Sunday 22 April 2018

'Fear will fuel my sail across the Atlantic'

Personal Odyssey: Sailor Enda O'Coineen
Personal Odyssey: Sailor Enda O'Coineen

Enda O'Coineen

As I set sail today, alone on my 60-foot racing yacht, Currency House Kilcullen, from Gustavia on idyllic St Barts in the Caribbean, I am both afraid and excited as the first Irishman to do this North Atlantic race and round-the-world qualifier.

With Christmas music such as Silent Night and Jingle Bells blaring to a reggae beat, it is surreal having arrived here last week from Europe by sail, only to head back again.

Voyaging into winter, we will leave behind this volcanic island, surrounded by shallow reefs. Now a collective of France, its history is fascinating. In days of real Caribbean pirates, ownership changed many times - at one time, it was even a Swedish colony!

To say I am not afraid would be a lie. It is fear that heightens our alertness and drive to get there and our will to survive. To finish is to win.

One explanation for my fear is the extremes I will experience: the exhilaration of harmony with nature, speed, satisfaction, thrill and achievement will be contrasted with extreme misery, hardship, cold, and physical demands.

Toughest of all will be the psychological pressures - being in the middle of the ocean, alone, for up to two weeks on this occasion.

The finish, some 3,500 miles away, is in Port la Feret, just north of Lorient on the Bay of Biscay. It is a massive course, especially daunting in the depths of winter. Some 16 teams planned to do the race, but only seven have made it to the start line due to gear failure. Indeed, only a Frenchman could dream up such an event in December.

The race is set as a tough qualification for the Vendee Globe in 2016, and my ambition is to be the first Irishman and boat to qualify - let alone do it. This is a non-stop race around the world.

It is also a brilliant opportunity to promote Atlantic Youth Trust and the Haiti charities that I believe in. It is a principle I take from my late father to "Always put something back in". And also - being blunt about it - this is a lifetime goal before my old bones get too creaky and I am put out to pasture… and sure, we'll all be a long time dead.

This race started, as many of my adventures do, with a race to the airport - as usual, last man on. I get a kick out of this pushing to the edge, to the consternation of the wonderful lady in my life, Nicola Mitchell (and rightly, too).

Most of the teams have new boats and multimillion support budgets. Mine is eight years old; a trusted 'old dog', having already completed a circumnavigation on her second attempt under the command of Britain's Mike Golding.

Currency House International Bank is also supporting the challenge and making a generous contribution to the Atlantic Youth Trust.

Mike Stark, CEO of the bank, sees its involvement as an opportunity to help it expand into Europe using Ireland as a base.

Our other partner, Crossroads Capital, led by John Bohan and based in Ireland, see its support as a creative way to win clients globally.

The Beacon Hospital has also helped through pro bono pre-race medicals.

My Currency House Kilcullen boat is my dream. Totally self-contained on the ocean, she has two compact desalination plants. Years ago, the same would have filled a room. They convert salt to fresh water. Then, we have self steering, navigation, keel control, media and even a carbon-fibre sink.

I had been fortunate to play a lead role in bringing the Volvo Ocean Race to Ireland on two occasions. Part of this was putting a team in the race, the Green Dragon. The core of the same team, under the watch of Ian Walker, went on to win the race under the Abu Dhabi colours. This will be celebrated at a special dinner in Galway, on March 12.

Indeed, being founding chairman of the Volvo Galway organising group - on a voluntary basis with great leadership from men like John Killeen - became all-absorbing.

My aims were to do something for Galway, Irish sailing and to go sailing. The first two objectives were achieved with over €100m direct benefit to the economy - at a time when we needed it. The challenge at the time were the 'hurlers on the ditch', and connecting those who benefited massively from it and those who paid for it.

Though today's race is single-handed, a massive team effort has gone into preparing the boat for all eventualities. Sure, food, navigating, sail changing, piloting, sail trimming and so forth must happen, but the biggest challenge to overcome is the psychological one.

While the voyage is a personal odyssey - a determination to be the first Irishman to do this race - it is also focused on bringing attention to the Atlantic Youth Trust.

The Trust is starting with a North South tall ship youth development and cultural integration vessel. It will replace the Asgard II and The Lord Rank. It is now in the Capital programme of the Irish Government and the Stormont Agreement in Northern Ireland.

This is the result of three year's hard work, generous donations of time and money, and a proven model to replicate. Much more of the same is now needed over the coming years from the public and private sectors.

Meanwhile today, back in Gustavia as I head out into the Atlantic unknown, the words of an Irish poet come to mind:

I am the Wave of the Ocean

And the Foam of the Wave

And the Wind of the Foam

And the Wings of he Wind

It is only when out in the ocean's utter vastness that we can appreciate its sheer beauty and mystery, and the abstract emotions of this poetry.

Say a prayer and wish me luck. Hopefully, Santa will be good.

Sunday Independent

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