Global Council for Tolerance and Peace

Deaf woman, 60, rows Atlantic Ocean in world first

By Alice Evans

BBC News

A 60-year-old pharmacy worker has become the first deaf person on record to row an ocean by finishing a 3,000-mile journey across the Atlantic.

Mo O’Brien and her fellow crew members, including her daughter, landed on the Caribbean island of Antigua 49 days after setting out from the Canary Island of La Gomera in December.

Their arrival late on Thursday local time makes them the fastest female trio to complete the challenge.

Ms. O’Brien said she felt “relieved”.

Ms. O’Brien, from Bojewyan Stennack in Cornwall, rowed almost 3,000 miles (4,800km) of Atlantic Ocean with her daughter Bird Watts, 32, from Mevagissey in Cornwall, and their friend Claire Allinson, 45, from Exmouth, Devon.

The trio rowed in pairs for four-hour shifts, then had two hours of rest, on a constant cycle for the entirety of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

Speaking to race organizers after they confirmed both records at the finish line in Antigua, Ms. O’Brien said: “I’m relieved to be here, but I kind of wish I was still out there, too. I absolutely loved it.”

The pharmacy dispenser added that she is already making plans to row the Pacific. “Give me a week to have a shower and some clean clothes,” she joked.

ATLANTIC CAMPAIGNSImage captionMo O’Brien (right) says her deafness made many elements of her 3,000-mile Atlantic row more challenging

Speaking on the phone to the BBC at the finish line in Antigua, Ms. O’Brien said her favorite part of the challenge was rowing at night.

“The racing and the wind and the sea… it felt like you were going at about 100 miles an hour. I loved that feeling, the freedom – almost feeling like you’re a part of the sea. It sounds corny, I know, but I’ve never experienced that before,” she said.

She added that the stars at night were “magical” and looked like “somebody had opened a pot of glitter and scattered it across the sky”.

Other highlights for the team included seeing wildlife such as orcas and humpback whales, which Ms. Allinson described as “absolutely breathtaking”.

“That’s the kind of thing that you see on David Attenborough – it’s not something you expect to see [yourself],” she said.

Ms. Watts – who said it felt “awesome but very wobbly” to be back on dry land – said the only home comforts the crew members craved was a shower.

In addition to the seasickness, being thrown around by huge waves, hit by flying fish and battling extreme sleep deprivation, Ms. O’Brien said it had been “very much a learning curve” for the crew to manage her deafness.

Ms. Watts said her mother’s profound deafness was “a bit of a nightmare” as rowers “rely a lot on your hearing”.

Ms. O’Brien usually uses lip-reading to communicate, but rowers do not face each other in the boat, so she could not have a conversation while at the oars.

Ms. Watts, a newly-qualified radiographer, said: “If we’re going over in a storm and our boat is going to capsize, you would [usually] shout through to people in the air-tight cabin to stay inside. But you can’t communicate anything like that with mum.

“We just do our best. We have certain hand signals that mean certain things. And for example, if she’s in the cabin in stormy weather, she doesn’t come out unless we tell her.”

“Every challenge you might think of that you might encounter on a boat, we also have to think how to overcome for someone who can’t hear,” Ms. Watts added.

The trio set off from La Gomera in the Canary Islands on 12 December 2019
Linda Whittaker (second from left) withdrew from the challenge shortly before it began due to extreme seasickness – meaning more rowing for the remaining three crew members

In a blog post, Ms. O’Brien said the team needed “humour in abundance” to complete the challenge, adding: “I often mishear things and respond with ridiculous answers although I’m not sure which is funnier – my nonsense or the recipient’s face.”

Ms. O’Brien said she had wanted to mark turning 60 by doing “something bigger, something more challenging” than other endurance events she has taken part in, such as a marathon and a charity cycle in Kenya.

The mother-of-two was inspired to do the challenge after reading a book about four Yorkshire women who became the oldest all-female crew to make the crossing.

Ms. O’Brien was born with nerve deafness but grew up undiagnosed – her parents believed she was just “painfully shy”.

She said deafness can be “very isolating”.

“Deaf people withdraw from life,” she added. “There are lots of things that I know that I stopped myself doing, because it was so difficult.”

Ms. O’Brien struggled to cope with NHS hearing aids when she eventually got them at about the age of 30.

They boosted her hearing to 30% of what most people can hear, but with disorientating background noise.

But then one of the crew’s sponsors, ReSound, shared cutting-edge equipment with her, including a microphone which can be tuned into her hearing aid via Bluetooth.

Ms. O’Brien uses an app on her phone so that what she wants to hear – whether it be a conversation, birdsong, or music – is clearly separated from background noise.

This meant she could hear instructors and pass mandatory courses to take part in the Atlantic row – and could hear her fellow rowers.

Ms. O’Brien said she “cried all night” when she lost her phone during the challenge, because the hearing aids stopped working properly.

“My immediate thought was ‘I can no longer hear at all and that’s a problem for me and the rest of the crew, for safety reasons’,” she said.

ReSound helped her to reconnect after a couple of days.

Ms. O’Brien, who has been an amateur rower for 20 years, said her “crack on, just do it” mentality has helped her to overcome difficulties.

“The fact that my mum died when she was 56, I feel very aware that time goes so quickly and we really need to do things while we can,” she said.

“There’s something in me that just says don’t do the ordinary, don’t go to work every day, pay your mortgage, go home, watch a bit of telly, or whatever your routine is.”

Guinness World Records does not award records in relation to disabilities, but race organizers Atlantic Campaigns – who confirm and validate their own records – said Ms. O’Brien is the first deaf person to row an ocean.

The Ocean Rowing Society – which keeps a database of all ocean rows – said as of 14 January, 1,083 people had rowed an ocean, including about 440 crews that have crossed the Atlantic from east to west.

The British Deaf Association congratulated Ms. O’Brien on Friday, with a spokesperson saying: “Mo is an inspiration to many and is an example of what deaf people can achieve.”

Ms. O’Brien said she hopes she can encourage the Deaf Association to enter an all-deaf crew into the challenge.

“I just feel it’s showing people that they can do things… whatever disability you’ve got.”


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