Sailing close to the wind in the endurance test of a lifetime
The Vendee Globe has claimed many lives in its 30 years, but Enda O'Coineen is determined to finish the gruelling solo race that will take him around the world
I was emotionally charged leaving Ireland this week to head for France and prepare for the toughest challenge of my life.
My departure was a magical send-off, bidding farewell to the Honorary Admiral of Dublin Port - the title bestowed on the capital's Lord Mayor, Brendan Carr - as well as to the 130 excited school children who are part of a National Schools Programme and who will be following our adventure, as will our family, friends, well-wishers and supporters.
Only the French could have dreamt up the 'Vendee Globe', which rightly deserves its nickname the 'Everest of the Seas'. It's a solo race around the world, from west to east, non-stop and without assistance.
Ahead of the 30 or so of us competitors are three capes - the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), Cape Leeuwin (Australia), Cape Horn (Chile) and 43,000 kilometres of trials, suffering and loneliness. It's sport at its most extreme.
The race, of course, breaks maritime law but it's classed as 'La Exception'. Running for over 30 years, it has claimed several lives, though happily safety standards and requirements have improved. Historically, over 50pc of those who qualify to begin the gruelling ordeal don't finish it - one competitor has already dropped out, even before it has started.
I'm here in Les Sables d'Olonne, a popular place with Irish people, for the official opening of the Race Village which took place yesterday.
By the time the start gun blasts on Sunday, November 6 at one o'clock in the afternoon, more than one million people will have passed through this extraordinary place. The race starts and finishes here, the Vendée region of France, and takes around three months to complete.
Just getting a place in the race is the culmination of a lifetime ambition for me, having failed to do so once before. You could say I'm facing a classic male mid-life crisis - compressed into three months alone with 26,000 miles of ocean.
But it's been long on my 'bucket list' and is born of my love for the sea and sailing, which has given me so much as well as the desire to give more back.
We arrived here in near gale conditions. Our team included reserve skippers David Kenefick (Cork) and Andrew Baker (Belfast). Our departure took place immediately after the launch of the MSL Mercedes Benz Primary Schools Programme, with the Atlantic Youth Trust. Central to our mission is to connect children with the race - the excitement, the adventure and learning about the ocean and its opportunities.
Cathal Friel, of Raglan Capital, a strong supporter, is forming a 'Founders' Club' of 25 business managers/owners to get behind the charity and have their names linked with our journey around our planet.
The Sunday Independent will publish a world map on November 6 to chart the path of the teams, which will complement 12 weekly modules of particular interest to schools and include other online content. The modules will deal with geography, the environment, human psychology, marine life and so forth.
As the first and only entry representing Ireland, it is a daunting, exciting and terrifying prospect. Even getting to the start line is 'Darwinesque'.
However, I am not alone. Think of my skipper role as being the driver of a Formula One car. Behind me is a strong dedicated team, as well as a lot of organisation and detailed planning.
There are three other entries in the race with Irish interest - Hugo Boss Racing, a UK team, whose CEO is Stewart Hosford, from Cork; Tony O'Connor, from Dublin, who leads the Japanese Team; and Marcus Hutchinson, also from Cork, who leads the French SMA Team and is also the technical director of Team Ireland.
There will be a lot of attention on the seven new 'foil-assisted designs' which were built for the race and backed by extensive research and development budgets. They literally lift the yachts clear of the water for greater speeds but are yet untested in the southern oceans.
Our Kilcullen Voyager, named after my grandaunt Buddy 'Kilcullen' from Enniscrone, Co Sligo, is a little more conservative and slower than many of my competitors. Like any sporting challenge, we are out to win. However, being realistic we know that to finish at all, let alone in the top 15, would be a great achievement.
On a personal basis, the race is of less importance, rather this is an amazing privilege and a way to circumnavigate and celebrate our planet - 72pc of which is covered by the ocean and of which we still know so little.
I shudder to think that when I leave Les Sables d'Olonne on November 6, that the next time I will touch dry land will not be until I have lapped the planet - something done by fewer than 100 people in the history of humanity.
To register for the schools programme: www.teamireland.ie or to contribute to the business Founders' Club, please email Cathal@teamireland.ie