Saturday 25 May 2019

'I closed the hatch just as wave picked up my yacht and threw it upside down'

Gregor McGuckin tells Niamh Horan how the power of the sea ended his bid to be first solo Irish man to sail non-stop around the globe

BACK HOME: Round the world yachtsman Gregor McGuckin at Malahide Marina yesterday after surviving near disaster in the Indian Ocean. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
BACK HOME: Round the world yachtsman Gregor McGuckin at Malahide Marina yesterday after surviving near disaster in the Indian Ocean. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

"For there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men" - Herman Melville, writing in Moby Dick

People go through the full spectrum of emotion in daily life but a sensation they rarely experience is awe. That feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our entire understanding of the world.

For Gregor McGuckin his moment came in the middle of a storm that would take out his boat and leave his dreams in tatters - yet he couldn't help but stand in reverence at the sheer force of Mother Nature.

Sitting in Dublin's Marker Hotel, having just returned from the Golden Globe race and an attempt to become the first Irish man to sail around the world alone non-stop, he recalls the moment with fervour.

"I have lived in the West of Ireland and I have seen the storms that come through there in winter but I have never seen anything like what I witnessed in the Indian Ocean," he says. "At 150km an hour, the gusts were so strong I was pinned down. I remember looking out at the sea, frozen to the spot. Speechless. Not in fear - but in pure awe.

"There was no sense of thinking 'I am in danger here' or 'I need to protect myself', I was just standing there looking at it all, thinking 'this is incredible'. It only lasted a few seconds but it seemed to go on forever."

Having only started sailing at 19, the 32-year-old began preparing for the race three years ago. The competition bans all modern technology, restricting competitors to only tools that were available to sailors in the 1960s. With no GPS, mobile phone or satellite communication technology, McGuckin had to rely on the basics - the stars, the sun and an old-fashioned radio - to steer his course.

Over 82 days, he sailed across the world as he chatted to his competitors over the airwaves. Gradually he became friends with one man in particular, Indian-born Abhilash Tomy.

The two shared stories to pass the time. Tomy had worked in the navy and his favourite book was Moby Dick. McGuckin read the novel on board in quieter times, but with sleep restricted to 60-minute blocks and constant storms whipping up around him, there was little time for simple pleasures.

Shortly after McGuckin experienced his sense of wonderment, disaster struck.

Surrounded by waves that had now reached the height of three stacked double-decker buses and which stretched out to half the length of a football pitch, McGuckin was coming up from the hull when he saw the leviathan wave: "I saw it coming from the starboard. It was bigger than all the other waves around it. The cross swells had collided. I just had time to get in and close the hatch and the whole boat got picked up and thrown upside down."

McGuckin describes the impact like "a house being knocked on its side". "I didn't even have time to grab on to anything. I was sprawled on the roof of the boat with debris flying everywhere. I have no idea how long I was upside down but when the boat came back up I could see the mast hanging over the side."

If the broken metal punched a hole in the side of the yacht - the Hanley Energy Endurance - it would sink in seconds.

With no other option, McGuckin ran to the mast's wires and - using a knife and hacksaw - tore the danger away.

After throwing down the sea anchor, he headed back inside the hull.

He says: "I realised I was out of the race. I was devastated. Three years of preparation, three months of sailing, gone in seconds. It was heartbreaking."

McGuckin was alone with his thoughts for several hours when a text came through on an emergency transmitter. It brought news of Tomy: "Boat rolled, dis-masted, severe back injury, can't move."

The Dubliner was spurred into action.

"I knew rescue was a week or more away," he says, "and because Tomy had a back injury and wasn't able to move, he wasn't going to last very long. That was the most frightened I had been. I had to get to him."

With little sleep and only a light back-up sail to rely on, the yachtsman steered his way to his friend's rescue.

"At that stage the wind wasn't strong but the sea was so rough that the boat was rolling back and forth.

"I was going at about 3km an hour, it was incredibly frustrating," he says, "in normal conditions it would have only taken a day. But I kept going.

"Mentally it was good for me rather than sitting there wallowing in self-pity. There was someone in a far worse scenario than I was."

McGuckin sailed for three days and was just 20 miles from his friend when the French fisheries patrol swooped in. They sent the Irish sailor word that Tomy was going to be OK.

"The relief was phenomenal," explains McGuckin.

Back on land, he was told his hospitalised friend wanted to see him.

"I went in and gave him a hug and said 'you f***er you caused me all that stress'," he laughs.

Now, having returned to Ireland, he has time to think about where to next.

In preparation for the race he explains: "I had been a one-dimensional person for over a year. All I could think about, every minute of spare time, every penny I had, went towards this."

"To get sponsorship was the most difficult part. If it wasn't for Hanley Energy, who hadn't even heard of me a month before the race, I would never have been able to do it. They went above and beyond really in ways they didn't even have to.

"They even flew my girlfriend out to meet me when I got back to land and gave us time there to recover before coming home."

He ponders whether he would go after his dream again. "I put [everyone I love] through a lot. Asking them to do it again would be a lot harder this time."

And if they were OK with it? His blue eyes light up his wind-swept face: "Definitely," he smiles without missing a beat. "I'd give it another go."

Sunday Independent

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