By Damian Browne
Solitude has never been a problem. I’m drawn to windows of the mind that people rarely, if ever, look through. I seek out states of suffering, journey down dark paths to places that others only find by accident.
This is my life, these are my choices.
The sweetest hour came on day seventeen. It was how I reacted when the steering broke. There are two different methods of directing an ocean row boat:
- your foot attached to a couple of lines that are attached to the rudder.
- you go with an auto-held which is a machine so the boat steers itself.
Being the way I am, foot-steering was the only option for my solo row across the Atlantic Ocean. An incredibly difficult endeavour became infinitely more challenging when I was forced to steer with the oars. This exacted an enormous physical toll but one of my great strengths is an ability to process problems. When the steering broke I didn’t dwell on the increased potential for disaster. This was my biggest fear. How can this be happening? What am I going to do? Within a few minutes my rationale was clear: the boat still floats with a seat and two oars so I can still get where I am going.
That reaction saved me. I felt sorry for myself but having been down in the darkness before I knew the process of controlling what can be controlled would guide me away from the easier option of wallowing in self pity. The real danger was sulking in this vastness. She is an unforgiving monster.
So, I rowed and I rowed, slowly and steadily.
How you react to hardship tells you more about yourself than you could ever imagine. I own that knowledge now and with it comes a deep sense of contentment that makes it very difficult to do anything “normal” ever again.
Turns out I grew stronger while lost at sea.
Playing professional rugby for sixteen years gave me a firm indication of who I am and what I am here to do but being in the middle of the Atlantic, alone on a row boat, gave me a confidence I know must be constantly refuelled so long as my body is willing.
Unless you push yourself into those places on a regular basis you cannot possibly understand what I am on about. Even I’ll forget if I don’t return to the edge soon.
That’s been my life after rugby.
A dangerous game: being ‘just’ a rugby player.
Recently a friend told me I’d already achieved what most ex-professional athletes seek yet fail to discover for the rest of their lives: to become better known for something other than what you were best at.
That’s a fresh thought, and I accept it as reality, but it’s none of my business what people think about me.
As you progress and push yourself more into pro rugby, and survive in that environment, you see the game for what it really is – its level of importance lessens the more you invest in it. I was 100 percent committed but with that came a perspective of what rugby is in the bigger scheme of things.
If Twitter was around when I was 24 I definitely would have been “a professional rugby player” in my bio but I am not an “ex-professional rugby player.” I couldn’t hang on to any of that, not even to play a club or charity game. No interest. I had to cut all ties.
I was disillusioned by the end. After giving all of myself to the sport I was done, finished. Not forever, but for now. I’d still hope to coach when I’m older and greyer.
Retiring in your twenties or thirties can be scary for men who are conditioned not to show fear. To my mind it’s very important that you don’t just see yourself as a “rugby player.” If you wrap your identity and self worth up with being a “rugby player” you are making things much harder for yourself when spat out – which is a monumental and inevitable lifestyle change.
If you have any modicum of ambition then rugby is the perfect vehicle to drive you towards each life goal. In the early years that was a comfort to me. I was doing what I loved so each and every choice revolved around that but when the end comes and the direction disappears (literally overnight) it can impact your mental well being.
I was lucky. I was prepared, I had plans: adventures, travels, challenges. There is no income. In fact, I pile most of my savings into each trip. That’s not the point. It’s about listening to my internal compass. I’ve a really strong relationship with my gut instinct. I couldn’t get up in the morning and look myself directly in the mirror and be happy if I didn’t do what I am doing. If some good comes from this, if I can find a way to earn a living from each journey, then great, but if not I don’t really care.
I am happy but I fear death. I’ve so much still to do, to experience, to feel. I wrote my own epitaph as a means to search for perspective, clarity, motivation. If you are struggling to create the change you crave deeply, you should try it. Work back from it, use it to drive your life in an honest and sincere way.
So I wasn’t scared leaving rugby. I was excited to get out. I had places to go.
I’m from Renmore in Galway city so I started with Connacht but finished in Oyonnax, France having arrived there via Northampton, Brive and Leinster. To escape rugby in one piece I needed to fix up my knee, that meant loads of mobility work and not running for six months, before attempting the Marathon des Sables (a 257 kilometre race across the Sahara desert unsupported).
But rowing the Atlantic was the big one.
