By Sarah Canty
With little more than a packed picnic and open expectations, Schull man Simon O’Keeffe left his house one mild Saturday morning for one of his greatest adventures to date.
He rowed his 17 ft gig to Fastnet Rock in an uncommon feat of endurance and reflection, meeting a few characters along the way.
He had contemplated the daring voyage for some time. ‘I’d thought about it a lot because my father had done it before,’ says Simon.
Before Simon was a glint in his eye, his father James O’Keeffe took off for the Fastnet on a 14 foot punt built by his own grandfather, Maurice. He had yearned to make the voyage since he was a boy but his father had forbidden it. On a calm flat day in 1959 James rowed up Long Island Sound past Goat Island ‘and just kept rowing.’ The Fastnet was still manned back then and James was invited upon the great craggy rock for a cuppa.
On Simon’s journey this past September there were no humans to greet, yet he was hardly alone. While still en route toward the Fastnet he came across a pod of dolphins thrashing magnificently around in a circle, attacking a shoal of small fish. ‘I just never realised the strength and power they had,’ he says of being so close to the creatures as they tumbled at the sea’s surface. ‘It’s just so stunning to see how strong these things are.’
He manoeuvred around the frenzy and headed on toward his destination when he was stunned by the sudden breaching of a whale across the shoaling dolphins. So intimidating was the mighty display that he considered returning home. ‘I wouldn’t have liked to my chances if the whale had breached near or under me,’ says Simon. But he couldn’t turn back. He needed to reach that lighthouse.
After a few hours of rowing upon the deep sea, he was finally approaching the mighty Fastnet. Here he was met by an enormous and domineering bull seal protecting his harem. The seal followed Simon, making full eye contact, all the way around the rock, leaving the man in little doubt of whose turf he was treading, so to speak. ‘It was slightly unnerving to be eyeballed so aggressively, so close up, by a creature of a species I’d have considered benign until then.’
On the return leg he stopped and rested in meditation. Meanwhile, James had dragged his high powered binoculars and tripod up the hill near his home to see if he could catch a glimpse of his son duplicating his adventure of yore. ‘I was fascinated,’ says James.
Simon remembers this poignant moment well. ‘When I was about a mile from the Fastnet, on my way back in, sitting on the stern having some lunch, my father called me and asked me what I was eating.’
Simon has had engraved on a pewter beer tankard the dates of his and his father’s remarkable lone expeditions. There is room left on it for more names and dates giving possibility to future O’Keeffe’s to follow in their wake.