Eoin O’Farrell is a former teammate of mine from underage hurling with Blackrock National Hurling Club in Cork. Whereas I stopped playing hurling as a teenager, Eoin went on to win several trophies at underage and has played for „the Rockies“ for over a decade as an adult. With a Senior Cork County Championship medal in his back pocket, alongside an Intermediate County (as captain), it is fair to say that he has done well on the hurling pitch! Now working as a podiatrist in Cork City, Eoin embarked on the journey of a lifetime in the winter of 2017/18, when he and three of his mates rowed the Atlantic Ocean.
Their team, called „The Relentless Rowers“, competed in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Race and crossed the Atlantic Ocean from La Gomera (in the Canary Islands) to Antigua (in the Caribbean – not far from the Bahamas). It took them 32 days, 22 hours and 4 minutes to accomplish the task, and they spent Christmas 2017 somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. Although they didn’t win the race, they were the fastest Irish team in history to complete it. Their journey was covered on social media, and they featured on Irish media, including an appearance on „The Late, Late Show“ after the event. The Relentless Rowers raised €35,000 for the Children’s Unit at Cork University Hospital („the CUH“) and Pieta House.
In January 2022, I had the chance to catch up with Eoin and chat about the adventure with him. The full interview can be listened to below:
Please note: the discussion regarding the row itself starts at 15:00.
Hey Eoin, what’s the craic? Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Yeah. So my name is Eoin. I’m a podiatrist in Cork. I play hurling with Blackrock, and hurling would be my main sport. But in 2017/18, my three friends and I rowed across the Atlantic, from La Gomera and the Canary Islands to Antigua, English Harbour in the Caribbean. I think that’s the part of the story that Oisín wants.
We’ll go to the start since it’s the GAA Club. When did you begin hurling?
Yeah, I started my hurling career in Kilmacud Crokes up in Dublin. We were living in Dublin at the time, and Kilmacud Crokes is one of the biggest hurling clubs in Dublin. I went to St Lawrence’s and my dad as well… he played hurling. From when I can remember, I was hitting the ball against the wall. Kilmacud Crokes beat us in the Féile Final when we were under-14.
They did indeed. Yeah.
You were playing that day as well, Oisín, were you?
I was, yeah. I was on the team there at that time as well. Páirc Uí Chaoimh!
Páirc Uí Chaoimh, yeah. If I stayed in Dublin, I’d have a Féile medal, but that wasn’t to be. We did fairly well to get that final, didn’t we?
Yeah… I thought you were at Blackrock the whole time, or when did you get to Blackrock?
I moved to St. Anthony’s (National School) when I was in First class or something. So I only spent junior/senior infants in Dublin. So I was probably under eight or nine maybe when I joined Blackrock, and it was no better club to join!
Yeah, exactly. I thought you were always there. I’m learning something new already.
Yeah, I have to think back; where did I start hurling? But yeah, it would have been Kilmacud Crokes! I just loved hurling growing up, and that’s all I knew. At Blackrock, I was lucky enough to go to St Anthony’s National School, a hurling-mad school. All we seemed to do was play hurling…
Like the indoor hurling was at St. Anthony’s. Your dad, Oisín, hugely influenced our careers growing up. He coached us a lot, as he was primarily coaching the year ahead of us (the 1990 group). There were a lot of super coaches underage, and we were lucky enough to have 15/20 lads that were good at hurling, and we just kept going, and we won quite a bit underage.
But yeah, that’s what Blackrock is like. I remember Wayne Sherlock and Alan Brown and all these guys bringing the cup down to the club, the All-Ireland, when they won the Liam McCarthy. And I remember that people in Blackrock had loads of hats and everything with „Cork 99“. They were special days in the old Blackrock Hall. It was an excellent underage set-up.
It was. I remember, one morning, I think it was after 1999; I woke up, and dad had put the All-Ireland trophy in the bedroom. He got it off Wayne or Fergal or someone, and I just woke up, and there’s Liam McCarthy in the hallway. It was crazy. They were mad times.
That’s crazy to think about that. And at Blackrock, we are so lucky to have those superstars around the place – Fergal Ryan, Wayne Sherlock…
George Hatchell (photographer) would put up pictures of those days, and they’re brilliant pictures. Us with the cup when we were seven or eight.
