JOHNS ISLAND—With each dip of his paddle blade in the water, Greg Dougherty elicits a prayer. He navigates a difficult journey with faith in God and trust in Mary.
Dougherty is rowing a 19-foot canoe 1,400 miles from Miami to New York in the hopes of bringing attention to the centennial of Mary’s appearance to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal.
This Kentucky resident is traveling the Intracoastal Waterway, the inland waterway which runs — in part —along the Atlantic coast. He set out on June 13 and anticipates arriving in New York in late September or early October, with many stops along the way. He hopes to connect with parishes on his journey and welcomes the opportunity to share, pray and meet people of faith, and those who want to hear about Fatima.
It is a tough pilgrimage that comes with physical and emotional obstacles. Rowing is hard work and a small craft operator, even one named Santa Maria de Fatima, must be vigilant at all times. He often sleeps in the boat with a tarp to keep the rain off, but the storms have been plentiful this summer. And though the Intracoastal route avoids the hazards of open sea, it comes with its own challenges. While anchored for the night off of Charleston, the wake from a fishing boat forced the fiberglass craft against some roots and punctured two sizeable holes in the hull. Dougherty was able to make his waterlogged way to Ross Marine on Johns Island, where management generously offered to repair the damage. Then, he had to stop again outside of Socastee for more repairs.
Dougherty lives in Covington, Ky. He describes himself as a missionary, and said he works at Rose Garden Home Mission, a Pregnancy Care Center, and is involved in prison ministry.
He told The Catholic Miscellany that ocean rowing is part of his conversion story. Though he grew up Catholic, he was inspired to renew his faith by a vision of St. John Bosco he had in 2008 while on a rowing trip near Barbados. He came back from that journey and searched the web to learn how to pray the rosary, then began attending adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
“My heart was opened in devotion to our Blessed Mother,” he said.
He was invited to help participate in the establishment of Our Lady’s Blue Army/World Apostolate of Fatima USA in the Diocese of Covington (http://www.covdiobluearmy.com/home.aspx). The group wanted to celebrate the jubilee year by promoting the message of Fatima and encouraging people to pray the rosary every day, as Mary requested in her appearances. They initially planned to undertake a 54-day novena at sea where several people would row from New York to Galway, Ireland. Backing for the trip fell through, but they had enough money for this canoe and pilgrimage, Dougherty explained.
“What a great way to publicly go from place to place lifting Our Lady up to the whole world,” he said, adding that the boat removes any debate or angst people have about Fatima.
“Suddenly they see a guy in a boat rowing the Intracoastal, and it captures their imagination. They see a devotion and then I gently lead them to what is Fatima. So far it has touched many lives,” Dougherty said.
Members of the Blue Army in Covington have reached out to parishes along the Intracoastal, announcing Dougherty’s arrival and asking if they want him to come by and celebrate the message together. Few parishes have responded. Yet, Dougherty keeps going.
When he’s rowing, he averages about 30 miles a day.
“When I have the tide with me and, God willing, the wind, I can do more than that. I can comfortably do 20 miles within a tide and that means if I rest the next six hours I can catch the next tide and I can do upwards of 40,” he said.
He wants to go as far as he can on weekdays and stop on Sundays. He felt spoiled in Florida, where there were places for daily Mass along the way.
“Georgia was different, it was all alligators, marshes and storms,” he said. But he made connections with people who offered him precious hospitality.
South Carolina included a warm welcome to Camp St. Christopher on Seabrook Island. Then he was almost sunk near Charleston, but that led to an opportunity to attend Mass at the Diocese of Charleston’s Holy Family Chapel, before getting waterlogged again in Socastee. North Carolina’s offerings remained to be seen as of Aug. 16
When he doesn’t meet up with people, Dougherty sleeps in his boat — although he said he’s not an outdoorsy guy. A friend who is a Royal Marine — the United Kingdom’s elite amphibious force — who has many tours of Afghanistan and Iraq under his belt, was supposed to join Dougherty on the trip and navigate, but he was deployed.
Rowing solo, this intrepid soul has had some worrisome adventures along the way.
“Lightning makes me nervous,” he said. “There’s been some severe lightning storms, particularly in Georgia, that I’ve been through — and the rain … after a while it just kind of sucks the life out of you. These heavy rains and fighting the wind, fighting the current when you’re exhausted; all those things can add up to where you can find yourself getting discouraged.”
And that’s when he said he prays: “Oh my Jesus, it’s for love of thee, for the conversion of sinners, in reparation for the sins against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
“And suddenly God gives me a certain grace and I can put it in the right perspective,” Dougherty explained. “It’s been an amazing journey. It’s been humbling, very humbling. When you put yourself into nature, you’re at nature’s whim, you’re small, you go with that. The elements, the conditions, all of it. It is humbling. I can feel in this mission, on a personal level, God forming me.”
The heaviest burden he has carried is what he perceives as the indifference in so many Catholics.
“It’s sad. Why isn’t there more of a welcome to celebrate together the message of Fatima? I am convinced, Our Lady said it, this is God’s peace plan. God is sending her to us to help,” he said. “I really want to celebrate it with like-minded Catholics. This mission is a magnet to draw them.”
But he has also been met with the best of people who are quick to offer hospitality.
He has taught more than one person a lesson along his journey and that is the value of
“We can offer that to God as a sacrifice,” he said.
And that he has.
Photos, Miscellany/Deirdre C. Mays: Top, Greg Dougherty (left) talks about his damaged boat with Wayne O’Neill, from Ross Marine. The Marine company repaired the canoe for Dougherty so he could continue his pilgrimage.