John O’ Donovan, Software Engineer on Kayaking

What I love the most about kayaking is the freedom – the ability to get into my kayak and choose where I want to go. I most often kayak alone, so it’s great to set off in one direction and, depending on how I’m feeling, push or turn and explore another area. I especially enjoy seeing things from a different perspective, which is something I bring to my work efforts. I enjoy finding caves or hidden houses which are not visible from the road, but are hidden away and stunning. The peace and quiet while out on the water is also hard to beat.

My name is John O’ Donovan and I began my career as a Software Engineer, something which I still really enjoy. Around 2013, I moved into a lead role on a Data Lake Project in EMC. From there on, my interest in data grew. Not just the data itself, but how it’s gathered, used, interpreted, and how it can shape our decision making. While completing an MSc in Data Business, I was working as a DELL Data Lake Product Designer. This was incredibly challenging and opened my eyes to the importance of capability over technology or process.

I was born in Ballincollig, but I have always had a passion for travelling. I met my girlfriend (now wife) in Guangzhou China, even though she is from Hong Kong. I returned to Ireland to find work, ultimately working in Dublin, and my wife followed soon afterwards. When we found out our first child was on the way, it was time to move back to Cork – couldn’t have the child with a Dublin passport or accent!

I’ve always loved the water since I was very young. My father had a blue wooden rowboat, which he once threw me out of while teaching me how to swim! While in the scouts, I had the opportunity to try kayaking a number of times while on summer camps. I’ve also rented Kayaks for day trips in locations like Thailand and Australia. I’m a member of the Inniscarra Kayaking and Sailing Club (corksailing.com), which is a great club populated by a diverse membership of both old and young.

The very first time I went kayaking was with the scouts in Glenshelane Scout Campsite, near Cappoquin in Waterford. I still remember the excitement at being able to move so quickly and freely through the water. We also performed a trust exercise where we made a raft by joining all the kayaks and each person had to get out and walk the length of all the kayaks side by side.

About 3 years ago, I bought my first kayak (nothing like going in at the deep end). I bought a P&H Scorpio Sea Kayak; at more than 500cm and almost 30kg, it is no small or light kayak. I started with a Palm drift paddle, but have now moved onto a Wener Tybee (I still have a soft spot for the Palm Drift). I have recently bought a Palm Peyto PFD, which is a huge improvement on my previous PVD.

In terms of physical preparation for kayaking, I’ve recently taken up Yoga – I find that some of the breathing exercises and relaxation techniques are fantastic for those moments when I’m caught in a tidal flow or unexpected current. Stretching (something I should do more of) is also vital, especially for those 3-4 hour longer sea runs. There are some great videos about how exercise can alleviate discomfort around the sciatic nerve, especially for kayakers: http://www.sherrikayaks.com/2013/09/10/revisiting-the-issue-of-pain-when-kayaking/.

In terms of mental preparation, one of the things I like to do is imagine that as I’m changing into my kayaking gear, I’m removing all the stresses from that day and putting on a new mindset. I find that if I can relax during this 5-10 minutes of changing, I ultimately have a much more fulfilling time in the kayak. If this time is pressured or stressed, it may detract from my time in the kayak.

I’m still very much a novice kayaker, so I haven’t been to too many kayaking spots. Roberts Cove in Cork is a sheltered bay and a great place just to get comfortable in your kayak. Kayaking in Thailand is a fantastic location – calm, easy waters which are warm when you go in. I’d especially recommend a trip to Ao Thalane Bay. The trip from Crosshaven to the mouth of the harbour in Cork is a nice spin – from there, going around Spike Island (a former prison not quite on the scale of Alcatraz) and over to Cobh and back is my idea of a lovely afternoon. Cobh is a berthing location for large cruise ships; coming around the island in a Kayak to see a ship of that size is amazing.

I’ve had a particularly memorable experience on my first journey to the sea with my new kayak. A local expert (Jon Hynes, https://www.linkedin.com/in/jon-hynes-a6928a38/?originalSubdomain=ie), who has kayaked around Ireland, brought me out around Sandycove Island in Cork. The wind and waves were much bigger than I was used to – one thing I’ll always remember Jon roaring, before he disappeared behind another monster wave, is “Keep your paddle in contact with the water or you’ll be swimming”. That advice has stuck with me to this day.

Completing the Ocean to City Kayak Race in 2017 (http://www.oceantocity.com/) was definitely a high point of my kayaking career so far. I signed up again for 2019 – the race was on Saturday 1 June. With a shortage of training and a shoulder injury, I was delighted to finish this year with a time of 2:55:09.

My future goal with kayaking is to go to a famous Island off Kerry called Sceilg Mhichíl, which I visited a few years ago by ferry. It’s a crag of rock located 11.6km from the Kerry Coast. It’s an inspiring place, especially when you consider it was populated by Monks, possibly as early as the 6th century. They believed they were on the edge of the world (if you ever visit, you’ll know why). When I visited the island, I noticed a lone kayaker setting off at about 7 a.m. – we met him on the island around    12 p.m. and, having dinner in the village, we saw him arrive back around 5 p.m. What a day we both had! This is definitely #1 on my all-time list – the distance is manageable, but it’s a tough kayak; the need for an experienced group is evident, as the Atlantic Ocean doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Kayaking is something suitable for all ages, all skill levels, and all levels of fitness. My advice is to pick which type of kayaking is most appealing to you, find a club or a tour operator nearby, and work through them to get started. I would recommend starting off with second-hand gear. For those in Ireland, this Facebook group is a great place to pick up equipment: Canoes and kayaks For Sale Ireland. Most important is to find yourself a qualified mentor – I’m lucky to have Jon Hynes, who gives me advice whenever I need it.

One definite similarity I see between kayaking and my time as a software engineer is the state of being totally immersed in what you are doing. Sometimes when kayaking, I get into the state of Unconscious Competence when doing long kayak runs – it’s the point where you reach somewhere and have no idea how you got there! From a strategy and agile perspective, they are pretty similar too.

The serenity of kayaking has definitely helped with my career. The ability to be truly agile and comfortable with change are attributes which benefit both. The confidence gained from setting out, either alone or with a group, and knowing that it’s your skill and ability that will get you to a destination (and hopefully back) has definitely helped me personally.

There is definitely always more than tech. Outside of work, with my children growing up (Sophie 12, and John 9), it’s fantastic to be close to them as they explore life. My wife’s business (www.sensasianfood.com) has really taken off in the last year, and we’re learning all the time. Something that comes with age is the realisation that work isn’t everything. While we’re lucky to work in one of the most dynamic, chaotic and interesting industries, we must remember that it’s only a job, and life is much more important. Be happy to be out there and trying while you have the time. Regardless of my result in the Ocean to City 2019 Kayak Race, I’m happy with the achievement of attempting and finishing. The comparison with other people’s times would only reduce my joy – so here’s to continued learning!

Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote, for all the parents or future parents, that I saw on LinkedIn recently: “Comparison is the thief of Joy” – Theodore Roosevelt.

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