You’ve gone way back there!!
Absolutely! Your dad and John Vaughan, wasn’t it? They were our coaches, I think, early on.
Yeah, so they were there early on, and my dad would have played hurling in UCC, so he really encouraged me to play hurling. And there was Brother Patrick as well and fellas like that that put in a huge amount of work underage for us. Pat Roche was supplying the hurleys…
So many… the good times.
There are way too many people to mention, but they’re the ones that stand out to me.
What’s been your best experience on the hurling pitch?
The best experience that I had was probably as captain of Blackrock to the Intermediate Final there a few years ago. My brother Martin was playing as well on that team. I think it was just a special year. Olan Murray was the manager.
From the get-go, I think… I don’t think we set out to win the County that year. I don’t think anybody expected us to win the County, but, yeah, we just had a good group of lads, and I think the seniors got knocked out early-ish in their tournament, so we had a good core bunch that we trained away. We managed to pull off that Intermediate County.
Around two years later, I managed to be on the pitch when we won the Senior County, which was obviously a special moment. I came on in extra time, and I think the match was more or less over, but the Glen (Glen Rovers) got about seven, six or seven points in a row. And I was thinking, „Aw feck, this could be the cause of Blackrock losing the County Final!“
I came on in extra time, and I think the match was more or less over, but the Glen got about seven, six or seven points in a row. And I was thinking, aw feck, this could be the cause of Blackrock losing the County Final!
But I remember I came on for my brother in that match. To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting to come on, but David (Eoin’s brother) had given his all, and I think they used all five subs. We had a great panel; we had thirty-five lads. And I was just lucky enough to be called upon, and I was grateful for the management for selecting me, but it was amazing winning that County. Pity, it was at the start of Covid, but I think hopefully we can push on again and win another one, but they are not easy.
It’d be nice if it was with the full stadium, with the people who’ve been there throughout the whole journey.
Yeah, it definitely took away a bit from the occasion. It was quite special afterwards when we came back, Church Road was lined with supporters, and I had never seen it like that before, and it just showed what it meant to the club.
Yeah. I don’t think people realize what it meant to the people of Blackrock, and it was a special, special day.
Yeah, cool. So to go to the rowing side, when did you start rowing?
I went to Pres (Presentation Brothers College), a school in Cork City, and it was either rugby or rowing. To be honest, I had to play with the year above me in rugby, and I was getting absolutely creamed! They were picking on the younger lads in the rugby, so I went with the rowing, and I really liked rowing, and Fran Keane was my rowing coach in Pres and Eoin Hennessy.
Rowing is quite a high-performance sport. I think the training that goes into rowing it’s a lot of hours goes into it. And my coach, Fran, he’s actually one of the coaches on the Olympic rowing team that did extremely well this year. It was great for him to get that post because he’s put in a lot of work with Pres rowing over the years.
Yeah, I rowed with Pres up to junior 18 levels in Pres. I didn’t have much success rowing, to be honest. I remember it was either it came down to hurling or rowing, and both of them didn’t really fit together too well. I managed to get through it, but it obviously did impact my rowing career towards the end when things got more serious at the under-18 level in hurling. So, yeah, that’s how I got into rowing – it was through Pres.
I was about to ask you if rowing complimented hurling, but you answered the question there, so it’s fine.
Yeah, it’s a strange one. I think rowing does a lot of slow endurance work that needs to be done. And it may trigger the slower muscle fibres rather than the sprinting ones required for hurling, but I think it probably did. Steve Casey, he’s the strength and conditioning coach for the Cork team now; he’d be a good man to ask about that.
But I think there are a lot of studies that show that long endurance activity is quite good for building up aerobic activity, lowering heart rates and stuff. So probably did. Yeah. I was never the fastest, but I would have had fairly good endurance from the rowing.
Yes. I remember you always used to play midfield or in the half-forward line for us; you’d need the endurance there, all right! So you were doing fine.
Yeah. No, I can’t complain. I was lucky enough to be healthy and fit at 17/18. So we had some great years there, and we won a minor county and an under-16. It was a good few years there.