You can blame James Cracknell and Ben Fogle. Playing for Northampton around 2008 I read The Crossing. Their suffering and hardship appealed to me. I wanted to feel that agony in my limbs. I wanted to see how I’d handle searing pain on a daily basis with no way of escape. I knew the only way I could satisfy that hunger was to put myself in the boat.
It looked like a foursome was the reasonable option for a big rugby player who can’t swim but, eventually, I knew I needed to do it on my own.
I know plenty about team sports, I understand the need to back each other up, but I’ve always been pretty good on my own. I train alone so I can keep going on the water or in the desert or up whatever mountain I find myself.
The perspective you discover rowing across the ocean is magical.
Can you imagine pure clarity?
I’ve seen it.
I wasn’t always this way. It was an evolution through rugby – improving as a physical specimen brings you, step by step, deeper and deeper into a place of greater resilience. It becomes addictive.
Such experiences make you kinder as well. I became more aware that everyone has their own struggles.
That really appeals to me. First and foremost these adventures are for me, for my well-being, but they also allow me to give something back, to raise funds for three charities: Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), Madra and Strong Roots Foundation In Rwanda.
I didn’t pluck them from the water.
During the Marathon des Sables I raised about €7,000 for the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association and a school I visited in Tanzania but I did it online, very safe, so with the row I wanted the fundraising to emulate the act I was attempting.
I’ve followed MSF for years and have so much respect for their values. They go into the most tumultuous situations in the world and a lot of them are pro bono – your doctor, local nurse or anaesthesiologist. As much as I’d like to be hands on I don’t have the qualifications. This is my little way of helping them.
I’m a dog lover and Madra, based out in Connemara, are this little charity that take them from pounds into their shelter with the hope of finding a ‘forever home.’ I appreciate the relationship you can have with a dog. If I went to the shop for 10 minutes I’d get the same welcome from Elmo if I’ve been at sea for four months. He cheers you up returning home to an empty house over the years. He is always happy to see me which is pretty amazing.
Strong Roots Foundation is a special story. I was travelling in Rwanda and The Congo when I came in contact with a Blaise Pascal (I use couchsurfing.com as you stay with locals; they host you on the floor, a couch or bed if they have one. In developing countries this gives you a proper insight into their culture and how they live day to day). Blaise’s mum walked out when he was three and never came back. Then his dad died leaving three young boys behind. His oldest brother was 13 by that stage so he went out fixing bicycle tires. In Africa plenty of businesses are on the side of the road. Soon the second brother was old enough to join him but one day in 1994 the pair of them left the house and never came back. The Rwandan genocide was happening. Eight year old Blaise survived on instinct for two years scrounging out of bins, living on the streets until he befriended this lady, the widower he calls her, who brought him home and put him back into school. Blaise graduated age eighteen with a cert in languages. He worked in a bar for a while before teaching in Uganda and then on his 30th birthday Strong Roots Foundation was formed to help street kids like he once was. I am going back to Kigali in June. We have the land and hopefully can start building a new school.
The charities all mean something to me on an almost spiritual level. I will try to explain what that means but first we must revisit The Bish…
I went to St. Joseph’s Patrician College (The Bish). In fifth year I didn’t make the school team. I was completely unfit. That summer I decided to hit the gym at lunch time instead of going up town. Late at night I’d run laps of Galwegians RFC. The improvements made it very clear to my teenage self that rewards follow work. That became my drug. I kept pushing myself and kept improving so I kept seeking out new goals to achieve.
A nomadic career followed when I left school in 1998; there was not a lot of depth on the Connacht roster and I was a big lump so got fast tracked into the senior squad in 2000. Four years later I moved to Northampton. The lock-for-hire living continued into France with Brive and back to Leinster for two years under Joe Schmidt before finishing with Oyonnax.
France had a romantic appeal to it – sleepy old towns in quiet corners of the world – but the rugby environment can be really frustrating. There is so much money completely misdirected and their coaching was slow to modernise. I played 74 games for Brive over three seasons before getting fed up of being treated like a 12 year old. They used a lot of emotional blackmail. Every week we were playing ‘The best team in France.’ After hearing Nathan Hines was leaving Leinster, I asked my agent to put the word out. I went over to meet Joe Schmidt, Jono Gibbes and Guy Easterby. There was a connection straight away, no bullshit, and they had just won the Heineken Cup.
