Thursday, 2 May 2002

Celtic Challenge: You're heading towards France...

When I set off to cox most of 90 nautical miles across the Irish sea (my first ever rowing expedition) my idea of a long outing was less than 2 hours, and on a river.

But somewhere along the way, after the fabulous sunrise, the sight of the Welsh coast after a night of rowing out of sight of land, and then the arrival on it made me realise the incredible sense of achievement you could feel, despite being second last in a race (and I'm normally a bad loser).

Event: Celtic Challenge
Where: The Irish Sea, between Arklow and Aberystwith
Distance: 90 nautical miles
Time: 15h 58mins
Boat type: Pembrokeshire longboat
Number of crews in the event: 14 or so
Event Website:

Why we finished up doing it
A fellow member of Thames Valley Skiff Club was on holiday on the Welsh Coast, and got chatting in a pub one evening to members of Aberaeron Lonbgoat Rowing Club. Who finished up offering him use of one of their Pembrokeshire longboats, along with the services of a support crew, if he entered a team in the next year's race. History doesn't recall how many pints later this exceptionally generous offer was made, although it can't have been TOO many, as he remembered, and took them up on it.

How it works
The race starts in Arklow, Ireland, and finished in Aberystwyth, Wales, so the course covers one of the wider bits of the Irish Sea.

Each team comprises 12 competitors, who swap in and out of the fixed-seat, coxed rowing boat, which can be either a Celtic or a Pembrokeshire longboat. The Celtic ones were a bit longer, possibly narrower, and definitely faster.

Each team is supported by the yacht, which carries the remaining 7 members not in the race boat, as well as its own crew. A rib is used to swap competitors between the yacht and the longboat.

Our team decided (largely through necessity – we're quite a small club, and not all members were nutters) that they'd take me as a dedicated cox, along with 11 rowers, one of whom was a woman in her 50s, but tough as. She not only rowed as much as most of the guys, and more than some, but also made sandwiches almost continuously whilst not rowing.

We decided we'd change the crew every 1.5 hours, and I would cox 3 consecutive shifts, followed by 1 off. And repeat. And repeat again. And then again.

The start.
The race itself
The race started at 4pm and ran overnight. This presented its own challenges, but the thinking is that the sea tends to be calmer at night, and there are also fewer ships about.

So, after a sunny start, the field spread out, and we found ourselves to the back of it. The whole thing was way outside my experience, although other members of the team had done some sailing. However, the crew of our support yacht, Y Marchog, were clearly very experienced, and our navigation simply involved "following" them, ideally to one side and a bit in front, so that we weren't in their wash.

Which fine, until our fastest crew combination swapped in, which included a three-times Olympic oarsman, and some other blokes who were lesser mortals, but still good rowers. And we found that we were a fair chunk faster than the support yacht, struggling along a it was with 10 people on board a boat probably made for 4 at the most, laden with kit bags, and towing a rib.

Around 4am. This is probably my
favourte expedition rowing photo ever.
Now even this was bearable the first time it happened, but by the time they came back for their 2nd shift, it was dark, and the process of bringing the rib alongside and transferring people across spun our boat around, and I quite lost my grasp of WHICH of the many little lights, representing other crews and their support boats, spread round the horizon I was meant to be following (quite why I didn't have a compass in my paw, I'm not sure, and you would be quite justfied in rolling your eyes in horror at this lack of basic safety, though you'll remember that we'd thought we'd be following the yacht..). Anyway, having decided I recognised a certain grouping of lights, and we set off. About 5 minutes later, the rib came roaring back, to explain that we were heading south towards France... Looking back at this now, I'm just so embarrassed.

We were unbelievably lucky with the conditions: somewhere around midnight the sea settled into that oily calmness you only rarely get, with barely a breath of wind. 

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Somewhere around 1.30am, about 3.5 hours into my second 4.5 hour stint, the lateness of the hour, combined with the fresh air and the fact that I was just sitting there steering, all caught up with me and I nodded off. Probably only for about 10 seconds, but I was quickly woken by the shouts of one of the crew who had spotted that the boat had swung round (it was interesting that the others hadn't actually noticed) because it had to be steered almost every stroke to remain heading in the right direction.

I was just so sleepy. I managed to unwrap a sweet from my pocket, despite wearing large waterproof mittens and needing to do the aforementioned continuous steering, but this only boosted my alertness for a few minutes. So I resorted to singing christmas carols to quietly to myself, on the basis that it's quite hard to fall asleep whilst singing, and these were the only songs I could remember enough words to in my addled state.

I made it through to my 2nd 1.5 hour break, and as soon I was on the yacht, crawled onto the huge pile of kitbags in the fo'csle, and immediately fell asleep, with my nose about 2" from the ceiling. Bliss.

Nearly there
Back in the coxing seat, the Welsh coastline soon appeared as a thin grey line on the horizon, though we still had plenty of miles to go. The final crew to swap in wasn't quite the personnel I was expecting, but those that leapt on board explained that they were the only ones left capable of doing another shift - someone had succumbed to seasickness, another was suffering from the flare-up of an injury. A third was totally exhausted. 

After a while, we realised that this particular combination were all experienced rover rowers, and so we entertained ourselves for 20 minutes by talking ourselves through the landmarks of the so-called Championship Course on the Tideway between Chiswick and Putney. It was so realistic that we could almost smell the burger van at the end, although the aroma as we finally made our way into Aberystwyth harbour was slightly different.

Not sure why we seem to be heading
for a cliff at this point?
By now, it was about 8am, and the other competitors, all from Welsh and Irish clubs, showed us the way to the sailing club bar. lacking their prowess (I am only a little cox after all) I sat down in the corner and fell asleep. A little later someone woke me and we went out onto the deck to eat some bacon sarnies, Which were great, and I went asleep in the sun.

Several of us then elected to get back to Aberaeron on the yacht, motoring gently down the coast, and chatting to the crew. The weather was delightful and I nodded off again.

I then fell asleep yet again in the holiday cottage whilst various friends and other halves cooked supper, and finally in the pub, before eventually being allowed to go to bed - bliss! As with many challenges, it's the things you don't expect to be hard that often are, and my abiding memory of the Celtic Challenge was the struggle with sleep deprivation. 

It's a cracker of an event, but to do it you need to be with one of the local clubs, because this is a treacherous piece of water, requiring local, or other serious sailing knowledge and decent equipment. We were lucky, and you shouldn't rely on luck with the sea.


  1. Just the stuff to start off a gloomy grey November morning. Maybe I WILL call into the gym tonight after all..

    1. Thanks, Tony! That trip was the start of my foray into expedition rowing - but once you've done a few daft things in a boat, dafter ones don't seem so daft at all, if you see what I mean. It's fixed seat and sweep, so I'm sure Finnish churchboat rowers would love it...