This is a picture of Henry and me on a tea break in his house during one of the many days we spent working on my boat, ‘Doireann’.
His walls are covered in pictures of sailing trips he took with his wife Marina. His basement is an intricate man cave with all sorts of tools, gadgets and even a 3D printer he built himself. Henry was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He was a highly skilled engineer but the rare kind that could actually work with his hands.
The first time I met Henry was at Renville slipway. It was my second outing with my boat and I had just recovered it from a small row during which I was doing my best to avoid banging into all the nice boats on moorings. A few months before this, I had decided to row the Atlantic solo; with no rowing experience or technical knowledge about boats, I really hadn’t a clue what I was doing.
Henry came walking up all excited asking a bunch of questions about my Doireann, named after my niece. Most encounters with people previous to this led to questions like ‘where do you sleep?’ and ‘where do you go to the toilet?’ But Henry started asking about hull construction, autohelms and chart plotters. It was clear from the outset this boyo knew a thing or two about boats.
Our chat went on for the best part of an hour, my initial thought was ‘this guy is awesome’. He went on to tell me he had sailed the Atlantic and was a rower in his youth. In fact, he owned probably the nicest boat in the bay. Before I set off, Henry asked where I was storing my boat; I kept it in Annaghdown, which was far away from the slip. He then offered for me to keep it in his house, a 5 minute drive from the slip. Of course I took him up on that offer.
From then on, in my bid to row the Atlantic solo, Henry became my friend, wingman, teacher and mentor. Along with his lovely wife Marina, he welcomed me into their home and we spent many hours talking weather, kit and what it’s like out there in the middle of nowhere trying to solve problems like a broken mast, as they did when they sailed the Atlantic.
I’d often come over to his house to find him inside the cabin of the boat with the panel pulled off checking electrics and taking notes; by the time it came to the row, he knew the boat inside out. I would regularly get random emails off him in the wee hours titled ‘brain dump’ with a lot of information on all things boating.
Information, facts and ideas constantly flowed from Henry’s mind. He designed an emergency rudder construction to be made from a spare oar. He made parts for the boat with his 3D printer; nothing was spared. I could call or email anytime and he’d be right on it, buzzing with ideas and solutions. Henry lived in the Solution.
Aside from all the tech side of the boat, himself and Marina went out of their way to help me plan passages and training rows in the bay and further around the coast. They kept their boat ‘Beoga’ in Baltimore over the summer months to enjoy great sailing in West Cork. But mostly they seemed to be helping me, towing me out into the Atlantic so I could train. They brought me on my first night passage as I rowed along the coast of West Cork during a meteor shower, their boat light close by as I rowed through the night, semi seasick, loosing count after 50 meteor sightings.
At the end of the summer Henry wanted to get me into more serious conditions and test all my systems before embarking on the Atlantic. Ocean rowing boats around coastlines like where we’re from is not a good mix. So a lot of care and planning needed to be taken. We planned for me to row from the Dingle Peninsula to Galway and spend 48 hours on the boat along one of the most treacherous sections of coastlines in Europe. We wanted specific weather conditions and it came together in mid-October. Henry drove me down to Castlegregory pier, where I’d set off from. This would be a small dress rehearsal. He got me away in the afternoon with light winds keeping me away from the Shannon Estuary and Loop Head. He scurried back to Galway watching the tracker as I slowly moved north. I rowed into the night with the lighthouse from Loop Head beaming brightly,. In the middle of the night, after nearly 12 hours of rowing, I had to get some sleep; I set my autopilot so as to keep on track. But the light south-east winds became a lot stronger and began pushing me further offshore. I was awoken suddenly around 4am after 2 hours of sleep by the satellite phone ringing: it was Henry asking was I aware of my current position. I was very surprised to see how far I had drifted offshore, almost 20 nautical miles . Loop Head was a tiny light in the distance; my heading was pointed to Iceland. Further investigation as to what was happening revealed that one of my autopilot motors had burned out and I was basically drifting with the wind. I had no choice but to deploy the Para-Anchor and sit tight. A big south-westerly was on its way and we knew this would give me the platform to fly up the coast and into Galway Bay that day.