The first six months at Leinster felt bizarre. Despite being Irish and knowing the culture I was out of my element. Three years in Brive had been very lackadaisical and I’d been living out the country, in the middle of nowhere, only to be suddenly thrown into this environment that felt like night and day training-wise. I had to find my feet with a lot of demands pushed on me. I wasn’t fit enough and felt uncomfortable in the city, not Dublin just any city. I got up for the Heineken Cup games but my overall form was poor.
When Steven Sykes decided to return to South Africa, Leinster went in for Brad Thorn; a Rugby League and All Black legend who had won everything, literally everything in an incredible test match career that had just finished with a World Cup medal. Not ideal to see the greatest lock of all time arriving at training.
I was determined to show my real worth in season two after a short reset in the Peruvian Andes, where the shoulder that had hindered so much of season one had a miraculous turnaround. I was playing my best rugby since 2005/06 – finally, genuine consistency – but the Peruvian recovery proved a false dawn. The off season surgery I’d avoided became a reality when tackling Clermont’s Julien Bardy at the Aviva in December 2012. I knew it was gone straight away but suffered on for twelve minutes until half-time. I never played again for a club where I’d have happily finished out my career. It took eight months to come right. Thankfully Oyonnax picked me up despite going over in a sling. There was a couple of strong recommendations behind me. I came back and was doing really well until the knee problems started. The doctor was a local GP. Not a clue. It didn’t end well.
My Leinster days were short lived but my name is still up on the wall. I hold the record for rowing golf. At Northampton we used to do a lot of Erg work, the indoor rower, especially the big guys. I always ventured towards it rather than a treadmill or watt bike and kept seeing my times coming down while building up this love/hate relationship with the machine. Tom Denton kept breaking my record at Leinster until one day I pushed past him. Rowing golf became my thing when I was injured. The record stands, or so I’ve been told, even though I’ve beaten it on my own.
That’s my rowing experience. The ergometer. I’d never been on a river rowing boat. I bought an Erg when I went to Oyonnax to take responsibility for my own shape when training was less than inspiring in the club. I always loved training. I love the suffering. A 2km time trial on an ergometer looks into your soul. If you want to see what you are made of go as fast as you can for six minutes. You’ll know exactly who you are after that.
That was the mental preparation for when things go wrong sixteen hours into a day on the Atlantic Ocean. I don’t believe in trying to recreate an ultra long endurance event in training. I do short, sharp high intensity stuff. I call the rest of it junk metres. Waste of time. Leading up to the row, I had the luxury of taking the boat out and going for eight hours. There is a big difference between eight hours on the water and eight hours on the Erg; one of them is very enjoyable.
My bucket list used to include competing in the national indoor rowing championships. Down I went a couple of years ago, just before Marathon des Sables, and I came fifth in the 2,000 metres. I was up against all the hopeful Olympians.
I won the 500 metres breaking the Irish record.
Rugby taught me how to take the suffering. You learn about your inner drive in a really tough East Midlands derby or down in Toulouse on a scorching hot day. In some, rare matches you enter a flow state; everything is going your way, hit the ruck, drag guys up from the ground to go again, and again. That’s real living. You feel so powerful in that mental state.
Rugby ends and this disappears, leaving a gaping hole in your gut. I try filling it by pushing myself into unknown dark places, delving into the savage warrior part of my being that doesn’t just come out walking down the street in Galway. Not without getting arrested anyway.
A lot of my mates’ favourite part of my rugby career happened in my first East Midlands derby – Northampton v Leicester. Martin Johnson was doing what he does in a maul off a lineout I had won. Back then you could throw a few small digs or elbows to push lads off but the England and Lions captain took offence. The punches started flying. I was 24 and a legend of the game was trying to knock me out. I didn’t back down, if nothing else. There was a lot of lads grabbing arms. I landed a few slaps. Not sure if they were on Johnson but I connected with someone. When it calmed down we both got our marching orders for ten minutes.
There were plenty of wars in France. The Top 14 is very strange. You could have the easiest game of your life, like, Perpignan or Stade Francais would never turn up away from home, but then you’d have the toughest 80 minutes when Toulon or Clermont were in the mood.
