Tuesday 20 February 2018

O'Coineen taking on the world

Enda O’Coineen preparing for the Vendée Globe race on his Kilcullen Voyager yacht
Enda O’Coineen preparing for the Vendée Globe race on his Kilcullen Voyager yacht

Andi Robertson

When Ireland's Enda O'Coineen crosses the start line of the 24,020 nautical miles Vendée Globe today at 1302hrs local time - two minutes past midday in his native Galway - he will become the first Irish sailor to take the start line of the famous solo, non-stop race around the world.

The concept of the race is the simplest to understand of all: one person, alone, non-stop around the world via the classic three Great Capes route - Good Hope, Leeuwin and Cape Horn - unassisted. It is the most challenging and purest sailing race there is.

O'Coineen, at the age of 61, is setting out to fulfil the adventure of a lifetime. His IMOCA 60 Kilcullen Voyager Team Ireland was launched ten years ago and has taken part in two previous Vendée Globe races, taking sixth for skipper Mike Golding four years ago as Gamesa.

This edition of the race has seen a quantum leap in technology over the last two years as the top skippers have adopted hydrofoiling daggeboards. These foils create enough hydrodynamic lift to lift the 7.5 tonne hull free of the water for sustained periods. The increase in top speed over the previous generation of classic IMOCA 60s is of the order of 20 per cent at times. Six skippers have these new foils and are expected to form a breakaway peloton early in the race.

But the new cutting edge foiling technology has not yet been race-tested in the Southern Oceans. In a race which traditionally sees a drop-out rate close to 50 per cent due to mechanical failures, there are many question marks over the durability of this change in technology.

The race marked out Ellen MacArthur as Britain's most prodigious ocean racing talent when she finished second in 2001 to French sailing legend Michel Desjoyeaux. In 2009, he went on to become the only skipper to win the race twice.

The race holds almost mythical status for the French public. Around half a million people line every conceivable vantage point as the 60-foot yachts leave Les Sables d'Olonne's narrow channel out of the harbour. This edition sees 29 skippers taking part, nine from outside of France. The youngest is 23-year-old Alan Roura, a Swiss skipper whose financial struggle to make the start bottomed out when he did not have enough money to put fuel in their team van.

Starting his second Vendée Globe eight years after finishing ninth, American Rich Wilson is the elder statesman at 66, motivated to go again by his enthusiasm to reach out with a global educational programme which is set to reach one million young people around the world.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors make a pilgrimage to the race dock over the three-week period before the start. Beautiful Indian summer weather all the way through until Friday means records looked set to be broken.

"In France this race is followed by everyone," O'Coineen explained from the cocoon of his tiny cabin where he will spend many hours over the 95 to 120 days that he might spend completing the course. "The 'average citizen' knows all the details of all the boats and their skippers. They learn the technology and design of the boats, the foils. That is the level of interest in France. In Galway, when we had the Volvo Ocean Race, we had over 600,000 people there and people were just starting to ask questions. Here there is a real in-depth knowledge because of the history."

O'Coineen adds: "They know why I have the Claddagh logo on the front of the boat, it being symbolic of the hands and the heart of friendship. It's an iconic symbol of Ireland, more so than with Britain it is an emotive connection between the west coast of France both being on the Atlantic. It puts the whole race in a different context completely.

"From a personal point of view then I am so different from the top ten or 15 skippers. The contrast after the start could not be greater. It is like being a goldfish in a bowl until the start and then it's like someone smashes the bowl and you have to swim off on your own.

"That is me. I am happy with that. That is my life. I spent two months crossing the ocean in a sailing liferaft. I am happy out at sea."

O'Coineen is looking to spearhead a lasting legacy for Ireland. The Atlantic Youth Trust, which he started, is building a sail training vessel which will take thousands of youngsters afloat for the first time. Short-term succession is already planned with three skippers from all around Ireland on track to launch or accelerate their own solo ocean racing programme, thanks to their work with Kilcullen Voyager Team Ireland, with the ambition of ensuring more Irish skippers compete at a higher level in the Vendée Globe and races such as the Route du Rhum and the Transat Jacques Vabre.

The plan is for an academy set-up in Ireland which would encompass the best from models such as the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron which produces many of the world's top match racers and the offshore racing Pole Finistere Course au Large in Port La Foret which has trained the last four Vendée Globe winners.

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