Woman who rowed solo across Atlantic set for Cork Harbour Festival

Cork Harbour Festival returns from today and continues until June 13 - with more than 50 events - including a talk by Karen Weekes. COLETTE SHERIDAN caught up with Karen, the first Irish woman to row solo across the Atlantic
Woman who rowed solo across Atlantic set for Cork Harbour Festival

Dr Karen Weekes, MTU lecturer the 1st Irish woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Picture: Domnick Walsh © Eye Focus LTD .

DR Karen Weekes, the first Irish woman to row solo across the Atlantic, will give a talk at the Ocean to City/Cork Harbour Festival on June 9 at the MTU Blackrock Observatory.

It promises to be a fascinating session with this pioneering woman who is a sports psychologist lecturing at the Kerry campus of MTU.

Cork has had huge rowing success of late at the Tokyo Olympics, with Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan winning gold while the women’s rowing crew of four, including Emily Hegarty from Skibbereen, won bronze at the Games two years ago.

Karen, aged 54, who is based in her native Kinvara in Co. Galway, is chilling out for the summer, growing vegetables and no doubt reflecting on her massive achievement.

After 80 days at sea starting from Gran Canaria on December 6, 2021, she arrived in Bridgetown in Barbados on February 24. The voyage of 3,140 miles on a Rannoch 25ft long ocean rowing boat, named Millie after Karen’s mother, was inevitably full of challenges.

Karen had to cope with storms, steering problems, squalls and a close encounter with a hammerhead shark. But the20th female in the world to have rowed an ocean solo is made of strong stuff. And through the website, shecando2021.org, her seagoing adventure has been documented with footage of Karen’s incredible feat. The platform encourages women and girls to discover their inner steel.

To prepare for the transatlantic row, Karen trained in her boat last summer and went to the gym for strength, power and endurance training. At sea, she survived on about four hours sleep a night with power naps during the day.

“I didn’t get much sleep because I was focusing on rowing, which was very intense, involving managing conditions, making sure that the boat and myself were safe,” says Karen.

Nobody tried to talk her out of the challenge she set herself.

“I think people knew better. I was always into sports. In my early twenties, myself and Suzanne Kennedy were the first women to kayak around Ireland. Then I cycled across America and Canada. I climbed Kilimanjaro and also climbed in Nepal, Pakistan and Africa. So there was a lot of endurance built up. But the row was definitely the biggest one by a long mile. To focus, I did a lot of mental preparation.”

Alone at sea, did Karen have to confront herself?

“Yeah. But you’re so busy looking after everything, it’s really intensive. On the cycling trips I did before, you’d have long days over the Rockies or whatever but you could just hop off your bike and go into your tent or go for a beer or food and meet people. You can share the load, share judgement calls.

“But at sea, I had to make all the decisions myself so I could never let my guard down. It’s quite challenging because your brain gets so tired. I managed to get across and 42 of my friends and family came over to Barbados to welcome me in, and the sports minister and tourism minister of Barbados were there too.”

When we spoke, the travel writer, Dervla Murphy’s death had just been announced. Karen was a fan.

“I met Dervla a few times. She was following me on the row, maybe not the whole thing but she knew what was happening. She was a true legend. She really pushed the boundaries in the ’60s (when she took off to India on her bike, starting a career as an intrepid explorer.) Dervla really lived her life to the full, going to places like Palestine, Cuba, Belfast, immersing herself in the culture.”

Karen thinks that “sometimes, we’re very easy on ourselves. We need to push ourselves harder. The harder you push yourself, the more you get out of life in every respect. Sometimes, we need to be a bit bolder.”

What would Karen say to today’s teenage girls and young women, many of whom are preoccupied with their social media profiles, how they look, and how they believe they’re perceived?

“One of the things we are trying to promote through shecando2021 is encouraging females to go outside their comfort zone and to try something new.

“The other element of it is to try and get girls - and boys - but girls mostly, to get into adventure sports. It can be anything, kayaking, windsurfing, hill walking or fishing. It doesn’t matter.

“The adventure sports element has just been so rewarding for me and my female friends. We’re at it for twenty, thirty, forty years. So much can be gained. You make so many friends. Maybe that could preoccupy people instead of being worried about their image. (Adventure sports) is a lovely thing to do and you can explore all over the world. You get to immerse yourself in different cultures. It’s about living life to the full and whatever your chosen downtime is, you will really deserve it.”

The shecando2021 website is also about ocean conservation.

“When I was going over the mid- Atlantic ridge, which only fully started being explored in the ’80s, I knew that micro-plastics had been found down there which is a real shame. 

"Five thousand metres down, there are geysers and hot water springs and weird and wonderful blind fish (who don’t need sight because of the darkness they live in) and seaweeds that are ten feet tall. 

"But our plastics are getting into the really unique and rare parts of the ocean. It’s not too late to do something about it. We all have to be conscious to do our own little bit.

“We’re not trying to change the world. But we can do simple things like using recyclable bottles for training, making kids more aware of how we are affecting the environment and what we need to do.”

Karen’s can-do attitude is refreshing. Her transatlantic journey raised nearly €40,000 for the Royal National Lifeboat Institute and the Irish children’s hospice, the Laura Lynn Foundation. It was a win/win on many levels; a personal triumph, a high marker of achievement for women, and a contributor to two worthy causes. Karen deserves to bask in glory...

For more on the Cork Harbour Festival and Ocean to City see https://corkharbourfestival.com/

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