You went to college in Galway, didn’t you?
Yeah, I went to college in NUI Galway. Galway is a great place to go to college. I’d recommend it, and I’d recommend Podiatry as well if anybody had an interest in Podiatry because it’s probably not the first career that people would think of – feet – for their living. But, yeah, the college was great, the facilities up there are excellent, and it’s a good social College as well.
I was home most Thursdays because I had to come home for training and stuff like that. So it’s not that too far either from Cork.
Yeah. All right. So let’s get to the big one. You rowed the Atlantic. Where did that idea even come from? How did ye come up with that?
It was New Year’s Eve, and we were at a New Year’s Eve celebration party, and my friend Seán Underwood just asked me if I wanted to row the Atlantic. And I said yes. And then I didn’t think it might actually come to fruition, really.
Then there was another fellow, Pat O Connor. Both Seán and Pat are doctors, and they knew each other from med school. So we had three people, and we were trying to find a fourth. And it was actually quite difficult. A lot of people liked the idea and said yes, initially, and then they pulled out, and it was a bit frustrating that way.
It was New Year’s Eve, and we were at a New Year’s Eve celebration party, and my friend Seán Underwood, he just asked me did I want to row the Atlantic. And I said yes.
Eventually, we got this Dub, Tommy Brown, through a mutual friend of mine that I was in College in Galway with. I think Tommy had looked into the idea of rowing across the Atlantic, and we had just happened to say to him that we were doing it. And he rang me one day, and I said we would have taken anyone at that stage because it’s quite an expensive thing to do, so having a fourth person obviously made a huge impact on the financial costs.
But Tommy actually turned out to be a brilliant team member, and he’s one of my best friends now. But the race takes place every year. It’s the „Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge“, and it goes from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to English Harbour, Antigua in the Caribbean. And the hardest part of it is getting to the start line.
There’s a special boat… A company over in the UK, „Rannoch Adventures“, and they build the boats. They have to meet a certain spec, and the boat is about 24ft (7.3m) long, so it has quite a small boat, and it has a stern and a bow cabin. It was quite cosy, to be honest. It was quite cosy. I’d say that.
After he said, „do you want to do this?“ and you said „yes.“ Did you go back and forth, or did you have to convince yourself or were you just thinking, „I’m doing this?“
Yeah. It was a weird one because there were 120 reasons why I could pull out and not do it. I always had it in my head, but I didn’t think that it would actually happen. We had to sign up initially, and you had to pay an entry fee of $5,000. And the deadline was coming up; I think it was a day before the deadline. Sean was saying, „are we doing this?“ And we just paid the money? And then, once we had paid the money, we had to do it now.
I think in a lot of these things, the hardest thing is actually just entering the race, whether it be a marathon or 5km road race. The most challenging part is to just actually sign up. And once you’ve signed up, you’ve nearly the thing completed. And as well, failure was never an option in the race because you couldn’t turn around and row home. The only way to get it done was to row into English Harbour. So there was never really any doubt after we had paid that entry fee.
I think we were always going to do it.
I think the hardest part is to just actually sign up. And once you’ve signed up, you’ve nearly the thing completed… Failure was never an option in the race because you couldn’t turn around and row home. The only way to get it done was to row into English Harbour.
Brilliant. On that note, I signed up for a half-marathon today. My thought was, „if I pay the money and I sign up, I’m doing it.„
Yeah. Fair play. I think that’s the hardest part of anything, even college or life in general. You just have to commit to something.
Had you rowed much then between the time you finished up in Pres and getting in the boat to do the Atlantic?
Not a huge amount, really. It was always hurling first for me. We had to drive over to Burnam-on-Crouch Essex in the UK, which is on the west coast of England, to collect the boat, and we had to tow the boat across the whole of the UK. Getting the boat from the UK back to Ireland was quite an ordeal! Then we had it in the „Port of Cork“, there in Cork City, so we were able to train on the River Lee.
We went to Kinsale a few times from Cork City. It doesn’t seem that far, but actually, it’s quite a difficult row, especially with tides and stuff. If the tide is going against you, you’re not going to really go that far. It was a steep learning curve, really.