After some waiting around, the SW winds started to pick up and I pulled in the sea anchor and took to the oars. I began making great ground – positive texts were flying in from Henry. I set my heading for Inisheer and got stuck in. About halfway through the day, the winds were really gusting; wave height got up to 4–5 m of open ocean swell and I could see the Cliffs of Moher in the distance. I took a break after a while and jumped in the cabin; I had the music on and had been enjoying some very fast downwind rowing, surfing the ocean swells and getting up to 10 knots of speed on some waves.
I had a lot of missed calls on the sat phone, all from Henry. I immediately called him; he told me straight away to adjust my course: in the midst of my ‘fun’ I had been steadily heading toward the cliffs. The SW winds were due to turn more west later that day and I could easily end up on the rocks.
That particular day was Henry’s birthday and they were having a party at his house. But Henry was on the verge of leaving it and heading to Liscannor to rescue me with a RIB he was organising before he got in touch with me. I apologised profusely and got my head in check . Over the next few hours, with Henry guiding me on the phone, I made a good and safe track for the lighthouse at Inisheer, to squeeze in between there and the Clare coast, giving myself as much room as possible.
Late that night I made it back into the relatively safe waters of Galway Bay but still had a ways to go to make it to Renville. The winds picked up considerably out of the west, pushing me directly to where I wanted to go – so far so good. Usually when I came back into Renville, it was during the day: I would aim the boat for one of the moorings and then hang over the side and hopefully grab it; I needed to be going very slowly and not being able to see whilst in the rowing position always made it tricky.
Now, though, it was next to impossible, all I could see was pitch black in front of me and two tiny channel lights to guide me into the bay. I had all the lights out on the boat in a bid to see where I was going. It was 3am and the winds were getting a bit out of control, gusting at 35 knots. Even without rowing I was still going too fast to be able to safely grab the mooring. I deployed one of my drogues (a small parachute to slow the boat down) but that didn’t do much, so two more went out, I was still moving at over 1 knot. I threw out a 5-litre drinking container to add more drag. The closer I got to the moorings, the more I realised I was in trouble: with all the drag I could barely steer and I started to head toward the rocks and miss the moorings. I knew I had to drop anchor and dug it out of the aft storage quickly . I got it out just in time and stopped myself 10 m from the rocky shoreline. The anchor held but I was in a mess of lines off the stern from the drogues. It was high tide so I was secure for now. The winds raged on. I wondered what my next move would be. Surely Henry was asleep and hadn’t seen the mess I had got myself in.
After a few minutes of gathering myself I was blinded by headlights coming over the hill and along the small road by the shoreline. Out jumped Henry, Marina and their dog Yoda. The winds were so strong we couldn’t hear each other shouting. He was telling me to sit tight. He went back to the slip and launched his dinghy and outboard engine. He came over to me and tied off to my stern. I began gathering up the drogues. He instructed me to pull the anchor on his call and he would drive the dinghy hard while I would steer the boat and hopefully get me back across to the mooring. I hauled the anchor on his shout and we buzzed away from the shoreline and back onto the safety of the mooring where I tied my Doireann up.
Henry took me ashore to the dark and empty 4am slipway where Marina and a very excited Yoda were waiting; I was certainly glad to be back on dry land. Marina asked me If I still wanted to row the Atlantic and I said ‘absolutely yes, that was insane!!’
So I had come to rely upon Henry during my preparation. I felt so fortunate to have someone like him on hand to help me. During that summer, a friend of mine who knew him asked me how Henry was doing. I replied ‘ya he’s great, what do you mean?’ ‘You do realise he has cancer?’ Then the penny dropped. I felt terrible; I hadn’t realised but it did make sense.
I spoke to Marina the next time I was around the house, apologising that I didn’t know – She thought I knew, she was pretty cool about the whole thing. Again I emphasised that if all this was putting too much strain on him, we’d stop. She then told me about the day he came back from meeting me for the first time and how he wouldn’t shut up about this amazing boat and this guy he met who was going to row the Atlantic. About how this was good for him, to have something to focus on, how his mind loves to churn through problem-solving and work on projects.
I realised Henry was the only person who could get his head around this whole thing and was thriving on it. But it changed everything for me and my outlook on the row. All of a sudden I felt even more determined to succeed.
When it came time to go to the start line in La Gomera, I had really hoped Henry could make it out there to help and see the start. But he was getting heavy chemo weekly and had been through a lot of operations since getting cancer a few years previously. I remember scrambling to put things together in the last few days and having him on the phone to help. I had to reassure myself that he was only a phone call away when I got out there.
