Transatlantic Oarsman Fergus Farrell Taken to Hospital - Damian Browne Continues

1st July 2022
Galway adventurers Damian Browne and Fergus Farrell in their boat Cushlamachree departing New York in mid June
Galway adventurers Damian Browne and Fergus Farrell (pictured bottom) in their boat Cushlamachree departing New York in mid June Credit: via Facebook

Galway adventurer Damian Browne’s transatlantic rowing partner Fergus Farrell has been referred for tests to a New York hospital after he was forced to leave their vessel, Cushlamachree, after almost 13 days at sea.

The pair had set off from New York in mid-June on an unsupported row to Galway, and were attempting to set a new Guinness world record in their purpose-built Seasabre 6.2m craft.

In a statement from MacDara Hosty on Project Empower’s Facebook page, he said it was with “huge regret” that Farrell had to depart on Sunday, June 26th at 4.45 pm, Irish time.

“Fergus is now doing well, has arrived back in New York, and is awaiting transfer to a hospital in New York where he will undergo tests,” the statement said.

“Chris Martin, who is operating as on-call land support officer for the team, was called by Fergus on Sunday, June 26th at 1 pm Irish time,” it said.

“Fergus had been experiencing severe exhaustion, and despite lots of rest was failing to recover,” it said. In 2018, Farrell experienced a traumatic spinal injury, was paralysed but learned to walk again the following year against all odds.

The statement said that Fergus “had started to experience tightness on the left side of his chest and had a very low blood oxygen percentage”.

“After consultation with our medical consultants and the United States Coast Guard (USCG) flight surgeon, it was decided that Fergus should be extracted with all possible speed.”

Weather conditions in the area were “benign”, with light winds and small swells of around a metre, and by 15.58 Irish time, the Singapore flagged tanker, Hafnia Shenzhen, had responded to a USCG request for assistance. The tanker diverted, and Farrell was brought on board using the gang plank, and taken to the medical room for further assessment.

“Fergus responded well to initial treatment on board the Hafnia Shenzhen, and the decision was made not to airlift him by USCG or Navy helicopter to hospital, electing instead for him to remain onboard the Hafnia Shenzhen until she docked in New York,”the statement said.

Paul Cleary, a friend of Project Empower in New York, arranged to transfer Farrell to hospital for tests and a full assessment.

“Fergus is hugely disappointed at having to leave Cushlamachree, but understands that his and Damian’s health and safety has, and always will be, the primary concern for Project Empower,”the statement said.

It said Damian Browne has chosen to stay with Cushlamachree, and would row the vessel solo to Galway over the coming weeks. Browne previously rowed the Atlantic solo from the Canary islands to Antigua.

“Project Empower wasn’t planned this way, and none of us wanted it to be this way,”it said. “Gussy and Damian were supposed to do this together and row into Galway docks together. We are all absolutely gutted that they won’t now get to complete it together,” it said.

The project expressed thanks to the staff at USCG District 1 rescue co-ordination centre, USCG sector New York, and Capt Sanjay Karki and crew of the Hafnia Shenzhen for their “rapid response, expertise and kindness in dealing with this situation as professionally and courteously as they did”.

It has been estimated that it will take 1.5 million oar strokes to complete the 5,000 km crossing. The pair nominated four charities to benefit from the row– Ability West, the Galway Simon Community, Madra animal rescue and the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) foundation.

Browne is well familiar with what is ahead, having spent 63 days 6 hours and 25 minutes at sea completing the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge to Antigua in 2017-18.

The existing world record for an unsupported row was set over 120 years ago by Norwegians George Harboe and Frank (Gabriel) Samuelsen who were the first pair to attempt it.

Browne, who spent 16 years on the rugby pitches of the Celtic League, English Premiership and French Top 14 Championship and was part of the winning 2012/13 Heineken Cup team with Leinster Rugby, has climbed in the high altitude Pamir mountains in Afghanistan.

He has summited Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mont Blanc in France and Gran Paradiso in Italy.

After retiring from rugby, he completed the six-day, 257 km Marathon des Sables in the Sahara desert, also known as the “toughest footrace on Earth”. He then spent 18 months preparing for his solo row across the Atlantic.

At sea, he endured nine-metre swells, a badly cut head, capsizes, encounters with whales, sea and pressure sores, lost an oar and experienced complete steering failure with still over 2000 nautical miles to go to Antigua.

Fergus Farrell is a lifelong friend of Browne’s. Both played underage rugby together for Connacht and Farrell was a self-employed businessman who experienced a traumatic spinal injury.

On October 26th 2018, Farrell ruptured his T9, T10 and T11 spinal discs in the middle of his back. One of the ruptured discs leaked into his spinal cord. After an operation in the National Spinal Unit at the Mater Hospital, Farrell says he noticed his motionless feet and asked his surgeon if this is how he would be for the rest of his life?

He says the surgeon put his hand on Fergus’s shoulder and “calmly told him he had been extremely unlucky”.

Farrell, who was then paralysed from the waist down, moved to the NRH and set about his recovery.

On October 26th 2019, a year after his surgery, he miraculously completed a 206km walk from the site of the injury at his yard in Athenry, Galway to the NRH in Dún Laoghaire.

Farrell attributes his recovery to his “stubbornness, thickness and determination”, and he also raised €70,000 for the NRH.

Farrell has said he is determined to give his second chance of life everything he can give. He has said he wants to show people that “the mind is a positive and powerful part of everybody’s lives” and that “when challenged correctly there are no limits to what you can achieve”.

Browne’s continued progress can be tracked on their website here Listen into Lorna Siggins 2020 podcast with the pair here

Published in Coastal Rowing
Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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