I think ocean rowing is slightly different to river rowing because river rowing is all about technique, whereas with ocean rowing, you don’t really have to be a good rower. You just have to be willing to put up with a lot of discomfort and pain. I think there’s a big difference between the two.
All right, so you’re saying it’s about 24ft (7.3m)?
Yeah, about 24ft (7.3m).
So you’re in the Canary Islands, and you’re facing the Caribbean. You’re going to be living in 24ft (7.3m) for the next month. And then you start the race. Like, what’s the feeling then when you’ve just left?
Yeah. So, there were about 30 boats in the race. They were all lined up and we all set off individually. Everybody at La Gomera was clapping us off. It was great and the weather was lovely! The seas weren’t too bad for the first four or five hours, and everyone was on a high.
There’s a thing on the boat called the autohelm, which steers the boat. You put in a waypoint, and the autohelm brings you to the waypoint. So far, so good. But we calibrated the autohelm wrong. So when we put on the autohelm and left, the boat turned around and faced back towards La Gomera! You need really flat water to calibrate those autohelms. So we were trying to calibrate that out in big, huge seas out in the Atlantic! We eventually got it going, but it was quite a stressful ordeal!
I remember the first night as well, we got really seasick, and there’s this thing on the boat called the EPIRB, which is an emergency beacon that alerts people if they’re in danger. And the cabin doors were quite small, and I hit my backside against the EPIRB, which set it off! The Spanish Coast guards and my dad, who was our emergency contact on the EPIRB, were alerted. So dad got a text saying that the lads are in distress. We hadn’t even been gone 24 hours, and he had to send a text to the family Whatsapp group chat saying that the lads were after setting off the emergency beacon! It was just that we were so seasick that we didn’t really care.
It was hard to understand why we didn’t alert the Coast Guard to say that we were actually okay. But luckily enough, we did it just in time before they dispatched the rescue because that would have been „race over“.
But it was a steep learning curve. We were just trying to get used to life at sea and stuff during the first few days because none of us really had huge ocean rowing or sailing experience.
I remember the first night as well, we got really seasick and there’s this thing on the boat called the EPIRB, which is emergency beacon that alerts people if they’re in danger… I hit my backside against the EPIRB and that set it off! The Spanish Coast guards and my dad… were alerted. So dad got a text saying that the lads are in distress. We hadn’t even been gone 24 hours…
Yeah. So after the first few days, then you got settled into it?
Yes, we got settled into it. So it was two hours on, two hours off for thirty-two days, and we went through the night. So you’d be sleeping for about an hour and a half of the two-hour rest. You had to eat and clean yourself and try and get a bit of sleep in those 2 hours that you were not rowing, and you’d get used to it.
It could be frustrating sometimes, especially coming towards an end of a shift when you were nice and dry, and then all of a sudden, a wave hits you, and you’re soaked! Then you’d have to take off your wet clothes to try and get to sleep. It was impossible to dry anything out there. So once you’re wet, you’re wet, and there’s a lot of gory details, like with four lads on a small boat.
Yeah. That’s the image I’m having.
Yeah, the majority of times, we were more or less naked just due to friction of clothing when you were rowing and stuff like that. So fungal infections, sore arses from sitting on the seat, you name it, we had it.
We had this Medkit with us that we had to bring a certain amount of antibiotics, painkillers, etc. And I think we’ve gone through that whole Medkit by the time we got into English Harbour. I think one thing that is quite interesting is, like, you might ask how you went to the toilet.
I debated whether to ask you that question or not!
Actually, we were lucky enough to get on „The Late Late Show“ with Ryan Tubridy on national TV. That was the question he asked. He asked me something about the bucket…
So, we had two buckets on the boat, and one was just for cleaning, and the other one was our toilet. So what you did was you filled up the bucket with water so that when you did your number two into the water it didn’t go onto the bucket. You couldn’t hang out over the side of the boat, or you had to, like, because the boat was wobbling up and down, so that wouldn’t have worked.
So, yeah, you filled the bucket with water sat on the bucket, and it was actually, in some ways, a nice break from rowing.
It sounds peaceful!
Yeah. That’s how you went to the toilet. And we had the baby wipes. Biodegradable baby wipes.
