Tuesday 22 August 2017

Eoin O'Coineen: 'Mast down, my dream is shattered'

Now safe on land but out of the Vendee Globe round-the-world solo race, Enda O'Coineen reflects on his brush with death when his mast was suddenly shattered in the middle of the ocean

Epic attempt: Enda O'Coineen in Dunedin Photo: Peter McIntosh, courtesy 'Otago Daily Times'
Epic attempt: Enda O'Coineen in Dunedin Photo: Peter McIntosh, courtesy 'Otago Daily Times'

This ship's log was meant to be different. It should have been written on the South Pacific, powering towards Cape Horn in the Vendee Globe.

But destiny, and a bizarre turn of events, dictated otherwise.

On New Year's Day, a violent 35mph squall and an out-of-control gybe smashed Kilcullen Voyager's mast. That was all it took for the dream -to complete the singlehanded around-the-world voyage, and be the first Irishman to do so - to be shattered to pieces.

Now, I must step back, stranded here in remote New Zealand South Island and work out what it all means - and then decide what next.

It's a major setback, having been totally alone on the ocean for two months - a personal, emotional time-bomb and physical turmoil.

It was in the black of early night. A moonless sky. There was a big sea running in 20 knots of wind when the self-steering became faulty from a software malfunction.

The boat gybed out of control. The boom crashed over - and it was while trying to get the boat under control that she gybed back again. I had been distracted in solving the auto-pilot problem and the mast backstay was not hardened, leaving us vulnerable.

Then, and with no warning, the wind was upon us. It felt like an explosion, with a 35 knot-plus (gale-force) squall behind a big wave. We lunged down the trough and hit a wall of water. The 60ft boat stopped dead - but the 100ft-high mast kept going forward.

There was an almighty crash. And that was it.

Fast action was necessary. Broken rigging was everywhere. I had to move around on all-fours up and down the deck. The mast was thrashing out of control and we ran the risk of it making a hole below the waterline.

Within 10 minutes, assisted by two razor-like knives and cutters, all the lines were slashed - and then the mast, sails, and complete rig sank without trace into the Southern Ocean. It was painful work, and expensive.

I was left with just the hull and a big hole in the foredeck. I would like to say I was not afraid, but I was terrified. The sea was pushing violently and all I could do was seal the hole as best I could and crawl into the small cabin, huddle up, and wait for daybreak.

Now, seven daybreaks later, there is an unusual turn of events. It's almost destiny. Things are not as bleak as they seem. It is a time to reflect, to analyse, to mourn and to confront reality.

The Vendee Globe race itself rolls forward, scattering retired teams from Tahiti, to Australia, South Africa and so on as the pace intensifies. And, more important, our MSL Mercedes primary schools programme with the Atlantic Youth Trust - connecting kids with the maritime and adventure - continues regardless. And though part of me mourns the dismasting, I am told a lot has been achieved firing imaginations and sharing the adventure. This helps to make it all worthwhile.

Otago Bay, Dunedin, on New Zealand's South Island is the last place in the world where I expected to be writing this final ship's log.

But the challenge - of pushing the boundaries that has taken our boat through the Atlantic, Indian and now the Pacific Ocean - is definitely not over.

We arrived here early Friday morning last, after five days adrift in the Southern Ocean, and now consider ourselves to be extremely lucky.

We sailed mastless, with a jury rig, and spent five days covering 240 miles - when previously we had been covering up to 400 miles in one day. And we did it without calling in emergency rescue services.

Ironically on New Year's Day, only hours before tragedy struck, I had made a New Year resolution to take fewer risks and not to push the boundaries in life so hard. It was all bound up in realising that I was very lucky to have so much to live for.

Now that resolution has been forced upon me. All thoughts of living on the edge are suddenly stopped - that space has gone.

On that fateful New Year's Day, things had been looking up. I'd completed all my repairs after three weeks of battering by the gales of the Indian Ocean.

I'd reached the Pacific Ocean and the next big milestone was going to be Cape Horn, and then home.

And, most importantly, the adventure is shared - it takes a team, working together to make the adventure possible - though I can't hide that I am heartbroken for all who have supported the challenge.

And what a challenge it was. A celebration of the ocean, the planet we live on - and the courage and ingenuity of mankind to take on the elements.

But what does all this mean now? Clearly I'm out of the race, and I'm very appreciative of the ongoing support of Marcus Hutchinson and Neil O'Hagan - and also John Malone, who put in an all-nighter to help fix us off Stewart Island. And now in Dunedin, Paddy O'Connor from Cork is a fantastic help.

But we need to keep making decisions. We need a solution - and basically there are three possible scenarios: (1) find another mast and sail back to Les Sables and complete the singlehanded circumnavigation; (2) leave the boat in New Zealand and find another challenge; or (3) ship it back to Europe.

It's all too soon to decide but I instinctively feel that the most important step is to get back to family and friends - back to work and a 'normal' life (whatever that is).

I'm a bundle of emotion, readjusting and trying to figure out what it all means - heartbroken and devastated.

But I know it's a first-world problem. I'm lucky to have had the opportunities I have had, and am overawed by the level of interest in the adventure. Already several Irish people have expressed interest in the next event - and the schools programme has fired the imaginations of thousands of kids.

Also here in Dunedin, by bizarre coincidence, we have enjoyed deep co-operation with the University of Otago in evaluating the benefit of ocean youth development in our plans to build a new North/South training ship. This will replace Asgard ard and Northern Ireland's Lord Rank.

These plans, after worldwide evaluation, are based on the incredibly successful New Zealand model. Our Kilcullen Voyager adventure has been a great boost to the youth charity, inspiring and informing our mission to help promote Ireland's maritime potential by working with the next generation.

Once again thanks again to friends, family and supporters. Happy New Year.

Enda O'Coineen had attempted to be the first Irishman to sail solo, non-stop around the world in the Vendee Globe race - in the process promoting the Atlantic Youth Trust Charity and a schools programme

Sunday Independent

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