And so I set off on an adventure of a lifetime after months and months of preparation. I spent 49 days on the Atlantic Ocean alone. The great paradox of doing this solitary act is that it couldn’t have happened without the help of others. I had a few close people that I stayed in touch with: my sister Rowena, my good friend Kevin, my weather guy Leven, Sandy who has helped me prepare mentally and of course Henry who I was in contact with the most out there. Even though Henry could have handled my weather, we decided to get Leven to do it as he was a very experienced ocean rower and would know the performance of the boat.
The tracker would update every 4 hours and within moments of that happening I would get a text from Henry without fail 6–8 times a day. He would send me my miles covered and the positions of the other boats near me. I was in a race from the get-go down to the very last hour of the race. I came third overall but I had a three-man American team on my tail for the last couple of weeks. I built up a sizable lead ahead of a chasing pack of five boats. But after the halfway point, the Americans started catching me day by day. I rowed 16 hours a day, sometimes more. I would sleep in 20-minute bursts and a little extra in the middle of the night. I was a sleep-deprived zombie rower by week 3. The rowing was the easy part, remembering the basics and making decisions was the hard part, but Henry was on hand sending reminder texts: ‘clean your panels daily’, ‘swap out your autopilots’. At one stage I got so confused with the compasses, I had him on the phone to me explaining how to adjust the declination on the autopilot as I changed latitudes. Henry wrote numerous blog posts for my website during the row, explaining technical weather language, navigation and equipment in layperson’s terms.
I remember calling him a few weeks in on a day with no wind, chatting to him for half an hour on the sat phone, which cost an arm and a leg, just sharing the experience with him, telling him about the deathly silence that day. How I nearly capsized the week before and hitting 15 knots surfing down a wave. He recounted his time out there too and about how different the clouds are, how quickly they change. I knew part of him wanted to be out here with me.
Toward the end of the crossing, the Americans got closer and closer to me but I did my best to not let them catch me. I asked Henry to send me updates through the night and he did; he probably was getting less sleep then me, sending updates at 12am and 4am. By the last 24 hours the Americans were less than 10 miles from me; I kept the sat phone on deck between my feet. Henry kept sending texts, telling me to drive on. I pretty much rowed the last 24 hours straight. I hadn’t eaten a cooked meal in 2 weeks – all I ate was rice pudding rehydrated with cold water. I pissed myself in the rowing seat. I was a man possessed. I finished just over 1 hour ahead of the American guys. I wished Henry could be there at the finish line to meet me; I had kinda hoped he would surprise me, but alas, he was still getting weekly bouts of heavy chemo and spending more time in hospital.
Rowing the Atlantic was something truly bigger than me; I hadn’t a clue what I was doing to begin with. It was a crazy idea but I followed my gut, not my logical mind. I truly believe when you get past the fearful, doubtful mind that tells you not to do something, then doors will open where there were no doors before. Henry was behind that door. My mother believes he was my guardian angel.
Henry taught me so much about life. I chose to be out there in the Atlantic. I’ve received great accolades for what I did, but it was all my choice, so no matter how bad it got out there, no matter how sleep deprived, scared, sore, and fed up I got, I always remembered that it was my decision to put myself there. Henry did not choose his lot, cancer took him as it took many but he acted with grace and dignity throughout, he shouldered it with not a care and continued to live, no matter what. People say life isn’t fair sometimes; to me life isn’t fair or unfair, life is just life and one thing it wants to do is live – that is an undeniable fact. That’s what Henry did, he continued living; he always had a job to do on the boat and a plan for another project of some sort.
When I came back from the Atlantic, I announced that I wanted to row back from NYC to Ireland. Everyone thought I was mad and tried to convince me otherwise. Once I told Henry he immediately set about planning it, no questions asked. No matter what crazy idea I could have, I’m sure he would support it and help trash it out. That is what I will miss most about him, a truly scintillating mind, teeming with endless possibilities.
Henry knew the key to life: that no matter what crap you are going through, no matter how bad you feel, that if you help someone else your spirit will be lifted. Henry embodied selflessness; if he could help you he would, it was always about others and less about himself.
What Henry did, for not just me but many others he touched, cannot be overstated. He was one of the greatest humans I had the pleasure of knowing. His life has inspired me to live on through my own adventures and I promise to carry his name with me and continue to tell the story of the great man that was Henry Lupton who did everything and anything to help me realise my dream.