The sunrises were amazing out there. The stars and nights were amazing. There was no pollution. Some bits of it were magical, really. I’d recommend it, to be honest.
The sunrises were amazing out there. The stars and nights were amazing. There was no pollution. Some bits of it were magical, really. I’d recommend it, to be honest. As you said, the hardest thing is signing up for it, but if people ever want to talk to me about doing it, if they had any interest in doing it. I’d recommend it.
There obviously is a bit of a risk, but there’s probably a risk with everything in life and like you’re harnessed to the boat. So as long as you are harnessed to the boat, not a huge amount can go wrong. And the boat self rights.
What was the water like? How is it out in the middle of the Atlantic? Is the water wild out there?
Yeah, we were lucky enough. Lucky and unlucky because our year was really fast. I think the world record prior to our year was 35 days, and we came in in 32 days. So it just a lot of it depends on the weather conditions, really.
Our seas were big, and they were like really choppy seas, and they were pushing us in the right direction, which is good, but it’s not that really comfortable. And like this year’s race now, it was a lot slower because the seas weren’t as big, and the winds weren’t blowing as strong in the right direction.
We didn’t see a huge amount of wildlife because of the fact that the seas were quite big. Like, we saw a few whales and dolphins, and we were fishing quite a bit as well. We caught one fish in the whole trip, which actually was brilliant. The small things really made a difference.
I remember we spent Christmas Day out there, and we brought four cans of Coke with us, and we said we’d have a can each on Christmas Day to celebrate. We went down to get them on Christmas Day, and two of them had burst! So we only had two cans to share between the four of us.
Christmas dinner. Yeah.
What was the highlight of the 32 days, or do you have one?
Yeah, the highlight was definitely rowing into English Harbour. My parents didn’t really tell me that they were going. They were totally anti-the row – I don’t think my mom even said goodbye to me when I was leaving! I remember going into her to say goodbye, and she just didn’t even respond.
They didn’t tell me they were going over to Antigua, and then seeing them at the finish line was special. English Harbor is full of these big, massive superyachts, so it’s a really spectacular finish. There is serious wealth over there, and there are also really poor people there as well. It’s a weird enough place that way. There’s a real „Caribbean-feel“, a spectacular place to finish, and seeing your family at the finish line… it was brilliant.
Yeah. You had the ‚Relentless Rowers‘ charity campaign, as well.
Yeah. We raised €35,000 for the CUH Children’s Unit charity in Cork, which was brilliant. People were really generous towards us, and we thanked them a lot. I’m pretty sure the money went to good causes and inside in the CUH Children’s Unit. Like, Pat and Sean are doctors, and I’m a podiatrist, so we wanted to donate to something that was in healthcare. The Children’s Unit does great work, and that’s why we picked them.
Yeah. Fair play to ye.
It was great. They gave us framed pictures after we did it to say thank you. That was a nice gesture from them.
It was quite a special trip. It’s one that I won’t forget too soon!
I remember following your updates on social media and just thinking, „that’s just mad“. There are no words to actually describe rowing the Atlantic.
One of our friends, Mark O’Sullivan, took on the responsibility of the social media duties and yeah, it did capture people’s imaginations.
I don’t know what to say, really. Obviously, we were lucky enough to be in the situation in life to be able to do it. Obviously, not everyone would be in the sense that we were quite fit, and none of us had children, or I don’t think any of us, a few of us had girlfriends, but there were no real commitments. So we were privileged to do it, and it was a great thing to do. It was an adventure of a lifetime.
Brilliant. So, yeah, I think that’s everything I have written down here to ask you. Thanks for that, man. That was really good.
I haven’t really talked about it, so it’s weird trying to think back on the events, but it’s nice to speak about it. Cheers for asking me, and I appreciate it.
If you ever fancy doing some hurling in Germany, anyway, just join in if you’re ever available to come over. We would be delighted to have you for a session!
Cheers. Yeah. It would be lovely to come over for a trip. Fair play; it’s great to see hurling being played over in Germany because it’s the best sport in the world!
Thanks, Oisín, cheers.
Photos courtesy of Eoin O’Farrell unless stated.