I loved the attritional stuff but also witnessed a bit of a revolution in the French club scene. My first season at Brive was 2008 and it was a lot more vicious. They had to clean up the league because of TV. It needed cleaning up anyway. Brive v Albi meant Arnaud Melá would be looking for me. Melá had a terrible disciplinary record. Known as the hard man of French rugby, he had a lethal right hook. The last time I came up against Melá would have been 2015 when he was at Brive and I was in Oyonnax but the violence was gone. Arnaud had to change to survive.
After the big wins you’d sit in the changing room and couldn’t be happier. Bruised and battered, everyone knew you kept pushing yourself into the fight. I played over 300 games and most of them weren’t like that. I don’t miss much about rugby but I do miss the battle – that savage warrior coming out – so I row the ocean, scale the highest peaks, ride isolated highways, track through deserts, all in search of a higher spiritual awakening.
What else would I be doing?
The darkest hour came on day one. It was an absolute nightmare. There’s a huge emotional peak – you say goodbye to your parents and there’s a realisation that the thing you’ve poured yourself into for eighteen months is finally happening. I remember pulling out of the Marina, one minute whooping and hollering, the next crying.
Everything started to go wrong after six hours. My heels blistered, the callouses on my hands tore off and I had the worst cramping of my life in all my lower limbs. It’s a race as well, so I felt like I was losing ground. I took the decision to put my head down for an hour and get some water into me after being sea sick and puking constantly. When I got up I’d been blown back a mile. It took me three hours return to the same GPS point: 42.2km .
It was already midnight so I formed a plan to put out the para-anchor, when the sea is too deep for a real anchor it’s like a parachute that sits in the water and holds about two tonnes of water. Woke up five hours later and saw I’d been blown back a mile and a half.
That’s not meant to happen.
I was getting hit with waves in the face pulling in the retrieval rope. It was still dark. I doubted whether I had the capacity to get out of the situation if it continued for three or four days. I was angry.
The real danger was sulking in the middle of this vastness. That could prove fatal. She is an unforgiving monster. So, I rowed and I rowed, slowly and steadily, for seven hours, until 1pm, and only got four miles. Two other boats were in the exact same situation but they didn’t row for seven hours and had to be pulled in after a few days, never escaping the low pressure weather and land, their races crushingly over.
That moment saved my race. I was in a very negative space, completely rocked, but you recover little by little, and there follows a moment to make it all worthwhile.
I think he was a minke whale. Earlier I had capsized. You’re almost looking forward to your first capsize to see how you cope. When I came out on deck the whole level was covered with water. I was pumping it off but I was in shock as I’d also just been thrown against the side of the cabin and split my head open. That’s when I realised I wasn’t alone.
The noise of the blow hole was followed by the dorsal fin appearing to my right. He swam around the boat about five or six times and on one of those circles stuck his left eye up to look directly at me. It nuzzled the boat then came right down beside the gunnel. If I reached out I could have touched him. The hairs on every inch of my skin were standing up. I think he was an adolescent, just curious. That day was the craziest of my life. I capsized again later, this time while on the deck, then I thought I kept seeing the dorsal fin, like the whale was following me, trying to relay some information, to warn me but the mind plays all sorts of games out on the ocean.
You have a lot of time to think on the ocean about what I’d do next. After that the only way is up – all seven summits on each continent. I won’t do that alone. The lack of oxygen brings a different challenge. You are almost meditating with every step as you must control your breathing just to move.
I struggled up Kilimanjaro in one off season between Leinster and Oyonnax. It was a really rewarding experience that grows in you as time goes by. I’ve done Mount Blanc but nothing like the high altitude peaks.
I will row the Atlantic Ocean again some day, I hope, but not solo. Whoever joins me would need to be able to take care of themselves. It’s just too dangerous to take focus off yourself. You must be vigilant in your every move. If I lose concentration to help someone that compromises my safety. Anyone who comes on a boat with me will need to be self-reliant.
All going well, I’ll cycle from the top of Alaska to the tip of Argentina – the Pan-American highway. 30,000 kilometres is less of a challenge, I know I’m showing weakness, but it feeds into a constant desire to see the world – up close and personally. If the body is able some day I’ll motorbike the west coast of Africa, through every country, from Morocco to Cape Town.
On those roads someone is bound to turn me on to something else.
My epitaph? I’ll keep that to myself but I should probably look at it again. Rewrite a little.
I just hope people say nice things about me at the end.
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
You can also check out our podcast. Subscribe today for more.