Wednesday 13 November 2019

'Without them we probably wouldn't be here' - Rowers who sailed from Canada to Ireland praise Coast Guard rescue

Joseph Gagnon (20) and Brian Conville (25)
Joseph Gagnon (20) and Brian Conville (25)
Dubliner Brian Conville (25) and Canadian Joseph Gagnon (20) sailed from Canada to Ireland

Rebecca Lumley

The rowing team en route from Canada to Cork have described the moment they plunged into the Atlantic ocean when their boat capsised.

Dubliner Brian Conville (25) and Canadian Joseph Gagnon (20) set out to smash world records by rowing non-stop from Canada to Ireland, but ran into difficulty on the last leg of their journey. Strong waves caused their slim vessel to capsize just 300km off the Cork coast on Friday morning.

Mr Conville told Independent.ie: “The waves were coming in from the north, we could see it coming. I was just finishing up my shift and had just woken Joseph up to switch with me. When the boat turned over I was still attached to it, so it took me a good 30 seconds to a minute to actually get back on to the boat, to break the surface of the water.

“Joseph was still in the cabin, he was half asleep. We tried but couldn’t get the life raft out of the cabin, it was Joseph’s priority to get himself out, so our main priority at that point was to just hold on to the boat.”

Dubliner Brian Conville (25) and Canadian Joseph Gagnon (20) sailed from Canada to Ireland
Dubliner Brian Conville (25) and Canadian Joseph Gagnon (20) sailed from Canada to Ireland

“We had one life jacket between the two of us and we were under a bit of pressure in the water. The waves were still quite strong and we were turning blue with the cold. Eventually we managed to get ourselves onto the hull of the boat, which is a lot harder than it looks because you’re being knocked down a lot. We huddled together, with one coat wrapped around the two of us.”

The Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) on the boat activated automatically, sending a distress call to the Coast Guard station based in Valentia, Co Kerry.

Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 117 and the Air Corps Casa plane arrived at the scene around 2pm on Friday, but could not initially see the white hull of the boat, which blended in with the swell of the waves.

“The lifejacket we had was bright yellow, so we held it up and were waving it like no tomorrow,” Mr Conville recounted.

“The helicopter was doing a search pattern in the area just ahead of us. It would come towards us, then turn away, come towards us, then turn away. We were panicking that they wouldn’t come out far enough and that they’d have to go back to base.

“When they picked us up, they said that they could only see the lifejacket. It was the best money I ever spent.”

The men were taken to University Hospital Kerry for treatment, but luckily escaped with no serious injuries. Mr Conville said he was treated for hypothermia yesterday, as well as general fatigue and some muscle damage.

An experienced rower, this is not the first mammoth voyage Mr Conville has undertaken. Last year he competed in the Great Pacific Race, rowing as part of a four man team across the Pacific Ocean.

He explained that Mr Gagnon had been planning the Atlantic voyage for two years, but had previously planned to row with his aunt. When she backed out of the journey, Mr Conville joined Mr Gagnon and assisted with preparations.

The pair set sail from Newfoundland, Canada on June 13 and were on course to arrive in Crookhaven, Co Cork on Sunday night.

They worked in shifts on their non-stop voyage, rowing for two hours at a time and then switching with each other. When they were not rowing, the men ate calorie-dense ready meals and slept in the cramped cabin below deck.

Mr Conville described the crossing as “one of the toughest endurance challenges out there” and said it had taken a toll on his physical and mental health.

“We were spending an awful lot of time alone because of having to continuously swap shifts. It is hard. When I was sailing across the Pacific it was easier in that respect because there were four of us,” he said.

He also suffered muscle deterioration in his glutes and legs because of not being able to walk around.

Despite this, Mr Conville said the experience “certainly hasn’t put me off rowing.”

“It’s one of these things, if you don’t get out of bed, you’ll live a boring life. You have to take chances, you take chances in everything you do. This is what excites me.

“There are a lot of benefits to doing something like this. One day we saw six whales, literally only 150 metres away from us, and dolphins and different types of fish swimming alongside the boat.”

The pair also came face to face with a number of sharks, one of whom swam alongside the boat for more than an hour and became a makeshift “guardian angel” on their journey.

Mr Conville extended his thanks to the Coast Guard on behalf of himself and Mr Gagnon and said that “without them, we probably wouldn’t be here.”

“We have a massive debt to pay to those guys,” he said.

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