Tuesday 23 July 2019

'I asked to play with the big boys so here I am' - Mayo woman on what it feels like to sail the world on your own

She's been on boats since she was eight, and now Joan Mulloy (31) from Mayo is preparing to take on the ultimate test in 2020

Best of boat worlds: Joan Mulloy is targeting the Vendeé Globe Race in 2020
Best of boat worlds: Joan Mulloy is targeting the Vendeé Globe Race in 2020

Growing up in Westport, my dad ran a mussel farm in North Clew Bay. I did civil engineering in NUIG and I was pretty good at it, but I struggled with the lifestyle - I couldn't handle the thought of sitting at a desk.

I worked in the oil and gas industry for two years, but everyone was sitting there at their desks and I didn’t think this was the life for me.

Joan turns her Benetau
Joan turns her Benetau

I’ve been sailing since I was eight. My grandfather had a boat and that connection with the water was always there. I loved being on the sea. I loved the peace it brought me and I loved the competitive side of sailing as well.

In 2014 I heard an Irish guy had a couple of spaces on his boat, which was set to take part in the Round Ireland Yacht Race, so I applied for one of the spaces. I ended up joining the team for that race and at the end of it, the skipper asked me if I would join his professional crew on a big 70ft yacht called Monster Project. The pay was horrific — it was about 8pc of what I’d earned in my engineering job — but that wasn’t the point. We did races around Britain and Ireland, races in the Atlantic and races in the Caribbean. It was a brilliant experience for me.

When I was asked to join the crew of that big yacht, I wasn’t the best sailor but I got on with people. For the skipper, it was a case of “I can teach you how to sail but not how to get on with people”.

I’d always been fascinated by the solo or what we call short-handed side of sailing. Since I was little I had read about Ellen MacArthur, the first woman to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe. I remember the picture of her standing on her boat with the sun hitting her from the cover of her book Taking on the World. I’ve kept that picture in my head for a long time.

I also love mastering the skill of sailing too. You’re learning something new all the time, every time you go out. At the moment I’m sailing a 30ft Figaro Benetau. At first I said “how am I going to be able to do the manoeuvres?”. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to hoist the sail at night, but I’m very comfortable on my own now.

The last six months have been amazing — from launching my solo campaign in January to my first race as a solo professional in March. I brought a boat from the south coast of Portugal to Galway earlier this year and the only things I saw were a cargo ship and a fin whale who stayed with me for a while. I got the feeling I was meant to do this.

The big one for me is the Vendée Globe Race — that’s the ultimate goal. You’re round the world solo, for 90 days. The next one is 2020 and that’s what I’m aiming for.

I imagine I’ll have to prepare for some feelings of loneliness, but overall you try to control your emotions as much as possible.

On a boat by yourself, your energy is a very important resource. It’s crucial and you can’t just waste it by getting upset or scared. If you’re feeling scared, you have to critically assess that and take into account why you might be scared — for example, just before one race, my autopilot stopped working. It’s really critical on a short-handed voyage, and I was looking down the barrel of the race thinking I’ll have to pull out. I was crying because I was really upset. It broke my heart to think I’d have to retire from the race.

I said to myself: “I can’t do that — I just won’t sleep for 48 hours. I asked to play with the big boys so here I am.” In the end, the race only took me 42 hours. That was in March, off the coast of France. I know a lot of people would’ve pulled out, and I was really proud to have finished it. It was fantastic.

I move around a lot. I travel with the boat and the races, so I have rooms in friends’ houses in Dublin and Galway.

Sponsorship-wise, it’s a big challenge. Bord Iascaigh Mhara has been amazing. It’s really something for Bord Iascaigh Mhara to have the vision to see what we can do together. It is supporting my Figaro campaign this year, the main race of which is the Solitaire du Figaro in August.

I am also promoting the Taste the Atlantic seafood trail along the Wild Atlantic Way.

But back to my goal — the round-the-world race in 2020 — I know there will be a lot of freeze-dried meals, or ‘wet meals’ which are full meals like curry and rice that are preserved and you then reheat. I’ll bring snacks too, of course. I love to eat fresh vegetables offshore so I’m not sure yet how I’m going to cater for that, it might be a case of resorting to tins.

Sailing really does keep me fit. It takes a lot of core and back strength, as you have to be fairly strong. I train as much as I can through CrossFit, running and sailing. The fitter and stronger you are, the less prone to injury you are. It also helps you deal with the fatigue, which can be physically draining.

On board you have a certain amount of safety equipment so you don’t feel completely isolated. Encountering a bad storm does weigh on my mind. All you can do is prepare and be logical about things. If something happens, I’ll have a plan and I’ll execute that plan. A French skipper I worked with used to say it was all about having a stable morale and keeping yourself on an even keel.

Having a strategy is important. I like to tie down a playbook day by day of what manoeuvres I might need on that day, like changing the direction of the boat or changing sails, so I’m prepared for them. Preparation is also thinking about food and water, and life on board.

You do have some quiet time. If you’re not busy, you’re getting some sleep. You have to make sure you’re rested so if something unexpected happens you’re on top of it. I usually sleep on the floor so I can jump up at a minute’s notice if I want to.

I take little parcels of sleep, about 10-15 minutes long. It’s an amazing lesson in what you can do. People say “I couldn’t do that”, and I say, “have you tried it?”. Back at home in a bed I wake up at 15 minute intervals wondering who has checked the boat. I don’t know where I am!

In conversation with Kathy Donaghy


Irish Independent

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